Arsenal and the Theatre of the Absurd

On the 15th of March, The Guardian’s Amy Lawrence wrote:

The manager (Wenger) is thankful for the unquestioning support of the owner (Kroenke). The owner is thankful for a manager who understands economics and whose work suits his ideal of ‘real business’. The stasis goes on.

When I read this, the first thing I could think of was how the two gentlemen in question fit the mould of Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Or to give it its original, and perhaps more fitting title, En attendant Godot’).

The duo wait and wait and wait for the elusive Godot, who seems to have promised them a better life, but never shows up for their appointment.

This, and the enduring cyclicality and stasis of the tragicomic play, would not be a bad representation of Arsenal, Wenger and Kroenke at the moment, it seems. After all, most seasons end with a heavy sigh and an echo of ‘Nothing to be done.’ and Wenger struggling with his zipper, just as Vladimir and Estragon struggle with their hat and boot, respectively.

VLADIMIR: Well? What do we do?


ESTRAGON: Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.

The above exchange perhaps encapsulates the Arsenal higher-ups’ philosophy with regard to the manager better than anything else. Most fans’ call to retain faith in Wenger stems from the argument that once a long-term manager leaves the club, the organisation crumbles and the club turns to shambles — just look at Man United after Sir Alex.

This fear is understandable and maybe even normal. The current arrangement is far from ideal, but it is relatively comfortable for most fans that seem to rally behind the manager in favour of maintaining the status quo — Top 4 every season, the odd FA Cup now and then, attacking football, and the economic-savvy reason of self-sufficiency.

So let’s stick with the stasis, because even if it isn’t a bed of roses, at least it is a chair with a potpourri. Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.

Arsène Wenger is arguably the most intelligent man in football at the moment, and probably has been for the last 20 years. In his L’Equipé interview last year, he came across as extremely self-aware, in as much as knowing the more psychosocial aspects of mentality in football.

The expectation has risen. The philosophical definition of happiness is a match between what you want and what you have. And what you want changes as soon as you’ve got it. Always more. Always better. Hence the difficulty to satisfy. An Arsenal fan, when you finish fourth, will say, “Hey, we’ve been in the top four for twenty years. We want to win the league!” They don’t care that Manchester City or Chelsea have spent 300 or 400 million euros. They just want to beat them. But if you finish fifteenth two years running, they will be happy if you finish fourth after that.”

Wenger also expressed that “For (him), consistency at the highest level is the true sign of a great club”. However, the kind of consistency Arsenal have shown can also be interpreted as stasis and stagnation.

ESTRAGON: Let’s go.


VLADIMIR: We can’t.


ESTRAGON: Why not?


VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot.

This particular exchange is arguably the most frustratingly memorable in Godot, punctuating every other page in the play script. Every time the two tramps want to depart from their barren landscape, they are pulled back by the promise of a Godot.

Every season also brings the (mostly elusive) prospect of success — Arsenal’s ‘Godot’ for the most part — and there is that natural inclination to believe that this season may bring the long-awaited Premier League glory or, at a stretch, the revered big-eared trophy in the Champions League.

Just like how every day, Vladimir and Estragon continue waiting for Godot, even though they’ve lost count of how many days they’ve already been waiting and even though every day, Godot’s messenger comes to tell them that he won’t be able to make it that day.

And every day, Vladimir and Estragon, go through similar motions. They meet at dawn, banter, constantly remind each other that they are waiting for Godot, and eventually encounter Godot’s messenger — a young boy — who tells them he won’t be coming.

Much like how the Arsenal implosion in the pursuit of trophies and customary Europe exit at the hands of Bayern/Barcelona, has now become a seasonal tradition rather than a one-off occurrence; merely running through the motions of each season.

The rich Pozzos of City and Chelsea have risen and fallen and risen along with the industrious Luckys of the likes of Stoke and West Ham quietly going about their job; all the while, Arsenal have remained constant.

Just like the transient distractions in Godot, there’s a blossoming of a Joel Campbell or Alex Iwobi here or a masterclass from Mesut Özil there, but ultimately not substantial enough to fill that losing feeling at the end of the season.

Being an economist through education, Wenger has done a fantastic job in building Arsenal into a fiscally first-class state it is in now, with the marvellous, expansive Emirates Stadium. But as Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper explained in their groundbreaking Soccernomics, the primary focus of a football club is not to make profits; it is to entertain and win football matches.

Yes, football has undergone a ghastly amount of commercialisation and there are avenues for profit, but these profits are technically not to be taken as profits, but as additional investment in the quality of the team.

It is important to acknowledge here that with the stadium-building debts paid off, Arsenal have rightfully spent for quality players in recent windows. Sanchez, Özil, Cech have all been positive additions to the squad, genuinely adding much-needed quality to their respective positions, but the recurrent failings of the squad always surface and are never quite addressed.

As the majority shareholder, when Stan Kroenke’s contribution is assessed, he has not shown enough interest in Arsenal and closing the distance between the expectation of where the team should be and the flaccid, disappointing reality.

VLADIMIR: We can still part, if you think it would be better.


ESTRAGON: It’s not worthwhile now.


[Silence.]


VLADIMIR: No, it’s not worthwhile now.


[Silence.]


ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?


VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.


[They do not move.]”

Wenger himself (who is also a bit of a doppelgänger to Beckett), poetically exclaimed, “The only possible moment of happiness is the present. The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties.” And in all probability, Wenger will go down as one of football’s immaculately eloquent, philosopher-managers a la Cruijff, but the future is replete with uncertainties for Arsène and Arsenal.

In Waiting for Godot, when the two men part each night, Estragon always seems to have been  subjected to a beating overnight and returns every morning in suffering.

And yet, at the start of the second act, both agree that they were happier at night, alone, than together during the day. But yet again, despite this, they persist together by the end of the play and one imagines, meet again the following morning to resume their gruelling wait.

Arsenal fans have gone through their fair share of suffering over the last decade or so; the exorbitant ticket prices further adding salt to injury. While football is surely more than mere results, they are ultimately the most straightforward indicator of a team’s standing.

The Dutch team of the 1974 World Cup are remembered endlessly, despite not winning the trophy. This was undoubtedly, partly due to their magnificent intricacies of play but part of it was also because Dutch teams and Ajax in particular, had been so dominant and successful in picking up trophies over the preceding years.

As it stands, at the start of next season, Wenger will be on the final year of his current contract.

One of the motivations behind Estragon and Vladimir’s frankly admirable persistence in waiting, is that there is always the ‘what-if’ of Godot arriving the day they decide to call off their waiting and they lose that opportunity at a good life all together and this is similar perhaps, to what keeps Arsenal and their fans trusting in Wenger year after year. But next season is pivotal nonetheless.

In the aforementioned interview, Wenger also recollected his takeaways from his stint at Nagoya Grampus:

The chairman, Shoichiro Toyoda, told me he wanted to make Nagoya the greatest club in Japan and in the world within 100 years. That negates the pressure of immediacy in a fabulous way. What becomes a loss if you project your destiny on a century? I also found that idea extremely generous. Only being a conveyor belt in history, as a part of a movement that is much larger than you are. Being part of something that is beyond you. Unfortunately, we live too often with the idea that the world is going to stop after us.

There is nothing concrete to definitively declare that Arsenal’s predicament is solely due to Wenger but it is apparent that some sort of change is required at Arsenal, lest they become too comfortable with their status quo — if they have not already, that is. And the managerial role perhaps, is the one that is relatively more easy to transition out/in, compared to owners or players.

In the current scenario, it may be time for all parties involved to reassess their participation in this stasis, and assess their future paths. And one of those paths, may just be to accept what Arsène articulates already: the idea that Arsenal is not going to stop after Arsène Wenger. Arsenal have more to lose than Estragon and Vladimir, and they do, fortunately, have the agency to say “Let’s go” and start moving forward.

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Priya Ramesh

Dutch football writer for The Guardian, FourFourTwo and more.

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