Why is understanding Arsene Wenger sociologically important?

By Gavin Maclean

Of all the topics I had thought I would dedicate several months of thought, research and writing when I started at university, I didn’t imagine Arsene Wenger would be one of them. Here I am however, in the process of beginning to produce some output from this passion project – a process which began at the Football Collective Conference in Sheffield last month. In terms of my academic career, my main concerns are the links between culture and economy as well as the relationship between work and commerce, particularly in the creative/cultural industries. Football in particular interests me – both as a fan and a researcher – because it represents an especially acute relationship between the work of footballers and money. The near exponential growth in television revenue, corporate and state sponsorship of the sport internationally has had a profound effect on the sport in the last few decades. I have spoken on my ideas around football previously in an attempt to talk about the ‘symbolic’ work of football – the romance, the stories, the myths, the value of aesthetic football – and how this links into wider social fields. The research I’m doing on Arsene Wenger is not necessarily about Arsene Wenger alone but rather how his tenure at Arsenal links into the myths surrounding the ‘beautiful game’ but also these profound changes in football we have witnessed.

This project initially started out as a paper idea to extend out Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the Don Quixote effect (more on this later) into a more literal interpretation of Arsene Wenger as Don Quixote. This idea was at the end of 2017 when I started writing and obviously a great deal has changed since then, not least that Arsenal actually sacked Wenger at the end of that season. The project’s methodology is inspired by the David Bowie Five Years documentary and aims to reconstruct the representations of Wenger in the news media over what I consider four key seasons in his career. I’ve chosen to focus on his Arrival (1996/97), Invincibles season (2003/04), ‘Revival’ (2013/14) and Departure (2017/18) because they can tell us something sociologically interesting about the wider social fields and social space. Certainly, so far, I have found three key themes that have emerged from the study so far: the relationship between Arsene Wenger and multiculturalism in England; Wenger’s relationship between football as art or commerce; and finally, the notion of Wenger as a romantic figure ‘out of time’ with modern football.

Is it a coincidence that Arsene Wenger arrives in English football after a summer semi-final for England with the song Three Lions at number one and then leaves before a summer semi-final for England with the song Three Lions at number one? Probably. Yet, the relationship between that song and the ‘common sense’ of English football I feel is pertinent to Wenger’s arrival and departure. The melancholic story of a team of faded glory whose day might come again after 30 years, 40 years, 50 years of hurt. It is not however only the story of faded glory of a national football team that is important here: while the partially ironic chants of “it’s coming home” dominated the summer of 2018, it is within the wider context of Brexit Britain that this occurs. Likewise, the chants on the football terraces are have not historically been simply about the World Cup win against Germany but of “two world wars and one world cup”. This is a postcolonial melancholia.

Wenger, or at least the media portrayals of him, represents both sides of the society Paul Gilroy observes in his book After Empire – from the celebration of multiculturalism and the potential of modernising the English game, to the ‘Sam Allardici’ resentment of the English management class. Wenger arrives to England as the archetypal ‘stranger’ in Georg Simmel’s sense – the figure who comes today and stays tomorrow. The obvious way to look at this ‘strangeness’ is the now infamous news headline ‘Arsene Who?’ Yet, it is a contradictory notion of foreignness. Wenger represents a stranger that has something to teach the English coach, but by the same token distances him from English coaches.

‘If Wenger makes a go of things, then more foreign coaches will surely follow him here. Speaking another language does not necessarily make a man a potential genius as a manager but English football has missed out by not being part of the European coaching circuit. The domestic game needs to share the spread of ideas as well as offering opinions of its own.’ (Lacey, 1996)

As the analysis of this project will show, Wenger represents a form of ‘exotic cultural capital’ – containing a multicultural (and educated) form of capital that both provokes admiration – his knowledge is later appropriated and then usurped within the game – but also ridicule. It is also a form of cultural capital though that is exotic because it represents a ‘bit of the Other’ (to quote Stuart Hall) but only within the bounds of whiteness. 

The crux of my project is on this notion of the ‘Don Quixote effect’, borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu (1984) uses the term to describe individuals that have ‘outdated’ dispositions, where the habitus of individuals no longer fits with the social space which originally formed them. To borrow form competitive strategy analogies, Arsene Wenger’s coaching became the ‘benchmark’ and like all benchmarking strategies, it results in emulation and nullification of the original strategic advantage. The Invincibles, arguably the peak of Wenger’s powers, saw Arsenal become the first team to complete a 38-match season unbeaten in English football (the mighty Preston North End FC though remain unbeaten through an entire domestic season). Yet, even while Wenger was reaching the height of his achievement the wider social field of English football was undergoing a fundamental change. Chelsea, now under the ownership of billionaire Roman Abramovich, were tinkering their way through the Champions League after buying their way through the international transfer market. The changes in the transfer market wrought by Chelsea ultimately would result in a rationalisation of the English Premiership. These changes would place the field in a position even more orientated toward economic capital but already operating with the innovations Wenger introduced to English football as near minimum requirements.

The intervening years between that Invincibles season and the 2014 FA Cup win were occupied with discussions of how miserly Wenger and the Arsenal board were and how investment in a new stadium had hampered the team’s ability to compete. Yet, Wenger, ultimately, has never been someone to submit to the logic of economic capital. A recurrent theme of the media analysis is how averse to spending Wenger has been throughout his tenure.

‘There are very few people worth pounds 10m and I’m not sure I could envisage paying that sort of money for one player.’ (Wenger, cited in Walters, 1996)

It is here that the reference to a ‘Don Quixote effect’ is more literal than simply a set of outdated dispositions in a changed social field. Wenger is the romantic figure, the chivalrous knight from more honourable times trying to return football to these glory times. Wenger’s values throughout football reflect the idea of football as the ‘beautiful game’ played well with a focus on developing young players – values that never changed even when money was spent on the likes of Özil and Sanchez. As Wenger himself says, he aspires to producing football that is as close to art as possible:

I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art. When you read some books they are fantastic, the writer touches something in you that you know you would not have brought out of yourself. He makes you discover something interesting in your life. If you are living like an animal, what is the point of living? What makes daily life interesting is that we try to transform it to something that is close to art. And football is like that. When I watch Barcelona, it is art. (Wenger, 2009)

There is also something in exploring the novel itself too – the Don Quixote story represents both a comedy and a tragedy. This tragicomic feeling reflects much of the media representations of Wenger’s later years at Arsenal, with the ridicule towards Wenger’s methods and approach becoming a recurrent trope in the media. The ‘Wenger Out’ discourse was often predicated on the belief that Wenger was no longer in tune with modern football.

There is a lot of work to be done on this project before I manage to get it out for publication in some form or another, but as I say it is not simply a project about Arsene Wenger. It is about using Arsene Wenger’s relationship with a changing English game to explore the profound changes in football and the nation. Indeed, there is also a final contradiction that I aim to explore further in this project: Wenger, the knight yearning for more honourable times falling ‘out of time’ with a country itself yearning for more glorious times.

To contact the author: G.Maclean@napier.ac.uk

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