Monday 22 July 2019

Absence of joy has dragged Arsenal down in bloodless Kroenke regime

London Calling: Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Sead Kolasinac and Aaron Ramsey during training. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley
London Calling: Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Sead Kolasinac and Aaron Ramsey during training. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley

Jonathan Liew

The problem, you see, isn't losing to BATE Borisov and trying to reach the Europa League last 16 tonight by overcoming a first-leg deficit. It's not Alex Lacazette's elbow or Mesut Ozil's contract. It's not the failure to spend in January, it's not the void in central defence, it's not the curiously unshakeable belief that an attacking move doesn't really exist unless it's gone through Sead Kolasinac first. It's not Unai Emery's midfield diamond, it's not Emery's 3-5-2, it's not even really Emery himself. The problem, as Arsenal enter the final stretch of a season in which the best-case scenario is fourth place and a Europa League, and the worst-case scenario is sixth place and another shot at the Europa League, is that at some point, Arsenal simply stopped making you feel.

Anhedonia

There's a medical condition called anhedonia, which has been defined as an inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. In fact, it's more correctly understood as a sort of emotional blunting, a dulling of both the motivational impulse and the appreciation of reward.

It's an idea that seems particularly applicable to Arsenal at the moment: a club whose weary ennui and internal bickering seem to a large extent independent of results, or even the style they're playing. Anhedonia is closely linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes sense given the dramatic events of the summer, and the subsequent struggle by Arsenal fans to frame their new and peculiar terms of engagement.

During the late-Wenger years, Arsenal Fan TV became a sort of lightning bottle for the skittish spirit of protest sweeping through the Emirates at the time. Now, slickly rebranded as "AFTV Media" after a stern warning from the club, very little of that thrilling insurgency has survived into the new era. The result is less viral soapbox, and more a bunch of middle-aged blokes arguing about who has the worse lower back pain.

And this triteness appears to be the prevailing weather at the moment, not just on the internet but in the Arsenal universe at large, and at the Emirates most of all, which even in its more electrified moments feels less like a football stadium and more like a sort of wailing seance.

The club's eerie media silence in the wake of a defeat also feeds into this, a sense that very little of the love and care bestowed upon Arsenal is reflected back outwards.

It's easy to blame all this on post-Wenger exhaustion, an inevitable comedown from the intensely emotional and at times bitterly rancorous debate over the club's future. And there is a certain value in the idea that after the operatic tumult of the last few years, Arsenal just needed to lie low for a bit, to quietly build something while gathering strength for its next big assault. The appointment of the technocratic Emery - a paragon of extreme competence, classy and courteous and respectful and sober to a fault - seemed to confirm this.

But perhaps in the middle of this, something got mislaid. The first and last job of a football club is to make you feel something, which is not necessarily the same thing as making you care about it. There are millions of people the world over who care deeply about Arsenal, who invest fortunes and lifetimes, who see in Arsenal not just a means of leisure but a version of identity, an opportunity to be part of something larger. But what, exactly?

Never underestimate the power of a purpose. From Klopp's Liverpool to Warnock's Cardiff, from Pep's City to Pulis's Middlesbrough, the modern club runs on an idea. Something that distinguishes it from a ringbinder at Companies House.

Bloodless

Under the efficient and yet entirely bloodless stewardship of Stan Kroenke, Arsenal strikes you as a club no longer certain of its basic idea. Sure, it wants to win. But how? And why? What broader aim is served by Arsenal winning? And why should everyone else move heaven and earth to prevent it happening?

The great shame is that there is still so much to adore at this club. Wonderful attackers like Aubameyang and Torreira and Ozil, if he ever sees the light of day again. Exciting younger talents like Matteo Guendouzi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi. A thriving academy. A brilliant women's team. Even the much-maligned Emirates can put on a stirring show occasionally. Somewhere out there in the ether is Arsenal's joy. You just hope, for their own sake, that they manage to locate it before long.

Irish Independent

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