In a stunning reversal of fortune, it is expected that Arsenal Football Club will enter administration this week. The London club was considered to be cash rich and run at a profit, but some recent revelations have changed circumstances. After what is widely expected to be a disastrous summer of player departures, season ticket renewals are rumored to have come in at only 28% with the club’s much vaunted waiting list adding only an additional 3%. Sources also suggest that accounting irregularities and bad business decisions have forced the club to spend all of their television revenue. As a result, the club will not have adequate resources to make the payments on their Emirates Stadium debt or players’ wages. Arsenal will enter administration this week with a Premier League points deduction to follow. In a Summer dominated by negative transfer activity, this is surely the most damaging news and undoubtedly makes relegation a distinct possibility.
The above paragraph is not an actual news story. But how would you know that? Well, for one thing, it cites no specific sources. It also contains no quotes from relevant parties. It includes statistics and statements of fact but fails to tell the reader the origins of that information. The fictitious story also makes subtle assumptions based on equally questionable information. For example, it states that Arsenal’s summer has been “dominated by negative transfer activity.” It also attributes its suspicious conclusions about season ticket renewals to the “disastrous summer of player departures.” Has the summer been dominated by negative transfer activity? Has there been a single player departure to date? No. But the article preys on the readers assumptions about the club that have been fomented by weeks of negative media coverage.
What should bother you about the apocryphal news story above is that it’s virtually identical in construction to the majority of articles written about Arsenal this summer. It’s filled with lies, rumors, suggestions and innuendo but absent any sources or corroborating evidence. The story is intended to elicit an emotional response from the reader, particularly if that reader is an Arsenal supporter. When Arsenal don’t wind up in administration, that publication can merely run a follow-up article on how Arsenal “narrowly escaped administration this week.” And that article can be equally mendacious.
Consider what we have been told by the media already this summer just about Samir Nasri! The following are actual headlines from major publications:
- Chelsea ready to join the race for wantaway Arsenal midfielder Nasri
- Manchester City scotch rumours over Manchester United target Samir Nasri
- Manchester City to beat Manchester United for Arsenal ace Samir Nasri
- Manchester United confident of luring Samir Nasri from Arsenal in £20 million deal
- Arsenal to splash the cash and offer Nasri better deal in bid to ward off United
And that’s just the start. Of course there’s the Cesc Fabregas saga:
- Real enter Fabregas chase
- Barca want to pay just £8.5m to get Fabregas
- Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas close to £35 million move to European champions Barcelona
- BARCELONA want Cesc Fabregas to go on strike next week to force a cut-price move from Arsenal.
And then it deteriorates into the land of the truly depressing:
- Arsène Wenger’s grand vision is falling apart as Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin linked to exodus
- Striker Robin Van Persie reportedly wants out of Arsenal as discontent at Emirates Stadium grows
- Andrey Arshavin ‘next to depart in Arsenal exodus’ as Turks line up bid
- Clichy takes off as Emirates departure lounge fills
- Chelsea move for Walcott as winger ready to follow Fabregas, Clichy and Nasri through exit door
But despite the compelling, confident and strongly worded headlines, those articles all possess the same journalistic integrity as my hypothetical news story at the top of this post. None of them are backed by sources or quotes. They all make sweeping generalizations and arrive at their conclusions based on rumors and innuendo. And yet, they have had their desired effect. They have created a panicked frenzy among Arsenal supporters that has many convinced that neither Arsene Wenger, nor the Arsenal board of directors have the slightest idea what they are doing.
What happens next is a veritable advertisement for the magic of Twitter. Thousands of gooners from all over the world begin to tweet the inflammatory headlines. Then more gooners tweet their reaction to the headlines. Then even more gooners start commenting on the depressing and declining state of Arsenal Football Club. Pretty soon, the rumor-mongering, lazy journalistic efforts of a single writer have Arsenal fans all over the globe bemoaning the unfortunate direction of their once-great club. What started as unfounded speculation has taken its toll on Arsenal. It no longer matters whether the article was correct. The effect is lasting.
One of the most interesting things about these dubious transfer articles is how they become viral within the media. Once one journalist has written the article, other publications pick up the story and run it as a “report’ without any independent verification. Then editorials about Arsenal start relying on the unverified reports to support their argument. Here’s a great example. “Arsene Wenger the Preacher Must Play the Big Spender” by Paul Hayward of The Guardian.
Hayward basically laments the state of the club and argues that Arsenal must sell Cesc and other want away players. According to Hayward, Arsene must then spend big to change the club’s trajectory. He makes a lot of stupid arguments and pointless generalizations in his article but that’s not my concern. My concern is with how he supports his conclusions. For example, Hayward suggests that the players have given up on Wenger’s vision.
“His players are starting to look like parishioners tiring of their messianic preacher and filing out of the church in mid-sermon”
Obviously I tend not to agree with that conclusion. But he supports that theory with this statement;
“Already there are suggestions that Robin van Persie is growing twitchy about the potential for an exodus and the possibility that Fábregas and Nasri would not be replaced by players of similar calibre.”
Do you see what he’s done there? He’s based his conclusion that the players no longer believe in Wenger on the fact that Van Persie wants out because Cesc and Nasri won’t be properly replaced. But Cesc hasn’t gone yet. Nasri hasn’t gone yet. And we have absolutely no evidence that Van Perise is “growing twitchy.” Hayward has relied unsubstantiated information from misleading articles to support a specious argument. But when that article gets passed around on twitter, most people have already accepted the same conclusions as facts themselves and it all starts to sound sensible. But it’s important to remember it’s not sensible! It’s not real! Someone made it up! Just like I made up the story at the start of this post!
It’s not as if Arsenal fans haven’t been here before. Arseblog did an excellent job pointing out that fact just last week. He posted excerpts from an article declaring that Patrick Viera was leaving arsenal back in 2001. And that article included quotes! Actual quotes from the player! Try finding those now!
Naturally, there are more recent examples. Last summer there were more articles declaring that Cesc was going to Barca than you could count. They were certain he was off. The only person that seemed uncertain was Arsene Wenger. But why believe him? He’s only the manager of Arsenal Football Club. Let’s believe the tabloids instead! Unfortunately for the tabloids, they were wrong. As usual. But that’s certainly not going to stop us from believing them again! Even as Wenger has restated his commitment to keeping Cesc. Even as he has declared that Nasri won’t be sold to Manchester United. Even as he as promised activity in the transfer market. We still choose to believe the tabloids instead of our manager. We’d rather believe articles that declare: “Arsène Wenger’s grand vision is falling apart!” When will we learn?
Maybe Arsenal will lose Cesc and Nasri and Clichy and Arshavin and Theo and Van Persie this summer as we are lead to believe. And maybe Arsenal won’t sign anyone other than the imaginary Carl Jenkinson. And maybe Arsenal will spend the season battling relegation. That sounds plausible right? What? It doesn’t sound plausible? But that’s the only logical conclusion from the reports in the media. So if that’s not what’s going to happen then maybe the reports in the media are complete and utter rubbish.
Perhaps there’s another way to look at things. Maybe Arsene Wenger knows what he’s doing. Maybe he knows how to manage at a club that has big ambitions but fewer resources than its rivals. Maybe he won’t sell every single one of his best players and fail to replace any of them. Maybe after a decade of titles and top four finishes and Champions League knock-out stage participation he’s not turned into a complete and total idiot who would run his club more poorly than a drunk monkey on peyote playing Football Manager.
It’s not my intention to excuse failure. It’s just important to define failure. I’d say Liverpool have failed mightily the past few seasons but you won’t read anything about player exoduses or crises at their club right now. I agree that Arsenal need a trophy, but it’s not unthinkable that this squad is close to winning one. Three of the last four seasons Arsenal were legitimately challenging for a Premier League title in march. Yes the subsequent collapses were morale sapping. But they’ve obscured the fact that Wenger had his club in position for a title 75% of the way through the season in 3 of the last 4 campaigns. Crap sides don’t do that. Something went wrong to cause the collapses. But we must accept that something went right for us to be in title winning positions through March.
I started this blog post with a story about Arsenal. It was a fake story. One that you can disregard and never think about again. And in that respect, it is almost identical to every story you’ve read about Arsenal this summer. We are all desperate to see our club succeed. But some of us are so desperate for it and so frustrated by recent disappointments that we almost delight in our misery. We almost prefer to see Arsenal screw up so we can point fingers and say we knew it would happen. But we have to resist that temptation. We have to distinguish reality from fiction. When Arsenal step on the pitch and blow a two-goal lead to Sp*rs, that’s reason for reproach. That’s reason for criticism and outrage. But when a hack at a newspaper writes a wind-up piece based on speculation, that’s something to disregard. Ultimately we’ll know what kind of summer Arsenal had by what transpires on the pitch between August and May. Let’s try to draw our conclusions about the club and the manager from that.