Whether you win or lose is black and white. Three points for a win. One point for a tie. Zero points for a loss. Simple.
How you win or lose, however, isn’t so black and white. Teams can win by sitting back and absorbing attacks and then venturing out on the counterattack. And teams can lose while keeping the lion’s share of possession without ever creating meaningful scoring opportunities. And then there’s everything in between. But at the end of the day, does it matter how a team wins or loses?
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal of the past five years has become the poster child for this topic. It has been a story of aesthetics when victory is unattainable.
The Arsenal of the Wenger era was built on aesthetics. Although trophies have long been the measure of success in England, Wenger’s teams have placed a premium on entertaining soccer, undervaluing victory at every obstacle by elevating art over practical. Early in Wenger’s reign, his desire to win beautifully was never an issue because Arsenal consistently won trophies. No one questioned his approach because his success was quantifiable. No one questions a beautiful approach that results in trophies. But times have changed.
Since Arsenal’s last trophy in the 2005 FA Cup, this aesthetic narrative has become a fixture in Arsenal discussions at every setback. And that’s down to Wenger. Most other teams either win or lose. But with Arsenal, we have developed an obsession with how they play even when they lose, often assigning points for style as if how a team plays is almost as important as whether a team wins. Talk of possession statistics, midfield domination, and other aspects of the game that suggest winning without winning have become commonplace after loses.
After this past weekend’s loss to Chelsea, Wenger’s comments had a familiar tone.
“We dominated this game, quite surprisingly in my opinion. [It was] surprisingly easy but we go home with zero points. I feel sorry for my team. They had an outstanding attitude with an outstanding display. We made a demonstration that you can play well and lose.”
It is a refrain that has grown all too familiar after defeat. At some point, people need to know whether Arsenal’s struggle to climb to the top again is the result of a philosophically deficient approach or something else.
When the trophy well began drying, few questioned the inherent value of style, probably because the memories of stylish triumphs in North London were relatively fresh. Wenger embedded the style narrative in discussions about Arsenal so successfully that it is now common to assess Arsenal’s performances on two fronts. Style and victory have replaced the table as the proper barometers for success. In fact, it is almost impossible for anyone to talk about Arsenal anymore without mentioning their style of play. Tired references to Arsenal’s “slick passing” are now beyond cliché. But with all the time and energy that has been poured into developing their trademark style, Arsenal is now a team challenged by its inability to win ugly, which is ironic considering the missing ingredient now seems to be an inability to win without the element they have spent the most time developing.
In many ways, Chelsea has developed into the anti-Arsenal. Under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea began mastering the art of functionality, defending as a unit and using a few horses to methodically and ruthlessly go forward. Even though Chelsea owner Roman Abromovich aspires to play beautiful soccer (and they have moved miles in that department), Chelsea’s actions over the past few seasons show a desire to win first and worry about aesthetics second, presenting a more practical challenge to Wenger’s more cerebral approach.
Since the early part of Wenger’s tenure when he successfully trumped function with efficient beauty, top teams have found a formula to frustrate Wenger’s style. His new challenge is how he responds to this threat. So far, he seems to have maintained his philosophical approach to how the game should be played, touting successes whether winning or losing. Whether he can triumph again by raising a trophy while sticking to his approach remains to be seen.
All of this leaves fans with an artistic dilemma. Some people appreciate the aesthetic, whereas some prefer function. While finite answers aren’t available in this eternal war of interpretation, Wenger shows few signs of abandoning his quest to win the war beautifully. It’s an admirable quality for some, and infuriatingly impractical for others. But as seasons go by, some fans are sadly growing restless, increasingly unwilling to accept Wenger’s multiple definitions of success.
Nevertheless, regardless of his growing band of critics, Wenger should be proud of creating a rare space in contemporary English soccer where his teams are judged on style and points. That may, for better or worse, be Wenger’s final legacy. But after raising the bar in England, it is now up to Wenger to meet his own heightened standard. Winning trophies in today’s environment without sacrificing style would be the ultimate philosophical triumph and the final chapter of Wenger’s journey to redefine success.