Saturday, August 20, 2011

End of an Era?


I just turned off the TV after watching my beloved Arsenal lose at home to Liverpool. It made for painful viewing. The season is only a few games old and already it it feels like hope is lost. Actually, it feels worse than that. It feels a little like the end of an era. At the risk of being melodramatic, the poor start to the season, combined with the departure of Arsenal's best player, Cesc Fabregas, feels like the death blow for an idealistic vision of football crafted by Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger. Contrary to the established way of doing things in England, in recent years Wenger has assembled a bunch of young, small and technically-adept players from a diverse array of nations. His team plays arguably the most attractive football in the country, full of intricate movement and goals from unexpected angles. But for the past six years, Arsenal has wilted down the stretch and finished without a trophy. The conventional wisdom from the pundits and bloggers has been that Arsenal will never win unless Wenger changes his approach and brings on older, bigger and more defensive players. Every fiber in my body wants Wenger to be right and his critics to be proven wrong. Alas, even my faith in the manager has been shaken of late. Unless something changes dramatically, I think we are witnessing the end of Wenger's grand utopian scheme -- and perhaps the end of Wenger as manager as well.

I often try to learn management lessons from the world of sport, but I'm not sure what to make of all this. Sadly, Arsenal is beginning to remind me of the Spider-man musical on Broadway, which I saw in previews with Julie Taymor still at the helm. That show, which deserved all of the criticism it received in my opinion, felt like the product of hubris unbound. It seemed like there was no one involved in the production with the common sense and authority to tell Julie Taymor that her more outlandish ideas (like dedicating the second half of the show to a character other than Spider-man) made no sense. Arsenal under Wenger are apparently suffering from the same problem. So maybe the lesson is about the importance of staying humble, balancing idealism with pragmatism, and being willing to make mid-course adjustment to grand plans if they start to go off the rails.