“Woah Mr. F! Arsenal signed that guy that dresses like superheroes and does backflips!”
– 4th Grade Student
As you may have surmised, I teach young children for a living. I do so in a close-knit elementary school of approximately 400 students (ages 5-12) located in Upstate NY. All the regular inhabitants–students, teachers, parents, staff–share a true sense of community. In short, everyone knows everyone.
As is naturally the case, like-minded individuals gravitate to one other. I am well aware of all those that admire the beautiful game, which happens to be a little more than two dozen kids. Many of whom I previously taught and refer to me as “Mr. Arsenal Man” due to my classroom decoration, ties, polo shirts, etc. Not to mention my explicit instruction in teaching them Arsenal songs (“Super Jacky Wilshere” being the consensus favorite followed by “De De DeDeDeDe Aaron Ramsey”).
As is also naturally the case, kids speak with a filter that is almost non-existent. You usually receive pure, genuine thought. They struggle with the delineation of club and country, e.g. “Does Arsenal ever play against Brazil, Mr. F.?” Some of the younger end of the spectrum cite Arsenal as their favorite team just to make me happy. There is also some right butchering of player names as well: “Owen Hazard, Kevin De Burner, and Romeo Mugaku” (Maybe a mix of Lukaku and Mugatu?).
What became clearly evident was their fixation with individual players and general “star power.” Furthermore, despite them knowing about my deep affection for Arsenal, the team was a bit of an afterthought before the signing of PEA. Kids want to play with Barca, PSG, Real Madrid, and Man U. Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, and Pogba are who they look up to.
Context, as always, is important. We are roughly 2,000 miles from the UK, so no organic allegiances exist. No one has local ties or deep-running family roots to help them align with particular clubs. My students’ opinions are shaped by playing FIFA, advertisements, watching games, and peer interaction. While U.S. Arsenal fandom stands in stark contrast to the state of it in England, kids in just about every country must be using the same criteria.
So what’s the significance in summarizing my football-related interactions with kids? There is probably very little to be honest. Reflecting on such a topic makes me think about Arsenal and our worldwide “brand” reputation. Furthermore, it has helped bring to the forefront a question that has been omnipresent in the back of my mind for too long now: What will it take to make Arsenal a top-tier “destination” again? A club on par with every other, not including Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Manchester United (eh, maybe PSG and Bayern too).
Some may argue, most likely with rose-tinted glasses, that we are still in that tier. That given our historical status and financial position as a top 6 Premier League side, we haven’t taken a slight shift backwards. I personally feel the latter Wenger years have diminished our overall stature in the game and the allure of the Arsenal badge to top players and fans around the world, allbeit minimally.
So with students as a small source of inspiration, I have detailed below the three areas in which Arsenal need to excel in order to become that more “desirable destination,” increase global attraction, and what the main worries of Arsenal’s next CEO (assuming Gazidis steps down) should be.
1. Attractive Playing Style
For a long time high profile players joined Arsenal or expressed their admiration by citing an attractive style of play predicated on attacking football. I believe this has been a myth the last few seasons and stylistic adaptation is necessary. What better time to hit a refresh button that right now under Emery?
A sexy playing style means having nuanced layers that align with the top clubs in Europe. High energy pressing, direct phase changing, quick transitions from defense to attack, and playing out of the back with the keeper acting as an outfield player are very much “en vogue.” Emery looks to be committed to an Arsenal with these qualities. Qualities that help us stay true to our offensive ethos while adapting to the modern game.
2. Attract Star Power
As mentioned previously from a US child perspective, upper-echelon talent have considerable pull and brand boosting ability. Fans like to see their team identity aligned with transcendent talents, and these transcendent talents want to play with others of similar class.
While I value team cohesion and tactical nous much more that top talent, I feel the Arsenal “brand” would benefit from more prime Henry’s, Vieira’s and Bergkamp’s. My criticism of Arsenal over the last decade is not the inability to buy the best, but the inability to buy that players with the potential to be the best. Guendouzi, Torreira, and Mavropanos are the exact type of cultured, extremely high upside buys we should be making and stand in direct contrast to the likes of Eisfeld, Crowley, and Bielik in years past.
3. On Field Success
This one speaks for itself. Winning is sexy and helps boost the reputation of a club immensely, Chelsea and Man City being prime examples. Twenty-five years ago (not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars) no one would have imagined them dining at a table with the elite footballing clubs.
Having the right manager and methodology as a catalyst for success is huge here. Football has become overwhelmingly tactical and analytical. So much so that the true leaders, the ones that players look to in hard times, are the manager rather than on-pitch captains. Managers need to be expert motivators, tacticians, and innovators.
Let’s hope all the change of key staff over the past year will lead to a more successful Arsenal. An Arsenal that stood toe to toe with United over the course of a decade; An Arsenal that were deserved winners against Galactico filled Madrid at the Bernabeu; An Arsenal that was capable winning doubles; An Arsenal capable of possible Champions League glory.
Hopefully in a few years time, I’ll be talking with my students about how Arsenal is their favorite team to play with on FIFA, not because of my admiration but because of the genuine admiration of their own.
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