What did we learn from Liverpool’s resounding victory over Arsenal? Much more about the vanquished than the conquerors it seems. Unfortunately for Liverpool, their powerful display has been overshadowed by a disastrous Arsenal—much like the wedding where the uncle with poor alcohol tolerance turns up. The next day, nobody’s talking about the beautiful bride. Instead they’re sharing videos of the drunken dancefloor collapse.
There are certain truths we hold to be self-evident in football. Stoke is a tough place to go on a midweek winter night, Jose Mourinho sweeps all before him in a second season, and Arsenal melt at the first sight of serious opposition. There’s rarely any attempt to justify these core beliefs, and undoubtedly they’re often based on fact. But after a while they become woven into the narrative of the game, an easy fall-back for any half-baked pundit or disgruntled fan seeking to justify the oft-random behaviour of the footballing gods.
All of which leads to an interesting question—is there a point at which these beliefs stop becoming a reaction and instead start becoming a prediction? The term ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ was created in the 1940s by sociologist Robert K. Merton, who defined it as a prophecy that is believed so strongly that it can lead to people changing their behaviour in order to make it come true. It’s been a commonly recurring trope in cultural history as well; one of the most famous examples is Oedipus Rex, a Greek legend, where it is foretold that the hero will kill his father and marry his mother. In an attempt to avoid the curse, Oedipus runs away, but this triggers a chain of events that ultimately leads to the prophecy coming true.
The current situation at Arsenal somewhat resembles a Greek epic. The hero (or anti-hero, depending on your perspective) Arsene Wenger is far removed from past glories, struggling on a long quest to reach glittering trophies that are always just a little bit farther over the horizon. At the same time, his band of loyal (or not-so-loyal) men are assaulted on all sides by the plague of injury, or the siren songs of more attractive clubs. And all around are dangerous enemies, with their swords drawn, ready to attack at the very first sign of a stumble.
Those weapons were out in force this weekend. Gary Neville was almost gleeful in his disdain (“this Arsenal team deserve a battering”), Ian Wright called for Wenger’s head (“I’d like him to go because I do not believe now he can motivate the players”), and Chris Sutton was characteristically eloquent (“I’d bin him now. I would have binned him last season”). There always seems to be a little schadenfreude present in criticism of Arsene Wenger (Jamie Carragher saw fit to qualify his comments with the disclaimer “this is not being nasty or bitter”), which is no doubt a result of someone being at the pinnacle of the game for so long.
But perhaps it was Thierry Henry’s criticism that was the most telling of all. He revealed his prophetic visions at half-time, saying “To be honest, I was expecting this.” And that’s the feeling you get—everyone expects Arsenal to lose these kinds of games. What seems to be forgotten is that, despite the astronomical amounts paid for their services, footballers are human beings. It’s also easy to wonder how well you’d be inclined to do your job if you were constantly hearing that you were rubbish at it, or that you were going to fail, or if there were 60,000 people who patently didn’t believe in you before you even started the day’s work. Despite the sports psychology, iron-clad determination to win and the bubble of the football world, some of this must seep into the manager and players’ minds, either consciously or subconsciously.
And then you wonder if Merton’s theory was right—do Arsenal lose the big games because it’s been prophesied? If that’s the case, then maybe the only solution is the removal of Arsene Wenger, not for the reasons given by the “Wenger Out” brigade, but actually because of their existence. A change in manager may be the only way to psychologically reboot the club and set them back on the right path. Harsh on the manager perhaps, but given that Oedipus ended his days blinded and in exile, maybe leaving Arsenal is not the worst way for Wenger to end his epic.