Arsenal's Pre-Socialist Vibes
13 February 2023
With the youngest team in the English Premier League, Arsenal have surprised the world of football (soccer) by winning 16 out of their opening 19 matches this season, the club’s best ever start, while playing an attractive, intelligent brand of ‘fluid football’ that is becoming increasingly common – reflecting the accelerating evolution of society’s economic-technical basis.
When Arsenal sauntered to a 2-0 victory at North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in January, the contrast in playing styles and technical capacities was pretty stark. Broadly speaking, the two sides could be said to represent two phases in human-technical evolution. In a battle of the old and the new, the past folded up and the future unfolded.
The average age of Totttenham's starting line-up is 27.6 years. Arsenal’s is 24.2. Spurs manager Antonia Conte is 53. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is 40.
Spurs under Conte, an albeit formidable relic of the robust cattenacio system that typified Italian football’s European dominance in the early 1990s, are defensive and uninspiring. Sitting deep and playing on the counterattack, three central defenders faced off against one centre forward, leaving two mediocre central midfielders outnumbered by the best three-man partnership in the league, including the Norweigan 24-year-old Martin Ødegaard, who “plays in his own personal metaverse”, as the excellent Jonathan Liew puts it.
Spurs are something of a throwback to teams associated more with ‘hard men’ and rigid formations (when everyone played 4-4-2; four defenders, four midfielders, two forwards) and prioritized aggressive tackling and defending over style and attack. Arsenal themselves were known as ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ for their habitual 1-0 wins.
Lacking dynamic movement and creativity, Tottenham’s players looked disjointed and anarchic, yet one-dimensional – features of mechanistic mechanisms and thus (again, broadly speaking) capitalism, which are both binary/dualistic. Tottenham look like an outmoded machine.
Arsenal look like the expression of a planned, singular yet versatile outfit – features of automation and thus socialism.
As production evolves from the mechanised to the automated, the global productive system is increasingly integrated, or singular, monopolised by (at least relatively) fewer and fewer capitalists; yet our rising technical-productive capacity enables a greater number and variety in the types of commodities we produce.
And so it is with humans. The way we express ourselves changes and varies as our choices improve and expand (in fashion, for example – the binary blocks and stripes on football kits of yore increasingly dissolve away amid the upgrades in materials and tailoring and widening range of detailing, patterns and colors; although as a recession approaches innovation stagnates and more conservative styles tend to make a comeback). Whereas manual labor and manufacturing typically demanded and reproduced heterosexual or ‘alpha’ males, in a postindustrial society LGBTQ and mixed race people are thus, with every generation, tending to make up a greater proportion of the population.
The most advanced skilled laborers today are not in mines or factories but writing complex algorithms, analyzing gigatons of data, and smashing the binary, mechanistic dogmas of classical physics. (Atoms and particles don’t really exist! Matter is a fluid, kinetic process!) They even increasingly work from home – enabled by the internet and the powerful swiss-army-knife-like smart devices they wield – enabling more free time for, say, yoga, calisthenics or going to the gym (which became ‘trendy’ not simply as a middle class fad du jour but because of falling prices or even access to free lessons on YouTube). The average skilled labourer today is thus more (singularly) athletic and their labour is increasingly complex or varied (perhaps they even reply to emails while riding their Peloton). (Of course, some of this still only applies to a fraction of the working class as a whole; but the 6.8 billion of us with smartphonesare all photographers, editors and publishers now. The working class is, after all, a historically economically ascending class – the future ruling class.)
So it is with this Arsenal team. All diehard nutritionists (long gone are the champion boozers of the ‘90s ‘Tuesday Club’) most of their players are like Olympic decathletes, such is their athleticism and relative versatility, expected to be able to play as if they could take up any position on the pitch – their ‘labour’ is more varied. Even the goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale and the two center backs, William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães, are comfortable with the ball at their feet and technically gifted distributors. (‘Technical’ is a word now frequently used to describe players and teams.) The lone striker, especially Gabriel Jesus but also his capable understudy Eddie Nketiah, hardly stops running, pressing the opposition high up as ‘the first line of defense’. Oleksandr Zinchenko is ostensibly a left-sided defender who, because he floats around wherever the hell he likes – further overloading the poor Spurs midfield – has been compared to the Queen in chess.
Arteta set out a vision when he arrived as manager three years ago of a team that plays “with one brain” – like a centrally planned socialist economy. (Incidentally, the wife of Arsenal owner Stan Kreonke owns Walmart, described by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski as typical of a multinational corporation that is laying the basis of global socialism.) When one player presses the opposition in possession, another two or more are triggered to join in, cutting off the angles for a progressive pass – whereas many players in other teams press individually, tiring themselves out without forcing any errors – squeezing all ten outfield players higher up the pitch and cultivating a higher volume of turnovers, making for quicker attacks and easier scoring opportunities from closer range. “You can just play in sync, everybody is using one brain,” as Arsenal player Kieran Tierney says.
Pro Evolution Soccer
Football has of course evolved rapidly over the past 30 years, with ever-greater quantities of capital invested in the professional game as capitalists diverse their revenue streams to offset falling profit rates amounting to a greater amount of time invested in the development of players (who even tend to be decently educated – brought up by sports scientists – and media-savvy now, the result of an increasingly holistic approach by clubs learning harsh lessons from the past). As players have amassed greater wealth and therefore power, managers tend not to be such petty dictators these days. Managers have worked out that players, like workers in general, tend to be more productive the better they are treated and incentivised.
(The autocratic Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was unexpectedly challenged for the English title from the late 1990s by the laissez faire liberal Arsene Wenger, for example. After being met with headlines of ‘Arsene Who?’ and mocked as looking more like a university professor – although he does have a masters degree in economics and has predicted the end of capitalism – Wenger won the league in three times in six years, having introduced such revolutionary ideas as plyometric stretching and healthy eating, extending the careers of the hard-drinking English players he inherited. Wenger, arriving after a few years in Japan, “doesn’t know anything about English football”, the Scot Ferguson said in 1997.)
As players have become more expensive assets, they have become increasingly protected by referees (under the heavy lobbying of the richest clubs), and so season-ending tackles and other thuggish on-pitch antics, also exposed by myriad camera angles, have started to die out.
Now-never-muddy pitches, with their underground heating, have enabled much more focus on passing the ball on the ground rather than ‘looking for the big man’ with crosses and long balls. More recently, the data science revolution, a form of advanced automation, now means teams and players are so thoroughly analyzed by opponents that planning to be unpredictable, developing hybrid, fluid positions and formations, has become necessary to stay ahead. Arteta almost always speaks about evolving the team in his press conferences. The Spaniard is a team-centric coach – the old tendency to ‘build a team around’ an individual star or two is dying out (just like ‘the entrepreneur’ and movie star).
Arsenal are obviously not the first team to play ‘total football’ – Pele’s Brazil and Cruyff’s Ajax did that a long time ago – but it is becoming more common. Manchester City, Liverpool and Barcelona teams, plus Wenger’s early Arsenal sides, especially from 2004, are recent examples; but pretty much every team in the Premier League tries to pass the ball out from defence far more than they used to, rather than lumping every goal kick upfield for a headed flick-on.
Even as the biggest clubs monopolise the sport – hoarding the best players, pushing up demand relative to supply and thus prices (just as capitalists do with, for example, housing) – there is a weaker counter-tendency (just as portions of capital break away to form new, small startups) whereby the features at the top level of the sport diffuse as production expands and prices fall. Small professional clubs have joined the data revolution, too; and even Sunday league teams, believe it or not – learning from what they see on the TV – tend to play much better football than they did 20 years ago. They can even film their matches with automated cameras that provide a basic level of data analysis. It’s not quite VAR (video assisted refereeing) – but perhaps that’s for the (socialist) future.
The richest clubs have, of course, become international corporations in the past two decades. Arsenal moved to a 60,000-seater stadium in 2006 because the previous ground could only hold 38,000, and now the club is said to have 38 million fans the world over. While this development is obviously largely commercially motivated, it also reflects the increasing global integration of production and thus nations.
As the clubs become more exclusively owned by billionaire oligarchs, access to the club through community and online interaction – behind the scenes footage and whatnot – becomes more necessary to keep the punters coming back for tickets and merchandise. There is always a dual movement.
As part of efforts to improve ‘the connection’ between the fans and the club, Arsenal recently unveiled new stadium artwork based on consultations with fan organisations. One of the pieces featured an array of flags from all the different Arsenal fan clubs situated in different countries around the world – a nice touch.
It’s something of a precursor: in the socialist future, fan inclusivity should be usurped by fan ownership, democratically electing their kits and spokespeople, etc.
Arsenal’s history and politics are, of course, hugely problematic from a socialist, anti-imperialist perspective  – that the advanced monopoly capitalist nations, having colonised the world, are the closest to becoming socialist, at least in technical terms, is perhaps just another example of history’s cruelty. The club’s (albeit largely commercial) internationalism (the Premier League has attracted by far the best deals from international TV contracts) nevertheless is a sign of relative progress, a sign that internationalism is usurping nationalism as the dominant ideology in the world. (Obviously the pushback to that from small domestic capitalists is mounting as capitalism breaks down.)
Arsenal have also been pioneers in women’s football, winning almost everything for two decades until other clubs started investing in the sport a few years ago; a short anti-homophobia film by fan group Gay Gooners is played in the stadium before every match; it was perhaps the first top flight English club in the 1980s to employ and play multiple black players (Paul Davis, Viv Anderson, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas); the first to start a match with nine black players (2002); and the first to play a full team of foreign players (2005). “I do not look at a player’s passport,” as Wenger told incredulous British tabloids.
Situated in highly multicultural Islington, the local Member of Parliament is Jeremy Corbyn (an Arsenal fan), who for all his shortcomings from a communist perspective, is obviously the most tolerable well-known ‘left’ MP in Britain (not that there are many). The local fanbase is certainly diverse and with a younger generation of season-ticket holders coming through, the usual ‘Is this a library?’ chants from the away end have finally been drowned out.
It is a thoroughly multicultural, global and modern club. That and the way the team plays now are worth taking notice of in a presocialist context.
1. Capitalist production is a technical labour process, creating use values (utilities); and a valorisation process, creating (exchange) value – commodities are dualistically both use values and contain exchange value. As more of the former are produced less of the latter is contained in each commodity, leaving only use values and thus necessitating socialism.
Even as capitalist production becomes more planned (elimanted internal markets, centralised data, state intervention, etc.) competition between capitalists and the tendency for capitalist economies to crash (on average once a decade) to a greater and greater degree, resulting in an overproduction of commodities that cannot be consumed, means its anarchic character actually tends to intensify.
2. “Modern industry… imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. Modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of today, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.” – Marx, Capital vol 1, chapter 16.
Somewhat like a fully automated system of production (‘automation’ means ‘self-action’), from a scientific point of view we humans are a single, highly variable, polytypic race.
3. The canon badge, for starters, comes from the old Royal Arsenal arms factory in Woolwich, south London. While the football club was founded by the factory’s working class employees, the arms were of course used by the British Empire. (Gunpowder was at least invented by Taoists, whose ancient Chinese philosophy comes out of the epoch before private property and rejects western binary thought; while the cannon was also a slayer of feudal lords, rendering their castle walls impotent when their capitalist usurpers were historically progressive.)
The airline company Emirates, the sponsor of Arsenal’s stadium, is associated with a government that, says Amnest International, “commits serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, suppression of freedom of expression, and violation of the right to privacy”.
More recently, Arsenal have expressed ‘solidarity’ with Ukraine, flying the flag behind the goal on matchday, when US and UK capitalists are privatising and plundering Ukraine’s public assets, turning it into a debt colony, and destroying the population’s labor rights by proxy. You certainly won’t see the Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Libya or Syria flags behind the goal – some of the countries the US and UK have invaded, destroyed and plundered (either directly or by proxy) in recent times (in order to offset their capitalists’ falling profit rates).
4. The World Cup final threw up that odd contradiction among neutrals whereby socialists
probably supported Argentina as the anti-imperialist option but black people in Europe generally supported France since most of the team’s players are black or mixed race.
Marx thought the older/advanced capitalist countries would be the first to become socialist, although later believed a revolution in Ireland would be needed to spur one in England. Today he would arguably generally hold the former position.