Editor's picks: Jason Cowley on the best pieces from 2013

The New Statesman editor selects some of his favourite reviews, essays and comment published in the magazine in 2013 - from John Gray on Edmund Burke to Will Self's tribute to pessimism.

One of the many pleasures of being editor of the New Statesman is the opportunity it allows to commission and publish writers I admire writing about subjects that interest me.

Let’s call it a higher form of self-indulgence. Anyway, here are 25 articles published in the New Statesman in 2013 which are worth reading if you missed them. If you didn’t, they are worth reading again.

John Gray - "What Machiavelli Knew" (July)

John Bew on Alex Ferguson - "The last great Briton" (December)

Hedley Twiddle - "The last days of Nelson Mandela" (October)

Jemima Khan on Julian Assange - "How the Wikileaks founder alienated his allies" (February)

Michael Barrett on the remarkable travels of David Livingstone - "Presumed innocent" (July)

Vince Cable on the Great Stagnation - "When the facts change, should I change my mind?" (March)

John Gray on Edmund Burke and the Tories - "History has no author" (May)

Brendan Simms on the German Problem - "Cracked heart of the old world" (March)

Robert Skidelsky - "Creative Destruction: Keynes, Hobson, Marx – and the crisis of capitalism" (May)

Will Self - "In praise of pessimism" (April)

Peter Wilby - "A Dissenting Tradition: the New Statesman and the left"

Simon Heffer - "Margaret Thatcher was not right-wing" (May)

Richard Mabey - Writing on nature

Ian Bremmer From G20 to G-Zero - "Why no one wants to take charge in the new global order" (June)

John Bew On the Geopolitics of the Syrian War - "Las Vegas rules don't apply in Syria" and "The west humiliated" (July and September)

Rachel Cusk - "On narcissim: the mirror and the self" (August)

Danny Dorling - "Why aren’t young people working?" (August)

Simon Kuper - "I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic: ghetto superstar" (September)

John Bew - "Clement Attlee: An unromantic hero" (September)

David Marquand on Britain and the EU - "First Brexit, then break-up" (October)

Steven Poole - "The pseudo-profundity of Malcolm Gladwell" (October)

David Pilling - "Shinzo Abe’s second coming" (October)

Russell Brand on revolution - “We no longer have the luxury of tradition” (October)

Rupert Everett - "Bring on the guillotine: Rupert Everett on the gay rights revolution" (October)

Bryan Appleyard - "Is this the death of Apple?" (November)

And here’s something by me – "Eton Eternal: How the old ruling class became the new ruling class" (May)

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit