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9 September 2017

Arsenal’s decline shows what happens when a once-great leader develops blind spots

Arsène Wenger has cultivated a particular kind of resilience that is now harming him.

By Ed Smith

I am fascinated by the refusal of Arsène Wenger, an admirable and intelligent man, to yield to common sense. This is usually interpreted as stubbornness. I think that is unfair. More likely, the Arsenal manager no longer sees problems that are obvious to others. He is suffering from wilful blindness, not bullishness. It is a blind spot, however, that Wenger has deliberately cultivated. That is the lesson for other decision makers, both inside and outside sport.

For more than ten years, Arsenal have lacked physical presence in midfield and a spine of leaders running through the team. Arsenal can still play beautifully, but they are embarrassingly fragile. When they face top-flight opponents, it’s like watching a mobile glasshouse take on a tank. Outside Wenger’s office, these facts are almost universally accepted. No manager should pick his team after taking a straw poll at his local pub. But when all of the people in all of the pubs are saying the same thing, perhaps they are on to something.

Wenger’s response to the crisis is to double down on the malaise: with the foundations crumbling, add a lick of high-quality paint. When the transfer window closed at the end of August, the manager missed his last chance to find some glue to hold together his flighty playmakers. Worse than that, Arsenal apparently made a £92m bid  (which would have been a British record for a trasfer) for Thomas Lemar, Monaco’s 5ft 7in will-o’-the-wisp midfielder. So Wenger countered one accusation (that he is reluctant to spend big money), while reaffirming the more significant charge (that he keeps buying elegant players he likes instead of the one he needs). All of which was revealed in a plan that failed anyway. The most generous interpretation is that Wenger had no intention of signing Lemar and was instead orchestrating a multi­layered ironic joke.

The origins of Wenger’s problems cannot be the absence of tactical acumen or strategic intelligence. What is the likelihood that amateur armchair pundits know more about the game than the longest-serving manager in Premier League football? Nor do I believe the cause is Wenger’s “philosophy” of playing attractive football. A philosophy is usually the rationalisation of a failing.

Instead, we must turn to psychological causes. My conjecture is that Wenger has cultivated a particular kind of resilience that is now harming him. Like many leaders, he recognised early on that a common flaw in decision makers is malleability. He trained himself to ignore what other people say, to the extent that he no longer hears them.

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“We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society,” Wenger has said, ruefully. “Basically the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned. So one of the most important qualities of a good leader is now massive resistance to stress.” Here, stress could be defined as the unpleasantness of considering a rival opinion. So the understandable determination to avoid inconstancy calcifies into the opposite problem – a bunker mentality in which dissenting views are automatically categorised as problems. Mental strength becomes defined too narrowly: not listening is a badge of honour.

This was the case in the later stages of Duncan Fletcher’s tenure as England’s cricket coach. (Fletcher helped England win the Ashes in 2005.) He retained his remarkable powers of observation, but one of his assistants told me that, by the end, Fletcher would “notice a mosquito but miss the elephant”. Fletcher, like Wenger, was described as stubborn. Yet the problem was much deeper: in his determination to tune out the noise, he was also covering his ears from the signal.

In her reluctance to buckle to the rage about the poll tax, Margaret Thatcher was misapplying qualities that had served her well in other contexts. Fierce resilience against opposing views had become a failing, not a strength.

On Form, Mike Brearley’s wise new book, contains several insights about blind spots. A former England cricket captain, Brearley describes how effective leaders are “in charge” of the here and now – they don’t just go with the wind. Yet they are also “capable of removing themselves”, of allowing “the world to come to us in a more impressionistic, overall way”. A leader who is “on form” masters this psychological range. Brearley quotes the film director Stephen Frears, who aspires to be “present and yet somehow absent at the same time”. When a decision maker loses form, he loses his ability to float above the problem. He becomes like a painter standing too close to his canvas.

There is a connected problem: loss aversion. What appears to be stubbornness is, in reality, a fear of change. Leaders become dependent on faithfulness to their world-view. “We almost always try to exit a room through the same door we entered,” writes the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life. “Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation.” You suspect that Wenger now accepts an unhappy trade-off: a lower probability of victory, but a situation that “vindicates” his ideas, is preferred to changing plans and increasing his probability of winning.

That raises a second issue. Given leaders’ blind spots, someone close to them must help the process of stepping back and seeing the wider picture. A trusted adviser, when doing his job right, acts as the conscience his boss can no longer hear in his own head.

While considering all this, and at Brearley’s suggestion, I took a test of selective attention on YouTube called the “Monkey Business Illusion”. I won’t spoil the game, but I will confess that in attending to the narrow question, I missed the wider picture. Perhaps I’m better at seeing blind spots in other people. 

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move