The increasing mental gymnastics of mainstream Arsenal punditry


Wind back the clock to the 13th of August 2021 and the first game of the 2021/22 Premier League season and we can all remember the return of the “Banter FC” label.

The fanfare surrounded not only the big win for Brentford, as it rightly should have, but also involved sticking the boot right into Arsenal who were down and out. The highest spenders, the perennially weak. Boy, was it enjoyed.

Now wind it forward to the 5th August 2022. Arsenal are the first game of the season once again. Friday night under the lights vs Crystal Palace away. A banana skin if I’ve ever seen one.

The expectation was to see Arsenal crumble once again, to generate those post-match clicks and bites from their ever-present online fanbase.

Arsenal supporters are a dream for the media when the Gunners lose, as any fans are. Seeking solace or a cathartic moment is what all fans tend to do post-defeat.

Yet a different and more vibrant Arsenal turned up for the first game of the season this time around. And you could most definitely hear the disappointment in the commentators as well as the pundits in the post-match analysis.

Couple that with the discussions that took place on The Overlap. A lot of the discussion was of course very reasonable, however the annual pining and myopic view from Gary Neville on his beloved Manchester United seemed to somehow propel United into top-4 contention, whilst suggesting that it was a step too far for Arsenal.

Now I’m not for one second saying that Arsenal are a sure thing for the Champions League spots, but Arsenal have had a plan in place for some time, a manager in place for some time, and they’re steadily building.

In the opposite corner, United have their star player wanting out, a new manager at the helm, and they’re well and truly in a transition phase. While they are a huge threat no matter the circumstances, it’s clear there is quite a lot more to do there than at Arsenal.

Gary Neville somehow felt otherwise, and someone who was super objective until the last couple of seasons, has well and truly become a fan on TV.

I have nothing against that, but the wider media tend to follow his lead.

After the West Ham vs Man City game, where the eulogy of Man United was fully underway, lead presenter Dave Jones stated that “it could all be very different next week”. There was clear sympathy for one of the biggest football clubs on earth.

Sympathy for a team who has the fourth-most expensive squad in the Premier League (behind Man City, Liverpool, and Chelsea) struggling to overcome Brighton at home. That’s no discredit to Brighton, by the way, who are an excellently coached team who play brilliant football as their consistent xG levels have shown over recent seasons.

My point is that there are different ways of handling losses for big clubs within the media, and the mental gymnastics that is prevalent for some clubs isn’t for others.

It’s worth remembering that there are some clubs thought of as distinctly of “English” heritage, and I do wonder whether the picture painted of Arsenal as a “foreign” club due to the legacy of Arsene Wenger is somewhat unfairly hung over them, having been the first English club to field an entirely non-English XI in 2005.

Maybe, just maybe we might see a different approach from the media as the season progresses, but to obtain top-level football insight and knowledge, you often have to seek it out. It won’t be as visible as it should be via the mainstream avenues, and that is a real shame.

There are a multitude of excellent pundits and commentators that exist within the game, who have been somewhat marginalized in favor of the sensationalist approach. This has to evolve with the times.

Fans are becoming more tactically savvy, there is more data and information available than there ever has been before, and it won’t take too long before alternative outlets become more mainstream.

Look at the Fan TV approach. It’s given space for a lot of hyperbole, but also the space for more reasoned analysis. I think of shows such as The Kick Off as a good example of this. Of course, there are moments of passion over objectivity, yet there is a lot of room for both within the show.

That’s just one example of where content has been created in a measured way without losing the spontaneous debate and expected flashpoints.

Is this the future? Maybe the likes of Sky and BT Sport will make it so…

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