Blog: Arsenal and its Shambolic Organizational Culture

Post by: Simon

No truer words have been written.  And what does a culmination of all those things come to? It’s called a culture. The Arsenal Culture, the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of everyone at Arsenal Football Club. As fans, we like to see Arsenal from primarily a footballing perspective. While football is the output of its process, there are many things internally that create a working atmosphere that can either allow success to thrive or foster failure.

Your guess is as good as mine at what type of culture we have at the club. I read a Harvard Business Review article recently on what organizational culture is and you can find a link at the end of this post. Reading the second paragraph of the article, all I could think of was Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. It seemed to me it was written with us in mind.

Culture is consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” This view elevates repeated behavior or habits as the core of culture and deemphasizes what people feel, think or believe. It also focuses our attention on the forces that shape behavior in organizations, and so highlights an important question: are all those forces (including structure, processes, and incentives) “culture” or is culture simply the behavioral outputs?

For all the failures that are associated with Arsenal, we are consistent at many things. You could even say we are consistent in failure itself. We have a consistent owner, a consistent management structure, a consistent manager that produces consistent results, a consistent failure to perform at big away grounds, a consistent top four performance bar last season, a consistent appearance in the Champions League (again, bar this season), a consistent inability to go past the second round of the competition, a consistent ability to crumble in February, a consistent failure to improve areas of our squad that obviously need improvement, a consistent consistency.

In truth, no organisation can be this consistent if that culture does not stem from the very top. Read a Forbes post on organizational culture as well and this stood out.

When Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, the Chinese B2B e-trading company, was asked by CNN about his corporate culture, he had this to say:

All the business people say, ‘Jack, what are you busy with, now?’  And I say ‘Building the vision and the values and the culture.’  And they say, ‘Jack, you are so stupid.  99% of [the] business doesn’t care about that.  What they care about is making money!’  And I don’t believe that.  I want to be the 1% of the company [who is] thinking that making money is the result – not the goal.

Little wonder the little man is so successful. Stan stands taller than Jack Ma, but only in height. An attribute more inherited than acquired. Whilst Jack seeks actively to develop a culture that breeds success, Stan oversees one that stimulates failure. The last statement in the quote above epitomizes the difference between both men, whilst Jack sees making money as a result of success, Stan sees making money as the success itself. Acceptable if he runs an investment house, but he owns sporting franchises that have millions of fans or like Stan see us (customers) whose emotional attachment is to the on the pitch result rather than account balances.

Severally, Arsenal spin doctor in chief, Ivan Gazidis has tried to tell tales of how much Silent Stan himself desires trophies whilst nothing he does shows anything to advance that statement. The current culture at Arsenal allows for mediocrity to thrive. I asked these questions at the start of the season on how Wenger looks at his squad when he walks around the training ground. If you answered them at the time, have you changed your opinion on any of the answers?

Reviewing his players by positions he should ask himself:  

– Is this the best player I have in this position?
– Is this the best player I can find for this position?
– How does this player individually compare to players of his position in clubs I am competing with?

If Wenger is serious about winning the title, the answer to most of those questions from an individual perspective is no. However, collectively is the squad as bad as where they finished last season or as bad as the result and performances against Liverpool, Stoke and Leicester suggest?

I think the gap between the quality of coaching our players receive compared to what our rivals receive is more significant than the gap between the actual abilities of our players in comparison to our rivals. Ultimately the onus lies with Arsene Wenger to find the system and cohesion needed to bring out the best in these players. Stan has his responsibilities, but it’s not Stan who signs the best left sided defender in the German League and puts him on the bench for a right-sided defender. Or sign Lacazette and play Welbeck in front of him in our toughest away game of the season yet. Those decisions ultimately lie with Wenger and Wenger alone.

Whilst, no one expects perfection and managers are at liberty to tweak their teams in a manner they think puts them in the best position to achieve success, the failure to accept, change and learn from previous failures are Arsene’s and Arsenal’s greatest undoing. A poor organizational culture coupled with an even poorer learning culture. How else do you explain the repetitive nature of how we carry out our transfer business?

Our perpetual inability to identify, negotiate and recruit players we obviously need to improve the squad has happened so often I have come to the conclusion that it is our policy to act that way. Achieving success takes conscious effort and Arsenal’s lack of clarity about how it wants to pursue on the pitch success is its greatest undoing. The handling of the Oxlade Chamberlain situation is a typical case in point. In which other football club will the departure of a forward player with less than three premier league goals a season attract so much attention.

Was the decision to sell him the correct one? Certainly. Was the amount he was sold for great? Certainly. Does he his departure significantly affect whatever the outcome of our season will be? I don’t think so. So why did we have all the circus? Whilst in the Alexis Sanchez case, the aforementioned questions would be more important, the unclarity about the decision to either keep him or sell him hampered how we eventually approached the whole transfer window.

The real question however is, do you expect Arsenal to act any different next year? As long as we have the constants of Stan, Wenger and the board, our culture will remain the same and so will be our attitude to transfers, to results and to everything around the club. The sad part for we Arsenal fans is that for any real change to occur, at least two of those constants have to change and it is very unlikely it will anytime soon.

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References: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkotter/2011/02/17/corporate-culture-whose-job-is-it/#56f7e2927a4b

https://hbr.org/2013/05/what-is-organizational-culture




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