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Arsenal And The Flow
Collective-esteem, collective-confidence, collective-respect
Occasionally when we’re drifting through the forest, the dog and I come across the tracks of some fellow forest wanderer, boot prints trailing away through the snow, and often I’m reassured how the path they’ve taken would be the path I’d take, the way they’ve steered through the trees or tracked across one ridge to another is the way I would, and I feel a camaraderie with this unseen wanderer as an ancient brethren of humanness trails from the past to rest unseen inside me.
On this occasion we follow the tracks for a good while till we come across a kind of thrashing snow angel where, on a shallow slope, someone has slipped and fallen on a sheet of ice hidden below a duvet of new snow. I can feel the twist of the body and the backward arch and I see the hand as it streaks through the snow to catch the fall. Somewhere, someone can’t ignite something, because half submerged in the glistening blueish white crystals is a fluorescent lighter and as I reach for the little plastic butane bomb I feel a pang for this ghostly tramper. The lighter works, nearly new. Nice.
I begin to think about the mind deep inside the mind when I experience this solidarity with an unknown other. I think of the flow that makes us act, not thoughtlessly, but outside of thought. And it was this thought of flow and flow of thought that occupied me as we returned, so I wrote this. Enjoy.
I've got a friend who's a professional piano player. He an iceberg, his underwater discipline, preparation and training keep the fleeting above water performances so perfect and beautiful. There’s an artisanship to the craft of being a musician. Underneath the extraordinary beauty of a fine piece of music there is a foundation built of perseverance and muscle memory only a skilled worker achieves by immersing themselves in an ocean of time.
We in the audience, the supposedly less gifted, focus on the tip of the iceberg, the performance, as if genius artistry just casually floats out of the ether. We seem to favour ideas like “genius” and “artistry” and imagine they are bestowed on a lucky few, who then kindly reveal their gifts with natural ease. Maybe there’s a kernel of truth that some people seem pre-packed with a daring that allows them to revel in naked creativity. But I’m of the mind that we all have this ability. It’s only the constant snowfalls of harsh experience that diminish our self-belief and embolden our harsh internal critic. Oh, and overwork and exhaustion of course.
Anyway, back to my friend. After a ton of going through the motions, running his fingers along the scales and perfecting the exact physical movements required for the song to sing, he'll play in front of a crowd, and, he says, when he knows a piece well enough, occasionally he can experience a feeling of separation, a kind of dislocation from himself where he drifts off into the audience. After all those hours of coaching his hands to master complex psychomotor skills, they’ll unconsciously dance along the piano keys and his mind will soar along in a meditative trance. And it’s exactly in this state that the most beautiful things happen, where intuitive inspiration transforms the possible to the real.
A lot of creative people experience this phenomena: the best stuff happens when a non-thinking flow of actions correspond perfectly with creative improvisations in a state of confident control. Or, to put it another way, while your strings are pulled by a benign universe you’ll detach and peacefully bear witness to your own astounding performance.
You can see this phenomena of Flow in football too. London Colney is a scholastic temple guiding a succession of footballing monks. The thousands of hours spent on the training pitch coaching the body to act independently of conscious prompting. The never-ending repetition of drills that enable an intense focus, so that, like a meditative hermit, even the chanting of 60,000 can be momentarily dissolved from the attention. The frequent bibbed-up games that engender an effortless and automatic familiarity with the never ending fractal of shapes and possibilities that open up on the pitch.
And off the pitch, the hundreds of hours sitting in the meeting room and in one to one sessions nurturing the mind to feel confident and positive, establishing a clarity whilst bathing in an endless loop of learnings and feedback.
All so that, back on the pitch in the games that matter (all games matter) moments of unconscious flow emerge and are fantastic and I think this is why Arsenal is transcending into such a beautiful team to watch. When a team really flows its playing is greater than the sum of its players. Players flowing and morphing into a team that, sometimes like a tide and sometimes like a multitude of separate eddies can become an unstoppable river flooding through the opposition.
Look at the eddies flowing and tumbling between Ødegaard and Saka who appear roped together in an elastic mind meld, reading each others darting runs and space-creating hesitations, their apparent simplicity belying a deep complexity, their movement like a pinball machine on full tilt, defenders on slo-mo as these two bounce through them pinging and angling the ball toward the inevitable.
Look at the massive passes flung across the pitch, the ball like a preprogrammed satellite launched into the orbit of a runner, say Martinelli, who’s velocity has already escaped some defenders gravity as he streams toward his destination.
Look at the resurrection of Granit, who has escaped the perpetual agony of firefighting for a (previous) team of micro-arsonists and has instead partnered-up with (a hopefully soon returning) Jesus and Zinchenko and Martinelli and Tierney, finding and protecting spaces and allowing his magical left foot to thrive. Xhaka’s reliability now rings like those fictional house keys jingling in his pocket!
Think about (a hopefully soon returning) Super Monk Emile Smith Rowe, a truly instinctual player who Rob Holding perfectly encapsulated when he said “The way he moves with the ball, he’s just so nice to watch, it’s so easy on the eye, he just flows, he just flows so nicely.” ESL is a shy character, but on the pitch he’s robust and extroverted as he surfed that wave of potential pouring out of Hale End. Why the stream of success? Because the heady abandon of youth is preserved in a team that Flows, so the transition to first team player can still feel like playing in the street.
For us as fans, that natural connection between players, that seemingly organic movement and interplay that’s so satisfying and palpable as it unfolds, that is Flow in action and it emanates from Arteta. Arsenal’s current style springs from deep in his mind. Everybody is an active agent but Arteta is the source of the force. His values and principles create the environment from which the River Arsenal can flood across the league like a footballing Amazon.
The Flow that my friend achieves is an individual experience, but the Flow that Arteta nurtures is collective-esteem, collective-confidence and collective-respect. This is no small feat. He’s managing the ebb and flow of games, the intensity of press or the height of the line according to context and phases of play. He’s mixing tactics on the fly and countering the counters as he goes. But he’s also manifesting a pleasurable state of focus and a total absorption in the act of playing football that can occur anytime and anywhere. Arteta understands football intelligence, but he’s also an alchemist of football emotion, or football spirit, or just the way human beings flow through life.
When the dog and I find a trail in the forest and the choices made by an unknown other reveal an overlapping humanness, I experience satisfying ripples of rapport and belonging. Life elevates from I Am to We Are and there’s power in that bond like no other. It’s the landscape in which Love flourishes. Arteta’s Arsenal is bonding in the realm of We Are and generating a Flow between people that is beautiful to witness.
Yeah, our individual talents can destroy opponents, like Xhaka looping a pass to Gabriel, or Zinny and Ødegaard pinging balls for Saka and Eddie to take sniper’s shots, like Saliba and Gabriel M scanning, adjusting, waiting, pouncing and protecting and Ramsdale diverting a shot like a preying mantis. But we’ve also got a team that can float above itself and create footballing art like a musicians hands rolling across a keyboard and Arteta whirling away on the sidelines dictating the tempo like the buddhist conductor!
So there you go. I put the lighter in my pocket and I’ll carry it for a while. Who knows, maybe someone will get lucky and it’ll be returned by a fellow forest spirit. A warm welcome to all those new subscribers who joined this week. I’m so grateful to have you here.
Next week I’m going to write about the harsh treatment Saka endures, why it happens and what can be done.