Arsenal masters art of being adequate

Olivier Giroud, right, in action for Arsenal. (Alastair Grant/AP)

In a lot of jobs, doing just enough gets talked about as some kind of negative trait.

Right now, society as a whole really has become pretty snobbish about the innovators amongst us who are good enough to admit that we’ll do what we have to do and nothing more. This is a broken system, right? We live in a world where 110 per cent effort is both impossible and expected, which makes no sense. “Pffffffffttt” is the only legitimate answer to all of this nonsense, yeah?

Well, whether you agree or not, it’s surely with this disappointing state of affairs in mind that Arsenal leads a fight-back for the minimum standard—a celebration of doing just enough—for the good of us all.

Look at Arsenal’s results and then look what it’s achieved with them. In the first half of the Premier League season the Gunners beat nine out of ten teams in the bottom half of the table, three out of the next six up, then only one of the top four—fourth placed Liverpool. And there it sits top of the table.

Arsenal has beaten (almost) everyone that it’s supposed to, done a bit less well against the teams it’s supposed to do a bit less well against, and done even less well against the teams it’s supposed to do even less well against – and yet it’s still in first place. Now that’s a pristine advert for doing what you’re supposed to and not much else. One of the most powerful cultural mechanisms in the world is led by a team that is that great romantic ideal: kinda adequate.

But what a lot of people seem unable to appreciate is how difficult acquiring even that minimum standard is. The basics often get lost in the misplaced search for the extra ten per cent on top of the hundred. Nailing the basics isn’t that basic, basically.

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To get to the top of the league, Arsenal has done the following: It’s not conceded many completely painful-to-watch, silly goals. It’s had a striker who’s scored neither an outrageous number of goals nor an embarrassingly low number of goals: Olivier Giroud has scored an entirely adequate amount of goals (nine so far). And, yes, its midfield has occasionally been a bit magical, but with the end result of it all never venturing too far into the sublime—51 points from 22 games being the numerical embodiment of that cushy reality.

These are the basic requirements of being champions, fulfilled most weeks. Alone, the value of each one seems almost negligible—where’s a striker who only scores nine goals going to get you? Is not looking stupid really the key to success? But combined, they become enough, evidently, to beat and outdo most teams. Hence Arsenal is currently top of the league.

The framework for discussing Arsenal this season has been this: “now’s the time it really has to prove itself” repeated over and over again until everyone involved withdraws into mild depression. But really, Arsenal has been proving itself all along, just by being alright, pretty good and not bad. Not a lot of people understand how much adequacy counts for, apparently. To repeat: it’s been enough to be the best all season so far, at the very least.

Woody Allen’s old line that “Eighty per cent of success is turning up” seems flippant and over-the-top at first, but think about it: Manchester City, Arsenal’s biggest rival in the title race so far, has barely managed even to turn up away from home until lately. It didn’t win in its first three road games (against Cardiff City, Stoke and Aston Villa) and those lapses, to points below the minimum expected, are why it can’t say it’s been the best team in English football so far.

At this point, Manchester City, with all of its outbreaks of excellence, hasn’t consistently managed the minimum standard.

In Arsenal’s case, doing what it’s supposed to do is actually a nice change, too. The past few seasons might have included some nasty humiliations (the “8-2 be an Arsenal fan right now” result, for instance). But quite a lot of time they were just filled with melancholy disappointments against smaller teams Arsenal was supposed to beat, which compounded to make for quiet disasters of seasons.

Inadequacy built up and caught up with it. That left Manchester United, which was in late-era-Ferguson “merely” adequate itself, to take the titles most of the time.

It usually comes back to doing just enough, with the reality of that being far more impressive than the “just” implies. Really, the only time adequate stops working is when a team such as City can spend a billion pounds and, in addition, come close to fulfilling the potential which that suggests. But as we’ve seen, that’s harder than it sounds, and doesn’t often happen, so adequacy does the trick.

We’re 22 games into the season and Arsenal is still winning the best league in the world by doing what’s expected of it most weeks. This is a win for anyone who doesn’t believe in giving 110 per cent. Just enough should be enough.

Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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