Monday, 8 December 2014

Memories Are Made of This

A lot of the frustration of last season among Arsenal fans stemmed from an excellent first half: we were top after 19 games but slumped back to our habitual fourth place by season-end. Despite the not-inconsiderable consolation of an FA Cup, there was a sense of an opportunity missed. Consequently, there was optimism that this season we would push on, reinforced by the acquisition of new players in the summer. We currently sit sixth and the all-too-predictable defeat at Stoke has prompted the sort of vitriol aimed at Arsene Wenger that is normally reserved for Alan Pardew. Next Saturday we host the Toon, fresh from their defeat of Chelsea and level on points with us. Personally, I think the season is looking quite promising, and will continue to do so whatever the result against the barcodes.

Leaving aside paranoid theories about our susceptibility to injuries, the charge-sheet against Wenger is that he didn't reinforce the defence and midfield sufficiently; that his faith in the team's ability to respond to tactical challenges on the field is misplaced; and that we lack experience in the squad. The first charge is justified, but it is perverse to imagine that this was a deliberate ploy by Wenger, determined to prove you can win the league without defenders or a defensive midfielder. The truth, as he repeatedly states, is that there were few players of the required quality available and none ready to do a deal.

Just as his critics imagine that there is a never-ending supply of top-class managers who could replace him (and do so in January), so the assumption is that a club with Arsenal's resources must be able to buy whatever it wants. This is to confuse the market in players with Tesco. The reason why top players cost so much is because they are as rare as old masters. The better metaphor is Sotheby's. To put this into perspective, Chelsea only have three top-quality centre-backs: Cahill, Terry and Ivanovic. After these, you're looking at the 20-year old Kurt Zouma and a couple of teenagers. Our relative shallowness can be over-stated.

The second charge, of tactical naivety, has grown from a criticism of Wenger ("no plan B") to encompass the entire team. There is no secret that Wenger prizes adaptability and initiative on the pitch, rather than relying on a standard formation and predictable moves dictated from the technical area. This isn't because he missed the tactics module when he did his coaching badges, nor is it an aesthetically-driven desire for beautiful football, but a pragmatic decision to maximise the squad's strengths. If a galactico strategy is beyond your means, and if playing like Stoke means you finish where Stoke normally do, then a possession-based game with a fluid attacking line is likely to optimise your points tally over a season where most of your opponents will sit back for 90 minutes. This obviously makes you vulnerable to counter-attacks, and can result in the odd spanking when the team has an off day, but it makes sense over the long-term as Wenger's final standings prove.

If Arsenal are suffering tactically at present, this is more because the midfield, with the exception of Cazorla, has lacked its usual vim, which in turn is as much to do with the gradual integration of Sanchez as the wayward passing of Ramsey or the stop-start season of Wilshere. In fact, Sanchez's destabilising influence, whose positive results have been goals aplenty, indicates that Arsenal are not the amorphous tag-cloud of talent that popular opinion suggests. Watching in the flesh, I've noted not only the expected misunderstandings (which partly explains the waywardness of Ramsey, who is often looking to release Sanchez on the turn), but frequent occasions when the Chilean almost collides with Oxlade-Chamberlain or Welbeck when running off the ball. This will improve with familiarity, plus the return of Walcott should stretch opposing defences and open more channels.

The third charge has some basis in fact, in the sense that we are fielding some novice players, but the appearance of the likes of Martinez and Bellerin is due to circumstance rather than policy, with both starting the season as third choice in their positions. Much of the "experience" gripe is just misplaced nostalgia for the days of Adams, Vieira and other "leaders on the pitch". The very best sides in Europe do not have a single figure of authority because the game is no longer played in a way that can accommodate them. Pressing, high defensive lines and the speed of counter-attacks means that all "departments" of the team have to be able to make decisions independently. Arsenal's experience problem this season is the product of the gradual integration of new players (Chambers, Welbeck, Sanchez), post-World Cup demotivation (Mertesacker, Ozil), patchy form (Ramsey, Wilshere, Szczesny), and a bad run of injuries (too many to list).

My expectation is that all of these will ease, even the level of injuries (a lot are fatigue-related, such as Ozil and Giroud). While last season saw a good autumn, a poor winter and a spring redeemed at Wembley, this season could see real improvement after Christmas. We're through to the second round of the Champions League, and while we could face Bayern or Real Madrid, we could also face PSG or Porto, and I'd fancy our chances there. Whether we buy a centre-back and a defensive midfielder during the coming transfer window is moot. There are unlikely to be many players (if any) of the required calibre available before the summer, and Wenger isn't going to make a political signing just to appease the fans. This could well depend on which teams finish third in the Champions League groups.

What fans want is for Arsenal to employ the best, most experienced players in the world, and for Wenger to be able to dictate the outcome of games from the bench. This is obviously barking mad. Some managers, notably Mourinho, like to give the impression that they can control matches through thorough preparation, clever gameplans and astute substitutions, but the truth (and the beauty of the game) is that their impact is marginal. Results are largely the product of the combined effects of wealth (i.e. squad quality), a team's success in negating their opponents' strengths, the fluctuating form of players, and luck (personified as refereeing decisions). Most of these are outside the direct control of the manager.

The difference between Wenger and Mourinho is that while the Chelsea manager is a "negator" (i.e. Sam Allardyce with a better squad), Wenger has always been a "creator", in the sense of coaching his players to improve what they are good at rather than worrying about the opposition. This is why he commands the personal loyalty of so many of his ex-players, but also why players formed in an earlier, dictatorial era, like Stewart Robson, are less enamoured ("sort it out!"). What Wenger's approach requires is patience. However, that is in increasingly short supply, not just because of the growing intolerance of fans, egged on by the media, but because of the creeping ennui associated with the longevity of his reign.

This is the real message behind the now famous "Thanks for the memories" banner. Contrary to the myth that the Emirates is packed with middle-aged fans (still smarting from the memory of Lee Chapman) or opera-goers who defected from Sadler's Wells, the vocal dissafection mostly comes from younger fans who have been oppressed by the second-hand memory of the Invincibles. Every new book that comes out, and the accompanying media puff-pieces, simply rubs in the feeling that they are in danger of missing out on "their" memories. Rationally, fans know that Arsenal are punching at their weight, but irrationally they want to believe that the club can leapfrog Chelsea and Man City (and Bayern and Real Madrid) through sheer force of will. This is why a "passionate" manager like Jurgen Klopp is attracting admiring glances.

I doubt Wenger intends to stay beyond the end of his current contract in 2017, but I also doubt he'll be forced out before then, not least because I expect the team to improve over the course of this season. My punt is third place in the league, just edging out Manure, and (with a bit of luck in the draw) last eight in Europe. We might even get back to Wembley in the FA Cup. It still won't satisfy the angry crew, but then short of signing Vincent Kompany and Nemanja Matic in January, I'm not sure anything would.


  1. Herbie Kills Children8 December 2014 at 16:13

    I would be interested to see what Arsenal are like after Wenger leaves. Barcelona have managed to eradicate the fetish over the manager by having a club culture, which includes a style of play (I think this is probably more common on the continent).

    I get the impression that Mourinho is the antithesis of this, that he destroys any 'culture' and it all becomes about his particular 'genius', which doesn't stay long after he as left.

    If Wenger doesn't manage to leave any legacy but instead leaves an impression that Arsenal need to move on after the trophyless years then I think you have to say Wenger has been a failure. A manager like Wenger, if you believe the hype, should be all about creating a legacy, a standard that the club cannot drop.

    1. I think Wenger has built more of a legacy than any Arsenal manager since Herbert Chapman. I really can't see the style of play, which has been embedded from the youth teams upwards over the last 15 years, reverting to the negativity of late-period Graham.

      Though Arsenal have always been progressive in their attitude towards the off-pitch environment, I think Wenger's input to the new training centre, conditioning and diet are rightly seen as innovations (at least in the UK) that have been influential well beyond North London.

      It is interesting that you effectively equate "trophyless" with "failure", which I think has become a common view over the EPL era. Wenger may be pushing his luck claiming that finishing 4th is "like a trophy", but I suspect a lot of fans will find it a shock to the system once he leaves and the new broom struggles to match his consistency.

    2. I think all the talk about 'club cultures' and styles of play is overstated. Barcelona's success is more due to the fact that they are incredibly wealthy and can afford to hold on to their stars while acquiring new talent.

      The problem with 'cultures' is that to be really successful they are dependent on a certain body of players, and when that group ages or breaks up there are real problems renewing it. Spain's performance in the World Cup was some evidence of this. Arsenal's problem is that 'culture' can only get them so far and, without the vast riches to fill the gaps, they will fall short of the real plutocrats. As far as I can see, the only alternative is that the 'challenging' teams fit their styles round the players they've got and can afford to acquire. This is basically how Atletico Madrid have achieved their recent success. The issue is that for a club like Arsenal this type of strategy, which often involves taking a punt on an unsung manager, can risk the kind of 'failure' that 5th place now represents.

    3. I think you're right that club cultures are over-stated (Manure's "swashbuckling" style is just bullying less well-resourced teams), however I think Wenger is unusual in having managed to change the playing style of Arsenal, from essentially defence-oriented to attack-oriented. Doing this is not unknown among lower level clubs, but it is rare at the top level, both because of the limited terms of most managers and because large clubs have greater institutional inertia.

      I agree that when Wenger does go, and his successor is under pressure to "be different", this may jeopardise the club's ability to finish in the top 4, but I think this will be offset by the greater resources and thus squad depth. I think this also explains why Wenger intends to stick around til 2017, to prove that getting the club back into contention for the title is ultimately down to money.

    4. I'd agree about Wenger having changed Arsenal's style of play, but I'd argue that this was a slower process with something of a 'transitional' stage. The defensive base stayed very similar in Wenger's early years and the impact of Anelka, Wiltord and mainly Henry up front, and Viera box-to-box in midfield, enabled them to play what I would regard as a fast counter-attacking game in the 1997-early 2000s period. This was also backed up, I'd argue (you're likely to differ!) with something of a spoiling game, with time-wasting injury-faking and the infamous unwitnessed sendings-off. Ferguson and Wenger did have some similarities!
      I think that it is in the last 10 years that the possession style has really emerged, almost developing into a bit of a caricature at times with attempts to seemingly try and pass the ball into the net.
      The 1998 title was the interesting one for me, in that it came quite soon in Wenger's reign and clearly involved an adaptation of Arsenal's 'old guard' with the imported quality of the likes of Bergkamp, Viera, Overmars and Anelka, and quite a few fillers in like Wreh, Grimandi and Platt. Maybe it represents an era before the advanced plutocracy of today when such a squad could win the championship.

  2. Any thoughts on Wenger/Arsenal being prone to injury for some (as yet) undefined reason? I'm not sure the old explanation that they get kicked more still applies.

  3. I think it's generally accepted that Arsenal's persistently high rate of injuries is due to a combination of factors, rather than just bad luck or something in the tea.

    One factor is that Arsenal tend to overplay key players, rather than rotating (Koscielny is a current case in point). This is due to limited investment in 2nd choice players over the last 10 years, which has meant a greater burden on the first 11, most of whom are also internationals (and we do get a lot injured on international duty).

    In theory, this problem should ease now that the spending tap has been turned on, but building a squad in which two high-quality internationals vie for every position will take a while. If you want an alternative player you can confidently rotate, then you can't just buy another Squillaci. To my mind it is obvious that Wenger took back Flamini not because he wants to save a few bob, but because he's waiting on someone else.

    A second factor is that our style, emphasising possession and quick movement to feet around the penalty area, results in more impact tackles (see Wilshere's latest injury). Some claim that Wenger neglects strength work to focus on technique, which assumes a zero-sum relationship to robustness, but I don't buy this. An urgent passing game, unlike the more cautious version employed by Swansea, will stimulate more tackles (this is evident from the stats) and that in turn will result in more injuries.

    The third factor is the quality of the medical and physio staff at Arsenal, with claims that it all went downhill after Gary Lewin left and that Wenger is wedded to methods that were revolutionary in the 90s but are old hat now. The appointment of Shad Forsythe gives some credence to the former claim but simultaneously contradicts the latter.

    In sum, I think our problem has been over-playing due to a lack of squad depth, but I think that era is drawing to a close. We'll stay top of the league in terms of tackles against and injuries, but this should have less of an impact in future. Hopefully.

  4. Herbie Kills Children9 December 2014 at 17:22

    Maybe the club culture is overrated or eventually dies out. Liverpool had it, in that they would promote from within and not get some 'star name' and the coaching staff were a permanent fixture behind the scenes schooled in the clubs philosophy. Barcelona, Ajax are other examples of this.

    I am not saying this is a better approach to a Mourinho, what I am saying is that this is how I would judge the success of failure of Wenger, because this is his argument, I may not have trophies but I have created something. if all that goes up in smoke within a couple of years then i think Wenger can be judged a failure. So I am specifically avoiding saying Wenger is a failure over lack of trophies. Though that must be a criteria for a big club, surely?