Quarter of the Season Gone: New Arsenal new formations.
Posted by Featured Articles | Published on October 31, 2016
A quarter of the premier league has gone and the race seems to be getting tighter. The top three teams all on 23 points, only separated on goal difference, and only two goals between each. The top five only separated by three points. Arsenal are second sandwiched between Manchester City and Liverpool, two goals off City and only two ahead of Liverpool. While Chelsea sit at 22 points, and Tottenham on 20. The only thing this tells us is there is no reasonable way to predict the top four, let alone who will win the league this year. The top four teams each have a story their supporters feel compelled by, something to get behind, but no matter if your team has the affable coach with exuberant passion who has finally had a full preseason, or the new boy to the league with a reputation for winning and a team built with all that money can buy, or you’re the other new guy, the one whose reputation is still being built and a team that disappointed so much last season they could only improve, or even if you’re Arsenal and you have the longest serving coach in the league, celebrating twenty years in the top four, if not winning the league in ten of those years; these teams all have their own self propelling narrative to motivate them to achieve greatness. They all have the players, the coach, and the fans. It will be the team that adapts the most, the team that shows the ability to switch tactic with agility, and frequency, will be the team that wins. All of the top five teams have the ability to do it this season.
In looking at the potential a team has for adaptation you have to look at a few key aspects of the club as a whole. With a season as long as the EPL it would be impossible to discount the impact all areas of the club have on each team’s experience, this experience leads directly to on pitch performance. The minuta is not interesting out of context, and a blog post is not deep enough for such context. What is interesting, however, are the elements of a club that have less obtuse influence. When we discuss the depth of a squad we may be speaking about the players available to play, but we must also remember how those players got there, and what makes them stay, play well and renew their contracts.
A good club, a club that can adapt must have a deep squad, it must have players that can do different things than the other players on the field, not just the same things but better or worse. This is more important than coverage, coverage is for when you lose a player to injury or fatigue. Having depth is more about having a different option to bring on in a game that isn’t going according to plan. Those three substitutions are the most impactful things a coach can do to influence the outcome of a game after the first whistle. It is imperative, then, that the team of people who help find this squad depth are well equipped and good at their jobs. While being good at one’s job is not easy to quantify, being well equipped is less hard. Being well equipped is having the most relevant data on all potential players available and analyzed before the first scout is ever sent to watch a player. Arsenal sent scouts to watch Mustafi more than ten times in the course of that deal, and Arsenal recently bought a data analytics company out of Chicago. This company purported to own the most data on all players of any company in the world, and Arsenal bought them, meaning we must also assume any nonsense about Arsenal not being well prepared for transfers is just that, not sence. What the club decide to do with this information is how we judge the quality of their scouts, but to be fair to both players and scouts, this last part is far from science, so mistakes are more oft to happen. That said the players Arsenal brought in this recent window have not just filled gaps, but have created depth, and with that depth a certain amount of maturity also developed within the team. Only three big new players this season, Xhaka, Mustafi, and Lucas, means less disruption of the existing bonds in the team. Mustafi being good friends with Mesut would have only increased that, and the culture at Arsenal is supportive and open, making transitions easier on a player and their family. We can’t forget their family. No matter how happy they are on the pitch, if when they return home each night their family is not settled, they will not be happy, even on the pitch, for long. A club that understands this will reap the reward of a faster and more secure transition, meaning an overall better player on the field sooner.
Arsenal were one of the first teams to create positions in the club dedicated to settling a player and his family, finding the right house or school. This is only the first step, the rest is integration, and here is about the existing team dynamic, the culture of the club, and the coach. If all goes well and the new players find their place in the team, then the coach can start to think about what his different players may now afford him. Certainly the easier choices are those based purely around certain players being better suited to play against certain opponents, for many reasons. Arsenal tend to forego lengthy dossiers on every player with hard and fast directives and go for an informed but, as is the case with their football, a certain amount of ‘make it up as you go’ instruction as well. This institutionalized creativity is something I love about Arsenal and is what make them so much fun to watch when they play well, but it is also something that can bail them out of a tight jam, like a lofted chipped cross from Alexis to Mesut for a headed goal, something that not only surprised the opponent but also Arsenal’s own supporters. This seeming casual way of coaching, it isn’t casual at all, but a well calculated method for influencing people.
There is a reason that Arsène Wenger has mentioned not wanting to write a book about himself, but has suggested a more universal book on motivating people. He is good at it. Look at the Arsenal of this season, more than a team that has had its positions filled. It is a team that looks like it could almost reasonably field two different starting elevens and expect to win, but it is a team that doesn’t want to be second best. Not to anything, not to a ball, not in a game. Games won by a single goal this season, or not lost when a loss seemed possible, were games the team even of last season would have given up on. When Mesut Özil was substituted in a game Arsenal held by a single goal, he didn’t moan, he didn’t bow his head as he may have. He punched his fist into his open hand yelling “Fight! Fight!” as the defensive option came on to hold the lead. This team knows what it wants out of the league and that is the most powerful motivator of all. The only real question left is can they continue to adapt? Nine games gone and if they want to continue to win more than draw, and lose even less, they must adapt again, and again. This season Arsenal appear to have more than the players to do it, the new players have fit in and show promise or outright direct improvement, and the rest of the team has seemed to find a level beyond what they had before. Even the team’s stars look like they are just warming up.
Arsenal have played a 4231 almost exclusively since the last time they won the league, when they played a 442 very effectively. Even Wenger’s most ardent supporters may not think he is wont to play that formation again, but perhaps it was his squad that was in his mind, not the formation itself. When he was asked after their 1 to 4 win at Sunderland, if having both Giroud and Alexis fit and firing was a good kind of headache to have, Wenger said it was not a headache, having them unfit or not playing well was the headache. Arsène Wenger went on to say.
“We can as well play a 442, with the two through the middle, because Mesut can play behind, or on the flank as well…” Wenger said and then shrugged.
“I’ll see.” He smiled broadly and said in his undeniably Wenger way.
“Let’s not create problems where you have none at the moment.”