Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Cracks in the Arsenal Brand

Arsenal's early season struggles have brought out the well worn and often angry portrayals of manager Arsène Wenger's tactical cluelessness, his transfer ineptitude, his awkward man-management, and his geriatric stubbornness.

The suspect evidence supporting these characterizations and the logical fallacy of the Arsenal=Arsène equation only seem to intensify the appeal of these arguments. It's gotten to the point that unthinking perceptions are reshaping the Arsenal brand; as a result, the club is facing a deeper issue than the manager's performance or the team's lackluster form.

What makes a football brand


In a largely problematic account of Arsenal's 2013-14 season ("Arsène and Arsenal: The Quest to Rediscover Past Glories"), Alex Fynn presents a strong foundation in brand theory. Brands aren't just logos or taglines, explains Fynn, but are collections and expressions of the rational and emotional attributes associated with an organization.

These attributes give brands distinctive personalities, such as Volvo's "Crisp and Safe" and Apple's "Cool and Innovative," which shape the main characters in those organizations' stories. The dramatic or comedic pull of these stories, along with the personalities and values they express, attract like-minded individuals.

Even more than other sports, football engenders strong brands, Fynn points out, because the dramatic impact is so great. One late moment of brilliance or bad fortune can overturn a result that seemed a foregone conclusion for 89 minutes. That's unmatched dramatic potential.

The geographic, historical, and cultural identifications of football clubs also make them sturdy vessels for brands, and clubs and their supporters can easily identify themselves in opposition to the "other" created by rivalries.

Elements of the Arsenal brand


Although Arsenal's brand benefits from clear differentiation with Tottenham, Chelsea, and Manchester United, the club has reaped its biggest reputational reward by honing its own personality. I would define this as "Refined, Successful, and Sensible." (See "The Brand's the Thing" and "Whiffing on Risk" for additional thoughts.)

At the foundation of these personality traits lie the club's historical values:
  • A distinctive balance between English football tradition and innovation
  • Adherence to standards of conduct that denote "class"
  • Consistent success at the highest level of the sport

Arsenal promises those who have identified with it that it will live out these values and behave in accordance with its underlying personality. Breaking that promise could make supporters and sponsors question their loyalty, with major cultural and financial consequences.

Fissures


Just three months ago, Arsenal appeared to be reaffirming its core personality and values, with world-class acquisitions joining the club soon after an FA Cup triumph. The speed and irrationality of the shift in perceptions should trouble CEO Ivan Gazidis and other club executives, because they suggest that a different, much less positive, brand story is replacing the advantageous one.

Here's how it's happening: First, the promise of potential success appears to be an empty one. It's extremely unlikely that the club will win the Premier League or the Champions League this season. That's the standard of success the club has established for itself, and it will once again fall short.

Instead, as Andrew Mangan pointed out on the November 7 Arsecast, we are witnessing a routine of top-four league finishes and exits after the round of 16 of the Champions League.

This pattern of performance lessens the excitement because it's so predictable. Add that to the team's inability to win matches against the top domestic competition, and you'll struggle to find compelling drama.

Second, the club's image as an innovator is getting weaker. With the same manager for 18 years, no matter how sincerely he might profess new ideas or his focus on the future, Arsenal is always going to appear hidebound. (One reason I think so many supporters were excited about the appointment of Shad Forsythe as head of athletic performance enhancement is that it hinted at the club's innovative best.)

The third brand problem is that the personality trait "Sensible" is being undermined by a perception that identical weaknesses cause the same results year in, year out. Facts and reasonable analysis to the contrary, "defensive frailty" is Arsenal's downfall. It doesn't matter that the major problem in 2013-14 might well have been a lack of speed and in 2012-13 a lack of creativity. The story is already written.

The persistence and immediacy of this narrative are strong evidence that Arsenal's brand has shifted.

Impact


If this analysis is right, a succession of good results won't move the brand back onto favorable ground. Only a major achievement, a Premier League title or a Champions League trophy, will be sufficient for that.

Major sponsors seem comfortable with this scenario. The lucrative deals with Emirates Airlines for shirt and stadium sponsorship and Puma for playing gear indicate that those companies continue to see considerable advantage in aligning with Arsenal. How secondary and regional sponsors weigh the Arsenal brand will be crucial to higher commercial revenue.

Meanwhile, supporters have communicated mixed messages about their loyalty to the brand. The increase in season ticket prices, coming as it did as the brand was shifting, sparked vocal criticism. What appeared an attempt to capitalize on the FA Cup success and hope for the future has instead made longtime match goers question their commitment to an organization whose brand promises are shaky.

Despite the reaction, the waiting list for Arsenal season tickets remains long. What proportion of season ticket holders in years to come will be new? How many ticket holders will leave their seats empty? And how will those developments affect the stadium atmosphere, which is part of what any sports organization sells to sponsors, broadcasters, and fans?

These are potentially much more troubling questions for the club than are any about the manager's transfer, team setup, or personnel decisions. They aren't as dramatic or obvious, but structural questions rarely are.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Assessing Arsenal Ten Matches In

Each Premier League campaign has its own dynamics. We can search for patterns, correlations, and precedents, but ultimately every series of 38 matches that begins in August and ends in May takes its own independent shape. That makes the 10-match milepost an arbitrary measuring point.

Even so, it is a point, a round number a little more than a quarter of the way through the season. Arsenal has played more than half the teams in the league, so it's illustrative if not definitive to look at developments thus far.

The message from the overall numbers


A fair expectation at the start of any sporting campaign is for a team to make progress on its previous season. That was a reasonable objective for Arsenal as it set out on its 2014-15 Premier League effort, particularly because the FA Cup triumph, world-class summer signings, and a full season's acclimatization for star playmaker Mesut Özil seemed to have the club on a positive trajectory. (See my preseason assessment, "The Arsenal: Forward, Upward, or on Some Generally Positive Trajectory.")

In a broad-brush analysis, the first 10 matches don't show movement upward. The 2013-14 squad produced 25 points in its first 10 matches, while the 2014-15 version has tallied just 17.

The opposition has been tougher this season, with the competition having averaged 12.7 points from the first 10 matches, compared with 10.9 points in 2013-14. The median figures, which discount the outliers, tell a slightly different story, 11 points vs. 10.5, indicating that the schedule has been only a bit more difficult.

The results from comparable fixtures between the two campaigns aren't as promising, either. Only the draw at Everton marked an improvement on last season's performances, while home draws against Tottenham and Hull City and the away draw against newly promoted Leicester City leave Arsenal five points off its returns from parallel matches in 2013-14.

As a result, over the remaining 28 matches, Arsenal will have to match its wins of 2013-14 and pick up points from draws or losses--such as West Bromwich Albion away, Stoke away, and Aston Villa at home--to reach at least 79 points again.

The positives from relative numbers


Because each season is distinctive, though, Arsenal may not have to amass 79 points to achieve a higher final position in the league table. It all depends on the competition.

At this point, the top of the league is not as congested as it was in 2013-14. Chelsea leads the way with 26 points, and four other clubs have 17 points or more. In 2013-14, Arsenal's 25 points topped the table after 10 matches, while seven others had at least 17 points. That more tightly packed group of early leaders produced the most accomplished top four in points terms in Premier League history.

Let's look at 2010-11, the last season to follow a World Cup, for a different example. That year, Manchester United won the league with 80 points; Arsenal finished fourth with just 68 points, two fewer than both Chelsea and Manchester City. Tottenham were fifth at 62.

The start of that season bears some similarity to the first 10 matches of the current campaign. At the same point, just four teams stood at 17 points or higher, Arsenal among them with 20, putting them in second place. (All standings from tables on premierleague.com.)

Telling statistics


In that competitive setting, one set of in-game statistical measures stands out.

According to whoscored.com, Arsenal has taken the second highest number of shots per game (17.3) through the first ten matches and the third highest shots on goal per game (5.6). However, it's only sixth in goals scored, with 18.

That is, Arsenal has scored on just 10 percent of its shots. Meanwhile, its opponents have produced 11 goals from 74 shots, or 15 percent.

This discrepancy points toward the most prominent statistical difference in Arsenal's offense between 2013-14 overall and this season so far, the number of shots it has taken outside the penalty area. That average figure increased from 5.0 last season to 8.4 in the first ten matches of 2014-15, the highest in the league by 13 percent. None of those shots has gone in.

Indeed, manager Arsène Wenger's own assessment, shared on Arsenal Player before Arsenal faced Burnley in the 10th match of the season, emphasized the point. "On the efficiency front, we can do better," he said, "because if you look at the chances we have created and we have given away, I think we have created many chances, and our finishing was not at the expected level. And we gave very few chances away, but the chances we have given away are of quality, and that's what you want to do better."

If the manager can convey his seriousness about better efficiency to the players, we may see fewer of the ineffective shots from distance going forward.

The qualitative story


Statistics can help us understand performance trends, but fans' interest has more to do with qualitative judgments. In essence, we're assessing if the club is producing entertainment value: Is the team performing attractively as a whole, and are players delivering individually?

The answer to the first question has to be "not yet." With a few exceptions, such as the first 20 minutes against Manchester City and the last 20 against Burnley, the team's performances have left something to be desired.

I'm not inclined to identify a cause or causes because that would produce simplistic and misleading analysis.

What can be said is that injuries to several important players, defenders Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny, captain Mikel Arteta, center forward Oliver Giroud, as well as Özil, haven't helped. Tactical shifting may have played a role, too, although I hesitate to conclude that an established approach would have improved the attractiveness or the results.

As for the second question, Alexis has been the standout performer, netting seven goals in his first 10 league matches. Other high-profile summer acquisitions, striker Danny Welbeck and defender Calum Chambers, have also had more solid performances than poor ones. The quality of the new boys overall has therefore been a plus.

Most returning players haven't quite met the standards they set last season, but more telling is the sense that the whole is less than the sum of the parts at the moment.

All the components might add up eventually; that would boost the enjoyment and entertainment we supporters receive. It would also solidify a place closer to the top of the table, even if the raw numbers fall short of last season's. That's something to hold onto amidst legitimate current concerns.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Arsenal's Past Has Passed

The milestones of recent weeks -- manager Arsène Wenger's 65th birthday and the 10-year anniversary of the 49-game unbeaten run, in particular -- have prompted wistful looks back at the early years of the Wenger era. That's when Arsenal led the way in the English game with an energetic, eye-catching style of play and a cast of talented, compelling characters.

The journalist Amy Lawrence has chronicled the 2003-2004 team in "Invincible: Inside Arsenal's Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season," by all accounts a story well-told. Lawrence has also appeared on several Arsenal podcasts, such as the 24 October Arsecast and The Tuesday Club Invincibles Special, to share her experiences as a fan and researcher.

Discussing her book, Lawrence has noted that the unbeaten season had to happen that year, because that season Roman Abramovich injected £100 million into Chelsea and fundamentally changed the contest.
Indeed, the point in time was crucial. Circumstances have never been and will never be the same.

We should therefore take a skeptical view of efforts at nostalgia of the unbeaten season and of the past generally. Partly because, as Tim Stillman recently put it in his Arseblog column "Seasons in the Sun," "the glorious bygone age never existed," but also because glorification of the past undermines the entertainment offered us in the present.

The attractions


Supporters will articulate their motivations in different ways, but at root aren't we all in it for the entertainment? Some mixture of the matchday experience, the feeling of common cause, the artistry of athletic feats, the drama of competition, the unpredictability of the outcome, and the reliving of youth makes professional sport entertaining for each of us. Otherwise, we'd pass our time differently.

There's certainly a contingent in it for the moaning or low-stakes gallows humor, both of which I suppose are forms of entertainment. For me, though, the point is enjoyment.

I enjoy the Arsenal on many levels:
  1. The values I share with the club, such as transparency, respect for others no matter their backgrounds, and the aesthetics of a well-run business (admittedly, these values also rely on a selective interpretation of the club's past)
  2. The performances on the pitch during the season at hand
  3. An approach to management and a style of play that put a priority on intelligence
  4. The humorous, thoughtful communication with fellow supporters
  5. The matchday experience with other supporters
  6. The attractive characters in management and in the playing squad
  7. The rich material for analysis provided by numbers 1-6 above

Almost none of the enjoyment comes from revisiting the specifics of past Arsenal performances. That's not to say I don't remember where I was or with whom or how that experience made me feel; I do. It's just that the source of my enjoyment, entertainment, and identity as an Arsenal supporter doesn't lie there.

Peoples separated by an ocean and a common language


This all might seem cold, clinical. If so, my outlook has been professionally ingrained, first as a sports journalist and then as a history doctoral student. Both professions encourage a distance from events and apply critical techniques to understand them. Neither sees its purpose as the assembly or facts, dates, or trivia, which serve for many as the stuff of history and sports fandom.

My perspective also might come across as a particularly American. Our culture doesn't tend to mine the past to identify us collectively in the present, at least not in the early 21st century. Citizens of other, older nations engage in a more active, albeit one-way, conversation with the past. David Winner's "Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football" examines how this exchange has played out in England and argues that football nostalgia and negativity are responses to the question of English identity after the end of the Empire.

I'm not placing a value judgment on this tendency. The interaction of identity and memory is complicated, and denigrating or elevating how others handle that complexity seems presumptuous. Where I do draw the line is when that process leads to exclusionary thinking, in our case seeing only "true" Arsenal fans as legitimate because they display an approved perspective on the club's past or can articulate their own experiences according to a specific script.

This framework contributes to the circular firing squad of Arsenal supporters, a distinctly destructive and unentertaining phenomenon.

This doesn't mean we should seek unanimity of perspective and opinion. The diversity of views is part of what makes following the Arsenal so attractive. What I am suggesting is that we don't venerate figures from the past or fixate on experiences, results, and emotions of seasons gone by.

The glory of now


By keeping history in its appropriate context, we should be able to appreciate the present even more. The parochial days of muddy pitches trod by Englishmen aren't coming back, and only the most reactionary among us aren't glad about that. No amount of moaning about financial obscenity, complaining about foreign influences, and marginalizing non-English supporters will stop the increasing globalization of the game.

If entertainment is the objective, we should embrace these developments. After all, money from a worldwide audience attracts the highest quality talent to the Premier League, and the ease of travel and commerce allows top players from across the world to join English sides. A league without Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero just wouldn't be as enjoyable.

That's where nostalgia ultimately leads, to a fantasy blinding us to a profoundly entertaining present.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Arsenal after Arsène

This month Arsène Wenger marked 18 years as manager of Arsenal Football Club, an extraordinary tenure in professional sports. He's been in charge for 1,023 Premier League matches, while the next longest-serving manager, the embattled Newcastle United boss Alan Pardew, has served only 171. In the relatively near future, though, Wenger will depart.

This eventuality seems to be dawning on club officials. "The biggest challenge we're going to face as a club is that, when the transition from Arsène to our next manager happens--and I don't know when that's going to be--that we come through that strongly," CEO Ivan Gazidis said in a recent interview on the Arsenal website.

Is succession actually the "biggest challenge"? Bigger than competing with the financial might of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United? Perhaps not. Those issues are structural, will exist regardless of who manages Arsenal in 2017 and beyond, and indeed raise the stakes of the appointment.

For that reason, a thoughtful, thorough plan is essential to guide the club through this important period. This article explores the Board's public pronouncements on the issue and outlines what we should look for as evidence of an effective succession plan.

The Arsenal Board's readiness to plan and to act


The close of the 2013-14 season should have energized the Arsenal Board and Gazidis to intensify succession planning. That's because credible reports suggested that Wenger was prepared to decline the renewal offer had his team not won the 2014 FA Cup. Gazidis's comments at the time showed that the club was in no way prepared for that possibility. (See my personal blog post "And All the Clocks Wound Down".)

So far, the Board doesn't appear to be bringing much urgency to the task. At Thursday's Annual General Meeting of shareholders, Chairman Sir Chips Keswick said, "It's premature to speculate about a successor to Arsène. I'm delighted he has signed a three-year contract. Rest assured, we follow the situation carefully... It's not being complacent--we think about it all the time--I hope when the time comes we will have a solution that pleases you."

I'd rest a lot more assured if the language coming from the board were more assertive. Instead of "we follow the situation carefully," Sir Chips should be saying, "we have launched a plan to guide our decisions."

Even if Sir Chips is only displaying English reserve, it's hardly a strong response to what Gazidis called "the biggest challenge." The approach seems instead to invite problems that befall many organizations in transition.

"They fail to recognize the need for a strategy for this critical business process, they haven't had great exposure to what other organizations are doing, and they haven't thought through what their organization should be doing given its unique set of circumstances." That's Scott Saslow, founder and CEO of a leadership development consultancy, who collaborates with Stanford University on research with senior executives. He could be describing Arsenal's leadership as it appears now.

What would indicate a plan


That passive image is all anyone has to go on at the moment, because no one at the club has detailed its approach to succession planning.

What would a prepared organization look like? According to Stanford Professor David Larcker and Stephen Miles, vice chairman of executive recruiters Heidrick and Struggles (page 14 of the presentation here), the steps an organization should take in succession planning include:
  • Add succession expertise to the board, particularly the person chairing the search committee
  • Think of the succession plan as a multi-person event also involving internal officials not promoted
  • Develop a robust succession architecture that covers time horizons from immediate emergencies to five years
  • Develop and refine a skills and experience profile
  • Use external advisers to assess candidates and work closely with the board
  • Prepare to move individuals off the current management team if they block the development of others
  • Expose internal candidates to the board
  • Engage in a confidential external search
  • Provide ongoing support to entire management team after transition
Using these guidelines, we can assess the club's preparedness. All the club's activities won't be obvious or public, but the Board could start by clarifying who is primarily responsible for the appointment. Is it the full Board, a smaller group, or Gazidis? That's a crucial question. Not only does the authority need to be established, but that individual's or group's experience with these kinds of transitions could determine the search's success.

Another important statement would address Wenger's involvement. Studies suggest he should definitely have a role, perhaps even as far as identifying a candidate within the organization, but his influence on the decision should be minimal. Too much involvement from the outgoing manager can produce successors like Manchester United's ill-fated David Moyes.

Need for a seasoned executive


The search that brought Wenger to the club in 1996 was, by most accounts, a one-man affair, planned and executed by former vice chairman David Dein. He is no longer in a position to shape the board's thinking on Wenger's replacement or to work his network on the club's behalf.

The current Arsenal Board falls short of the Dein standard of experience. It's accurate that Josh Kroenke, the newest member of the Arsenal Board, was president of  the NHL's Colorado Avalanche in 2013 when it let head coach Joe Sacco go and hired Patrick Roy. But that doesn't seem like adequate experience for a high-profile Premier League appointment.

(One interesting point about the Avalanche's signing of Roy: It came just after the franchise elevated longtime captain Joe Sakic to lead hockey operations. So there is precedent in Kroenke Sports Enterprises for hiring former players to serve in prominent, decision-making positions.)

Gazidis? He communicates extremely effectively, makes decisions methodically, cares about the club's future, and publicly acknowledges the enormity of the task of replacing Wenger. What neither he nor anyone else at the club has yet displayed is any urgency to set forth the principles and processes to guide the eventual transition. As a result, we're left to wonder  how prepared the club is.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Management the Arsenal Way

The recent, revealing interview with Andries Jonker, head of the Arsenal academy, provides considerable food for thought as the club and its shareholders prepare for Thursday's Annual General Meeting.

Because Jonker does not seem shy about sharing his opinions with the Dutch publication Voetball International (translated on Arseblog in "Jonker: Arsenal scouting must be restructured"), his observations offer an unvarnished view of management practice at the club. In particular, Jonker's descriptions of manager Arsène Wenger's approach to management don't necessarily line up with widespread notions about how the club is run.

The conventional wisdom has long held that Wenger is a micro-manager, someone who must control every aspect of the club's business from transfer negotiations to players' diets to the design of facilities. This is the theory Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher advanced forcefully in their 2009 book "Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub." It also flows from the popular tendency to equate football clubs with their managers. (See "Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, and the Cult of Personality" for my critique of this line of thinking.)

Perhaps Wenger has mellowed in recent years; it's also possible the original portrayal was too stark. Whatever the case, Jonker's interview suggests that Wenger's style is not autocratic and in many ways conforms to models of successful leadership.

The manager's level of involvement


Jonker describes his interactions with Wenger in ways that will seem familiar to anyone who has ever worked for someone else. "Almost every day, Wenger and I go through a number of things," said Jonker. "He is approachable, but I do have to show him what we are doing. We must not go behind his back."

This seems like a reasonable, open-door approach to management.

"What I do see," Jonker continued. "is that everybody at the club has the feeling that they need to have the green light from Wenger before they do anything."

Now, if "everybody at the club," including Chief Executive Officer Ivan Gazidis and the stewards at Emirates Stadium, seeks Wenger's approval, then that's not a functional arrangement. I'm more inclined to think, however, that Jonker is referring Wenger's involvement with the football staff, which is a different and more understandable proposition.

It's not unusual for managers to expect those reporting to them to produce recommendations for their response and approval. This is a standard approach in many organizations and a sensible one in the case of Arsenal.

After all, Wenger is accountable to Gazidis, the club's board, its supporters, and the media, so he should know about and support the actions of his staff. How could he appear before any of those constituents and endorse the sporting direction if he had not understood and supported the original course of action?

Foundations in management theory


This pattern of manager-staff communication falls within what management theorists call "transactional leadership." This facet of leadership focuses on exchanges between leaders and followers; managers who want their staff to provide specific things give those staff members other things that they want in return. (The original idea comes from Karl Kuhnert and Philip Lewis, "Transactional and transformational leadership: A constructive developmental analysis," in Academy of Management Review 10 (1995).)

Wenger seems to be practicing "active" management in the sense that he monitors his staff's behavior, anticipates problems, and creates opportunities to intervene before the problems get worse. (For the details of "active" vs. "passive" management, see Jane Howell and Bruce Avolio, "Transformational leadership, transactional leadership, local of control, and support of innovation: Key predictors of consolidated business-unit performance," in Journal of Applied Psychology 78 (1993).)

These behaviors and actions, which amount to exchanges between leaders and staff members, complement other defining characteristics of what's called transformational leadership. These higher-level traits and activities take the form of:
  1. Charisma that appeals to followers on an emotional level
  2. Inspirational motivation that articulates a clear and attractive vision
  3. Intellectual stimulation that challenges assumptions, takes risks, and solicits followers' ideas
  4. Individualized consideration that results in mentorship and attention to followers' needs
These are the four dimensions of transformational leadership described by Timothy Judge and Ronald Piccolo in "Transformational leadership: A meta-analytic test of their relative validity," in the Journal of Applied Psychology 89 (2004) and examined for their correlations with positive performance outcomes.

Wenger as "transformational leader"


Without sinking too deep into the academic theory and language, we can use the four dimensions of transformational leadership to understand how any manager's behaviors and actions create conditions for top performance. In the case of Wenger, we can break down his contributions as follows:

Charisma. Before and after the FA Cup victory in May, current players talked about how much they wanted to win this trophy for Wenger. Many former players came out with impassioned support as well. This is just a recent, prominent episode suggesting that Wenger has built an emotional appeal among many of those who work for him.

Inspirational motivation. The vision of attractive, offense-minded football appeals to many both inside and outside the club. Wenger also displays the optimism that this approach will succeed in the long run, another aspect of inspirational motivation.

Intellectual stimulation. It's fair to say that Wenger challenges assumptions and takes risks, as I recently pointed out in "Arsène Wenger's Risk Tolerance." He allows players considerable autonomy on the pitch. Questions persist, however, about his willingness to entertain other ideas. So we should refrain from making a definitive statement about how well Wenger fulfills this dimension.

Individualized consideration. If you listen to experienced players such as Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky, Wenger emerges as a mentor and model they may follow when their playing careers end. And one of the criticisms levied at the manager is that he responds too much to what players need, granting their wishes to leave Arsenal for more playing time elsewhere, for example. That's definitely an indication of individualized consideration.

This admittedly superficial review does suggest that Wenger fulfills many expectations of the transformational leader. It's hard to conclude that he is not, given that he has guided the sporting side of the club during an 18-year period characterized by significant, and in many ways positive, change.

One last test of Wenger's leadership ability remains: What will happen when he departs the scene?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Arsenal's Next Steps

As the Chelsea defeat came to a close on Sunday, I thought, "That's just great. We've got two weeks to dwell on this."

The second international break of the season affords fans and pundits 13 days--until the visit of Hull City on October 18--to pore over what went wrong at Stamford Bridge. Thanks to social media, blogs, and podcasts, we also have the means to linger over and discuss the squad's shortcomings.

Expect plenty of moaning and armchair expertise.

The professionals weigh in


Fortunately, the professionals see no value in wallowing in defeat. The post-match comments of Jack Wilshere and Per Mertesaker showed a constructive, mature perspective.

The occasionally temperamental Wilshere observed to Arsenal Player, "That's the difference at this level. You're playing against teams who, when you're on top, you have to make it count; otherwise, they'll punish you. And they did."

With a similarly matter-of-fact tone, Mertesaker, the team captain on the day, told Sky Sports, "We have to admit they are better than us--still better--and we have to learn quickly."

This conclusion suggested the squad will take a series of next steps, consisting of:
  1. Analyzing the performance
  2. Avoiding paralysis and blame over mistakes and failures
  3. Applying what the group learned from the analysis
  4. Turning attention to the Hull match

Or, as manager Arsène Wenger put it, "They won. Congratulations to them. And let's go to the next game."

The cold, clear light of day


Assessing the performance soberly and focusing quickly on the next objective do not necessarily appeal to many supporters. They're more comfortable with a prolonged emotional reaction, for several reasons:
  • They can only view the last match and not the process of preparing for the next one
  • They experience an ongoing flood of information about that last match
  • They're subjected to taunts by opposing fans and even fellow Arsenal supporters
  • They can't call on the refined psychological traits and techniques available to elite athletes

I wrote recently about this psychological edge in "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not," and the ability to react to setbacks constructively strikes me as another expert adaptation to the stress associated with high-level competition. It contributes to a mental framework that permits optimal physical performance.

"When our brains get caught up in thoughts from the past, or thoughts of the future, it creates a stress response, and we can’t use the part of the brain that keeps us engaged in the moment," Kirsten Race, Ph. D., an expert on psychological awareness, has said. In other words, there's a neurological reason for Arsenal's players to place the Chelsea result in its proper context: Their brains won't be fully geared to succeed in their next match if they're mulling  their last one.

In previous seasons, Wenger praised his team's resilience, which has always been, like anything psychological, a work in progress. The hesitant performances after last season's high-profile disasters suggested that Arsenal team had not evolved mentally to the best effect.

We will see when Hull City visits the Emirates on October 18 how the current group of Arsenal players copes with its first major setback of the season. The good news is, Sunday's 2-0 loss wasn't debilitating, and public statements by the players and manager point to a healthy attitude. That's a better position than many supporters occupy at the moment.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Arsène Wenger's Risk Tolerance

During Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger's press conferences after the North London Derby and before the Galatasaray Champions League match, assembled media asked at least 25 questions. Only one of those questions sought the manager's perspective on a newsworthy item from the 1-1 draw with Tottenham: Why was star signing Alexis Sanchez not in the starting lineup?

Wenger's response was brief. "It was the selection of the day," he said. Was there any medical reason? "No, no, no, no."

That was it on the subject. No one probed the rationale for excluding the £30-million-plus summer acquisition, source of the club's second highest transfer fee, who had already scored four goals for Arsenal account.

James McNicholas (@Gunnerblog) raised this question and offered some potential reasons in his ESPN FC blog post "Sanchez Error Tops the List of Questions to Ask Wenger."  I'm drawn to a related but broader question, "How do you weigh the risk tradeoffs when you structure and select a starting XI?"

This strikes me as a legitimate and germane line of inquiry. Legitimate because, unlike transfer dealings, injuries, finances, and many other issues, the matchday construction of the team falls entirely within the manager's control; that's his core responsibility. It's a germane question because the team soon goes to Chelsea, site of last season's tactical disaster and mauling.

Deliberating risks in the tactical system


The experience at Chelsea, Liverpool, and Everton and continued signs of vulnerability to counterattacks should be provoking serious deliberations among the Arsenal manager and his assistants. In particular, they should be weighing the risks of sending both fullbacks into the attacking half of the field against the downsides of instructing them to remain in defensive territory.

More astute and experienced tactical observers than I have noted that Wenger has chosen the more assertive approach for years. It's still worth asking whether the benefits of extra players at the offensive end, such as the potential of outnumbering the opposition on the flanks, warrant the consistent and therefore predictable forward presence of Arsenal fullbacks. Against some opponents, those advantages are probably worth the risk; against speedy and precise opposition, perhaps not.

Assessing drawbacks to subtle structural changes


A second major tactical risk grows out of the new 4-1-4-1 formation. My colleague Michael Price has argued convincingly in "A Look at Arsenal's Move to the 4-1-4-1" that this change is a response to the pressing and counterattacking that overwhelmed Arsenal in away games against top opposition last season.

The 4-1-4-1 setup could mitigate that risk in the long run as it allows Arsenal players to close down the opposition more quickly. However, it's not a comfortable or fully formed system yet, so for the moment it heightens the risk that the defense will be overrun, particularly if the fullbacks' forays forward continue.

The manager has said that the formation represents only a subtle shift, and indeed it morphed comfortably and successfully into a 4-2-3-1 in the wins against Aston Villa and Galatasaray. In some ways, though, the subtlety only heightens the risk. That's because the players have to understand and execute the approach at a fine level of nuance. These mental and physical demands come on the heels of a World Cup, which taxed most of Arsenal's first team and shortened the period to hone this new approach.

Given that the 2013-14 system produced 79 points and an FA Cup, it's reasonable to ask whether the risks of the new system are worth taking on.

Balancing risks in team selection


The personnel available to the manager, even in light of multiple injuries, creates another series of risk tradeoffs.

The threats of being outnumbered in midfield and the defensive zone could, for example, be dealt with by moving the wide forwards closer to the back line, which is an approach we saw late in the 2012-13 season and early in the 2013-14 campaign. The risks in that are passivity and ceding possession, but the speed of new players Sanchez and Danny Welbeck and the returning Theo Walcott would worry the opposition even if it does control the ball.

Let's accept, though, that Wenger prefers a more proactive approach, and his knowledge, success, and teams' flair make me hesitate to question that philosophy. What I would nevertheless ask about is the omission of Sanchez from the starting XI, especially given the objectives of the evolving system. If the 4-1-4-1 seeks to follow Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich and its coordinated pressing, doesn't Sanchez seem the perfect player to harry the opposition from a wide forward position?

Perhaps the balance Wenger was trying to strike against Tottenham was between what his team did with the ball and what it did without it. As Tim Stillman (@LittleDutchVA) observed in his weekly column for Arseblog last week, Sanchez attempts daring moves that often result in losing the ball. If the manager is prioritizing ball retention over offensive creativity, then that's a case for leaving Sanchez on the bench. It's also a reason to leave out Jack Wilshere in favor of Santi Cazorla in midfield, but Wilshere got the start against Tottenham.

These decisions have faded from view after the team's exhilarating performance against Galatasaray. That game -- and the role Sanchez played in it -- makes a compelling argument that his playing style represents a risk worth bearing.  Otherwise, we'd have to entertain the possibility that the club spent more than £30 million on a player before its manager reached the conclusion that his style is too cavalier. That seems like an even more worrying proposition.