Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Community Shield: Three Things We Learned About Arsenal

Arsenal's 1-0 victory over Chelsea in Sunday's Community Shield capped a perfect pre-season in fine style.

The sun shone on Wembley, supporters were in mid-season voice, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered a lovely goal, and Chelsea manager José Mourinho was irritated. In other words, success.

Although we shouldn't draw any definitive conclusions from the match, we can make some inferences to guide our thinking in advance of next Sunday's Premier League opener against West Ham. Here are three things that stuck out:

1. This team can adapt to the occasion

Arsenal showed it knows more than one way to achieve its objectives. As in last season's watershed victory at Manchester City, the Gunners conceded much of the possession to accomplished opponents, rather than taking a more assertive offensive approach. Chelsea had 57 percent possession to Arsenal's 43 percent. (Stats from Opta via whoscored.com.)

Manager Arsène Wenger praised this tactical move, suggesting in his post-match press conference that the players made this adjustment. "They were more concerned with protecting our lead against Chelsea rather than playing attacking football," he said. "We have to accept that, and I don’t think that’s giving up your philosophy, it’s a punctual fact that we wanted to win a game like that. I’m quite proud of that."

It wasn't a physical, rear-guard defense that suggested a huge gap in quality between the sides; Arsenal simply controlled the passing lanes with a midfield line that made the most of the energy of Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey. The setup started out like the 4-1-4-1 that manager Arsène Wenger had introduced early in the 2014-15 campaign, then after Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal it often looked like a 4-4-1-1 with Mesut Özil just behind Theo Walcott.

The personnel is already flexible, too. Santi Cazorla occupied the left of the midfield, a position he hadn't taken up for at least a year, and Ramsey returned to the center of midfield, his preferred spot but not one where he's regularly featured since the middle of last season. Top scorer Alexis will eventually return, and the players will shift again.

Indeed, adaptability -- both in the starting lineups and in the positioning of players in games -- could be a feature of the season. Wenger has the opportunity to vary his selections to fit the opposition because the players at his disposal, in just about every position, are of high quality.

2. This defense looks ready and savvy

Arsenal conceded just one goal in five pre-season matches, as a variety of defenders and goalkeepers, not including last season's eventual first choice David Ospina, shut down several dangerous opponents.

On Sunday, Chelsea managed two shots on target. They had two other real opportunities, Ramires's first-half header and Eden Hazard's rushed sky job in the second half, but Arsenal's efforts rendered Chelsea's offense largely ineffective. The midfield's work in the passing lanes stymied Cesc Fabregas, and when Chelsea did reach the spaces just outside the penalty area, where they were most dangerous last season, Arsenal crowded the space and blocked any progress.

Longer approaches were handled by Arsenal center-half Laurent Koscielny. He seemed in top form, shepherding Chelsea's front men and attending to any danger. Koscielny made 16 clearances and won four aerial duels, both top figures on the team.

With Koscielny, his central defensive partner Per Mertesacker, and goalkeeper Petr Cech, Arsenal have an experienced, knowledgeable defensive core. That's a strong foundation for a run at the Premier League title.

3. Arsenal didn't act friendly

This was an exhibition that Arsenal came to win. From the kickoff, the Gunners asserted themselves and did not shirk the physical, psychological, or tactical contests inherent in facing a Mourinho team.

That willingness became especially evident late in the second half. Wenger's substitutions were designed to shore up the defense: the more robust Olivier Giroud for Theo Walcott, deep-lying midfielder Mikel Arteta for playmaker Özil, and fullback Kieran Gibbs for Oxlade-Chamberlain. All three made an impact, with Giroud and Gibbs threatening the Chelsea goal and Arteta throwing himself into challenges, particularly with Chelsea substitute Radamel Falcao.

Also noteworthy was left back Nacho Monreal's canny professionalism. Twice in the first half, he got mixed up with Chelsea's Gary Cahill, once resulting in a bloody nose and then sending Cahill into teammate Branislav Ivanovic right at the Chelsea post. Later, Monreal outmaneuvered Falcao (admittedly not a move with a high degree of difficulty) to draw a foul that eased the pressure, and he made a late clearance to kill even more time.

Applying this savvy and effort in a so-called friendly shows how ready this team is for the season ahead. Given Arsenal's talent, that application can put Arsenal in position to defeat just about any opponent. In close matches against top sides, they're required. Add a moment of brilliance, like Sunday's from Oxlade-Chamberlain, and you've got a recipe for success.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Community Shield Match Preview, Chelsea v. Arsenal: Full of Sound and Fury

Arsenal's Community Shield meeting with Chelsea on Sunday carries interest but no meaning.

The English media's reliance on the lazy and hackneyed narrative -- Wenger and Mourinho square off! -- just shows the insignificance of the Wembley affair. It's a glorified friendly, the last live-action preparation for the start of the Premier League campaign the following weekend.

Although Arsenal supporters would like to see the Gunners continue their impressive pre-season form, close out their spotless record, and lay down a marker with the league champions, none of those accomplishments will have any bearing on the season to come.

Let's not forget that Arsenal blitzed Manchester City 3-0 in last year's installment, then won just two of its first eight league matches. By January 1, 2015, it had compiled the fewest points (33) from its first 20 matches in the 19 years of Wenger's tenure. The year before, Manchester United won the event and went on to a seventh-place league finish.

So we should draw no conclusions about Arsenal's prospects from Sunday's outcome.

That's not to say we shouldn't be interested in what transpires, as long as we keep it in the proper perspective. Any time Arsenal is in action, we can deepen our understanding of the team and how it plays. Here are some questions to keep in mind during Sunday's encounter:

1.  Will this be a real workout?

It'll be interesting to see whether Mourinho constructs and instructs his side to thwart Arsenal's offense. That would be true to form but counterproductive in this preparatory exhibition match. A cagey affair, in which neither side gets the chance to stretch its legs, wouldn't serve the objective of improving physical readiness for the season ahead.

A free-flowing encounter would contribute to better fitness; it would also favor Arsenal, provided the Arsenal defense maintains its discipline. The Gunners' speed of thought, movement, and passing generally exceeds Chelsea's, so the more open the play, the more likely Arsenal's advantage.

2.  What influence will Petr Cech have?

Arsenal's headline summer acquisition will face his longtime bosses and teammates straightaway. Any specific insights he might share about Chelsea's approach may not determine the outcome of this match; after all, the managers and the players know each other fairly well.

What will be interesting to watch is Cech's interactions with Arsenal's defense. If he provides calm leadership and deals with the threats to his goal in this high-profile but low-pressure encounter, then he could bring stability throughout the league campaign. That will make the difference that Arsenal sought when it acquired him.

3.  What clues will we have about the manager's preferred starting XI?

In the pre-season matches so far, Wenger has varied his selections, working on the fitness of all the players and experimenting with combinations. These mixes of players have been intriguing and successful in the context of the pre-season. The four  matches have also emphasized the substantial depth Arsenal enjoy at just about every position, even with leading scorer Alexis Sanchez yet to return from holiday and Danny Welbeck sidelined with injury.

But we still don't have much of an idea of Wenger's thinking on several personnel decisions. In particular, how does he balance the contributions of both Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey, who bring different strengths to the central midfield role? There have been occasions when they functioned as a midfield pair, but that required the removal of Francis Coquelin and his defensive energy and skill. Not the best setup against high-quality opposition.

Jack Wilshere also has to fit into the puzzle somehow. He's taken up a more advanced position frequently this pre-season, following a brief stint on the flanks as last season ended. Wenger may reveal more of his intentions for Wilshere, and for the first XI overall, on Sunday. He did send out the same starting lineup in last year's Community Shield and in the league opener against Crystal Palace six days later. Then again, several key players -- Olivier Giroud, Per Mertesacker, and Mesut Özil -- weren't ready.

4.  What will happen at center forward?

The different strengths of Giroud and Theo Walcott allow Wenger some flexibility in his choice of center forward. Walcott is less tested in that role against top-level defenders, but his speed could trouble Chelsea as it has in the past.

Another benefit of a Walcott center forward run-out would be to shield Giroud from the battering he'd take from Chelsea's galoots in central defense. The Frenchman will endure beatings from defenses for 10 months, including physical tests in the first two weeks of the league season, so limiting his exposure in this exhibition match makes some sense.

On the other hand, Wenger may want to prime the chemistry and relationships in attack for the league campaign, which would point to a Giroud start. A peach of a goal like the one he scored in the 2014 affair might send him off to a strong scoring start.

"Might" is the operative word in all these observations, because the connections between Sunday and the league campaign are iffy at best. The day could be mildly informative and enjoyable should Arsenal notch a win over Chelsea, but it signifies nothing about the team's prospects.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Arsenal's Pre-Season Cohesion

Arsenal is approaching the 2015-16 Premier League campaign with a sense of calm.

Unlike the disquiet bordering on panic that has characterized some recent summers, the club's representatives and most supporters seem comfortable and content. The main sources of this feeling are the continuity in the playing squad and the clear camaraderie that exists among the players.

Off-field chemistry

We saw that spirit on Arsenal's successful visit to Singapore for the Barclays Asia Trophy. Its most striking expression came in the hotel swimming pool, where Santi Cazorla completed 14 headers in a row with encircled teammates. Here's the video. That's genuine glee among individuals who enjoy each others' company.

The chemistry is also evident in the statements players are making to the media. In an interview after soon after his arrival, goalkeeper Petr Cech, who has participated in many teams, emphasized the camaraderie. "I've only been here a few days, but I can feel the team is together," he told the club Website.

What's more, Cech seemed to draw an implicit contrast between this Arsenal team and his previous club Chelsea when he said, "I found that the team spirit is extraordinary in the way that everybody pulls in the same direction." One interpretation of this observation is that even in Chelsea's title- and Champions League-winning sides, he hadn't experienced this quality.

That will surely encourage manager Arsène Wenger, who has placed a clear priority on common understanding and togetherness. In almost every interview of the pre-season, Wenger has emphasized the point. For example, after watching his team score six goals against Lyon in the Emirates Cup, he noted, "We have more cohesion than at the same period last year," when the World Cup, multiple acquisitions, and injuries hampered development of the collective.

He had also identified this dynamic very soon after the team assembled in July, observing after its victory over Everton in Singapore, "It's very satisfying, and it look like everybody shares the way we see the game."

Early evidence on the pitch

Many will point to Arsenal's demolition of Lyon as proof of this vision in action, and, indeed, the 10-minute first-half period in which Arsenal scored four goals featured some scintillating signs. Three of those goals came from free-flowing offensive moves that required precise passing, knowledgeable positioning, and common understanding.

That followed the fine display against Everton a week earlier and half a world away. During the Barclays Asia Trophy final, Arsenal befuddled and exhausted its Premier League counterparts with sustained movement, control, and passing that usually happen only with a team on the same wavelength.

Although these pre-season offensive displays have caught the eye, the defensive performances have been just as encouraging. Arsenal have conceded just one goal in four matches and displayed both solidity and flexibility in the most recent match against Wolfsburg.

The first half of that encounter was particularly interesting because Arsenal did not dominate possession and weave its passing around Wolfsburg. Instead, the group maintained its collective defensive positioning and generally forced the opponents into wide areas. From there, Wolfsburg did serve up some crosses, but the Arsenal defense ably dealt with all but one of those, which reached former Arsenal man Nicklas Bendtner at an awkward height in front of goal.

A notable aspect of this performance, for me, was that it came after Wenger had completely changed the team's back five. The group of Cech, Hector Bellerin at right back, center backs Calum Chambers and Gabriel, and left back Nacho Monreal had never played together before.

What this signals for the League campaign

Granted, we shouldn't read too much into pre-season performances, tactics, or personnel combinations. Fitness is the priority.

The strengthening of collective understanding is promising, though, because it's enhancing the players' confidence and self-image as real title contenders. Captain Mikel Arteta: "We have been together a while now, and we have this belief now that we are capable of achieving something important. It took time to build this cohesion, this momentum." (Arsenal.com)

The year-to-year continuity of the playing staff and its sense of togetherness are vital because Arsenal face the stark correlation between expenditures on wages and transfers and final league position, a relationship favoring Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United. For this reason, Wenger, his staff, and the players must get the intangibles exactly right. Those include player relationships, a relatively clean bill of health, immediate responses to setbacks, and better performances against opposition in the top half of the table. (See "Arsenal's Title Ambitions" for a more extensive examination.)

In other words, the chemistry and understanding we've seen so far are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for an Arsenal title challenge. If fortune and other factors favor the Gunners, there's a real possibility of a title challenge, by which I mean leading the league or trailing the leaders by less than six points as April arrives.

If those conditions don't fall into place, though, Arsenal may well fall short. That's just the reality of the connection between finances and success.

We should accept this as a plausible, though not inevitable, potential outcome; it needn't be a result of poor planning, transfer errors or oversights, player apathy, or failed chemistry.

Setting the expectation in this way will make Arsenal's accomplishment that much more satisfying.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Arsenal: Consolidating Gains

The state of the Arsenal is solid.

This firm foundation has led reasonable observers to suggest that the team could challenge for the Premier League title in 2015-2016. We've explored that potential from several angles this summer, most recently in "Arsenal Can Win the League - Even Without More Signings" and earlier in "Arsenal's Title Ambitions."

Another way to analyze the club's direction, position, and prospects is to dig into the factors I've identified in my past two annual assessments, "The Arsenal: Forward, Upward, or on Some Generally Positive Trajectory" from summer 2014 and 2013's "Arsenal's Platform for Success or Plateau of Mediocrity?."

Aspects of progress

Arsenal's enhanced competitiveness has rested on several supports. Here's where those stand entering in the 2015-16 season.
  1. The club's own financial strength. Undeniable. The financial statements continue to show a healthy sporting enterprise, with revenues rising to an all-time high and investment in football talent increasing proportionally. Available cash sits at approximately £60 million, according to the estimates of the Arsenal Supporters Trust. All that's even before the gargantuan Premier League UK television rights deal kicks in and a new overseas deal gets finalized. Where this financial muscle carries force is in transfer expenditures, which have amounted to £127.4 million net since the acquisition of playmaker Mesut Özil in September 2013.
  2. The different level of transfer target. Continued success. After the 2014 acquisitions of Alexi Sanchez and English international forward Danny Welbeck, Arsenal bought the title-winning Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea earlier this summer. Although other stories of world-class targets may be less credible, few deem it preposterous that Arsenal would be in the mix for the services of Real Madrid's Karim Benzema, for example. That shows the club's return to the top echelon.
  3. Unrest elsewhere. Not as significant. Chelsea's José Mourinho and Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini have completed their second years in charge. Any adjustment period for them is over. Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal have spent astronomically and succeeded in returning to a Champions League spot, but it's not clear how well Van Gaal can integrate the high-priced players to mount a viable title challenge.
  4. Continuity in Arsenal's management and playing squad. Hugely important and a stated priority. Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger stressed the camaraderie in the squad as last season came to a close and as this pre-season began. When assessing needs based on the 2014-15 performance, he said, "We need another player who gets 10 or 15 goals, but we have a good mentality and good cohesion in the team." In other words, chemistry is as important as a new, productive player.
  5. The winning mentality of this squad. Proven. Two FA Cups in a row, including a rout of Aston Villa in May, and two wins in Manchester show Arsenal can master the big occasion.
  6. The exits of unwanted players. More addition by subtraction. In essence, the departure of forward Lukas Podolski made Cech's salary a wash. There are some other candidates to leave permanently, such as forward Joel Campbell and midfielder Mathieu Flamini, but the club's acquisition activity won't depend on their exits.
  7. The impact of Financial Fair Play (FFP). Still questionable. UEFA recently relaxed its already loose enforcement of financial requirements. As long as clubs present a detailed, plausible plan showing a break-even horizon in four years' time and/or enter into a voluntary agreement involving guaranteed investment funds, they may spend more than their current cash balances and flows on transfers and wages. These changes and the past year's financial results have lifted the sanctions on Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. (See "UEFA Says Financial Fair Play Has Changed to Attract New Investors."
Developments on the static front

The forces keeping Arsenal in place have also been subject to changes since I first explored them in 2013. Here's how they look currently:
  1. The existing distance between Arsenal and the top of the table. Mixed signals. The team achieved a lower points total in 2014-15 (75) than it had the previous season (79) and finished 12 points behind champions Chelsea, compared with a 7-point gap to Manchester City in 2013-14. However, Arsenal moved up a spot to third in the final league table and performed slightly better against top-four competitors, winning once, drawing three times, and losing twice; that's two more points than it had gained against the same level of competition the year before. The real problem was the performance against teams that finished in the fifth through the ninth spots, to which Arsenal dropped 19 points.
  2. The risk-averse transfer approach. Laid to rest. The priority of mitigating risk in acquiring players is a thing of the past, both at the top level (Özil, Sanchez) and among prospects (Chambers). Chemistry and fit now seem much more important considerations than financial outlay.
  3. Lack of experience in transfers at the high level. Reduced further. The Cech acquisition continues the trend of successfully closing deals with the world's top clubs. Since bringing Özil from Real Madrid, Arsenal has dealt with Barcelona for Sanchez, Manchester United for Welbeck, and Chelsea for Cech. It's a player in that elite market again.
  4. Uncertain enforcement of FFP. Continues. As I noted earlier, UEFA has relaxed its requirements and penalties. The advantage, instead, may lie in the Premier League's home-grown rules. To reach the maximum squad size of 25 players, clubs must employ eight players older than 21 who have trained in England. (See the admirably clear examination "The Premier League's Home Grown Player Rule, Explained.") Arsenal is well stocked in this regard, while Chelsea and Manchester City are not. Its first-team features eight home-grown players and 15 non-home-grown; this means Arsenal can fill out its squad with two players of any provenance.
  5. The composition of the Arsenal board. Unchanged and still problematic. The board remains small, white, and male and doesn't represent diverse points of view well.
The move forward

This review suggests continued progress for the club. More strong performances than poor ones, and some truly memorable moments, were features of the season gone by. Barring an incredible change of strategy that includes a financial infusion, it's the most we can reasonably expect. If certain developments fall kindly, we might witness something even more enjoyable.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

In Search of More Arsenal Deals

This transfer period has brought just one newcomer into the Arsenal team that finished the 2014-15 season. That's goalkeeper Petr Cech, who arrived from Chelsea on June 29.

The only other developments have been one-year contract extensions for veteran midfielders Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky and the departure of the loaned-out forward Lukas Podolski.

The noise you'll hear is coming from the critics and the fantasists, perpetually clamoring for the perfect deep-lying midfielder and center forward. Meanwhile, those of us who want to understand the club's football strategy, priorities, decisions, and actions remain calm and look for clues in statements and documented activities.

Although the evidence isn't plentiful, we can draw three conclusions thus far and identify several implications for the shape of the 2015-16 squad.

1. The timeworn transfer narrative is moot

The theme of financial restrictions has dominated the story of Arsenal's work in player transfers. Call Arsenal a selling club, because every year from 2004 to 2012 it sold at least one of its stars and rarely acquired a high-profile player. The self-sustaining financial model demanded it.

That blunt and clumsy characterization, which didn't always capture the net transfer activity, is certainly invalid now. Thanks to increasing commercial and television revenues, a sizable cash stake, and easing stadium debt, the financials no longer require player sales to fund acquisitions or other operations. As a result, manager Arsène Wenger can keep the players he values rather than see them leave (Arteta, Rosicky), and "project" players--young, out-of-favor, or undiscovered--no longer dominate the acquisitions.

These new dynamics were made flesh in the last two off-seasons. Recognized stars Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez joined Arsenal, while no major contributors left. Just as telling, the club paid £11 million, potentially £16 million, to acquire the unproven Southampton defender Calum Chambers. As I wrote on my personal blog last July ("Suddenly, This Summer"), the Chambers deal signaled the club's renewed willingness to assume significant transfer risk.

This does not mean that Arsenal can compete with Europe's big spenders for every world-class player. The point is that the club possesses the financial, cultural, and personal resources to attract a top talent or two a year, as well as accomplished or promising supporting players.

2. The professed priority for 2015 is goals

Wenger indicated toward the close of the last campaign that he was seeking additional firepower. "We need another player who gets 10 or 15 goals, but we have a good mentality and good cohesion in the team." Maintaining that chemistry while increasing the production seem to be the imperatives for this summer's activity, considering how the players comments have echoed Wenger's. (See "Arsenal's Title Ambitions.")

The most straightforward approach to achieving both the production and chemistry objectives would be for current players to score more goals. The prime candidates are Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, and Theo Walcott. Oxlade-Chamberlain had just one goal in 23 league appearances in 2014-15, while Welbeck scored four times in 25 league matches.

Walcott is the most interesting case. He did not return to action until mid-season, then started just four league contests among his 14 league appearances. Despite this limited action, he netted five goals in the league, opened the scoring in the FA Cup final, and was productive on a per-90-minute basis. This output led some observers, notably @PoznanInMyPants in "FEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!," to suggest that Walcott is the goalscorer Arsenal craves.

There's evidence for this proposition in Walcott's returns last season and in his production in 32 league appearances in 2012-13. According to FourFourTwo's StatsZone app, Walcott converted 50 percent of his "big chances" that year, had 40 key passes, and delivered 10 assists. These numbers are comparable to the 2014-15 statistics of the center forwards on many fans' wish lists, including Real Madrid's Karim Benzema and Lyon's Alexandre Lacazette. (See 7AMKickoff's analysis "Lacazette, Higuain, Benzema, Griezmann; Does Arsenal Need an Upgrade on Giroud?")

If Walcott stays for the next campaign, as the lack of contract drama suggests he will, my guess is that any attacking addition to the squad would have to bring something different. The most convincing argument points to a wide playmaker. Tim Stillman makes that case in his Arseblog column "What Does Wenger Want to Add to his Front Three?"

But the quality of Arsenal's existing forward line and the team's overall cohesion mean that a newcomer would have to be a top talent with the right mindset. Wenger and his colleagues will be vigilant for opportunities that meet these standards, but they won't see an addition as a necessity. The same thinking will, I expect, shape decisions about the deep midfield role--open to improvement with the right deal, but no urgency.

3. Arsenal will not traffic in wish fulfillment

Fantasy is the genre most suited to the transfer season. Supporters want their wishes fulfilled or their theories justified. They're led to believe those possibilities by the incomplete, manipulative, and misleading public statements of many managers, players, family members, agents, and observers.

Arsenal's representatives try to avoid this fantasy realm. They typically shoot down or refuse to answer leading questions and seem conservative in their statements' depth and timing. These are unsatisfying stances in the make-believe land of transfers.

The club's authorities don't seem the least bit concerned. They'll continue to seek ways to improve the team, taking a much longer view than most supporters do, and deciding based on realities and not fantasies. This might mean no more acquisitions this summer; or it could produce a deal that no one expects.

If you enjoy flights of fancy and can keep them in perspective, follow the rumors. If their consummation affects your support or interest, though, I'd counsel you to reassess your pastimes or choose another club to follow.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Nacho Monreal, Management Material

A lasting image of Arsenal's 2015 FA Cup triumph was manager Arsène Wenger hoisting the trophy with left back Nacho Monreal. Wenger's joy, as unrestrained in his sixth win as in his first, warmed many supporters' hearts.

The moment was all the more stirring because Wenger shared it with Monreal. The Spaniard had shone in the two decisive victories of this cup campaign, the final and the quarterfinal win over Manchester United, and had been one of the season's most important contributors. He deserved to accompany the manager for this image of triumph.

The shot was symbolic, too. It captured two Arsenal leaders, one the obvious public face of the organization, the other a less visible but influential figure. As time passes, we may look back on this moment and see the emergence of Wenger's protegé.

Monreal isn't the current player most observers expect to become a top-flight manager. That's probably captain Mikel Arteta, who indeed seems to possess many of the qualities of intelligence, leadership, and communication required of modern football managers. There are also signs of a future manager in Monreal:
  1. The way he thinks and talks about the game
  2. The growing influence he is having among his teammates
  3. The club's reliance on him as a public spokesman

Expressing a manager's mindset

In 2015, Monreal has shown he can convey a complex understanding of football. That's a vital capacity for a successful managerial career, and Wenger has clearly influenced Monreal in his development.

I first noticed this ability after Monreal's outstanding performance in the Cup quarterfinal at Old Trafford. His post-match interview on Arsenal Player relied on managerial discourse. "We have to keep going in the same dynamic," he urged. "We have to win every single game. That is our mentality. Only thinking in the next game, and get those three points against West Ham."

The shift from the bigger picture -- the necessity of a winning run -- to the focus on the upcoming match was classic Wenger. (See "Arsène Wenger's Management Acrobatics.") The use of the word "dynamic," too, raised Monreal's commentary above that of the typical player interview; his was the Spanish-inflected voice of Wenger.

Monreal has given thought and expression to other management-grade issues. For example, how should rotation of the squad be addressed in the middle of a successful run? "In these moments, I think the most important thing is not to change the team."

At the same time, Monreal has been keen to promote competition within the squad and support teammates who find themselves among the substitutes. He has spoken at length about his direct competition at left back, Kieran Gibbs:
Kieran is an amazing player. I can imagine it is really difficult for the boss to choose between Kieran and me. Obviously, in football only 11 players can start the game. The boss can choose between him or me. I think it is a good thing for the team. I have to give my best every day in training, or I wouldn't play. I think in this position we are lucky, as we have two good players.
Again, this sounds like a Wenger statement, attending to the confidence of a current second choice and valuing talent throughout the team. This priority on the collective is part of what I described as "Arsenal's Defining Mindset."

Wielding influence in the team

By seeing the team's growth and objectives through a manager's lens, by displaying a knack for communicating this progress in a second language, and by making an impression on the pitch, Monreal has earned the respect of his teammates.

As midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said of him in his "Meet the Team" profiles on Arsenal Player, "He's picked up English like an absolute genius. He gives it a go - you've got to give him that. And he's just a top boy."

This for a teammate who's keeping Chamberlain's "sensei," Gibbs, out of the starting XI.

Monreal's influence is especially apparent among the team's Spanish-speaking members. He provides the cerebral and serious side of leadership while Santi Cazorla takes the playful side. Monreal often serves as the go-between with referees when a player is injured, and he helps the team's Spanish speakers during promotional appearances. As a result, Monreal has become a kind of authority among equals.

This could all come down to his facility with English. But his commitment to learn the language underscores his professionalism and, perhaps, hints at his aspirations in the field of football management, where English is the lingua franca.

Entrusted by the club

The Arsenal hierarchy has recognized Monreal's growing stature and has made him a prominent messenger of the club's plans and ambitions.

He was one of two players, the other vice-captain Per Mertesacker, chosen to review the season on the club's Website. Among his comments was a signal that the club and its players intend to build on their success: "I imagine the club will sign new players, but I think in this moment, we are building, we are making a good group, and this team, it will help us for the next season."

Not earth-shattering stuff, but soon after, Monreal represented the first team at the Arsenal Soccer School in Dubai, where he emphasized his desire to extend his contract and his interest in acquiring "one or two top players."

Then he returned to England and was the club's pick to meet with a group of bloggers at the launch of the new home kit. Here, he drove home the message -- one the club must have approved, otherwise it would not have given him this prominent role -- that the club need "one or two top players," particularly one to provide goals.

As I wrote in "Arsenal's Title Ambitions," Monreal's statement aligns with Wenger's previous assessment of the squad. He also delivered this analysis in detail, in a second language, in an unscripted forum.

His ability to excel in this setting suggests more than a few similarities with Wenger and hints that he may one day follow in the Frenchman's footsteps. Until then, a well-deserved contract extension should await this emerging leader.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Arsenal's Title Ambitions

Several Arsenal players took Monday's home kit unveiling as the latest opportunity to make public their intentions to compete for the 2015-16 Premier League title. On the heels of similar comments by at least six other teammates, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, and Nacho Monreal used Monday's club-sponsored event to make clear statements about their collective ambitions.

"The first thing is to fight for the Premier League, and we're going to see if we can do that from the start," said Cazorla.

Rosicky, seeming as though he'd practiced his line, remarked, "I think there is only one aim from us - to win the title."

And Monreal provided a detailed and thoughtful analysis when he met with a group of Arsenal bloggers before the event. (See the transcript on Arseblog News.) "I think we need two things," he began.
First, we need to keep going like we finished. We need to keep the same level. And the other thing, I think if the club signed one or two top players. We had a lot of injuries, but also we need a player who scores 25 goals per season. We're lucky because Alexis scored 24 goals, and Giroud scored, I dunno, 19, something like that. We need more goals to win the Premier League.
This jibes with manager Arsène Wenger's assessment in April, when he said, "We need another player who gets 10 or 15 goals."

The group's pronouncements are designed to encourage supporters, motivate current players, and attract acquisitions. The words will prove empty, though, unless performances turn them into reality next May.

The power of collective communication

The statements of the manager and his players are encouraging because they point to common thinking and planning. Too often in the past, we've heard players air their displeasure that the club didn't share their ambitions or their preferred approaches to success.

Not so in the summer of 2015. In fact, the club is approving the statements of ambition, in particular the priority on the Premier League title.

Knowing that Monreal had made a similar comment on a visit to Dubai on 2 June, the club selected him to interact with bloggers and allowed him to answer their unedited questions at length. That suggests the Arsenal leadership is endorsing Monreal's target for the team and his take on how to achieve that objective.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this development; after all, as @PoznanInMyPants pointed out, saying "no players" or "lots of players" would have posed a public-relations problem.

Still, it's remarkable how open and specific Arsenal's current players have been about their interest in acquisitions. In years past, supporters and the media would gasp when a player in good standing publicly expressed such a need. Mikel Arteta and his teammates received much attention for statements to that effect in the summer of 2013. Now, such talk barely raises an eyebrow.


This evolution of communication and perception has accompanied two other meaningful developments: 1. The growing expectation of elite arrivals, and 2. The team's comfort level with each other. As a result, they can go public with a desire for world-class teammates without implying criticism of current ones. And they welcome the competition for playing time.

As striker Danny Welbeck told the club Website:
Competition is healthy as it gives the manager a selection headache, which is the best for the team to drive us forward and keep improving. With the selection of players the manager has got, you can use people in different styles and positions, which is only going to help the squad. I’m sure that when anyone is called upon, they are going to give 100 per cent to try to stay in the team for the next game.
We saw this dynamic with Monreal, whose contest for the left back spot with Kieran Gibbs pushed the Spaniard to top-level performance, and striker Olivier Giroud and midfielder Jack Wilshere, both of whom returned from injury to eye-catching contributions.

Making the word real

But all the improvements--competition for places, world-class arrivals, chemistry, the 2014 FA Cup, etc.--did not get Arsenal close to the Premier League title in 2014-15. This summer's words and collective understanding aren't likely to narrow that gap. What will?
  1. Good fortune: Arsenal will not have the highest wage bill in 2015-16 and, as such, will suffer from the correlation between spending on players and league supremacy. The relationship is a correlation, not a causation, though, which allows for the possibility that Arsenal can take the title. It just doesn't have the room for error that Manchester City and Chelsea do. As a result, the breaks will need to go Arsenal's way, including...
  2. A relatively clean bill of health: Injuries reduced, if not eliminated, Arsenal's margin of error in 2014-15. Important players will need to avoid similar problems next season for a serious title challenge to develop.
  3. Consistency: Former Arsenal great Thierry Henry and Cazorla both stressed this imperative this week, supporting Wenger's earlier observations. In practical terms, it means that Arsenal can lose no more than five matches. Although each Premier League season unfolds with different dynamics, it's rare for a team with six losses or more to win the title. Chelsea lost just three, one after its championship was no longer in doubt, last season. That's Arsenal's target.
  4. Better results against top-half opponents: Arsenal lost just twice in six matches against other top-four finishers in 2014-15 but struggled against clubs that ended the year fifth through ninth in the table. The Gunners picked up 11 points from a possible 30 in matches against Tottenham, Liverpool, Southampton, Swansea, and Stoke. Turning three of those five losses into wins and one other into a draw would have delivered 10 more points, for a total of 85, just two points behind Chelsea's title-winning production.
It's a significant challenge for a club that can't match its rivals' spending power, but it's not impossible. The players' statements show that they've embraced the challenge. They'll prepare for it during the next seven weeks. Then they'll have to start delivering when the season opens against West Ham.