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.

Implications


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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Season of Arsenal Ribbons

Seeking the superlatives of Arsenal's 2014-15 season, we could find a bounty in the 4-0 FA Cup Final victory over Aston Villa. It featured contenders for goal of the season in Alexis Sanchez's magnificent second-half strike, for the year's best midfield performance from Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil, for its most canny and organized defensive display, and for its most confident goalkeeping work.

To call off the search with Saturday's match, though, would be to neglect many captivating events, performances, and developments since August 2014. You'll no doubt read and hear many opinions on the standard categories, such as goal of the season and player of the season, in upcoming days.

I've chosen a different framework to describe what this Arsenal season offered: Nine perhaps offbeat categories to capture the entertainment, engagement, and (rarely) enragement sparked by the 2014-15 Arsenal team. Within each category, I identified three standouts and bestowed them with ribbons. This seems an apt award system after Saturday's Cup Final success: Yellow goes to the top choice in each category; the second choice gets a red ribbon; third earns a white one.

Moment of the season

Yellow: Danny Welbeck's goal against Manchester United (a), FA Cup (appears at 3:20 mark of this video)
Red: Olivier Giroud's goal against Manchester City (a), Premier League (1:35 mark of this video)
White: The reaction to Aaron Ramsey's goal against Galatasaray (a), Champions League (especially by Yaya Sanogo and Wojciech Szczesny)

A successful season features many memorable moments, and Arsenal's did not disappoint. For me, Danny Welbeck's winner at Old Trafford takes top prize, because it reversed years of frustration there, overcame the biggest challenge to defending the FA Cup, and highlighted Welbeck's quality to his boyhood club. The goal also resulted from the new, energetic pressing style that Arsenal employed to great effect in several matches.

Second goes to Olivier Giroud's headed goal to make it 2-0 at City, sealing a win that showed the team's ability to rise to big occasions. I also liked the reactions to Ramsey's cracking Champions League goal because they hinted in a humorous fashion at the team's growing unity.

Skill of the season

Yellow: Mesut Özil's flicks, such as the one to Alexis against Hull (a) (video)
Red: Özil's shimmies, such as the one against Liverpool (h) (4:50 of this video)
White: Santi Cazorla's dribbles, especially against Manchester City (a) (2:55 of this video)

When Arsenal's midfield returned to health in February, the team jelled and compiled a string of victories unmatched in the Premier League this season. The driving forces were Cazorla, deployed in a deeper role near Francis Coquelin, and Özil, given license as the primary playmaker. The pair's intelligence, vision, and skill create space and time for themselves and their teammates and make them two athletic marvels.

Unsung hero of the season

Yellow: Nacho Monreal
Red: Mikel Arteta
White: Danny Welbeck

Monreal made 32 appearances this season, including seven out of position in the center of the Arsenal defense. In his efforts there, he always did what was asked, then used the experience to excel upon his return to left back. His opening goal in the FA Cup against Manchester City was crucial, and his performance in the Cup Final outstanding.

Arteta spent all but 10 matches sidelined with injury; still, his calmness and professionalism as captain set the tone for the team. He also relished the success of his eventual replacement Francis Coquelin. Third spot goes to Welbeck for his three critical match-winning goals on the road--against West Brom and West Ham in the League, as well as against United in the Cup--and his tireless contributions to the team's emerging style.

Sub of the season

Yellow: Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere against Manchester United (a)
Red: Giroud against Everton (a)
White: Tomas Rosicky against Everton (h)

The choices here all made telling contributions off the bench. Walcott and Wilshere supplied the energy and drive needed to overcome United's dominant midfield performance. When Walcott's effort deflected into United's goal, it rewarded the pair's efforts and all but clinched Arsenal's third-place league finish.

Giroud's introduction against Everton changed the dynamic of that match; his late equalizer was early evidence of this team's grit. Rosicky makes the list because his goal secured the home win against Everton and because of his overall awesomeness.

Cynical foul of the season

Yellow: Ramsey against Manchester United (a), FA Cup
Red: Cazorla against Chelsea (h)
White: Gabriel Paulista against Reading (n), FA Cup

You won't find these contributions in many highlight reels, but they're notable signs of this team's maturity. At important points in important matches, Ramsey, Cazorla, and Gabriel took yellow cards to snuff out opposition threats. Cazorla's foul was one of three delivered late against Chelsea to stop counterattacks, while Gabriel displayed his willingness to flatten an opponent before danger could materialize.

Set piece of the season

Yellow: Özil free kick against Liverpool (h) (6:12 of this video)
Red: Alexis corner to Giroud against Middlesbrough (h), FA Cup (1:25 of this video)
White: Cazorla free kick to Giroud against Manchester City (a) (1:35 of this video)

According to OptaSports data on Squawka.com, Arsenal ranked third in the Premier League with 22 goals from set pieces. For their combination of timeliness, quality, and importance, I chose Özil's free kick against Liverpool, which capitalized on Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet's positioning to solidify Arsenal's advantage in that match, and Cazorla's delivery to Giroud for the definitive goal against Manchester City.

Also noteworthy was Alexis's corner preceding Giroud's second goal against Middlesbrough, when the pair's quick combined thinking paved the way for Giroud's execution of a difficult skill.

Personnel puzzler of the season

Yellow: Leaving Alexis on the bench for Tottenham (h)
Red: The great midfield shoehorn of 2014, featuring Wilshere and Ramsey
White: Starting Yaya Sanogo against Dortmund (h)

Although most of manager Arsène Wenger's decisions proved justified over the full season, it would be interesting to hear him reflect on some of the season's choices, particularly the reluctance to use Alexis from the outset in the fall North London Derby. Given that he had already delivered in a high-stakes match, the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas, Alexis seemed just the player for this occasion. If he needed resting, the Capital One Cup match against Southampton four days earlier looked a better bet.

Wenger could also clarify the rationale for deploying both Ramsey and Wilshere in central midfield, which complicated other early season adjustments. Sanogo's opener against Dortmund silenced questions about his inclusion, but at the time he seemed an odd choice in a meaningful Champions League encounter.

Brain fart of the season

Yellow: Southampton (a), featuring Szczesny
Red: Monaco (h) Champions League, featuring Per Mertesacker and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
White: Swansea (a), featuring Mathieu Flamini

The then-number-one goalkeeper's fumbling performance, followed by his nicotine-fueled dressing-room indiscretion, tops this category by some distance. David Ospina replaced him and held the starting job for Arsenal's remaining League matches. The other two choices here were surges of tactical naivete when the motivation to score overwhelmed good sense. The good news is that these occasions arose less frequently than in seasons past.

Missed opportunity of the season

Yellow: Giroud misses a pointblank shot against Monaco (h), Champions League (1:08 of this video, for the sadists)
Red: Alexis & Walcott miss in succession against Swansea (h) (5:20 of this video)
White: Alexis pulls a shot wide against Crystal Palace (a) (4:53 of this video)

Let's not dwell on the failures. We can note them and revisit them on days we're feeling particularly morose. The one point I'd  make is that, from a style perspective, Alexis's chance against Crystal Palace would have been a wonderful 26th goal. It would have capped a perfect counterattack and served as a fitting finish of Özil's ingenious lob to himself and deft pass.

Such scintillating plays became more commonplace in 2015 and defined the performance in the FA Cup Final. They're just reward for the off days, which were compelling in their own ways. I've tried to highlight both here to remind us of our good fortune to follow such an extraordinary sporting endeavor.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v West Brom: Pre-Final Finale

Arsenal faces an odd scenario as it closes its Premier League campaign against West Bromwich Albion Sunday at Emirates Stadium.

It's comfortable but not totally secure in a third-place league finish, which would allow the Gunners to avoid a Champions League qualifier in August. Comfortable thanks to a three-point advantage over Manchester United; not totally secure because two bizarre results, say a 3-0 Arsenal loss and a 5-0 United win at Hull, would see United pip Arsenal for third on goal differential.

Then there's the matter of the FA Cup Final against Aston Villa six days later. Manager Arsène Wenger will likely decide Sunday's personnel to set the stage for a top performance from his first-choice team in the cup final. Given that many of those preferred players have looked less than energetic in Arsenal's last three matches, Wenger has to weigh giving them a rest against the risks of upsetting the team's chemistry and perpetuating the team's indifferent recent form.

After a run of eight consecutive wins between February and April, the Gunners have won only one of their last five matches. In the three of those matches, Arsenal failed to score at home against opposition organized to foil the Arsenal attack.

That's standard operating procedure for West Brom manager Tony Pulis, who has saved another team from relegation by instilling discipline in defense. It will therefore come as no surprise on Sunday when the Baggies allow the Gunners possession, force them into crowded central areas, hope for a moment of brilliance from leading man Saido Berahino, or try to catch the Gunners napping on a set play.

These principles have paid off in West Brom's recent matches. The Baggies are unbeaten in their last five, including wins over champions Chelsea on Monday and Manchester United at Old Trafford.

These results--and the manner West Brom have achieved them--will give Wenger, his staff, and his players plenty to contemplate. In particular, West Brom pose a significant aerial threat: 15 goals from headers is tied with West Ham for most in the league. Meanwhile, Arsenal have conceded the league's largest proportion of goals from headers (35 percent).

Given all these dynamics, Wenger's team selection will be interesting. He only introduced two new starters against Sunderland on Wednesday--left back Kieran Gibbs for Nacho Monreal and midfielder Jack Wilshere for Francis Coquelin--but those changes were not the ones most observers expected. Defender Laurent Koscielny, midfielder Santi Cazorla, and forwards Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud all seemed likelier candidates for a game off.

Should we expect all four to get a break on Sunday? Wenger has suggested not. "Will I rest one or two players?" he asked in his pre-match press conference. "Certainly." But he didn't say he'll make wholesale changes to inject energy.

Now, Wenger probably wouldn't admit plans for major lineup turnover. The last time he made more than two outfield changes between league matches was between the early February loss at Tottenham and the home victory over Leicester three days later.

The selections against Leicester might, in fact, help us anticipate some changes for Sunday's match. Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky have a solid chance of repeating their starting appearances. Both came on as substitutes against Sunderland on Wednesday, when they introduced quickness and drive to the Arsenal attack. Expect them to do something similar from the outset against West Brom.

We might also see Gabriel replace one of the two center halves. The Brazilian's aggressiveness in the air and alertness to counterattacks would help offset West Brom's two major threats. The aerial threat might also encourage Wenger to prefer the more imposing Calum Chambers to Hector Bellerin at right back.

Also of interest is the choice in goal. In last season's final match against Norwich City, Lukasz Fabianski got the nod in preparation for his start in the FA Cup Final. Will similar thinking give Wojciech Szczesny the start on Sunday?

Whatever the selection, energy and tempo should be the priorities. Arsenal have the talent to end the campaign successfully; the questions are about imagination, vigor, and will. West Brom will present a test of all three.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v Sunderland: Points All Around

Arsenal returns to action against Sunderland on Wednesday, with both teams needing one point to secure their immediate objectives. For Arsenal, a draw would be enough to guarantee a third-place league finish and a straight path into next year's Champions League group stage; Sunderland can make sure it stays in the Premier League for the 2015-16 season by not losing at the Emirates.

For that reason, Black Cats manager Dick Advocaat is likely to place the priority on defense. This approach has produced clean sheets against Leicester City and Everton in Sunderland's last two matches.

The performance against Everton at Goodison Park will serve as Advocaat's blueprint. Sunderland relinquished possession to Everton, contenting itself with 30 percent, and completed just 146 passes to Everton's 511 (Stats from OptaSports via whoscored.com). The Black Cats camped in their own half and profited from two fortunate second-half goals from Danny Graham and Jermaine Defoe.

Sunderland will be encouraged by this success--and the manner of it--as they face Arsenal on Wednesday. That's only nine days after Swansea used a determined defense and opportunistic offense to hold the Gunners scoreless in a 1-0 win in London. And it's only three days after Arsenal failed to register a first-half shot against Manchester United, another sign that its offense is not humming.

Getting his attacking players to rediscover some of their verve will be a priority for Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. Not only will he want a strong finish to the league campaign to set the tone for next season's preparations; he'll know from his five previous FA Cup triumphs how difficult it is for a team to regain its energy and goal-scoring form for final crucible. Arsenal can also send Aston Villa, its final opponent, a strong message about the risks of a deep defensive approach.

For those reasons, we shouldn't expect Arsenal to play for a gentlemanly draw. The Gunners can prove both a specific point--that they're ready to defend their FA Cup title--and a general one--that they're capable of breaking through a determined defense.

Which players will Wenger select to make these points?

The thinking here is that he'll change the lineup a bit. After sending out the identical starting XI for six straight league matches, after witnessing that group's collective effectiveness wane in its last two outings, and after seeing fatigue hamper some of the individuals just three days before, the manager will likely employ some different starters on Wednesday.

Midfielder Jack Wilshere is a prime candidate. The Englishman helped assert Arsenal's control over the midfield when he entered the game against Manchester United. This followed energetic substitute performances against Swansea and Hull. He could replace Santi Cazorla in the heart of the midfield or take one of the interchanging roles in attacking midfield.

If Wenger suspects Sunderland won't attack at all, he could use Aaron Ramsey and Wilshere in the heart of midfield, as he did late against Swansea and Manchester United. He'd thus open a forward spot for Theo Walcott or Danny Welbeck, if the latter is fit. This would be a bold move for a side needing only a draw to nail down a third-place league finish.

More likely, Wenger will keep Francis Coquelin at the base of the midfield and use substitutes to change the dynamic if Sunderland's approach keeps Arsenal in check.

There's depth elsewhere that could be brought to bear, such as Gabriel, who will replace the ill Laurent Koscielny at center back. Kieran Gibbs at left back and Tomas Rosicky in any number of positions could also see action, but one lesson of the FA Cup semifinal against Reading is that significant changes risk stalling the offense as much as lineup uniformity does. That's why we expect no more than three changes on Wednesday.

With this scope of rotation, Arsenal should be in position to continue its dominance of the Premier League's bottom 10 teams. In 18 matches against the current bottom half, the Gunners have won 16 and drawn two.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Match Preview, Manchester United v Arsenal: Minimal Mystery

Arsenal's visit to Old Trafford won't carry the drama that seemed likely when the fixture list was released. Originally the penultimate match of the league campaign, the contest could have decided the two sides' Champions League fates or one of their title aspirations.

Neither remains in the balance. Arsenal have already amassed enough points to secure a top-four league finish, while United would have to give up a plus-14 advantage in goal differential to lose its own Champions League spot. Meanwhile, Chelsea have won the title.

The two teams won't hold any major surprises for each other, either. They met two months ago in the FA Cup quarterfinal, a 2-1 Arsenal victory that signaled further improvement against top competition away from home.

Still, no Arsenal-Manchester United contest is devoid of drama, and this one will be interesting on several levels.

For one thing, the implications for the final league table remain important. Arsenal need a win to maintain any hope of finishing second, which was a realistic--and stated--objective prior to Monday's loss to Swansea. A victory would also guarantee the Gunners third place and a pass on next season's Champions League qualifying round.

A United victory keeps open the possibility of a third-place finish for Louis Van Gaal's team, while a draw would give Van Gaal the points for a fourth-place finish and Arsenal almost all it needs for third. It'd be out of character for both Van Gaal and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger to play for that result, so their approaches will be interesting in light of their objectives for the season.

Second, this is the final opportunity for Arsenal to consolidate its away performances against top opposition. The victory at Manchester City, the FA Cup win at Old Trafford, and to some degree the loss at Chelsea have shown that Arsenal are no longer naive travelers.

Although Arsenal played energetically in all three matches, the manager and the team did not take a uniform approach. They placed priority on solid defending in their own half against City and Chelsea, while they pressed United's midfielders and defenders assertively.

Lacking Michael Carrick's ball retention and passing efficiency due to his injury, is United vulnerable to a similar pressing approach on Sunday? Or will Wenger see West Bromich Albion's and Chelsea's recent rear-guard victories over United and his side's result at Manchester City as suggesting a more defensive stature? Will Wayne Rooney's exclusion bear on the Arsenal manager's thinking at all?

All those questions lead to a third interesting point. Based on Wenger's priorities for this match and his judgment of how to realize those, which players does he select? The team looked less than energetic against Swansea, particularly in the first half, and there may be a temptation to bring some variety to the lineup. After all, it was the fifth consecutive appearance for the identical starting eleven, an unprecedented run in Wenger's tenure.

Midfielders Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky are the most likely candidates to join the starters. They'd each add verve to the Arsenal attack, though Wenger will weigh their energy going forward with defensive necessities. In particular, Arsenal's right-sided attacker will have to assist right back Hector Bellerin in marshaling United's Ashley Young, a primary agent of Van Gaal's directive to send crosses into the opposition's penalty area.

A healthy Danny Welbeck or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might have expected to join the Arsenal XI because they'd bring speed in attack and defensive tenacity, but neither is ready to return to the scene of his outstanding FA Cup performance.

Even without Welbeck's desire to show his old employers again what they've forsaken, and even without the high stakes these encounters have carried in the past, Arsenal-Manchester United will always have its intrigues. It's each club's most prominent fixture as the season draws to a close, so the result could shape the storylines and tone for several months. Worth the attention.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Arsenal's Defining Mindset

As the 2014-15 Premier League season draws to a close, Arsenal's manager Arsène Wenger and his players have begun talking about the prospects for next season. One underlying theme of their statements is the type of players the club is likely to retain and recruit, a topic always of interest to supporters.

The easing of the financial burden associated with the Emirates Stadium construction means that Arsenal are again in the market for top-flight talent and will compete with other elite clubs for those players. Among those clubs, physical skill is almost a given and, on balance, does not separate the teams much: For an Eden Hazard at Chelsea, there's a Mesut Özil at Arsenal and a David Silva at Manchester City.

What does set the clubs apart from each other is a finely honed mentality. An exacting mindset, combined with a fortunate-bordering-on-sinister injury record, drove Chelsea to the league title.

At Arsenal, players' mental constitution is emerging as the decisive factor in Wenger's selections for his starting lineups and squads. This filter identifies players based on three major aspects:
  1. Decision-making
  2. Response to pressure
  3. Long-term outlook

Make mature and quick decisions


The players who've earned the manager's trust over the course of this season have been able to strike a balance between patience and decisiveness. Relying on both maturity and agility of mind, they wait for the appropriate moment to act and know what to do when that moment comes.

The prime example of this dynamic is midfielder Francis Coquelin. Loaned out three times, virtually forgotten, and seemingly destined to leave Arsenal this summer, Coquelin was an emergency recall from Charlton in December and by January had made himself essential to this Arsenal team.

He's a combative character in matches, but he has also shown the levelheadedness that Wenger values. As the manager said in describing Coquelin at a recent Barclays event, "It's unbelievable how patient and open-minded you have to be." (Arsenal.com, "Coquelin sticks to what he's strong at")

The counter-example is goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. His nicotine-fueled indiscretions after his poor performance in Arsenal's 2-0 defeat at Southampton laid bare his poor decision-making, prompted Wenger to bench him, and cast doubt on his Arsenal future.

Thrive under pressure


A second psychological requirement of Wenger's players is their willingness to embrace pressure. I have written about this quality, which psychologists call "resilience," in "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not." In short, Arsenal favors players who view the intense attention and stakes of elite competition as opportunities to improve performance.

It's a mindset now common in the team. Center forward Olivier Giroud, the object of considerable scrutiny during his Arsenal career, spoke about the group's response to pressure in a feature on the club Website. He said: "Nowadays you have to deal with that pressure. There is more media now, and social media as well - it is more than in the 1990s. But I like pressure, and the boys do as well." (" You must be able to deal with pressure")

As a result, we see the team panic less often. For example, when Chelsea visited the Emirates in April with the clear intention of preventing Arsenal scoring, the Gunners did not go headlong into attack and leave themselves exposed to a counter-attack. This patient approach has been at work for much of 2015 when Arsenal have failed to establish an early lead in matches.

Take the long view


Meanwhile, on an individual level, we've seen players bounce back quickly from poor performances. Giroud's response to his nightmare Champions League outing against Monaco--seven goals in his next seven starts--was not out of character for him or this team. They've been able to put specific performances, particularly subpar ones such as Monday's loss to Swansea, into the proper perspective. One reason is that, unlike fans and the media, Arsenal's players are viewing their work as part of a long-term effort.

Tim of 7amkickoff has frequently noted that Wenger manages for the long term. That description is backed up by the manager's own statements, such as "Sometimes in the modern professional game [it] is, 'OK. I go two years to Arsenal, I go two years to Real Madrid.' But that doesn't make a club. You need a core of people who want to live there and want to make their lives with the club."

This philosophy seems like a fatal weakness. After all, it runs against the overwhelming trend among professional footballers, who by and large focus on their immediate, individual prospects. That's the conclusion of Bobby Warshaw, a former Stanford player currently in the Norwegian first division, in his intriguing piece, " Understanding the European Players' Mindset is Key to Understanding Klinsmann."

But what if, rather than weakening Arsenal's position, Wenger's preference for players committed to the long-term cause helps identify exceptional contributors? What if this highly refined filter gives Arsenal a competitive advantage in a business characterized by short-term prestige and financial gain?

Identifying players in this way and showing long-term faith in them are having an effect on their progress and perspective. Coquelin, for instance, recounted his difficult days on loan at the German club Freiburg in an interview with The Observer's Amy Lawrence: "Mentally it was tough. Then one day I woke up and realised: ‘OK, I am not going to play. Now I am training to be ready for next season at Arsenal.'" ("Francis Coquelin is the new Arsenal king of counter-bling")

Coquelin's statement provides evidence that Wenger's long view is present among players as well. Listen carefully to their statements as summer transfers approach. If they hint at a longer time horizon, emphasize the value of pressure, or talk about patience, those players could be in Wenger's plans. If they ignore those mental aspects and stress near-term reward, their short- and long-term futures may lie away from Arsenal.