Monday, September 28, 2015

Leicester City 2 Arsenal 5: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal produced a swashbuckling 5-2 win at Leicester City on Saturday.

The performance doubled the Gunners' goal output for the season and ended Leicester's unbeaten opening run. Combined with the midweek win over Tottenham in the Capital One Cup, Saturday's victory represented a strong response to disappointing losses in the two preceding contests at Dinamo Zagreb and Chelsea.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Don't get into a shootout with Arsenal

In truth, we could fill a report with accounts and analysis of the various ways Arsenal scored--incisive counterattack, deft crosses, individual skill off a set play, precise timing of a fullback run. That's testament to how rampant Arsenal's offense was in this match.

Allowed space by Leicester's high defensive line, Arsenal's Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez swooped into dangerous areas again and again. Leicester's midfield failed to put pressure on Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil, giving those two pass masters many opportunities to pick out the runs of their teammates farther forward.

The numbers (from Opta via the StatsZone app) reveal the consequences.

Arsenal had 26 shots, an amazing 22 inside the Leicester penalty area, and only missed the target with one (not including the 14 blocks Leicester made).

Cazorla completed 71 of 77 passes (92 percent), created five opportunities for teammates, and assisted on Walcott's opening goal. Özil connected on 54 of 59 passes (also 92 percent), also created five scoring chances for teammates, and delivered a delicious cross for Alexis's second goal.

Leicester tried but could not match the Gunners' effectiveness in attack. The Foxes took 16 shots of their own, 11 in the Arsenal penalty area, and opened the scoring in the 13th minute when Jamie Vardy latched on to a long clearance, outran Per Mertesacker, and finished past Petr Cech into the far corner.

This set the tone for a wide-open match, which played to Arsenal's strengths.

Alexis loves Leicester

The King Power Stadium in Leicester will hold fond memories for Alexis when he ends his time in the Premier League.

Arsenal's star man got his first league goal there last season and ended his early season drought there Saturday with goals of opportunism and top quality.

His first was a welcome, straightforward finish, thanks to Walcott's clever run to the near post, which took two Leicester defenders with him. When Hector Bellerin's cross was redirected by that three-player melee, Alexis found himself with the ball in front of an open goal. The easiest of putaways got him off the mark for the season.

For his second, he received another pass from the marauding Bellerin, passed to Özil across the top of the Leicester penalty area, timed his run to escape all the defenders, then redirected Özil's cross past the onrushing Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel.

He capped the hat trick with a screaming low shot from outside the penalty area, an opening he generated himself with a deft flick of Nacho Monreal's throw-in past Leicester's Ngolo Kanté.

These were a worthy payoff for Alexis's combination of creativity, desire, and skill that took him to such heights in his inaugural Premier League campaign.

Nacho Monreal may be the best left back in the Premier League

It's a variation of the rags-to-riches story. Monreal joins Arsenal in January 2013, primarily due to the injury of starting left back Kieran Gibbs. The Spaniard does not thrive under the circumstances but gradually learns the requirements and tricks of a Premier League defender.

Watch the recent interview on the club's website for Monreal's thoughtful reflection on his career.

He's now made 94 appearances for Arsenal; his latest was an absolutely top performance against the league's in-form attacking player, Leicester's Riyad Mahrez.

Mahrez came into the match with five goals and three assists in six games this season. Monreal shut him out on Saturday, so much so that Mahrez switched sides to try to find better opportunities on Arsenal's right.

Overall, Monreal made seven ball recoveries, succeeded on seven of the eight clearances he attempted, and won seven of eight aerial duels. He also assisted on Olivier Giroud's goal in second half injury time, taking advantage of the flagging Leicester defense to reach the by-line and cut the ball back for the Arsenal striker.

That closed Monreal's outstanding display and solidified his place as the top left back in the league at the moment. Name a better one. 

Extra time

This was Walcott's top showing as a center forward for Arsenal.

The conditions favored him: Leicester's lumbering center backs and assertive defensive line gave him the space to use his speed. He did that, connected with Cazorla's defense-splitting pass, and delivered a subtle left-footed finish for Arsenal's first goal.

On other occasions, Walcott created space for teammates with intelligent runs, such as the one that freed Alexis for his opening goal. And he held his own in the physical battles.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Tottenham 1 Arsenal 2: Three Things We Learned from the Capital One Cup

Mathieu Flamini’s stunning 78th-minute strike proved the difference as Arsenal eliminated Tottenham from the Capital One Cup, 2-1.

Although Flamini’s volley was a rare moment of quality in this match, the two sides put on an intriguing and spirited show. There were personnel and tactical tweaks, hearty challenges, and a few nervous moments for Arsenal’s defenders.

Here are three points that stood out.

Mathieu Flamini does a wicked Aaron Ramsey impression

We don’t know if Flamini can deliver mundane lines with a slight Welsh lilt, and it’s almost certain he can’t reproduce Ramsey’s level of performance on a regular basis, but for this one night at White Hart Lane, Flamini looked every bit the all-energy, goal-scoring midfielder.

Arsenal’s first goal owed to Flamini’s effort to follow up on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot. In the 26th minute, Flamini takes off into the Tottenham area just as Oxlade-Chamberlain lets the ball run across himself and turns. Flamini continues his run where Tottenham’s central defenders don’t follow, pounces on the rebound, and lifts a lovely poacher’s finish over Tottenham keeper Michel Vorm.

That’s the kind of energy and product Ramsey has produced when he’s in form, from a similar position in Arsenal’s central midfield.

As Flamini explained, "I tried to be a bit creative today. I had the opportunity. I felt there was maybe a possibility, so I went forward [for the first goal], and the ball came back to my feet."

Flamini’s game-winner was opportunistic in a different way. He has a lash at a poor clearance on the edge of the Tottenham area and drives it into Vorm’s net. The same intent—albeit with a lower degree of difficulty and less spectacular execution—that Ramsey delivered on with his eye-catching Champions League goal against Galatasaray last season.

During the rest of the match, Flamini harried Tottenham, occasionally as the team’s most forward presser as Ramsey often does, and dropped beside Mikel Arteta when Tottenham advanced.

This range of activity meant that Arteta and Flamini did not clog the midfield as much as we might have expected the duo to do; instead, Flamini produced an attacking threat and end product that Arsenal’s central midfield has struggled to create so far this season.

Arsène Wenger agrees with Jack Wilshere

The Arsenal manager made 10 changes to the side that played at Chelsea on Saturday, leaving only Ramsey, who reprised his national team role as a free playmaker. This despite Wenger’s comments before the match intimating he’d resist wholesale rotation:
It is an opportunity for Arsenal to win an important game and for the players who play for our club to defend our club and qualify. Apart from that, we played with the team in Zagreb, and we didn’t win, so we want to come back now and win our cup games because that’s vital to us.

It’s that last hint about the consequences of rotation in Zagreb that led us to think more of the first choice XI might be involved from the start on Wednesday.

But the manager seems to share Jack Wilshere’s view that there’s a scent of poo about Tottenham.

He holds his nose at the Capital One Cup as well, when necessary. It’s long been fourth on his list of priorities, and a derby matchup didn’t change that thinking.

This is an understandable--and now vindicated—choice, given where the match falls in Arsenal’s calendar. In three days, the team travels to Leicester, needing a win against an undefeated opponent to spark its league season. Then, on Tuesday comes the absolute must-win home contest against Olympiacos in the Champions League.

With three matches in six days, Wenger looked past the passion of a cup tie with the rivals and gave his preferred starters a rest. Flamini, especially, took advantage of the opportunity.

Arsenal’s right was all wrong

The pair of right back Mathieu Debuchy and forward Joel Campbell was the most vulnerable part of Arsenal’s setup. Campbell’s defensive interventions were notable because they were so rare, and Debuchy suffered on his own.

The Frenchman was the architect of some of his problems as well, making questionable decisions to advance, getting sucked in to the center of the defense, and giving the ball away far too often.

It was Debuchy’s errant central pass that started the Tottenham move leading to Calum Chambers’s unfortunate own goal. Debuchy also got caught under the cross-field pass just enough to allow Tottenham’s Nacer Chadli to control it and send the ball toward David Ospina’s goal.

Campbell, playing as one of two inverted wingers, couldn’t get a free header on goal in the first half.

On the evidence of this match and Debuchy’s performance a week ago in Zagreb, the pair aren’t close to working themselves into the manager’s preferred lineup.

Extra time

Tottenham adjusted its pressing game to focus on Chambers and Debuchy, unlike last season’s league encounter when they targeted Francis Coquelin and Ramsey in the center of midfield.

With Arteta’s vision, positioning, and calm on the ball at the base of Arsenal’s midfield, an aggressive midfield press might not have worked as well; plus, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino no doubt studied Chambers against Liverpool and Debuchy against Dinamo Zagreb and decided they were easier prey. Chambers acquitted himself well, despite his decisive part in the Tottenham goal.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0: Three Things We Learned

It's tough to reflect on Arsenal's 2-0 defeat at Chelsea and draw wisdom.

The match turned from an interesting, cagey affair to an utter farce just before halftime, when the spotlight-seeking referee Mike Dean took the opportunity to expel Arsenal center half Gabriel.

Still, let's consider these three conclusions that emerged from the encounter.

Arsenal don't have the margin of safety to buffer it against awful officiating

This is the second straight match in which Arsenal players have seen red cards. After Olivier Giroud's expulsion in the Champions League on Wednesday, both Gabriel and Santi Cazorla were sent off against Chelsea.

Like most teams, Arsenal have struggled with the subsequent disadvantage.

That's the hard--and perhaps not very revelatory--truth.

There are some interesting aspects of this reality, though. Often a team's fans will rail at unjust officiating and say that it cost their team the game, but in many cases they're just looking for an outside scapegoat for their team's inadequate performance.

In this case, Arsenal fans are right to identify Saturday's referee as decisive. And just about any reasonably impartial observer would have to agree: The unwillingness or inability to punish Diego Costa properly, the failure to defuse the Gabriel-Diego Costa confrontation, and several other key borderline calls tilted this match in Chelsea's favor.

This experience, coming just after an encounter with another inept, touchy, or easily influenced match official in Zagreb, should serve as a lesson to Arsenal's players and staff: They're likely to face injustice; their task is to minimize its effects.

Succeeding in that situation will require extraordinary intelligence, mental fortitude, and balance. It'll also take leadership, which both Francis Coquelin (a second too late) and Nacho Monreal (rebuffed by the referee) tried to exercise on Saturday. I wonder if Per Mertesaker's or Mikel Arteta's presence on the pitch would have made a difference, recognizing, of course, that Mertesacker's presence might have meant Gabriel was on the bench rather than in the heat of the action.

Now we've seen the consequences when Arsenal don't exercise the "soft skills," as opposed to the physical skills, at this highest level of performance, and they're unpleasant.

Arsenal can execute the necessary tactical plan

Before the incident that changed the match, Arsenal showed its tactical flexibility, adapting the approach to fit the occasion.

Early on, the movement of Arsenal's forwards caused Chelsea some discomfort. When that activity didn't create the important early goal, the focus shifted to keeping Chelsea at bay.

This succeeded. Chelsea had only four shots on target in the first half, and just one of those, Pedro's smothered connection with a lofted pass to the far post, was inside Arsenal's penalty area.

Overall, even with a man and then two-man disadvantage, Arsenal conceded just two of what StatsZone calls "big chances" in front of goal, the Pedro shot saved by Petr Cech in the first half and Kurt Zouma's headed goal in the 53rd minute.

The approach was similar to the one Arsenal executed in winning at Manchester City last January. Saturday had the makings of another tactical masterclass but for the referee's intervention.

Alexis needs to lift off

When Arsenal could not identify, recruit, and attract a world-beating center forward this offseason, just about everyone acknowledged that the team would need a diverse supply of goals. Midfielders such as Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil would have to contribute more, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck would need to stay healthy and be more productive, and Alexis, last season's top scorer, would have to add to his goal tally.

That mix certainly hasn't come together yet this season, and it's missing the key ingredient from Alexis.

It's not for lack of trying. Alexis ran himself to the limit on Saturday, coming off after 75 minutes. But when presented with Arsenal's one big chance of the match, he wobbled, missing the target from pointblank range not long after Zouma's opening goal.

That was Arsenal's chance to change the dynamic of the match -- despite the numerical disadvantage -- and the star man did not take it.

Whether he returned too quickly from leading Chile to the Copa America, whether his unrelenting schedule of the past two years has taken a toll, whether he just needs one shot to go in to get himself going -- Alexis needs a boost if Arsenal are to achieve their objectives.

Extra time

Arsenal showed its mettle by standing up to Chelsea's bullies. The response might not have been sufficiently cunning, but we can't question the passion. Wednesday's Capital One Cup tie against Tottenham presents an excellent opportunity to channel that spirit.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Champions League Match Preview, Dinamo Zagreb v Arsenal: Start Smart

Arsenal’s trip to Croatia to open the Champions League campaign will test the side’s intelligence.

Although Dinamo Zagreb’s talent shouldn’t be underestimated, Arsenal’s skill, speed, strength, and stamina have to be superior on paper. It’s the mental qualities, though, that so often determine success in European play. And the Gunners still have something to prove in that respect.

There were the two disastrous home performances against Anderlecht and Monaco in last year’s competition, when the necessary focus and savvy escaped Arsenal and expected victories didn’t materialize. This season’s home Premier League opener against West Ham turned on two mental errors; that was proof that Arsenal’s superior physical talents can still fail to carry the day.

Manager Arsène Wenger and his players have recognized the mental requirements, particularly in a six-game, round-robin tournament. Wenger said this week:
It is important we go to Zagreb highly focused and conscious of what is at stake there. You can be quickly out of the Champions League, and we want to start well….

Left back Nacho Monreal made similar points in his pre-match comments, saying,
You don’t play too many games, so if you make a mistake, you pay for it. You have to be really focused in each game, and the level is higher. The difference is small, but you have to be really focused.

Arsenal’s quest to reach and maintain that mental level will be important and interesting in several respects. First, this match is the first in a challenging run of four matches away from home and could influence the team’s performances against Chelsea on Saturday, against Tottenham next week in the Capital One Cup, and against Leceister on September 26.

It’s also happening four days after the team’s best outing of the season so far, the 2-0 win over Stoke City. How do the manager and the team capitalize on that performance using an adjusted lineup?

We know that Saturday’s starters Hector Bellerin and Aaron Ramsey haven’t made the trip to Zagreb, so Mathieu Debuchy and, presumably, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will have to blend their contributions into the team’s style and efforts.

Unlike some of their predecessors on the substitutes’ bench, Debuchy and Oxlade-Chamberlain are well positioned to profit from the opportunity. Both are full internationals with substantial experience and talents suited to European competition. Debuchy’s toughness, aerial ability, and reading of the game and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strength and speed are distinctive advantages against wily European opponents.

Wenger noted the improved quality of his options in his pre-match press conference, observing: “It is quite easy to change two or three players, [more] than it was in years before because they are all at a very good level.”

They’ll need to play and think at that elite level because Dinamo Zagreb are no pushovers. The Croatian champions are on a 41-game unbeaten run in all competitions and have outscored their three most recent home opponents 13-1. That record underlines the attacking threat of Angelo Henriquez, Armin Hodzic, and Soudani. The trio has combined for 18 goals already in domestic and European competitions. (Stats from Opta via

The problem for Dinamo is that they haven’t yet faced a team that required them to sit deep and defend. And, even when circumstances have dictated a defensive approach, they haven’t been able to execute one. The striking example: After scoring three early goals in a Champions League qualifier at Molde, Dinamo conceded three goals and advanced only by virtue of away goals.

Arsenal showed against Stoke City what it can do to teams whose defenses are not finely calibrated and executed. With a physical effort on that level, combined with the proper focus and intelligence, the Gunners should generate a promising launch to their Champions League campaign and upcoming domestic schedule.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Arsenal 2 Stoke City 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal dominated Stoke Saturday but had to wait until Olivier Giroud's 85th minute header to secure a 2-0 home win.

The Gunners struggled in front of goal, with several shocking misses among the 27 attempts that did not find the net, but that's no revelation at this point. Here are three things we learned instead.

Maybe atypical goals should become the objective

When Arsenal's goal-scoring form wanes, the team often intensifies its efforts to execute the perfect pass-and-move action. We saw this in the last Premier League outing against 10-man Newcastle, which Arsenal won by virtue of an own goal.

There were a few occasions against Stoke when similar attacks were unsuccessful, most notably the one-two between Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil that sent the German through with only Stoke keeper Jack Butland to beat. Özil tried unsuccessfully to coax the ball past Butland at the near post.

Arsenal succeeded, though, with different approaches. The first goal was a long-range counterattack, commenced by a Francis Coquelin tackle in the Arsenal half and served up by a wonderful long pass from Özil to Theo Walcott. Walcott exploited Stoke's relatively high line, found just enough space, and rolled the ball under the onrushing Butland.

The second goal came from a Cazorla free kick and an accurate header by Giroud, who had eased between two dozy Stoke defenders. The free kick resulted from muscular play by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who drew a foul from Stoke's Phil Bardsley in a threatening area.

Again, the source of the play was not an intricate Arsenal move. Perhaps this diversified approach to goal is worth more attention.

Gabriel brings the pain

The Brazilian earned his third consecutive start in the center of the Arsenal defense and gave as good as he got with Stoke's physical forwards. The highlight, of course, was his second-half tussle with villain Marco Arnautevic, the culprit in Arsenal right back Mathieu Debuchy's shoulder separation last spring.

This time, Arnautevic fared worse. He clearly initiated the set-to with Gabriel, throwing an elbow and then a forearm into Gabriel's face as they chased down a ball. Gabriel fended off the second blow and, in one motion, clocked Arnautevic across the face.

The arm of justice.

It was just the most notable of Gabriel's successful interventions. He and Laurent Koscielny marshaled Stoke's rare attacks well, save for one loose headed clearance by Koscielny. Their quickness and physicality give opposition forwards a tough time.

On these performances, Per Mertesacker faces a real challenge to break back into to the starting lineup, especially if Koscielny's passing continues to improve. The Frenchman was Arsenal's top passer against Stoke, completing 75 of 83 passes. (Stats via FourFourTwo's StatsZone app.)

Arsenal have two point guards to lead a transition offense

The selection of Theo Walcott at center forward, coupled with Stoke's decision to push defenders slightly higher up the pitch, created excellent conditions for Arsenal's two skilled playmakers to shine. Santi Cazorla and Özil did.

Playing deep in midfield, Cazorla shook off some indifferent recent performances and showed his quality, particularly in the first half. He spotted runs by Walcott and Aaron Ramsey and launched pinpoint long passes to each of his teammates.

In the second half, Cazorla was at his dancing best, avoiding the inevitable Stoke challenges, getting himself into dangerous positions, and launching four shots, two quite threatening. His assist to Giroud and a similarly precise free kick to Koscielny in the waning minutes were two of the seven chances he created for teammates.

Meanwhile, Özil made the decisive impact with his assist for Walcott's opening goal. That pass, so quickly made after Coquelin had won the ball, caught Stoke off guard because they had moved slightly forward, thinking the biggest risk was a more involved Arsenal build-up. It was the most eye-catching and important of the eight chances Özil created in the match.

Extra Time: Arsenal's fullback combination is tough to beat

When Stoke manager Mark Hughes sent Xherdan Shaqiri and Arnautevic out as his wide forwards, he handed the initiative to Arsenal's fullbacks Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal. They took it and ran.

Bellerin attempted 20 passes in the final third, completing 17 of them (85 percent) and creating four scoring chances for teammates. His cross to Walcott in the first half really deserved a better finish.

Monreal posted less impressive attacking numbers, but he identified the gaps in Stoke's defense and made runs to exploit the openings. His work in the air, winning three of three duels against an historically airborne opponent, suggests that he could also be a worthy outlet (as Bacary Sagna was) for the goalkeeper's kicks in Giroud's absence.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Wilshere & Welbeck & the Way Back

The recent announcement of Arsenal forward Danny Welbeck’s knee surgery was a potent incendiary device. It combined two highly flammable elements—the club’s (lack of) transfer activity and its injury record—and sparked them with a bit of awkward and untimely public relations. The result was a social media firestorm.

It’s sadly not the first time an injury development has provoked criticism, in addition to amateurish medical diagnosis. The response usually focuses on physical factors, such as the nature of the injury, the scope of the treatment, or the typical recovery period, as if all Arsenal have to do is repair a broken machine.

Lost in all this is the mental condition of the individual affected, even though the psychological aspect is just as important as physical recovery. That’s the conclusion of compelling research on injury and rehabilitation among athletes.

Injury as routine

For years, supporters and media used Arsenal’s injury record as cudgel with which to attack manager Arsène Wenger. He shouldn't insist, some said, on a style of play that exposes players to so much physical risk; he should diversify his team away from so many small, slight players, others claimed; he should relax his stubborn training methods, still others argued; he should stop trying to control all aspects of the club, some proclaimed, especially medical interventions.

All these arguments ignore the research. Many studies have indicated that injuries are an unavoidable element of athletic performance. As Charles Brown notes in “Injuries: The Psychology of Recovery and Rehab,” “serious athletes come in two varieties: those who have been injured, and those who have not been injured yet” (The Sport Psych Handbook, 2013).

Everyone associated with an athletic endeavor, including managers, coaches, athletes themselves, and supporters, should therefore prepare for the reality of injury. After all, the vast majority of elite footballers sustain a performance-limiting injury at least once a season. (See Casper Devantier, “Psychological Predictors of Injury among Professional Soccer Players” in Sport Science Review.)

Fortunately, professional players can deal with this eventuality better than amateur players or fans can. Elite athletes have access to state-of-the-art facilities, breakthrough treatments, and attentive medical and rehab staffs. They’re also adept with the psychological techniques that enable peak performance, which, it so happens, are identical to those needed for effective injury recovery.

As I described a year ago in in “Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not,” the specific psychological tools elite athletes call upon are goal-setting, imagery, relaxation training, and positive self-talk. Also important is strong social support, which helps injured players stay motivated and confident. This points to another benefit of team camaraderie.

Warning signs

We can sense the psychological risks of injury in the comments of Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta, who spent more than six months sidelined with calf and ankle problems: “When players go outside for a training session, you feel wasted. They come back, they travel, they have different times to you and you don’t spend much time with them. Personally, I don’t feel productive.”

These types of feelings, while understandable at a human level, can be problematic for athletes. That’s because athletes can become more vulnerable to injury if they exhibit certain psychological traits. In Devantier’s study of Danish professional footballers, poor ability to cope with adversity and the existence of previous injuries both bore a strong correlation to the duration of injuries.

This makes sense. If a player can’t handle adversity or has suffered a prior injury, his anxiety could increase, affecting his ability to stay positive and calm and avoid long injury layoffs.

The real problem for Arsenal is that other research has identified an element of personality in the vulnerability to injury. Brown has observed that "the risk of injury increases if the athlete experiences competitive trait anxiety (routinely feels greater anxiety or tension in performance situations) or anger and aggression during competition."


Anger and aggression during competition. Remind you of anyone?

Hence a legitimate concern about midfielder Jack Wilshere. He's often the first into the fray, the scrappy English bulldog.

The question is, how does Wilshere separate this aggression from his playing style? He shouldn't heed advice to adjust his style of play out of fear of re-injury, which could actually create the conditions for another injury. What's important is that Wilshere remain in control of his physical and emotional conduct.

He should also rely on his teammates, the strength and conditioning coaches, the physios, the management team, and others. The support of them all is crucial; that's especially the case for Welbeck, who doesn't have the longstanding ties to the club Wilshere enjoys.

Perhaps Wenger knows how important togetherness and support are for his injured charges. It could explain why he's so complimentary of injured players in public and why he stayed behind Abou Diaby through his many long absences. That support was undoubtedly about Diaby, but it might have also been a message to the other members of the team that the club would stand by them if/when they were injured, too.

This approach to player injuries also explains the quick response to England manager Roy Hodgson's statement about the length of Welbeck's absence. Soon after Hodgson said that Welbeck would be out at least six months, Arsenal provided details of Welbeck's cartilage problem to Jeremy Wilson of the Telegraph, stressing that the club prognosis still pointed to a late December return.

Understood in light of the psychological research, Arsenal's purposeful public relations recovery was designed to encourage the player, keep him close psychologically to the first team, and reassure fans that the club is taking a professional, thoughtful, and holistic approach to the inevitable injuries.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Inscrutable Arsène Wenger

The close of the summer transfer period on Tuesday prompted an incredulous response from many Arsenal supporters. How, they asked, could Arsenal state aspirations to compete for the Premier League title and neglect summer transfers?

The disconnect seems all the more pronounced in light of the activity of other title aspirants, particularly Manchester City and Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Chelsea. They were three of the top four spenders, on a net basis, in the league, while Arsenal ranked 15th.

To broaden and intensify the contrast: Arsenal were the only club in the top-five European leagues not to recruit a senior outfield player during this transfer period.

This is seen as a clear indication of a character flaw in manager Arsène Wenger.

Reasons for the uproar

I think this misguided response comes down to three factors:
  1. Our own ignorance of the arcane environment of football transfers
  2. Our lazy equation of one man with the activity of a multifaceted enterprise
  3. Wenger’s remarkable ability, despite years in the public eye, to defy assumptions and expectations

I’ve written about the bizarre world of football transfers before, so instead of restating my case here, I’ll just direct you to a piece on my personal blog, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Even Small Crowds.” The main point is that football transfers don’t have the characteristics of any transaction we’re familiar with – and they certainly aren’t as straightforward as popular computer games make them seem.

Even the term “transfer market” creates a false impression, because it suggests a large pool of transparent transactions that can be compared to each other. That’s not the case for the few, murky, discrete exchanges of footballers and money among European clubs.

My article “Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, and the Cult of Personality” examines the second factor, arguing that the equation of individual managers with clubs is lazy, misleading, and convenient, in the sense that it allows me as an individual to criticize a public figure based on the way I would have acted in similar circumstances.

An exceptional figure

It’s the third factor I want to look at here. Accepting that Wenger plays the dominant role in Arsenal’s acquisition of players, the manager has shown instincts that so few of us can understand, let alone summon.

To wit: When the next summer transfer period closes, Wenger will be in the final year of his contract. Yet in this penultimate opportunity for a major expenditure, he held back, or at least endorsed the approach of holding back. How many of us, knowing we could be out the door in the medium term, would have done the same?

Instead, the manager and his colleagues made just one acquisition at the first-team level. Even there, the move went against expectation. Arsenal paid Chelsea £10.9 million for 33-year-old goalkeeper Petr Cech. That’s the highest fee for a goalkeeper in Wenger’s tenure – Richard Wright’s transfer cost the club £6 million in 2001 – and certainly represents the largest proportion of any transfer period’s activity for a goalkeeper. (Transfer figures are from The Arsenal Report's Transfer Centre.)

The remainder of Arsenal’s transfer activity involved younger players, part of the club’s clear effort to enhance the player development structure and personnel. Jeff Reine-Adelaïde, the 17-year-old acquisition from Lens, put in two eye-catching preseason performances with the first team, while his compatriots Yassin Fortune and Ismaël Bennacer have also been highly touted. In all, the club spent £3.3 million on five youngsters, the largest single outlay on youth team players in Wenger’s time at the club.

That suggests that, despite his age, Wenger continues to manage for the long-term, valuing the training and upbringing of talented youth. At the same time, he has eased his prior practice of cutting ties with players older than 30, extending the contracts of Tomás Rosicky and Mikel Arteta this summer and showing a willingness to let 31-year-old Mathieu Flamini's contract run to term next summer.

Adaptation or image management?

This portrayal isn't of a hidebound geriatric or a spendthrift. Wenger is making multiple adjustments, not least deploying a considerable amount of the club's resources in the past two years, to move the club closer to its title rivals. He won't ever match their spending because profligacy doesn't suit his philosophy--if it did, he'd have left for Real Madrid in 2005--and because that's not the club's strategy.

What Wenger will do is see out his current contract and keep us all guessing about his subsequent plans. Whether this coyness is a deliberate ploy to stay in the public eye, to take some of the scrutiny off his players, to solidify his legacy, or to remain true to his nature, that's all conjecture.

We may never fully understand Wenger's motives or decisions, but it's incredibly interesting to try. If those efforts don't figure him out to our satisfaction, that's more on us than it is on him. Might it just be more worthwhile to marvel at this extraordinary steward of an organization that means so much to so many?