Monday, September 29, 2014

Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not

After an unproductive start to the 2014-15 Premier League campaign and a subpar Champions League performance against Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil told the German news agency DPA, "I don't play to prove others wrong, I play for Arsenal."

Many observers, though, do think that Özil has something to prove, needing in particular to display "passion" in the traditional English sporting sense. After all, that's how they would react if they were faced with the pressure associated with elite athletic competition. The expectations tied to a club-record financial outlay would intensify the pressure they'd feel.

Yet Özil does not give the impression that he's under any stress at all. This behavior, infuriating to some fans, is one of the psychological strengths that combines with amazing physical gifts to foster success at the highest level of competition.

There's an entire field of psychological research devoted to identifying the differences between these elite performers and the rest of us. The message from many of these studies is that what we laypeople consider shortcomings might actually be competitive virtues.

Inviting and overcoming stress

Most individuals experience stress from exposure to traumatic or negative events, such as violence, natural disasters, or the death of a loved one. By contrast, elite athletes choose to put themselves in stressful situations partly because they believe the experiences can improve their performances. They see stressful conditions and events as opportunities to grow and hone their competitive edge. (Many of these ideas come from researchers David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar,  "A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions" in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise 13 (2012).)

Handling stress and pressure requires high levels of what psychologists call resilience. Summoning this characteristic, elite athletes prove able to succeed in situations that would paralyze most of us with fear of failure or awe at our surroundings. Fletcher and Sarkar have also learned that world-class sportswomen and -men are adept at using psychological techniques on themselves; as examples, they can easily step outside themselves and visualize their actions, relax, and shut out distractions.

Calling on psychological strengths

These techniques enhance the psychological advantages elite athletes already possess. By nature and by active cultivation, top sports performers have developed highly refined, advantageous psychological characteristics. Those are:
  1. Confidence
  2. Focus, especially on themselves and on process
  3. Perceived social support
  4. Discipline
The first seems obvious and understandable: elite athletes have to believe they will succeed, or they would have never made it to that level. Focus involves stepping outside themselves cognitively, planning and evaluating their own performance. Top athletes are adept at looking at the process, rather than the outcome, and their own roles in that process. (Findings from Natalie Durand-Bush and John Salmela, "The development and maintenance of expert athletic performance: Perceptions of world and Olympic champions," Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 14:3 (2002).)

The third characteristic, perceived social support, is interesting because it casts player entourages in a different light. These cliques surrounding professional athletes strike many of us as weird and parasitic, but the research suggests they can be essential to overcoming stress and achieving top levels of performance.

The last, discipline, points to the ability to set goals and exercise self-control (See Nicholas Holt and John Dunn, "Toward a grounded theory of the psychological competencies and environmental conditions associated with soccer success," Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 16 (2004).) It's subtly different from focus, which seems more process-oriented. Discipline helps athletes ward off distraction and use their emotional energy to positive effect.

Implications for players we love and loathe

Enough egghead mumbo-jumbo.

What does all this mean for the Arsenal and its supporters?

For one thing, we need to stop demanding that Özil and his teammates show they care in the same way that we would. In all likelihood, Özil's on-field demeanor isn't a sign of apathy; it's an expert adaptation to stressful situations that provides him with a competitive advantage.

The alternative is storming around the pitch, looking intense, flirting with losing control--showing the passion the British have long valued. Far from producing an edge, this kind of behavior actually signals a surrender to stress. The most recent example is Wayne Rooney's tirade as his Manchester United team gave up a two-goal lead to Leicester City.

NBC Sports analyst Robbie Mustoe praised Rooney's outburst, and many of us can relate to his behavior because that's how we would react in that situation. But we are not elite athletes whose training and development have made them experts at managing stress and succeeding under incredible scrutiny.

One of the most volatile characters in sport has reflected on his behavior and now sees the advantage in acting differently. Joey Barton, in a fascinating interview with Henry Winter of The Telegraph, credited psychological consultant Steve Black with changing his outlook and performance. He said: "I visualise stuff now. When I get out of the car on a match-day, I walk into this 'bubble of no reaction' that no one gets in, nobody. I don't waste energy arguing with refs or other players...I'm in control now. I'm empowered."

The Costanza Principle: Do The Opposite!

Supporters of the Arsenal should be further encouraged by Özil's descriptions of the club's extremely supportive environment. That's one of the psychological conditions enabling elite performance. Manager Arsène Wenger should also maintain consistency of expectations because that allows top-level athletes to engage in planning, goal-setting, evaluating, and focusing on the process.

As Michael Keshani (@RoamingLibero) points out in his piece "Appreciating Mesut" for Arseblog, the recent shift to a 4-1-4-1 formation may have failed to take advantage of Özil's physical contributions; worse in my analysis, the change may have undermined Özil's need for consistency and thus his ability to capitalize on his psychological strengths.

The major lesson, though, is that we should stop expecting that Arsenal players show emotion as we would. Their success actually depends on not acting like us at all.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Arsenal's Experienced Youth Movement

Manchester City's visit to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday displayed two contrasting approaches to building and enhancing a professional football squad.

That's no revelation to anyone who's followed the game over the past five years. Man City, propelled by the oil riches of Abu Dhabi, has spent lavishly on experienced world-class players and has been rewarded with two of the last three Premier League titles. Meanwhile, Arsenal has doled out less than it has brought in, selling many of its top performers, acquiring young but unproven talent, and amassing a sizable cash balance in the process.

Many will look at the average ages of the two squads and see confirmation of these long-held perceptions: City has the oldest squad in the Premier League on average; Arsenal, at 25.4 years, the third youngest. (Figures from the September 8 SoccerEx Transfer Review by Prime Time Sport.)

In my view, this conclusion is no longer valid. It ignores significant shifts in Arsenal's methods, which are becoming more apparent with each transfer period, as well as the striking changes instituted by other top clubs.

A core of experienced, valuable youth

Arsenal's youth policy governed the management of the club's playing resources while it paid down the debt and endured the commercial arrangements connected with the Emirates Stadium. Those financial conditions don't exist now. As a result, the type of players the club is acquiring and retaining has changed.

In particular, the youth of today are experienced. The headline signings of the past two off-seasons, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, are now just 25 years old, but they've earned 62 and 71 international caps, respectively. Overall, despite its relatively low average age, the first-team squad has made 877 international appearances. The latest was by 19-year-old Englishman Calum Chambers, another summer 2014 signing. Among 25 first-team players, only four have no senior international experience. That is hardly a callow squad.

While Arsenal players have built their credentials with national teams, they've also been deepening their familiarity with each other. The squad boasts the third highest stability in the League, having played together on average 2.7 years, according to Prime Time Sport's report. That's vital to the Arsenal style characterized by interchanging positions, quick ball movement, and in-game instinct.

Indeed, manager Arsène Wenger and his colleagues have constructed this squad in a distinctive fashion, but perhaps not in the way most observers assume. Arsenal spent the fourth-highest amount in Premier League transfer fees this summer, while acquiring the lowest number of new players (5). This leads to several conclusions:
  1. The £56 million net transfer fee (from the Arsenal Report Transfer Centre) shows that the days of building the team with a severely limited budget have passed
  2. The club is no longer fighting inflation of player salaries, refusing to pay what the transfer market demands
  3. The club is deploying its increased resources to acquire the players it wants but is not spending indiscriminately
  4. The approach focuses on a tight, unified team over potentially problematic star characters (See "Will Wenger's Roster Gambit Pay Off?")
  5. The team is composed of highly accomplished, highly compensated, but still relatively young, professionals

The core home-grown

With home-grown players at the foundation.

Arsenal now has a reasonable claim to eight home-grown players on its first team roster, the highest number in the League, including six Englishmen. According to "The Premier League's Home Grown Player Rule, Explained," Martin Tomlinson's (@Heisenbergkamp) skillfully researched and argued piece, this makeup gives Wenger considerable roster flexibility.

That's because any 25-man Premier League roster can contain only 17 players who are not designated home-grown. Arsenal's eight home-grown players represent a full contingent, and all but two of those eight, midfielder Francis Coquelin and third-choice goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, compete for starting roles.

In other words, Arsenal can be at almost full strength and depth under the regulations, while many competitors have to carry smaller squads or compromise on quality to comply.

The opposition makes other choices

Arsenal's direct competition has for the most part not sought advantage in experienced, young, home-grown players. Last year's winners Man City lists only two home-grown players on its Premier League roster, meaning its full squad can consist of just 19 players. Now, those 19 are top quality, but perhaps this setup doesn't maximize the club's resources. It's also been dancing around UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations and sanctions, which appear to have slowed the club's transfer spending and, according to some reports, caused City to move out striker Álvaro Negredo and halt its pursuit of Radamel Falcao. (Read Ian Herbert's "Radamel Falcao: A Symbol of UEFA Shackling Manchester City in the FFP Era").

According to manager Manuel Pelligrini, City also sent Negredo to Valencia because UEFA's sanctions capped its Champions League squad at 21 players for the 2014-15 campaign. Pellegrini said that "it all starts from the restriction about the number of players. We have restrictions about the number of players and the money we can spend." Don't cry too much for Pellegrini, though, because UEFA seems to be cutting City considerable slack, allowing it to field only one non-club-trained home-grown player among the five (disproportionately) required under the settlement.

Meanwhile, Chelsea is essentially outsourcing player development. It has loaned 26 of its players to other clubs, mostly outside England and Wales. That can remove these players' salaries from Chelsea's books for the purposes of FFP but does not work toward either the Premier League's or UEFA's home-grown requirements. Chelsea has also turned to a much more circumspect spender in 2014: Its net transfer spending was just £10 million in summer 2014.

The tacks of two other clubs do seem similar to Arsenal's in some ways. The most alike is Liverpool's, which was the third highest spender on a net basis and now has a squad whose average age (25.2 years) is even younger than Arsenal's. The main difference is that Liverpool brought in 11 players to Arsenal's five. Manchester United, like Arsenal, has a large home-grown contingent and a relatively young average age, but those traits are secondary to United's net expenditure of £122 million on an assortment of attacking talent, which looks like a desperate rush to return to a Champions League position.

That might work over 38 matches--who can predict? But it seems far more risky financially and less designed as a long-term response to the new Premier League and UEFA regulatory regimes than does Arsenal's approach.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, and the Cult of Personality

As the summer transfer deadline approached Monday, millions of keys were called into action to lambaste Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.

"He's still cheap."

"He's a ditherer."

"He's too loyal to current players to acquire anyone who might replace them."

These are well-worn, superficial explanations of the club's transfer activities, criticisms that transform the perceived personal traits of one man into the guiding principles of a multimillion-pound sports business.

It's not just the amateurs making this association. Marketing professional Alex Fynn and Arsenal fanzine innovator Kevin Whitcher called their 2008 study of the club "Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub," essentially equating the organization with its field manager. Even more striking was Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis's recent characterization of the club as run-of-the-mill, save for Wenger. He told Sports Illustrated's Jeff Bradley: "There's nothing that really distinguishes us from other clubs in England, other than this man."

To me, this line of thinking is simplistic, misleading, and damaging to the spirit of the game.

The full-blown obsession with managers

The overemphasis on the character and power of the football manager doesn't affect Arsenal alone. Although it's easy to identify Wenger with the club due to his extraordinary tenure, to say nothing of the spelling connection between his first name and the club's, observers are just as likely to limit their analyses of other clubs to the perceived traits of their managers.

The English media are particularly sycophantic toward Jose Mourinho of Chelsea, hanging on his every word, giving undue credence to all of them, and buying the image that Mourinho wants to present of himself. The fawning press then depicts Chelsea as a worldwise, ruthlessly practical organization; an equally legitimate characterization would be decadent and inhuman, but those descriptors don't comfortably connect to Mourinho's accepted public persona.

Then there's the case of new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal. He presents himself as larger than life, which made him a good fit for a while at the similarly grandiose Barcelona and is in line with the hubris at Old Trafford. Van Gaal benefited from good fortune as Netherlands manager at this year's World Cup, where many touted his tactical genius based on the Dutch defeat of an aging Spain squad and a goalkeeper substitution that could've just as easily gone wrong. The fawning led to predictions that van Gaal would bring Manchester United the title, notwithstanding the squad's midfield and defensive deficiencies and the questionable performance of the club's executives.

Manchester United may, despite its slow start, contend, but it'll be more down to money and good fortune than to the brilliance of van Gaal.

Easy but inadequate analysis

This focus on the manager as the sole representation of a club makes work easy for those who craft the stories through which we understand matches and campaigns. All writers and broadcasters have to do is perform some amateur character analysis or copy those of others; they don't have to ask players any hard questions about their decisions or performances. That'd be too uncomfortable and complicated.

As a result, we get fed and regurgitate a line of analysis that is simplistic in three main respects:
  1. It ignores structures, systems, finances, and club culture that make particular actions by individuals possible and comprehensible
  2. It creates a story we quickly relate to and understand by focusing on one individual
  3. It permits a knee-jerk critique based on a contrast of how that individual has acted and how I as an individual would have done differently in the same circumstances

 Deeper factors and dramatic outcomes

The character-based drama is indeed attractive, partly because it is so easy to grasp. Nobody wants to think too hard about a pastime. However, as a means of explanation, the personality-driven narrative falls short.

What's much more influential is the minimal degree of regulation defining football's culture and structures. In contrast to American professional sports, which have governmental oversight and self-imposed salary constraints, European football as a business is a free-for-all. This encourages the financial frenzy, which itself drives player acquisitions, which threatens to trump the game itself as the object of attention. (See Rory Smith's excellent piece for ESPN FC on this perversion.)

In this unregulated financial environment, the apparatuses driving clubs' commercial and player acquisition activities have a greater effect on results than the personality of one man. I have cautioned in "We Are All Bean Counters at Arsenal Now" about paying too much attention to the business side, but that doesn't mean the organization supporting the players and the manager isn't important; it's just not the reason to follow a sporting endeavor.

The competitions themselves are that reason. And at pitch level, thousands of individual decisions and actions, as well as twists of fate, occur that no one person controls. Any one of those small events can be decisive. That's because football matches are tight-scoring affairs contested by elite athletes of similar talent.

It's also why the matches are inherently dramatic. We don't need to psycho- or otherwise analyze one person sitting in the manager's chair to make that drama any more enjoyable.