Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Arsène Wenger's Management Acrobatics

The discomfort associated with Arsenal's 2-1, 120-minute win over Reading in the FA Cup semifinal has prompted questions about the four changes manager Arsène Wenger made to the starting lineup.

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and center forward Danny Welbeck returned to the positions they had occupied in the previous round's win at Manchester United, while fullbacks Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs came into the starting lineup for the first time since January 11 and March 4, respectively.

None performed at a level to suggest that he will be a regular starter for Arsenal's remaining matches. The one possible exception is Debuchy, who hinted at the defensive stability the manager might prefer in high-stakes games.

Despite these players' struggles and the team's travails overall, their selection represented a success. Here's why:
  1. Arsenal won the match and maintained its impeccable, eight-week run of results
  2. Several potentially important players logged time in a high-pressure match
  3. The manager built a body of evidence for future personnel decisions

These are meaningful objectives to achieve in the context of a season, even if myopic fans and pundits prefer to focus on the tight final score against a lower-ranked Reading side.

The perspective of time

Wenger expresses an intriguing sense of time. His public statements send a message to his players to limit their focus to the next game. It's almost a reflex for him. "I believe now let's focus on our next game," he said during his FA Cup semifinal press conference. (Available on Arsenal Player)

In statements that are less automatic, Wenger lets on that he's not focused only on the next match. He's looking at the scope of a full season.

"Let's finish the season well," he remarked over the weekend. "We have six games, a big game next weekend, and I believe we have the spirit, which is encouraged by the results."

Here, Wenger is balancing the need to restrict his players' attention to the immediate task with an acknowledgement that the immediate task is important but not definitive. The full measure of this team will be its cumulative results over a season.

To meet expectations over that assessment period, Wenger has to prepare the entire 25-man squad to compete from August to May in a 38-match league season and three cup competitions. And throughout he has to put each member of the squad in position to adjust to events.

Providing a taste of the action

The two types of events that most directly concern players are injuries and dips in form. To help them prepare for those possibilities affecting themselves and teammates, the manager must keep more than his top 11 players sharp.

One obvious reason is that any player could quickly become essential.

For example, starting center half Per Mertesacker's ankle injury on Saturday renders the readiness of Gabriel vital. Integrating the Brazilian relatively quickly after his January arrival, with starts against Middlesbrough, Everton, and Newcastle, looks wise now. He was not paralyzed by the high-pressure environment of an FA Cup semifinal, and he'll be ready if needed against Chelsea. That wouldn't have been the case had the manager stuck with the strong defensive partnership of Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny throughout 2015.

Wenger also has to weigh the risks and the adaptability of specific players. That was the scenario with Debuchy, as, unbeknownst to supporters, recent starting right back Hector Bellerin had been suffering from injuries of his own.

"It was a bit risky," Wenger admitted. "Bellerin has played recently with some ankle problems, and Debuchy was back, so I thought it was a good moment to do it."

"[H]e is a French international and must be capable of playing in a semifinal against Reading."

Just as important as these assessments is the head man's management of players' egos. He has to insure the commitment of a group of young, highly paid professionals whose careers have depended on single-mindedness and self-regard. They may not grasp their important role in the season's arc from the substitute's bench.

To maintain solidarity in an era of professional and personal distraction, Wenger affords them action. "You wait, you wait, at some stage you have to play a game," he explained.

Building a case for personnel decisions

Seizing these opportunities to show one's qualities and contributions is the charge of the professional athlete. It's one that midfielder Francis Coquelin answered emphatically in January.

Wenger has admitted that he didn't foresee Coquelin's success; it would be hard to find anyone who did. He developed a faith from Coquelin's work in training and his play on loan. But that faith had to be supported by evidence of consistent match performances.

Building this body of evidence is another reason for reintroducing the four players to the starting lineup against Reading. Their performances lend support to the manager's case when he decides about their involvement.

"Ideally, you want everybody to be happy," Wenger revealed in discussing his changes against Reading. "It is part of the job, and the most important thing is to get results, for the fans and everybody involved with the club."

With that as the priority, Wenger now has more points of information should players or their representatives approach him with appeals for more prominent roles. He could, I think, rebuff arguments from Saturday's four additions that they should take those positions from the starters of eight consecutive Premier League matches.

Yet I doubt Wenger will make such a definitive statement. He knows he'll probably need each of the players -- perhaps in a starting role against Chelsea (Debuchy), in a different starting position later (Welbeck), in important substitute appearances (Gibbs and Welbeck), or in the FA Cup final (Szczesny).

As a result, he'll continue the acrobatic act of preparing and motivating these elite athletes. That might involve decisions and communications, such as those surrounding the Reading match, that seem puzzling to supporters focused on single performances. They're more understandable, though, if we consider the relevant time horizon, the abrupt changes in fortunes of professional athletes, and the complex requirements of managing a group of them.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Arsenal's Multiple Winning Ways

Arsenal's eighth consecutive Premier League victory, secured 1-0 Saturday at Burnley, has brought out the reductionists--again.

How is it possible, ask these crusaders for the simplest explanations, that this club of underachievers has put together the longest winning streak of this league campaign? One prominent writer has attributed all the success to the lucky emergence of midfielder Francis Coquelin.

But there's no one cause of the team's current form, just as there was no one source of its relatively slow start to the season. It's not even possible to pinpoint a style of play or a tactical approach that has produced these results.

Arsenal have instead won in a variety of ways, suggesting that the players and the management can adapt to and profit from many different scenarios.

Taking a beating

On the surface, the win at Turf Moor resembled Arsenal's earlier victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, the second in the current eight-match run. The Gunners won each by one goal, overcoming difficult conditions and opponents who pressed actively and, when they couldn't win the ball, fouled extensively. Both Burnley and Palace committed 15 fouls against Arsenal; that's more than 30 percent higher than the average number of fouls in league matches this season (11.4). (Stats from OptaSports via

There were differences, though, in how Arsenal handled the pressing and fouling. Against Crystal Palace, they relied on defensive solidity, making a whopping 82 clearances. Meanwhile, Palace, breaking the deep-seated perception of Arsenal's insistence on ball retention, made more passes (366 to 365) and enjoyed 55 percent possession.

Against Burnley, Arsenal depended less on defensive action and more on possession to relieve the pressure. It may have seemed that defending was the priority because Arsenal held a 1-0 lead for 78 minutes and because the interventions, particularly of Coquelin and fullback Nacho Monreal, were obvious and effective.

But the focus was on possession: Arsenal notched 65 percent possession overall, via 688 passes to Burnley's 303 and 885 touches to Burnley's 492. This dominance of the ball served to limit Burnley's pressure on the Arsenal goal to a handful of moments.

Pressing for opportunities

The match prior to the trip to Burnley, the glorious 4-1 home win over Liverpool, featured a different approach. Arsenal pressed early for the advantage, targeting the visitors' suspect defense. The Gunners' dominance at the outset was not rewarded with a goal, nor was Liverpool's brief surge. Arsenal then reasserted themselves and reaped the reward of three goals within eight minutes just before halftime.

Adrian Clarke turns his typically keen eye on all the goals on The Breakdown on the club's Website, and there's not much I can add here.

What can be said is that in the second half, Arsenal's changed tack. The 3-0 lead gave the team license to sit deep and thwart Liverpool's attacks, and for the most part, this rendered Liverpool's possession impotent.

The approach had been similar in establishing and managing a 2-0 halftime lead at Newcastle, but in that case Newcastle broke the containment earlier in the second half and then set upon an Arsenal side tiring from its exertions in the Champions League three days before.

The tactics employed against Newcastle -- and against Manchester United in the 2-1 FA Cup victory -- are evidence of a finely tailored system. It's not just in home matches when conditions are favorable that Arsenal seek to impose themselves through pressing; the Gunners also press the opposition on its own turf. They don't, however, press indiscriminately or universally. They take the opportunities each match and opponent present.

Another example of this team's opportunistic streak is its performance on set pieces. Arsenal have scored more goals from free kicks, corner kicks, throw-ins, and penalties (20) than any other Premier League side, including six during the eight-game winning run. (

Encouraging indications

These trends reveal elements of the team's makeup that should encourage Arsenal supporters. Both focused defending and opportunistic pressing require discipline, which, Tim of 7AMKickoff rightly argues has helped shape a more solid, successful side ("Swapping Santi for Ramsey, staying home, and Coquelin: Arsenal's New Balance"). It relies less on improvisational genius and more on collective understanding.

Part of that understanding is relational, meaning the players know where each other will be. They also seem more attuned to the tactical picture and to the competitive situation. (The home Champions League leg against Monaco stands out precisely because the team failed to recognize that the contest was not 90 but 180 minutes long.)

Midfielder Tomas Rosicky recently confirmed the team's work on this front. "We changed some stuff slightly in our preparation for these [big] games," he told the Arsenal Website. "We're doing a little more tactical work, and we changed some stuff against the big teams.

"I don't want to go into the details, but there were some adjustments, and it's paid off for us."

Rosicky, a player of substantial experience and one of the club's improvisational geniuses, says that the approach is deliberate and stresses its positive difference. That he would make such a statement suggests that the changes are meaningful.

These adjustments have improved Arsenal's ability to manage the flow of a match. Even when it isn't controlling the ball, as in the second half against Liverpool, it's largely controlling the most dangerous spaces of the pitch. This stems from and reinforces the group's composure, a word NBC Sports analyst Graeme Le Saux used repeatedly to describe Arsenal against Burnley.

The increased tactical attention and expectations of discipline also carry personnel implications. It pays for players to be both intelligent and versatile. Not only must they understand when various postures are called for, they must be able to execute them. Hence, we see Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck much more often than Theo Walcott. (See "Theo Walcott and Arsenal's Best Attack" for deeper analysis of this development.)

The results in the last eight league matches have been overwhelmingly positive. What's just as promising is that the team has delivered these results in a variety of ways. That's an indication of the intriguing, enjoyable football to come from Arsenal.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v Liverpool: Not Decisive But Telling

We've had almost two weeks to get ready for Saturday's contest at Emirates Stadium between third-place Arsenal and fifth-place Liverpool. You'd think with all that time and the tedium of the interlull that a wealth of interesting, intelligent analysis would have emerged. 

Turns out not to be the case. The best almost anyone can muster is "This is the Top-Four Decider."

Actually, even that's off base.

After this weekend, there will be seven matches left on Arsenal's and Liverpool's schedules. That's 14 opportunities for something unpredictable. Add Man United, Spurs, Southampton, and even Man City to the mix, and the possibilities multiply.

Yet the probabilities suggest that Arsenal are already in a strong position to qualify for the Champions League, possibly the strongest they've been in a number of seasons. Most respectable models are pointing to a 95 percent or better probability of a top-four finish, which a victory on Saturday would enhance. Arsenal's form is also the envy of the Premier League: 33 points from the last 39 and eight consecutive wins at home.

Liverpool, early 2015 darlings of the media and the league's form team, have dipped. They looked pedestrian in their last outing against Manchester United and languid in their fortunate 1-0 win at Swansea.

As "How Arsenal Can Attack Liverpool's 3-4-3" points out, those matches offer Arsenal some guidance for exploiting Liverpool's weak spots. Pressure on the three central defenders, shorn of the suspended linchpin Martin Skrtel, and emphasis on the space left by too aggressive wingback play would be advantageous moves for Arsenal.

Arsenal will also take pointers from its successful trip to Old Trafford in the FA Cup, when rather than standing off Manchester United as they did in visits to other top opponents this season, the Gunners pressed through the midfield and forward line. This caused Manchester United's three central defenders and wingbacks considerable difficulty, and Danny Welbeck's winner was a result.

Welbeck seems like the ideal player on the right side to execute the preferred pressing tactic, but his knee injury on England duty creates an obvious lineup question. In truth, there's a question even without his tweaked knee. Will it be Welbeck or Aaron Ramsey in the starting XI? You have to think the other midfield and forward positions are spoken for by Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Alexis, and Olivier Giroud. With Francis Coquelin in the holding midfield role, that leaves one spot for either Welbeck or Ramsey.

Manager Arsène Wenger's decision will likely come down to Welbeck's fitness and his assessment of Liverpool's soft spot. If midfield pressure and energy seem more troubling to Liverpool, then the manager will go with Ramsey; if the weakness is defensive and on the flanks, Welbeck will probably be preferred. He'll also consider Arsenal's right back candidates from the returning Mathieu Debuchy, Hector Bellerin, and Calum Chambers and how best to support that choice defensively.

This is the kind of selection decision the manager will face as the season moves toward its close. All the club's senior players have been in training in recent days, giving Wenger the rare luxury of personnel options. With no midweek fixtures to drive squad rotation, the manager can choose his league and FA Cup lineups based on form, chemistry, and the opposition. That's another strength that Arsenal can call upon, one that could be telling between now and late May.