Thursday, July 30, 2015

Arsenal's Pre-Season Cohesion

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

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

Off-field chemistry

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

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

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

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

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

Early evidence on the pitch

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

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

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

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

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

What this signals for the League campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Arsenal: Consolidating Gains

The state of the Arsenal is solid.

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

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

Aspects of progress

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

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

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

In Search of More Arsenal Deals

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

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

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

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

1. The timeworn transfer narrative is moot

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

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

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

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

2. The professed priority for 2015 is goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Arsenal will not traffic in wish fulfillment

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

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

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

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