Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Arsenal: Betwixt and Between

In the summer of 2016, Arsenal finds itself in an enviable yet unenviable position.

Enviable in that the first team achieved its best finish since 2005 in the Premier League and has the strongest imaginable financial foundation. But the club’s spot is not so desirable because its strengths have raised expectations to hysterical levels.

Commentators professional and amateur have found benefits, either monetary or emotional, in feeding the hysteria. Speculation and outrage dominate, especially during the summer silly season, when no meaningful on-field action is around to grab our attention.

Three years ago, I began taking advantage of that downtime to assess Arsenal’s state. It’s an unavoidably presumptuous exercise because I am not privy to leadership discussions at the club, knowledgeable about performance objectives there, or experienced in attempting to achieve comparable objectives in the professional sports business.

Still, I think it’s both important and interesting to analyze the club’s situation based on specific developments. Doing so reduces the effects of transfer Twitter-tattle and helps us understand how Arsenal has evolved.

Indicators of progress

The factors that would advance the club haven’t changed substantially since 2013; their influence on Arsenal’s fortunes has varied over the years, though. Here’s an update.

1. The club’s own financial strength. Clear. Arsenal appear to have more money in the bank than any other club in world football, at least according to the reliable Swiss Ramble blog ("Arsenal – Brass in Pocket” ). The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust  estimates the May cash balance at almost £200 million, with about half that sum available to fund player acquisitions and increases in the wage bill. This doesn’t even include Arsenal’s take of the Premier League broadcast revenue from the 2015-16 campaign—the highest such figure ever--£101 million. This means that manager Arsène Wenger and his staff have the wherewithal to continue to acquire talent at the level of Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, and Petr Cech.

2. The different level of transfer target. Steady success. Arsenal started its off-season business with the acquisition of the young yet accomplished Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka. He showed his worth as one of the top performers at this summer’s European Championships. As such, his arrival solidifies the trend that began in earnest with Özil in 2013, when Arsenal again became a feasible destination for the upper echelon of players. If the club can convince one or even two more outstanding talents to join before current transfer window closes, it will confirm that it’s operating in exclusive territory.

3. Unrest elsewhere. Deceptively promising. Although Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, and Jose Mourinho all bring impressive credentials to their new roles at Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United, respectively, and although their new employers will provide financial backing for massive overhauls, the trio may not enjoy immediate success. That’s because they have to integrate players unfamiliar to each other, the management style, and the league. As a result, Wenger and Arsenal may have a window of opportunity in 2016-17 before the challenge gets more formidable the following season.

4. Continuity in Arsenal’s management and playing squad. Reasonable but not of unquestionable value. A year ago, Wenger touted the team’s chemistry and chose the unconventional strategy of relying on that collective understanding to carry Arsenal to glory. That choice did not pay off for the Gunners, while it did, in a fashion, for Claudio Ranieri and title-winners Leicester City. In the face of the correlation between financial outlay and league position, it’s hard to see this approach succeeding again. More promising would be a mix of continuity and top-level acquisitions, particularly in the attacking contingent.

5. Winning mentality of the current squad. Displayed in spurts. The group that carried Arsenal to two FA Cups remains in large part, and the league results against top competition (P8 W4 D3 L1 against other top-five teams) show that the team can still deliver on the day. Now the focus will have to be on playing at the same level against teams lower in the table; the defeat to Swansea and draws against West Ham and Crystal Palace ruined any chance of a spring run to close the gap with Leicester.

6. Exits of unwanted players. Manageable. It’s a good bet that Mathieu Debuchy will leave Arsenal after his agitations resulted in a loan move in January, while the midfield trio of Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, and Tomas Rosicky all departed at the expirations of their contracts. Calling any of them unwanted would be unfair, but age and injury limited their contributions on the pitch. The question is whether any of the remaining players can attain their influence off it.

7. Impact of Financial Fair Play (FFP). Negligible. The Premier League’s broadcast windfall and UEFA’s loose enforcement mean that spending on players has few, if any, restrictions. It’s not the ideal scenario as Arsenal planned for the long-term, so the club will need to adapt to the new landscape.

Signs of stagnation

1. The existing distance between Arsenal and the top of the table. Mixed signals, again. Arsenal amassed four fewer points (71) than in the previous season and finished with eight points fewer than it collected in 2013-14. The Gunners couldn’t capitalize when their traditional rivals for the title faltered. Yet the runner-up finish was Arsenal’s best overall showing in 11 years, and, as noted above, the performance against top opposition was strong. Delivering similar results throughout the league campaign will be required as the competition intensifies.

2. The risk-averse transfer approach. Done. Although Arsenal won’t spend for the sake of spending, the club has displayed its willingness to take financial risks on proven talents like Sanchez, potential stars like Xhaka, and promising youngsters like Calum Chambers. Considerations other than cost—ability level, playing style, and mental outlook—seem to be more influential in the efforts to acquire players.

3. Lack of experience in transfers at the high level. Righted. Arsenal remain at the table with other elite clubs, having successfully negotiated for players with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, and Chelsea in recent years. Whether that experience is of any benefit in this summer’s transfer dealings, only the next five weeks will tell.

4. Uncertain enforcement of FFP. Pointless. See #7 above. As in last year’s assessment, the main advantage Arsenal may have relates to home-grown players. So far, none of the departing players belonged to that category, leaving Arsenal with 10 home-grown players and five under-21 players among the 31 currently listed on the club’s first-team roster. The club can make a maximum of 25 over-21 players eligible for Premier League competition (under-21’s don’t count), of which no more than 17 can be non-home-grown. Suffice it to say, Arsenal enjoy considerable flexibility here, while teams recruiting lots of players from abroad may not.

5. The composition of the Arsenal board. Unchanged and concerning. The homogeneity of the Arsenal board receives a lot less scrutiny than transfer activity, tactical approaches, and even club finances, but it carries the biggest risk for the club. When Wenger moves away from managing the first team, a small group of white males will plan for and decide his successor. Diverse views tend to lead to sounder decisions in such circumstances.

Where things stand

This review suggests that progress at Arsenal has slowed somewhat over the past year. The long-term arc is definitely positive, but there are signs that the club is finding it challenging to reach greater heights. That shouldn’t be surprising in an extremely competitive field such as the Premier League.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

RC Lens 1 Arsenal 1: Three Observations

Arsenal’s first activity of the season was a lively 1-1 draw with RC Lens in Friday’s friendly at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis.

If the point of a pre-season encounter were the outcome, we’d focus on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s equalizing goal in the 81st minute and the mistake by Calum Chambers that led to Mathias Autret’s first-half opener.

But the result isn’t the objective of these matches; instead, manager Arsène Wenger will focus on how the match improved the team’s fitness and whether any players displayed a readiness to make an individual impact in the coming season.

Here are three observations of Arsenal’s progress toward those objectives.

Lens gave Arsenal a proper workout

The French Ligue 2 side, set to open the season next Friday, put in a performance full of energy. Lens moved the ball quickly, and without they ball they put consistent pressure on Arsenal’s midfield and center halves.

This level of activity forced Arsenal to think and move quickly from the outset. The Gunners’ decision-making was acceptable, especially for a first outing, but as one might expect the execution was spotty. On a number of occasions someone would attempt a pass through Lens’ back line, only to discover that a forward teammate had run into a different area.

In midfield, misplaced passes were noticeable, as Arsenal could not achieve the precision needed to avoid Lens pressure.

Meanwhile, the defensive line Lens chose, relatively high by the standards of lower-league teams Arsenal face, gave Gunners’ forwards room to run. Theo Walcott was particularly active in the first half in his attempts to exploit the space.

The absence of a true playmaker, such as Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, or Santi Cazorla, created the opportunity for a more mobile attacking midfield, and Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide in the first half and Joel Campbell and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the second used the occasion to shift positions quite a bit. They’ll all feel like they exerted themselves.

The backup fullbacks started to state their case

Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs, both definite Premier League starters a couple of years ago, found themselves sidelined last season by injury and the impressive performances of Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal. It seemed the pair recognized the need to impress this pre-season, putting in noticeable effort and making an impact.

Playing the first 45 minutes, Debuchy sought out Walcott on the right flank with several clever passes and charged forward himself on a number of occasions. He was aggressive defensively as well, eventually picking up a rare friendly yellow card.

Gibbs, who replaced Monreal at halftime, delivered one of the match’s best individual performances. He limited Lens’ effectiveness on his flank and protected the young center half Krystian Bielik. Going forward, Gibbs showed clever movement, a deft touch, and an eye for a pass. His cutback for Campbell led to a shot on target.

The prospects for Debuchy and Gibbs—either to secure more playing time with Arsenal or to land a move to a starting position elsewhere—won’t have been harmed by their efforts Friday.

Ox looks in fine pre-season form

Oxlade-Chamberlain has a knack for the eye-catching pre-season goal. In last summer’s Charity Shield against Chelsea, he netted the winner by curling the ball in with his weaker left foot. On Friday, he gathered Serge Gnabry’s pass on the right and chipped it delicately into the upper left corner of the Lens goal.

That equalizer was a reward for a sturdy second-half performance. After a halting season of injury and iffy form, Oxlade-Chamberlain showed he’s ready to take on opponents, including the mammoth Lens center half Abdoul Ba. He also synchronized well with Campbell, Gnabry, and Alex Iwobi as Arsenal moved forward.

Although we shouldn’t draw any tactical conclusions from this initial runout, it was interesting to see Oxlade-Chamberlain exchange positions with Iwobi in central midfield as well. That will be a crowded area in the Arsenal squad, with Ramsey, Cazorla, Wilshere, Mohammed Elneny, and Granit Xhaka all potential starters.

Still, if playing there improves Oxlade-Chamberlain’s vision, decision-making, and confidence for the season ahead, the team will benefit. His physical preparation looks quite advanced already.

Extra time

Francis Coquelin is another player who looks ready to fight for a role. He knows Arsenal have already made a major acquisition for his position, bringing in Xhaka from Borussia Mönchengladbach. The French defensive midfielder, one of the first names on the team sheet throughout 2015, again has to prove his worth.

On Friday, he got to work quickly. Coquelin made two full-blooded but fair tackles in the first 12 minutes and was one of only two Arsenal players, with captain Per Mertesacker, to complete the full match. He was a little messy with the ball and understandably tired by the end of 90 minutes, but Coquelin showed he’s up for the challenge Xhaka’s arrival presents him.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Can Arsenal Get the Most from Three Summer Stars

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger faces a fascinating set of decisions as he prepares for the 2016-17 season.

Although much attention at this time of year goes to player acquisitions and departures, the plans for existing players are just as interesting. In particular, how can Wenger and his staff get the most from Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, and Alexis Sanchez?

The complications of success

The three were the standout performers on the international stage this summer. Alexis earned the player of the tournament honor for Copa America champions Chile; Ramsey took Wales to the Euro semifinals and himself onto the all-tournament team; Özil pulled the strings for the German Euro semifinalists yet inexplicably missed out on the accolades.

They all excelled in free roles in their teams’ attacks, moving into and out of dangerous positions behind the lead strike force. They can’t do the same for Arsenal. There’s just not enough room, time on the ball, or exemption from defending. (See Tim Stillman’s recent column, “Arsène’s Agenda,” for a look at the Özil-Ramsey relationship.)

A further challenge is that none of them will be ready to start the season on August 14. Each will be taking a break before returning to Arsenal, with the second league match—against champions Leicester City—looking like their earliest reasonable action.

As a result, pre-season and early match dynamics may not reflect Wenger’s intentions for his three best attacking players. Ultimately, here are some ways the manager might shift the personnel or system to maximize their contributions.

Playing in the band

It’s of course difficult to separate individuals from the structure that guides their actions. As an exercise in analysis, I'd identify three main developments in the team that will influence the impact of Özil, Ramsey, and Alexis.

First, the arrival of Granit Xhaka has the potential to reorient Arsenal’s approach. His distinctive mix of skills and aggression can enhance partnerships in the midfield and change the flow of the attack. (See my article “Which Midfield Mix Will Work for Arsenal.”)

One particular beneficiary of Xhaka’s arrival should be Ramsey. His new Swiss teammate has the ability both to patrol the base of midfield and to keep the ball circulating. This means that Ramsey could take a freer role than he could with, say, Francis Coquelin; he could concern himself less with initiating the transition and protecting the defense.

That is, if Ramsey takes up a midfield position beside Xhaka.

The second important development in the playing contingent, the return of Santi Cazorla, will influence Ramsey’s role. Cazorla can serve as another transition instigator and has allowed Özil to thrive in the past. The German’s outstanding start to the 2015-16 season, when he set a record-setting assist pace, was possible because Cazorla orchestrated the play from deeper and gave defenders another playmaker to worry about.

But instructing Cazorla to take up this role again would probably displace Ramsey from a position in the center, where he excelled for Wales. A knotty problem.

The third personnel-related factor affecting the star trio’s contribution is the center forward’s style. Olivier Giroud is a particular kind of center forward; he’s an effective target man, deft passer, and clever operator near goal. These qualities have made him a great foil for Ramsey, who attacks with vigor from midfield: Watch Ramsey’s epic FA Cup winner from 2014 for an example.

What Giroud isn’t is a speedy killer, the type of mobile, clinical striker that Alexis might thrive with. Although analyses suggesting that Alexis and Giroud can’t jibe are poorly founded, we have often seen Alexis at his best playing with quick center forwards like Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck.

Welbeck offers a flexibility that would serve Alexis, Özil, and Ramsey all well. He darts into channels and opens space that all three can exploit and is an indefatigable defensive presence who helps recover the ball in dangerous areas. Stylistically, Welbeck is an excellent fit; he’s just out for a long period with injury and historically not the most clinical finisher.

Possible formations

Given the players at Wenger’s disposal right now, which formation makes Arsenal most effective? Offensively at least, the setup would emphasize the attacking talents of Alexis, Özil, and Ramsey. The three options examined below might accomplish that objective. Others, such as the 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, don’t seem to appeal to the manager.


The fallback structure in recent seasons has been the 4-2-3-1. Although it balances midfield presence, playmaking, and defensive cover, that setup may not bring about the maximum offensive production from the three.

It certainly works to Özil’s strengths because it gives the playmaker the most license. And there’s a case for an attacking midfield of Alexis-Özil-Ramsey, which played a large part in Arsenal’s top performances of 2015.

If the attacking midfield becomes even more fluid, the 4-2-3-1 could still serve Arsenal well. The speed of movement and thought among the three confuses defenders and creates openings. The catch is that turnovers leave Arsenal’s fullbacks exposed because their forward support has moved away from their flanks.


The second option is a 4-3-3. In this, one can see Xhaka with Ramsey and Cazorla in a midfield three. Ramsey could thrive with such skilled and clever midfield partners, using their varied transition play to get himself quickly into dangerous forward positions.

The 4-3-3 has promise for Özil as well. It allows him to drift into promising spaces, where he can play a killer pass, which has been his general operating mode for Germany. Whether this arrangement works for Özil in Premier League play, given the defensive implications, is a question.

The fundamental problem with such a formation, though, has to do with the strengths of Arsenal’s available center forward options. Giroud would not be as effective if he had to make quick moves into the gaps between opposition defenders or if he had to lead the Arsenal press. These seem like core striker responsibilities in a 4-3-3, more aligned with Welbeck’s strengths.


Third, we might see a resurrection of the 4-1-4-1. It’s a slight variation on the 4-2-3-1 that Wenger tried early in the 2014-15 season.

This formation seemed to suit Alexis because his energy and quickness allowed him to cover offensive and defensive space on the flank of the advanced midfield four. He could also get forward quickly and support the center forward.

Xhaka’s arrival makes this setup workable. He could hold the base of the midfield and distribute long passes to the wings or shorter ones to Ramsey and Özil in two attacking midfield roles.

The gap in the 4-1-4-1, given Arsenal’s current roster, is the other wide attacking midfield position. At the moment, the candidates would be Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alex Iwobi, and Joel Campbell. Does any of those players have the combination of skills to elevate the team’s play consistently?

More experienced and insightful figures than myself or other bloggers will be assessing this question and others as the season approaches. Perhaps Wenger and his staff will reveal some of what they think about the intriguing possibilities when pre-season friendlies start at the end of next week.