Squad flexibility is a desirable characteristic for a manager to cultivate. A player’s position or role should only ever be informed by how they serve the collective. Of the Invincibles back four, Ashley Cole started out as a winger, Kolo Toure and Lauren as central midfielders and Sol Campbell made his Spurs debut as a striker. Gilberto Silva, a central midfield player in this team, spent the bookends of his playing career as a centre half.
The 1970-71 double winning side was a Frankenstein concoction. Right-back Peter Storey was moved into central midfield, midfielder Frank McLintock to centre half, striker George Graham was moved into a midfield role, Peter Simpson played pretty much everywhere before Mee settled him into the centre half position. Charlie George was moved from centre forward to a more withdrawn role, while Ray Kennedy flitted between midfield and attack.
Arsene Wenger’s flexibility has allowed him to make room for players on the rise or in good form pretty comfortably. Francis Coquelin became a regular very swiftly, Ashley Cole’s rise was meteoric, as was Hector Bellerin’s. Last season, Alex Iwobi was thrust into the starting XI for a match at the Nou Camp and he has been a mainstay ever since. As I wrote last week Wenger is more of an alchemist than a strategist when it comes to squad building.
In the piece last week, I used Podolski, Alexis and Granit Xhaka as examples of the manager buying players and deciding how to use them later. There are countless other such precedents. Arsene indulged Walcott’s skittishness as he spent the best part of 5 years trying to work out whether he was a winger or a striker. Mikel Arteta went from creative central midfielder to ‘DM’, Santi Cazorla spent a season as a number 10 and a year as a wandering inside left, before Arsenal decided he was best served as a deep lying playmaker.
Fitting Aaron Ramsey into the setup has been something akin to a game of Buckaroo and we still don’t seem to be any closer to knowing whether Arsene considers Oxlade Chamberlain a buccaneering wide player or a central midfielder. In isolated scenarios, swapping players between different positions and roles is a natural part of team building. For younger players, it can serve their development and help them to learn their trade. Whilst for others, evolutionary tweaks are usually necessary as a coach figures the formula of his team.
The problem for Arsenal, is that their squad is pretty much all over the map in this respect. The midfield is a hot mess, frankly. Beyond Coquelin and Cazorla, there is not a central midfield duo that has convinced on a consistent basis (and Coqzorla is far from perfect, it’s just the best that Arsenal have been able to conjure). Arsenal still haven’t quite worked out how to give Özil just enough freedom to thrive, without unduly burdening the midfield.
It is easier to be tolerant about the smorgasbord of options that the squad has in attack. That is where Wenger’s ‘jazz’ philosophy works best. A score of interchanging forwards, most of whom can play all across the frontline, is very welcome. This is one of the few seasons in the last decade where the Gunners have not been overly reliant on one man to score goals. Though that’s not to say a lack of coherent planning has not caused problems for the manager in attack.
One of the main issues that Wenger has found in the last 2-3 years is that he does often manage to find a balanced XI, by hook or by crook. At the beginning of 2015-16, he had settled on the Coqzorla axis in midfield, Walcott added pace and movement upfront, whilst Aaron Ramsey played from the right- simultaneously as a buttress for the central midfield and a supporting cast for Alexis and Walcott, who operated almost as a front two.
At the beginning of this season, Arsene found joy with a nicely balanced front three of Iwobi, Alexis and Walcott, with Özil finding some goalscoring form by creeping into the gaps their movement created. The problem is that the manager does not have easily interchangeable replacements when one of these main cogs becomes the victim of natural squad attrition- usually injury. So when Cazorla is injured, his replacement is Aaron Ramsey or Granit Xhaka for example and they perform the role in a completely different manner, which has a knock on effect on the team’s ‘automatons.’
Arsenal seemed to hit on something with Alexis upfront in the autumn. The unavailability of other key attackers saw Olivier Giroud welcomed back into the side over Christmas, understandably. The problem is that Giroud is diametrically opposed to Sanchez, so the team’s chemistry is altered as a result. Arsene’s episodic transition between a more mobile striker (Walcott, Welbeck, Alexis) and Giroud serves to confuse the team and it often takes them a few games to readjust to serving the needs of a different type of striker.
At Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Arsenal moved Özil out wide and dropped Iwobi into a more central position. On paper, a perfectly fine idea. In fact, it was exactly what I had wanted Arsene to do prior to kickoff. Early in the encounter, both players had some joy, pressuring Gary Cahill in possession. Playing close together, the idea, I think, was for Özil and Iwobi to be able to combine quickly and move the ball behind Chelsea’s backline at pace. Again, a perfectly sensible plan.
The problem arose when Pedro skipped down Arsenal’s left flank time and again in the opening fifteen minutes. Iwobi and Özil stood looking at once another aghast as the Spaniard was left untracked. It seems a clear instruction was not issued as to whom should track Pedro in the defensive phase, or if an instruction was issued, one of those players went rogue on the plan. Eventually, Alexis, Özil and Iwobi had a discussion around 20 minutes into the game and it was decided to simply move Mesut and Alex into their more familiar positions.
All of this, unfortunately, speaks to a lack of a clear plan which just seems symptomatic of the squad as a whole. Arsene has assembled a good squad, but he does not really seem clear on how to use it or what its identity is. Daniel Storey wrote a piece on Monday asking what Arsenal actually excel at. If Arsenal were given a bye into the Champions League final tomorrow and all of his players were fit, who on earth would Wenger pick? Are you confident that he knows?
It speaks to a lack of identity and a good number of this squad have played together for some years now. We are currently operating in the age of the ‘super coach’ who micromanages every minute detail of a game. It’s probably never been more difficult to win the big trophies adopting Wenger’s “jazz” aesthetic, but it’s difficult to argue that Arsenal are even playing good jazz. Ultimately, that lack of preparation quite probably informs the squad’s obvious mental fragility.
To borrow a theory from @YankeeGunner, individuals in pressured jobs are trained continuously and repeatedly in their disciplines, so that when the heat is turned up, they are able to maintain focus. Their response essentially becomes a form of muscle memory and their blueprint is remembered as instinct. It is difficult to say with any certainty, but maybe this is why Arsenal find the psychological aspect of certain games so difficult. When the bullets start to fly, they are too often left holding a saxophone.
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