Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Life cycles

The life-cycle of a typical team is very short. Those that sustain success don’t evolve – implying that they get marginally better through the seasons – but are dismantled and started again. Of course, this may seem like a pedantic point, as teams go through phases and periods with different coaches and players thus bringing in different styles but it may be significant in the building of teams. For example, Johan Cruijff suggested Barcelona, under Frank Rijkaard, should have broken up his team after winning the 2006 Champions League Final despite being together for only three years as he felt they were coming towards the end of their cycle.

Even the Milan teams of the late ’80s and early ’90s under Arrigo Sacchi and then Fabio Capello, were two markedly different sides despite the use of some of the same players. And neither lasted more than four years. The other top sides; Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona included, have chopped and changed so much while Sir Alex Ferguson has been the master building brand new Manchester United teams. The common theme is that all the teams are glued together by a consistent philosophy.

It will have been seventeen years, at the end of this season that Arsène Wenger has been in charge of Arsenal but since his last trophy in 2005, Arsenal have been absent of any distinguishable teams. Wenger talks of his regret of not having Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Emmanuel Adebayor together for more than a season and really, 2011/12 should have been the year the team kicked on. Instead, they lost two crucial players.

The constant turnover of players means breeding success has been made harder to the point that Wenger is currently in the hands of another team in transition. People scoffed when Harry Redknapp said it’d be a miracle if Wenger got this group of players in the top four and Wenger will have to show once again, that there is untapped potential in this team. Beating Bayern Munich tomorrow night, or getting close, won’t prove much; Arsenal have this inexplicable ability to fightback when they’ve already lost the game.

It’s uncertain whether there is unharnessed potential in this side waiting to be unleashed. As Tim Stillman wrote in his column last week, the team started the season supposedly “possessing an excellent squad with some world class players,” and from then on “we morphed into a very good squad with some world class players, to a good squad with some world class players and now we’re a good squad with a couple of very good players. There are a variety of rhymes and reasons for this, but that’s about as simply as it can be distilled in one paragraph. We’re a squad that lacks a genuine ‘game changer’ for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s reign.”

The downturn in form is intrinsically linked with confidence. At one stage of the season, Arsenal were seemingly scared of passing the ball to one another and how ever much of that they regained, a collective trauma seeps through the side now that undermines the team’s attacking play whenever that ball gets anywhere near their goal.

In any case, good coaching could elevate this squad, something which has been levelled at Wenger for not doing enough, or rather, not doing enough of what’s important. But consider these quotes on games against Chelsea and Newcastle, during the December-January period. After beating Newcastle, he said their approach in the game, particularly in the first-half where they defended deep, “was [for] tactical reasons and psychological reasons.“ He said the same thing against Chelsea, which they lost 2-1. “Tactically we changed some things,” he said before adding. “Chelsea played well and I feel we were not well positioned on the pitch. We were too stretched and individually gave them too much room to play. We didn’t defend tight enough. We were always allowing them to play when they wanted.” It’s notable that in both matches, Wenger change the approach and shape at half-time which helped alter the game for Arsenal.

That shows that there was conspicuous work done on the training ground on the defensive shape that Wenger was accused of neglecting. Of course, the finer point was that he wasn’t delegating enough time on the defence individually to Steve Bould. That in itself, may be a fair point, but firstly, we need to understand what kind of coach Bould is. He’s certainly not from the George Graham school of coaching; rather, he believes in the same principles as Arsene Wenger.

Here’s what Bould said last season as the Under-18’s coach: “I believe that for every sport every seven or so years they become almost revolutionised in that they become, faster, more powerful, more technical than before and football is even more different,” says Bould. “You could not step up with your arm out and scream offside like we used to. That is not an area you can really coach any more. Also, you cannot get away with going to ground or any real aggressive tackling the way we used to nowadays. So, while there are some principles that persist, passing on what I used to do as a player has to be adapted to the modern game.”

And his experience in charge of the youngsters tells a truer story of what type of coach he is. “Over Christmas,” Bould said, “I looked at the way that our Under-18s were playing and I felt that we were fine when we had the ball, but poor when we didn’t have it. We used to sit back and let opposing teams play. Since we came back in January we have had a bigger emphasis on winning the ball back and closing opponents down quickly and that has improved us immensely, even with the ball.”

If truth be told, the approach of the senior team is muddled. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the good start to the season, which was glossed by a 6-1 win over Southampton but featured three back-to-back clean sheets, was despite the coaching and only occured because the players showed more focus. Certainly, Mikel Arteta hadn’t even played a match in defensive midfield in pre-season before he was moved there and the team frequently allowed shots from range in those practice matches. But once the season started, the team almost played instinctively. Habitual patterns weren’t yet formed between team-mates on the ball as they never played with each other. But dropping deep, on the edge of their own box under pressure, was hard for opponents to penetrate.

At the moment, Arsenal seem to be playing in a way where they look to squeeze play in a certain area of the pitch. The defence pushes up high and the forwards don’t really press, but try to remain in position so that they create a compact block in between attack and defence. The problem, however, as was exposed in the 2-1 loss against Tottenham Hotspur, is that if you push up, there must be pressure on the ball and the midfielders must get tight so that the opponents can’t pass through the high line. Arsenal are not doing that well enough and if they’re not, the defence must react quicker and drop deeper. They’re not doing that either.

What hope there is for Arsenal to flourish and go on a run in the final stretch of the campaign lies on the coaching to identify those faults. There is enough attacking potential in the squad to augment improvements because Arsenal have played some of it’s best football in a couple of years in patches. Let’s just hope it’s not too late.

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