It’s the time of year when starry eyed football fans construct transfer wish lists in the hope that their team will find that piece in the jigsaw that propels them to glory. The transfer market shapes the way football is analysed in the 21st century, it frames every question, directly or indirectly. Its presence looms in every debate, whether it lurks in the crevices or dances onto centre stage. Its for this reason that we have seen a rise in the “can w achieve x objective with y playing in z position?” debate, as if there is an all encompassing ‘yay’ or ‘neigh’ answer to this simplistic proposition.
Such a prosaic line of interrogation fails to appreciate the nuances of team building, where balance is king. Arsene Wenger is often ridiculed for labelling existing players as “like a new signing” but in a sense, it reflects his frustration in trying to convey complex messages about squad building. He likely thinks it’s the only lens through which he can make people understand. Much like a parent pretending that a utensil is an aeroplane before administering a mouthful of broccoli to their unsuspecting toddler. The twin emergences of Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin last season provide a fascinating case in point. Both fit the “LANS” profile to a tee, Coquelin especially.
Le Coq’s emergence was greeted with understandable surprise (it certainly surprised me). Whilst he may have developed as a player since his first spell in the side- as one would expect from a 24 year old- he didn’t demonstrate any sort of hitherto unappreciated skillset. His renaissance came down to timing as much as anything. He came into a team that was finally discovering some balance in other areas of the pitch, which made the job of plugging into the team ethic that much easier. Likewise, Hector Bellerin applied a finishing touch to a team that was bubbling towards fruition.
Ultimately, ‘project youth’ was a partial failure because Arsenal tasked young players with finding that balance themselves. Whereas Bellerin, for example, came into a team that was much closer to cogency. If you threw 20 year old Denilson into the current team, you would probably end up with a different result and see a much better player. It partially explains why Coquelin is a better fit now than he was 3 years ago. This doesn’t just apply to young players either; Coquelin was able to thrive in this team for the same reason that Christopher Wreh was able to score goals in the 1997-98 Double side. The collective that orbited them was functioning well. Wreh was gradually exposed as the team became less stable, hopefully that won’t be true of Coquelin. (This team isn’t quite at the advanced stage that the 97-98 team was).
That’s not to say the transfer market has no place in this process you understand, quite the opposite because, at some point, all of your players have to be acquired from somewhere. You cannot balance a side with eleven poor players either. But the idea that you need a world class player in every single position to win a league title is fanciful; you can have a few players that are merely ‘good’ so long as they fit into and help define the team’s identity. This is becoming an increasingly difficult argument to make in this day and age. Not just because of the modern lust for transfers, but because any past player that you cite will have had their reputation heightened by being part of a title winning team.
Doubts were contemporaneously aired about the likes of Jens Lehmann, Lauren and Gilberto Silva in the ‘Invincibles’ side for instance, but that is forgotten in the highlight reel of nostalgia. Since his departure, it has been apparent that Kolo Toure is far from a top class centre half, he just happened to fit that team and that defence very nicely. He varied their attributes and offered something that was previously missing. Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn were not, individually, world class full-backs. They were very good of course, but their strength emerged from the collective of the Arsenal back five.
Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa were undoubtedly great signings for Chelsea, but not simply because of their quality and their respective price tags. Tactically, they entirely fit the bill for Mourinho’s Chelsea side, a team that relies on compactness and efficiency in the final third. Crucially, Fabregas and Costa fit one another too. Fabregas needs a striker like Costa to flourish and Costa requires the sort of early, often long distance service that Cesc is capable of providing. Nemanja Matic proved to be a superb acquisition for Chelsea for the same reason, he embodies the personality and tactical direction of the team.
The most fascinating case study in this respect is Arsenal’s 1970-71 ‘Double’ team. A glance at the individuals in that team shows very little in the way of international pedigree. Of the XI that started the 1971 FA Cup Final, 49 of the 97 international caps totalled in their combined careers belonged to Pat Rice. None of those players ever appeared at a World Cup. Most of them were moved away from their natural or recognised positions in the framework of this all conquering Arsenal side too. Mee’s positional tweaks read like a game of tactical Tetris. McLintock was a midfielder moved to centre half, Graham a striker moved into midfield, Storey a right back moved into midfield.
Peter Simpson had spells in midfield and at full back before settling at centre half. (To stretch the theme a little further, Simpson was originally hired to be a member of the ground staff at Highbury). Ray Kennedy flitted between midfield and the forward line. The coach Bertie Mee symbolised this game of weights and measures better than any of his charges. Mee was the disciplinarian that a young and roguish squad needed, but he had a surplus when it came to tactical know-how. That’s why he first hired Dave Sexton and then Don Howe as his assistant, to amend this flaw.
It’s often lamented that Arsenal dismantled that team too soon and that’s quite true. But the players missed the team as much as the team missed those players. With the exception of Ray Kennedy, few shone in other environs. Unable to suckle on the teat of a perfectly balanced team, those that did stay behind looked far less formidable and more like tiger cubs ordered to fend for themselves in the Serengeti of 1970s football. The addition of World Cup winner Alan Ball in the summer of 1971 actually upset the balance of a clockwork midfield. Building a functioning football team is as much jigsaw puzzle as it is monopoly. Having lots of money just makes it easier to acquire the right pieces.
Wenger and Mourinho have both bristled at the concept of the Ballon D’or because individual awards go against the ethics of a team sport. They also serve to promote the kind of ham fisted analysis that leads to questions like “can Arsenal win the league with Olivier Giroud upfront?” Whilst any sort of upgrade on any player, in any position, ought to be welcomed if it serves the team, such a question skates over hundreds of the interconnected intricacies that go into building a harmonised team. Last year, Wenger quipped that “when you sign Mesut Özil, you don’t need a scout, you just need money.” This wasn’t just a comment on Arsenal’s replenished finances.
When Arsenal sign players such as Özil and Alexis, they don’t have to worry too much about how they fit into the team. Players of that quality both demand and command that the other planets in the solar system orbit around them. They shape the team and dictate its identity. But it’s unrealistic to expect every member of your starting XI to be purchased from that shelf. Real Madrid’s failed “Galactico” experiments show you it’s probably undesirable too- and not just because of the big egos that get bruised along the way.
A restaurant with no waiters would make for a miserable dining experience, no matter how many Michelin chefs toil in the kitchen. Team building is an intricate and complex science. To analyse it with simplistic ideas does not account for the panoramic scope of dilemmas it produces for the football manager.
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