Over the last 6-7 seasons, a distinct pattern has emerged in Arsenal’s domestic campaigns. One of a pair of alternate realities almost always emerges; either the Gunners begin a season with intent and promise, before collapsing to the mean. Or else, they endure a torrid start, only to talk the fan base down from the balcony ledge with a redemptive late run. There are many reasons for these persistently linear narratives. Injuries, for instance, the implication that Arsenal are better chasers than leaders. But the main reason, I think, is that Arsenal and Arsene need a settled starting line-up to thrive.
To a large degree, this is a significant requirement for most top level teams. If football had an equivalent to Maslow’s triangle, a settled starting line-up would prop up the structure. Yet I have the impression that this isn’t so much a ‘nice to have’ as an essential requirement for Arsene Wenger in particular. On last week’s ArseAmerica podcast, @gingers4limpar cast doubts over Wenger’s ability to utilise an entire squad, suggesting that he constructed great starting XI’s, but showed little flair for rotation.
It was an interesting point that invites further examination. Arsenal’s most recent title triumph provides the most visible pillar for Julian’s thinking. This study from Sporting Intelligence shows that Arsenal’s starting XI was at its most stable in 2003-04, with 83% of starting places going to ‘core’ players, compared to 64% in 2005-06, which saw the lowest points total of the Wenger era. Now, as I said earlier, I doubt this trend differs hugely compared with Arsenal’s competitors. The team that suffers the least disruption to its starting line-up is usually the one that wins the league, as Chelsea’s 2014-15 season attests.
Injuries are a very sore subject for Arsenal fans and they have visibly derailed many an Arsenal season over the years. The Gunners don’t have the same resources that their title rivals do, so they have a greater need for stability and the health of their core matters slightly more to them. That said, all teams will have 2-3 players that would be considered close to irreplaceable. So whilst Arsenal’s title chances this season depend on the health of Özil, Alexis, Cazorla and probably Coquelin too, that in itself is not a scenario unique to them.
The club’s fortunes 10-15 years ago rested just as squarely on the shoulders of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira. Manchester City are fools to the fitness of David Silva, Yaya Toure, Kevin de Bruyne and the delicate hamstrings of Sergio Aguero. Indeed, we have seen Wenger’s Arsenal prosper with significant depletion issues. The manager was left to rue plenty of injuries during Arsenal’s 1997-98 Double winning season. This was the starting line-up from a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace at Highbury in February 1998; Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Grimandi, Upson; Vernazza (McGowan), Vieira, Platt, Hughes; Boa Morte, Anelka. Unused subs; Crowe, Day, Rankin, Lukic.
Arsenal lost Dennis Bergkamp during that run in. Nevertheless, even when depleted, Arsenal’s line-up was fairly stable in those final months. Nearest competitors Manchester United were still reeling from the loss of Eric Cantona to retirement and Roy Keane to injury. Wenger can work with injuries and he can change a team successfully. Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal and Francis Coquelin, to name a few, have improved immeasurably over the last 12 months. All have been able to do so in the framework of a settled side that is performing well. One wonders whether the squad’s less celebrated members would achieve similar results in those circumstances. Perhaps if an injury crisis allowed him 20 games in the front three, Joel Campbell would begin to look like a top level forward.
Arsene tried to tinker with the shape of the side at the beginning of last season and it created instability. Arsenal’s form improved notably in the second half of the campaign when the starting line-up was not so much written in biro as carved in stone. Between March and April, an unchanged starting XI was named for six matches in a row for the first time since 1994. Even upon their return to fitness, players such as Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Debuchy and Theo Walcott maintained a watching brief.
I think this partially explains Arsenal’s propensity towards boom and bust seasons. Now, there are some caveats to add. Firstly, a few seasons ago it’s probably fair to say that the manager did not have a squad worthy of rotation. In 2010-11, Arsenal’s fringe players spluttered to F.A. Cup draws against Leeds United and Leyton Orient. They had to call Fabregas from the bench to cut their meat for them at home to Huddersfield, whilst the second string struggled to a 2-2 draw with Wigan just three days after the first team had made short work of Chelsea at the Emirates.
Injuries have often prevented the manager from rotating, though that invites the chicken / egg conundrum as to whether lack of rotation has been a cause of the club’s never ending hoodoo. Arsenal depends on the quartet of Alexis, Cazorla, Özil and Coquelin, but in other positions, this looks to be the deepest squad for some years. The manager has been able to utilise competition for places effectively, with the Giroud-Walcott duel spurring both players to greater heights. The addition of Gabriel provides a genuine threat to the Mertescielny axis.
Needless to say, Arsenal cannot win the league without effective squad management. The victory over Everton was so pleasing in part because Arsene was able to change the starting line-up effectively. Yet the meek League Cup surrender to Sheffield Wednesday threw up further questions. Amongst the sprinkling of ill equipped kids, key squad players such as Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Flamini showed serious signs of rust. I actually felt that continued participation in the competition would have been a small buttress to the title challenge, if only to keep wits keen and morale on an even keel on the fringes of the squad. Lest we forget that the annual Champions League dead rubber is almost certainly off the agenda for this season too.
Now Arsenal are left with chin scratcher of an issue. The likes of Debuchy, Gibbs and Flamini are going to be needed in games of greater import at some point. The current form of the deputy full-backs is too shoddy to warrant even temporary usurpation of the on song amigos, Bellerin and Monreal. Yet logic suggests that we are going to have to use them at some point and the less minutes they are getting, the rustier their cogs will grow. Do you strike a balance and try to keep them involved? Or close your eyes, put your foot on the accelerator and hope against hope that Hector and Nacho don’t crash and burn?
It’s a delicate balance; it is much easier for under-utilised players to adopt the factory settings when a team is playing well. But when it is playing well, the resounding temptation for the coach is to stick rather than twist. Even average or poor players can perform above competence in a well-oiled unit. Wenger’s hand has been forced in this regard in the past. In February and March 2002, Igors Stepanovs started 6 consecutive league matches as Arsenal closed in on the title. All 6 were victories. Significant injuries in the 2001-02 (and 1997-98) run in did little to suspend Arsenal’s momentum. Even the loss of Robert Pires to a cruciate ligament problem did not prove to be an obstacle.
Wenger has been able to foster stability from the ashes of injury crises when options have been naturally limited. The team’s patchy form in 2008-09 actually improved when Fabregas was struck down by a knee injury in December 2008, because the manager was left with no choice but to play Denilson and Song together every single week and their partnership was able to breathe and germinate. The rag tag back four that propelled Arsenal to a Champions League final provides further compelling evidence of a similar phenomenon. Meanwhile, many a squad player has grown stale from underuse on Wenger’s watch.
Squad management is a constant puzzle for all managers and, in fairness, in the Premier League’s new age of squad rotation, only Ferguson showed constant competence in resource juggling. Mourinho and Wenger both prefer close, tight knit squads with a clearly identifiable preferred eleven. History suggests that Wenger copes admirably with a small pool of players, either due to supreme meritocracy or diminished options. Yet across his 19 years at the club, there is a limited body of evidence to suggest that he is comfortable with considered and deliberate squad rotation. Can this old dog learn new tricks, indeed, will Arsenal’s fitness issues alleviate enough to allow him to try?
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