Three Point Plan

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

Pre-season is a time of reflection for football clubs and their managers. Arsene Wenger often laments that modern fixture schedules leave little time for detailed tactical dissection with his players. Seasons become an endless cycle of recovery with three matches a week, which leaves little room for coaching.

Part of what makes pre-season so important is that a manager doesn´t have much space to alter the groundwork that they have laid in the summer months once the campaign is underway. Arsene resisted the lu(c)re of far flung overseas tours during pre-season for so long for this reason. It´s the time of the year where he is able to focus all of his energy on coaching.

As fans, we see transfer activity as the most obvious part of what constitutes pre-season planning. It´s the most exciting and the most visible element. It is probably the most important, a good transfer is the shortest route to success, when multiplied with other, more marginal factors, such as fitness preparation.

Let´s pretend that Arsenal had a Director of Football for a moment (!) What would constitute Arsenal´s biggest priorities next season, with analysis of the mistakes and lessons from the last campaign? Well, I´ve made a pitch for the non-existent role by identifying some big ticket items.

Arsene has publicly identified this as an area in need of fine tuning. The murmurs began last summer after a rabble of relative unknowns and ne´er do wells took Leicester City to the league title. The Gunners´ response was to poach one of the Foxes´ leading player analysts, while Wenger spoke publicly about the importance of looking to lower league talent when the Rob Holding deal was completed last summer.

Arsene´s public musings on the subject of Arsenal´s scouting have become a little more laconic recently, lamenting the failure to land the likes of N´Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe at a younger age. Interestingly, the trio he referenced were exclusively French players, much of Wenger´s reputation was forged in identifying young French talent ahead of the curve.

I think part of the reason that Arsene holds onto stagnating or perma-crocked players for too long is that he finds buying players to be such a grinding chore. The StatsDNA database has added a layer of checks and balances to Arsenal´s transfer business, after deals for the likes of Marouane Chamakh, Park Chu-Young, Andre Santos and Gervinho proved to be failures.

On the upside, Arsenal have bought fewer ´duds´ in the last 4 seasons or so. But transfer business does seem to have slowed as a result, as the club still seek a balance between a good transfer and a decisive one. Arsenal have had a little difficulty inducting new signings of late too. I speculated recently that the balance may be a little off kilter between reliance on StatsDNA and the importance of ´the eye´ in Arsenal´s scouting.

Wenger suggests he wanted to make a move for Griezmann during his Sociedad days, before the analytics department talked him out of it. It seemed like a slightly pointed comment. The Gunners have made a habit recently of buying good players, but ones that don´t necessarily fit in at Arsenal. Elneny and Xhaka seemed to be complete mysteries to Arsene for prolonged periods, while even a marquee signing like Alexis Sanchez has been shunted around the pitch.

Whether that is a fault of recruitment or simple tactical indecisiveness is open to debate. But it does seem like Arsenal buy a player and then spend a significant time trying to figure out what to do with him after the fact. I think the Gunners should investigate changing tack a little and nailing the melody before they start on the lyrics. Make the plan and then buy the players that fit it. A sophisticated analytics database is suited to this approach.

Arsenal endured significant problems with players that engaged them with the ball last season. Time and again, players were able to dribble through the Gunners midfield and defence all too easily. Troy Deeney´s tap in at The Emirates, Eden Hazard´s solo effort at Stamford Bridge, Dembele´s drive into the box that earned Spurs their point at the Emirates in November are all pertinent examples.

Arsenal conceded 11 penalties last season, many of which were rash tackles in response to opposition players engaging defenders in the dribble. Part of this is due to the team´s general openness defensively. But also because the squad has a cadre of midfielders that are dribbled around a little too easily.

Ramsey, Xhaka, Cazorla and Elneny are all guilty in this respect, while Coquelin´s tackling is much better when the ball is loose in 50-50 situations, as opposed to when it is under the spell of an opposing attacker. I fancy the physical profile of the team is a little lopsided and we could do with a few more athletes capable of covering plenty of ground.

That said, the move to the back 3 has minimised this problem. Arsenal shepherded the league´s foremost dribbler in Eden Hazard brilliantly in the FA Cup Final. The back 3 reduces the impact of Xhaka´s immobility and gives the Gunners an extra layer of security in the defensive zone once an attacker does have the ball at his feet in that area of the pitch.

Comfortably the team´s most significant issue last season. The Gunners scored over 100 goals in 2016-17, thanks largely to the inspiration and perspiration of Alexis. Sanchez is one of the few players untroubled by tactical chaos because he is such an individualist. Most other players suffered to one degree or another and this, I think, was largely due to the failure to find a functioning midfield.

Again, the move to the back 3 put a set of stabilisers on a season long wobble. The Xhaka and Ramsey axis looked much more defensively capable in this setup. I think this is a band aid Wenger cannot afford to remove until he is confident that he has a central midfield partnership that can flourish with just two centre halves behind it.

Arsenal have a lot of specialists in midfield that have a very distinct skillset. The problem is, combining two specialists still leaves you with attribute gaps. The Gunners have struggled when faced with the dribble this season and I also think they lack a ball carrier if Alex Iwobi or Alex Oxlade Chamberlain aren´t playing out wide. Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere´s most useful qualities have not been replaced in the centre though.

Arsene also cannot make the mistake of relying on Santi Cazorla or Jack Wilshere (the latter of the two really ought to be sold and replaced now) when formulating his plans for the engine room. I think Arsene needs to undertake a stock take of his midfielders. If he plans on sticking with the back 3, he needs to consider whether the likes of Elneny and Coquelin fit that system.

Should he choose to revert to a back 4, then he really needs a different profile of central midfielder. Someone who is an athlete off the ball and an artist on it. It´s a tough player to find, but if Özil stays and Arsene wants him to be part of a midfield 3 again, the number 8 role is a significant job. Effectively, Arsenal would need a more dynamic version of Santi Cazorla and a player like that sits in the rocking horse shit aisle of the transfer market.

These, as I see it, are three of Arsenal´s biggest challenges this summer in their preparation for the 2017-18 season. Admittedly, I have only really posed questions rather than answers. If Arsene or Ivan are interested in the solutions, I will gladly accepted a basic salary of £2m a year with a generous bonus package……

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