Friday, June 2, 2023

Under the Influence

Over the last decade or so, Arsene Wenger has become very enamoured of the phrase ‘technical leader.’ These are players that set an example not through clenched fists and gritted teeth, but by embodying the team’s style of play. Wenger has used the phrase to describe players such as Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard often established the rhythm of Arsenal’s play from the base of midfield.

In doing so, he also encouraged teammates to maintain Arsenal’s possession based approach. Anam wrote a good tactics column a few years ago that expands on that in more detail. Once Arteta’s legs gave up on him, Santi Cazorla assumed the role as the team’s ‘technical leader’, moving into a slightly deeper midfield role to help the Gunners’ build play.

Technical leaders are not always deep lying playmakers, even if technical leadership fits pretty snugly into their job description. Tomas Rosicky is another player that the manager has described using this term. The Czech was often the oil in Arsenal’s engine, helping the team to establish a rhythm with his “get ball, move ball, move arse” style that quickened the pace of the attack. Alex Iwobi could yet develop into this mould.

Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby, potentially could have been technical leaders for Arsenal. You’re probably noticing a theme at this point, the Gunners have lost a lot of players that help to establish their style. Rosicky, Cazorla and Arteta were not, in their own right, world class players per se (Santi is probably closer to that descriptor than his counterparts). Good players, yes. But not the kind that would trouble a Ballon D’Or nomination list.

But they made Arsenal play better or, more specifically, they made Arsenal play their brand of football better. In fact, the vogueish social media term “influencers” might be applicable to this type of player. The loss of this category of player has hurt Arsenal over the last 12-18 months. Looking across the current team, a revolution of some kind is on the horizon.

Administratively, the squad has been poorly managed, both in the contractual sense and the age profile of the current first choice XI. Rebuilding is best executed incrementally, but the Gunners have major spinal surgery to undergo in the immediate future. Cech is 35, Koscielny 32, Cazorla is 33 and broken and Alexis and Özil are leaving on free transfers next summer.

Arsenal will very likely not bring in a single penny for any of those players to reinvest in their eventual replacements. (Though arguably Holding could be considered Koscielny’s heir apparent). This, I imagine, is why Arsene Wenger sought after Thomas Lemar this summer. Lemar has the potential to be a Rosicky style ‘technical leader’ and, at 21 years old, he would have at least partially foreshadowed the future of Arsenal’s spine.

Granit Xhaka has impressed periodically, but he has suffered from a lack of structure in midfield. Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin (assuming he does not get itchy feet) ought to have the wing-back / full-back roles on lockdown for a few years. If Aaron Ramsey signs a new deal, he can be considered a future reference player but, as I wrote last week, Ramsey and Xhaka could do with another body in midfield to consolidate their partnership.

Lacazette is both 26 years old and has arrived recently, so that is one part of the spine that Arsenal need not worry about immediately. But it is far from ideal that a fading manager with one year left on his contract will have to replace the spine of the team with very little pouring into the coffers. This summer was the perfect time for a new manager to take over for this very reason (the current coach’s competence aside). A new man would have had the opportunity to swing the axe pretty easily had he wanted to. Arsenal were ripe for a long term rebuild.

Looking at the squad now, there are too few players in the 23-26 year old age bracket. If Aaron Ramsey and even Danny Welbeck stall on new contracts, it becomes difficult to remotely imagine what this team could look like 18 months from now. The squad is certainly light of another top class central midfield option, whilst the departure of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain reveals a dearth of genuine wide options.

If Arsenal continue to deploy wing-backs, that is less of an issue. But as it stands, Theo Walcott is the only genuine wide option on the roster. With Rosicky and Chamberlain now departed and Cazorla perma-crocked, Wenger’s side lacks players that can commit opposition defences in the dribble. This is a valuable commodity for a team like Arsenal, even if only from the bench, given how often they face packed defences.

Again, this is why Thomas Lemar would have proved to be a valuable addition- especially had Alexis Sanchez left. The Chilean is the last of the Arsenal take-on merchants, but this is a skill the team could probably use from deeper areas too. Not to labour the point, but it is difficult to understand why a central midfield player did not constitute a priority in the summer transfer window.

Not least because, with the sizeable rebuild Arsene Wenger has ahead of him, doing as much of that work as possible this summer was crucial in order to spread the load. Had the Oxlade Chamberlain money hit Arsenal’s debit account in July, rather than 31st August, the manager could have used the cash to kickstart the reanimation of an ageing spine.

Arsenal’s key contracts are simultaneously heading for an iceberg and the players in Arsenal’s spine are growing old together (or else are scrambling for the exit door). Arsene is probably going to have to procure some dribblers but, more importantly, they will need more ‘technical leaders’ in the 23-26 year old bracket.

The significance of the task can be distilled in one terrifying sentence- Arsenal are going to have to replace Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez in the same summer. The team has suffered already by not fully replacing its secondary influencers such as Arteta and Rosicky, but now the manager has to conjure up a way of supplanting his outright reference players too.

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