Culture Club

By common consensus, Arsenal’s squad is ‘top heavy.’ Back in June, I wrote a piece suggesting that the Jenga like structure might be so top heavy that one or two pieces are bound to topple over. For all of Arsenal’s attractive attacking options, there is little sense of balance. Arsenal have two £50m strikers in a system that only caters for one.

Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil in the same midfield is a little too adventurous against top sides- it calls to mind the time when Arsene Wenger concluded that Ljungberg and Pires could not operate in the same four man midfield away from home. Allied to this, Arsenal don’t have many natural wide forwards, pretty much every attacking option the squad possesses would prefer to operate centrally given the choice.

Of course, squad depth and competition for places is not a bad situation per se. But I harbour doubts that some of these players will happily sit on the bench at a transitional club like Arsenal when most of them could make a lateral move, at the very least, and expect to start regularly. In pretty much every respect, the club has undergone major regime change and no organisational change is without its high profile casualties.

There was a hint of discord when Aaron Ramsey was dropped for the Chelsea game and publicly urged to ‘focus on training, the matches and on his performance’ by Unai Emery. This weekend, Mesut Özil missed another game through illness amidst reports of a training ground contretemps with the new Head Coach, who has shown little respect for reputation so far.

I highlight this not to sensationalise or dramatise, like I said, organisational change is not a serene process, a few eggs are always broken in service of an omelette. Arsenal are leaving behind a culture of indulgence from their predecessor and I don’t mean that in a scathing way. Arsene’s indulgences created some outstanding football over the years.

At the outset of the 2014-15 season, Wenger tried to cram Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil into the same midfield. When asked how this affected the overall balance of the team, Wenger half joked, “I just play all of the good players.” An idealist coach, Arsene was heavily influenced by Bazil’s 1970 World Cup winning side, “When you look at the Brazil team in 1970 they had Tostão, Rivelino, Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson, Clodoaldo.

“They all played number ten in their club. They didn’t know what to do. They put them all together and they won the World Cup in a convincing way.” This rather ignores the context that side operated in. The 1970 World Cup in Mexico was played in searing heat, which favoured the slow, technical game preferred by a team full of number 10s. Brazilian players were accustomed to the temperatures and, at the time, had the best fitness coaches in world sport. There was plenty of science behind the ‘magic.’

Mesut Özil is perhaps the most obvious example of the “number 10” in world football. But football is moving away from the idea of a freelance playmaker, favouring control in deeper areas of the pitch. Manchester City play with two offensive number 8s in de Bruyne and Silva, as do Madrid with Modric and Kroos, Barca created one of the all-time great midfield duos with Xavi and Iniesta.

This explains why there was not much of a market for Mesut Özil when his contract was ticking towards its expiry date last season. Ultimately, the German signed with Arsenal because theirs was the best financial offer. Having just lost Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United, the club was somewhat forced into ceding to Özil’s demands for PR reasons.

It is still early days of course and Emery is still getting a feel for his team. His penchant for early substitutions has largely been regarded as a positive given Wenger’s reluctance to make unenforced changes before the 70th minute. Yet the frequency with which players are being hooked before the 60th minute suggests he is still not quite getting his starting line-ups right as he gets a feel for his players.

Where Mesut is concerned, Emery potentially has an issue on his hands. Unai’s teams rarely play with this kind of playmaker. Modern tactical demands suggest players in forward positions need to work hard and press from the front and, well, let’s just say that is hardly Özil’s forte. Ordinarily, Özil might be considered a prime candidate for one of Emery’s broken eggs.

Yet his contract adds a layer of difficulty. Nobody else of significance wanted to hand Mesut a £350,000 a week contract back in January and his stock has hardly risen since. Given the events of last weekend, we have some indication that Özil won’t fade quietly into the background even if Emery and Arsenal were prepared to sit him on the bench given his salary and status.

Potentially, the coach could be looking at a situation where he has an unhappy, disruptive player that he cannot use and cannot move on unless this situation is handled deftly. In footballing terms, there is a good argument that indulging Özil is a necessary evil if Arsenal want to get back into the land of Champions League milk and honey.

Even if he comes to be regarded as a bit of a square peg, Mesut is still probably the most talented player in the squad. Having spent two years in the footballing Siberia of the Europa League, the club cannot really afford (in more sense than one) to become marooned in further transition. Alienating a talent like Özil might be a case of short term pain for long term gain, but Arsenal went significantly into their ‘short term pain’ overdraft in the last two years of Wenger’s reign. Extend that overdraft much longer and we’re looking at long term debt.

Özil’s contract has, most likely, created an issue in trying to convince Aaron Ramsey to renew. Mesut’s contract is a rising tide and Ramsey wants his boat lifted accordingly, even if he is not demanding parity with Özil per se. Arsenal set a precedent in acquiescing to Özil. Holding strong on Ramsey’s contract demands may prevent that from becoming a trend, but the Gunners are not in a strong position to turn their nose up at top class players or lose out on the transfer fees they might attract.

Emery has many tactical challenges as he seeks to sculpt the team in his own image, but his biggest challenge may be overturning the culture of indulgence that has started to blossom at the club. As supporters, we have to adapt to a new culture too. We have to accept that sometimes our favourite players aren’t going to play in their favourite positions and sometimes the apple of our eye might be hauled across the coals to the bench after 60 minutes.

In a recent edition of the Arsenal Vision Post Match Podcast @poznaninmypants described Arsenal as “a live crime scene” in their current state of flux. We’re all going to have to stand back for a little while and let people do their jobs while this overhaul takes shape. As much as we might feel like rushing into theatre to be at the side of our loved ones, we’d be better served taking a seat in the waiting room until the surgeons have finished the job at hand.

Unai Emery has a very delicate balancing act, he probably has 2-3 seasons’ worth of work to do but only one season to do it in. Arsenal used up their transition tariff under the previous manager and some disturbance in the force is inevitable and necessary. Most of us wanted change, but change isn’t straightforward and it comes at a price. Be warned, this will not be a bloodless revolution.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.