Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Swim, Lest Ye Drown

If you will forgive me for being wise after the event, I think my overriding lesson from watching Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta try to get to grips with an erratic Arsenal squad is the importance of sticking to your guns. This wasn’t a belief I firmly held when either coach took the top job at Arsenal. Like you, I support a club that hadn’t changed its manager for 22 years, frankly I didn’t have a firm opinion on how a new coach should induct themselves anymore than I had a firm opinion on fisheries policy.

During his opening press conference, Unai Emery excited Arsenal fans as he set out his vision for his team. “My idea is to be protagonists. We play against all the teams with this personality. When you don’t have possession, I want a squad that are very, very intensive with the pressing. The two things are important for me to be protagonists: possession of the ball and pressing when you don’t have the ball.”

In his opening four games in charge, Emery set up with his favoured 4231 formation, with Mesut Özil starting from the right, Aubameyang on the left and Lacazette upfront with Aaron Ramsey in behind. Emery saw Ramsey and Lacazette as the protagonists of the press, while Özil and Aubameyang could move inside to make space for the full-backs and create a kind of box shape in attack.

It was slightly awkward of course. Aubameyang is not really a left-winger (though here we are two and a half years later…) Ramsey is more of an attacking eight than a 10 and Özil is more of a 10 than a right sided forward. Lacazette was the only player in a totally comfortable role for him. Soon enough, Emery reasoned that he didn’t have the players for a 4231 and thus began his descent into tinkering.

After trialing just about every conceivable system, the players lost the thread and the coach lost an increasingly confused collection of players. In his unveiling press conference, Arteta didn’t expand so much on his preferred tactical approach, instead focusing on more cerebral issues. “We have to build a culture that has to sustain the rest. If you don’t have the right culture, in the difficult moments, the tree is going to shake, so my job is to convince everybody that this is how we are going to live.”

He delivered on his initial promise of finding ‘quick wins’ for a team and a club that had lost its way. He rehabilitated some players previously labelled uncoachable and quickly steadied the ship. In his opening game against Bournemouth, he also opted for a 4231 with Torreira and Xhaka at the base of midfield and Nelson, Özil and Aubameyang floating behind Lacazette.

Like Emery, Arteta achieved an initial uptick in results and, like Emery, that positive energy soon faded as he realised the size of the defensive task on his hands and he switched systems. Arteta had to coach around some defensive pinch-points and, in doing so, sacrificed the potency of the attack. He hasn’t quite fallen into the Emery whirlpool of selecting formations and line-ups by magic eight ball, but the situation is beginning to feel ominous and familiar- to me at least.

Arteta has identified that Arsenal lack presence between the lines of midfield and attack but has struggled to solve the issue. He also realises that a lack of overall technical competence means that it is difficult for his team to maintain periods of pressure and push opponents back. His current resolution appears to be to get the ball down the flanks and to throw it into the box as often as possible.

In short, Arsenal aren’t playing anything like they were in Arteta’s opening games in charge. That’s understandable to an extent, opponents can become familiar with your plan and find ways of erecting barriers. I think what I have learned in the last two years, is that that is the time to perfect your plan rather than to abandon it.

My worry is that Arteta is being gripped by the same cyclone that swept Emery away. Frankly, this is a Frankenstein squad in a horrendous position with contracts, put together by a mixture of incompetents and bad faith actors. Arteta need look no further than his predecessor to understand that trying to find a system that fits this squad is a fool’s errand. There isn’t one and if he wastes time trying to find a single spec of sand in the sea he will eventually drown.

Behind the scenes, Arsenal have acted with a mixture of panic, incompetence and, well, let’s just say there are certain characters who haven’t exactly been in it for the betterment of Arsenal Football Club. In the excellent Second Captain’s podcast this week, Ken Early described Arsenal as suffering from “status anxiety” in their willingness to hand out big contracts to ageing superstars. It is the behaviour of a club more concerned with how their slippage looks than how it actually plays out.

Another red flag with Arteta for me is that he is starting to mix his messages. Firstly, I am not convinced anybody is fooled by his current insistence that tossing an endless stream of crosses into the opposition penalty area passes for creativity or dominance or that the recent failure to score is down to a lack of “ruthlessness.” That is desperate talk, really and that’s alarming. He has also insisted that it will take two to three years to fully mould this Arsenal team into his image.

While that is a timeline I can make sense of, it doesn’t stack up with the decisions he and the club have made. In three years’ time, Aubameyang will be 34 and just out of contract, Willian will be 35 and just out of contract, Cedric Soares will be 32 with another year left on his deal and Pablo Mari will be 30. These are not the signings of a man or a club planning for the sunlit uplands of 2023.

When Jurgen Klopp took over at Liverpool, he insisted on playing his style, even though the players were ill-fitting. It took some time to weed out the likes of Lucas Leiva, Emre Can, Mamadou Sakho and Simon Mignolet and bring in the players to fit, but recruiting the right pieces is so much easier when you have a template to recruit around.

While I think Arteta deserves more time to sort out a knotty squad, some of the knots are of his own making. Come January, I think Arsenal will look to be active in the market if they can (they already have two senior players omitted from their 25-man squad for the Premier League and Europa League) but what are they recruiting for? What sort of system? What sort of style? What kind of future? This is why it is more expedient to walk through the door with a blueprint and to fit the pieces around it.

Marcelo Bielsa, a supposed influence on Arteta, is famously evangelical about this, never shifting tactics or formation even from the sidelines when his team is desperate for a goal. His logic follows that changing his tactics is a sign of weakness, of wavering from his plan and if he shows his players that he thinks his plan isn’t going to work then they will stop believing in it too.

In fairness, Gabriel and Thomas Partey look to be good signings and the attempt to sign Houssem Aouar shows the manager isn’t blind to his team’s creative failings. However, it is crucial that Arteta and Edu have a blueprint in mind otherwise Arsenal are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, to chase their tails and overpay ageing stars in a blind panic.

In his unveiling press conference, Arteta said, “We have to try to engage everybody, I have to try and convince the players about what I want to do, how I want to do it, they have to start accepting a different process.” At some point, very soon, Mikel Arteta is going to have to decide, or else reconnect with, exactly what that “process” is. To paraphrase Andy Dusfrene slightly, you either get busy swimming, or you get busy drowning.

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