“I just worry about his reaction and body language – when the ball is turned over he offers his team-mates nothing. Away from home he’s a liability, he just doesn’t do enough” said Steven Gerrard in reference to Mesut Ozil following Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat at Stoke.
‘Arsenal left frustrated by some bad decisions but players out of position, no leaders and poor without Sanchez. Stoke more organised and resilient.’ tweeted Henry Winter, chief football writer for The Times.
“For too long the problem at Arsenal has been a lack of leadership and I have a horrible feeling it could be the same this time,” wrote Ian Wright in his column for the Sun.
Criticisms that are not new to us, possibly valid, but too reductive.
Arsenal do lack typical ‘leaders’, but you’d be hard pressed to find a top Premier League side that don’t. Manchester United have built a side centred around tall, physical players like Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Eric Bailly, but rarely do you seen them at their team-mates throats or barking out instructions. Chelsea have experienced players in Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas but again, they lead by example as opposed to force.
Tottenham and Liverpool do not have overly authoritative presences, but still excel due to their technical quality and clarity in style. Why are Manchester City favourites for the title? Because their squad is stacked with incredible players who are learning under a great coach – not because of a supposed mean streak.
Looking at the result in isolation, things could’ve been completely different on another day. Danny Welbeck missed three presentable chances, Alexandre Lacazette had a goal ruled out for offside when a different linesman could have allowed it to stand, Hector Bellerin was denied a clear penalty when fouled by Mame Biram Diouf and Jack Butland was in good form for the hosts between the sticks.
However, ‘leaders’ would not have brought balance to a back three that included two left backs, nor would it have closed the gaps left by Aaron Ramsey’s forward runs or the impulsive nature to Granit Xhaka’s tackling. These problems arise due to the side lacking any kind of structure, an issue that has prevented significant progress for two years now.
Speaking to French newspaper L’Equipe in November, Arsene Wenger described himself as a “facilitator of what is beautiful in man”, which offers a clear window into his managerial philosophy. The Frenchman views football as art, as entertainment, and will always encourage his players to express themselves with an improvisational style that brings out their natural abilities. And for so long that worked. Of course you cannot achieve what he has in the game without an astute tactical mind, but the freedom he affords is why we’ve seen the likes of Fabregas, Thierry Henry, Aleksandr Hleb, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira flourish at Arsenal over the years.
But just as it did when he arrived in England all those years ago, football has changed and talent alone does not win you the biggest prizes anymore. Coming into the top flight as an unknown manager, Wenger was ridiculed by the press and his peers, but English football is far better off thanks to his views on how the game should be played, nutrition and training. Now we’re seeing that cycle commence again with Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, who continue to establish themselves and their modern approaches in the Premier League. But even across Europe, successful teams can be pinpointed to their structures and systems.
Even looking across the continent, 30-year-old Julian Nagelsmann has led Hoffenheim to the Champions League play-offs for the first time in their history – a feat made all the more impressive when looking at their minuscule budget and wage bill. “30% percent of coaching is tactics, 70% social competence,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung in August, and while this undersells his vast knowledge and nous of the game, there’s no doubt that they have built success based on Nagelsmann’s ability to make every single squad member feel valued and included. His unique set-up that sees Hoffenheim play a 3-1-6 formation at times has taken the Bundesliga by storm, and this is just another example of a youthful, progressive coach embracing the tactical and social demands of modern football, not just ignoring them.
In Italy, Maurizio Sarri continues to work wonders at Napoli, regularly rotating between Marek Hamsik, Allan, Jorginho, Amadou Diawara, Piotr Zielinski and Marko Rog in midfield, without damaging their fast, free-flowing football. Realising that Dries Mertens had the tools to suit his system and gambling with him up front was also an inspired decision – he scored 28 goals in Serie A last season. French side Nice lost Wylan Cyprien and Alassane Plea (contributors to a third of their total goals) to serious knee injuries and still maintained a Ligue 1 title challenge under Lucien Favre, all while threatening to finish above PSG whose squad cost £450m more than theirs.
The common theme running between these sides? Individuals complement the system, instead of the system complementing individuals. You cannot say that Wenger, winner of over ten major honours throughout his managerial career ‘doesn’t do tactics’. Of course he does. It’s just a matter of depth and he is more comfortable in the shallow end with his armbands on than venturing any further. But if he and Arsenal are to survive in this increasingly competitive era, a change of approach and mindset could go a long way in teaching him how to swim.
Do Arsenal have a soft centre at times? Absolutely. But Patrick Vieira’s and Roy Keane’s don’t exist in football anymore. What the team requires is balance, structure, confidence and a clear belief in what they are doing. Whether it’s 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 3-4-2-1, the players so often look lost and bereft of ideas when things aren’t going their way and until that changes, the same issues will continue to resurface.