On balance: transfers, team construction, and leadership

Spending – “Spend some … money!” was the chant heard round the Emirates in Spring of 2013 and withing four years Arsenal would spend £224m making them the third most profligate club in the Premier League over the last four years. The only problem with Arsenal’s spending is that they seem to go one year spending big and the next year not spending at all, and leaving gaping holes in the Arsenal lineup in the process. Here are some examples: in the season Arsenal bought Ozil, he was the only player that Wenger bought. Needing a CM since 2006, Wenger finally splurged on a loan for Kim Kallstrom in January. The next season, Arsenal spent £82m net bringing in Alexis, Chambers, Welbeck, Debuchy, and Ospina. Needing a CB and a CM all season, Wenger finally broke down and bought Gabriel in January. The next season, though, we started getting this song and dance from Wenger about how buying too many players can upset the balance and we were right back to where we were 2 years earlier: just buying one player – Petr Cech. This time, Wenger was in a title race, however, and (still needing a CM – because they knew Cazorla’s foot was a gaping wound) finally broke down and bought a CM in Elneny in January. Then last summer Wenger bought the entire spine of the team, spending another £87m. Arsenal dropped to 5th and followed that spending up this season by earning £15m in transfers, though they finally bought the CF that Arsenal have needed since 2008. What’s frustrating about Arsenal’s spending is that the plan seems to be buy one player (Ozil), then the next season buy 5, then the next you buy one (Cech), then you buy 5, and then you buy one (Lacazette). Meanwhile, the club are spending, and even willingly to spend foolishly sometimes (taking losses on Gabriel and Lucas for example) while also not spending foolishly other times. And then there was the insanity this summer – trying to sell Alexis to fund Lemar – but then not getting any replacement in and in all likelihood losing out on tens of millions when they lose Alexis, Ozil, and Wilshere this summer. I’m realistic and I know that a club like Arsenal can’t just buy all the players in one year but this club doesn’t seem to have a plan for building the team year after year. Instead of buying the components that they need, they seem to just be buying the components that are available. And that is an imbalanced way to run a club.

Management – Many people think of Wenger as tactically bankrupt but rather than being so absolute about our judgement we need to take a more nuanced approach to Wenger’s talents and failings. First, the talents. Wenger’s Arsenal – despite the incoherent spending plan criticized above – have been one of the very top performers in terms of expected goals. Over the last three seasons Wenger’s Arsenal have been 1st in expected goals difference (2015/16), then dropped to 5th (2016/17), and are now back to 2nd (through ten matches of 2017/18). It’s difficult to maintain a high level of performance in the Premier League. Even “special” managers like Jose Mourinho eventually flame out and their teams drop to the middle of the table. So, a manager who is able to keep his team in the top five for 20+ years is very special indeed. Wenger as a manager must be given credit for setting his team up to succeed. He can’t put the ball into the back of the net, he can’t defend a counter attack, but he can set up his team to consistently create good chances and to minimize opposition chances.

Through the first 10 games of this season, Arsenal are actually 2nd in the League in expected goal difference – this is not at all where I “expected” them to be at the start of the season. Offensively, Arsenal are 2nd in expected goals with 23.26. That’s 8 less than Man City but it is 2nd best in the League. Defensively, Arsenal have an expected goals allowed of 12.20 but that’s only 0.6 goals fewer than Man United who have an expected goals allowed of 11.61. The fact remains that Wenger is easily still one of the top managers in world football.

Wenger’s teams do tend to have a fundamental imbalance – though it’s going to surprise you when I write it. Throughout his career, Wenger’s teams have averaged almost 10 goals allowed more than the best defenses in the Premier League. And have scored almost 12 fewer goals than the best attacking teams per season. In fact, Wenger’s so-called attacking football has only ever led the league in goals scored for three years – 2002-2005.

For a manager lauded as playing attacking football, and one who is often forgiven his defensive lapses because “we were really going for it at the end there” his record is strangely not as front-footed as I would have expected. The average goals scored for title winners since 1997 is 84 goals. Arsene Wenger’s average is 72. In fact, he’s only broken 80+ goals scored in a season three times and his last title winners, only scored 73 goals. The fact don’t support the belief that Wenger is an “attacking” manager. He’s a good one, no doubt, but his level seems to be just slightly below the best – consistently.

That is what I think also frustrates people: Wenger is a “nearly” manager. I’ve seen this phenomenon many times before. Coach George Karl of the Seattle SuperSonics and the Denver Nuggets is the most famous example of a manager who can set his team up to be successful, to win their division, and yet they consistently flame out in the playoffs. Since the Invincibles, Wenger has put together two teams which should have won the League: the Fabregas 07/08 side and the Ozil 15/16 side. Both teams started strong and failed to get over the line. Fans probably give Wenger more leeway for the 07/08 side because Eduardo had his leg broken by Taylor but the 15/16 side also lost a key player to injury in Santi Cazorla who was forced to stop playing after November and Arsenal came apart at the seams quickly after that.

Replacing Santi Cazorla should be the top of Wenger’s transfer list. The excuse that we don’t want to replace him while he’s injured is no longer valid: the man is 32 years old and no matter how much I love him both as a player and a human there comes a time when all players have to stop playing. The problem is that replacing Cazorla’s skills is one of the most difficult things to do in football. He is the perfect all-rounder player, virtually the same (though smaller) as Pogba. Right now there are two young players who closely fit the Cazorla mold – Saúl Ñíguez (Atleti) and Fabinho (Monaco). CIES Observatory suggests either player would cost over £85m. A huge coup would be to land Thiago Alcântara for £50m. But I don’t know how we convince him to come from Bayern to Arsenal.

Getting the balance right in Arsenal’s midfield by either replacing Cazorla or fashioning Ramsey into a Cazorla is the most important change that Wenger needs to work on for this team. Although if I’m going to be completely honest this club have a lot of positions that need filling this summer – Cech, Koscielny, Cazorla, Alexis, and Özil are all going to be costly components of Arsenal’s rebuild.Which brings me back to the first critique.

Leadership – There is a fascinating passage in Dennis Bergkamp’s book Stillness and Speed where Bergkamp talks about various leadership styles. With Tony Adams he saw a leader who would yell at the other players and make a big fist about his leadership in front of the cameras. With Vieira the leadership was much more just a presence on and off the pitch: Vieira led through connecting to everyone. Literally everyone, the kit man, the chefs, everyone. But Dennis was also a leader, in his own way. Dennis led by quietly teaching the other players on the team. Well respected for his technical quality, Dennis could (and did) take players aside and suggest things to improve their game. He saw his role as “technical leader” at Arsenal and that it was his job to make everyone else around him better.

On this current Arsenal team, who are the leaders? This has been a long-standing criticism of Arsene, that he doesn’t have leaders on his team. But down the years he has had various leaders: van Persie was the sort of demanding type, Fabregas was a technical leader, Mertesacker is another almost coach. But my question and critique is about Özil and Alexis. How do they lead this team? Özil should be taking on the role of a Bergkamp; teaching young players where to go, how to read the game, how to look for certain passes, how to strike the ball, to trap, to do all the things that he does so well. Alexis too should be a leader on this team but so often his leadership style seems to be just a crass disappointment with his teammates (and manager) in front of the cameras. We don’t know what happens off camera and in practice. That I will admit. Maybe both players are great leaders away from the cameras. But somehow it just doesn’t feel like this team has a bunch of real leaders – like the invincibles did.

Fin – Football is literally a game of inches. Fractional differences between teams and players which make a huge difference in a game that is often won or lost because of a single bad tackle, a single lucky shot, or a brief moment of insanity/brilliance. Getting the balance right at Arsenal in terms of spending, team construction, and leadership is all that it will take to turn Wenger’s attacking philosophy into a trophy winning team.



  1. Thanks, Tim for a great piece. One of the things that people don’t talk about when discussing transfers is that it is a two-way street. The club wants a player but does that player want to join the club. I don’t have any inside information but I am pretty sure the Club (represented by whomever) put out feelers and inquiries every summer (maybe all the time) to many players but the deals that we have seen realized were the ones where the players wanted to come. So blaming Wenger for not getting the right combination and right level of players is partially valid because Arsenal need someone to work with people in the Club to convince players that we want to come join. Otherwise, it would be just wishful thinking to say we need this player so go buy him.

  2. Great post.

    I could write a 20 paragraph response but I liked your final point about small margins. It reminds me of Brailsford’s implementation of the Marginal Gains principle with British Cycling that turned them into an Olympic powerhouse in that sport.


    Isn’t this something we’ve complained about Arsenal for the past 10 years at least? There’s not a systematic process of identifying weak spots and areas at the club where we can make even just a small improvement. It’s all ad hoc and almost seemingly random and hence the stagnation.

    1. Agree, but haven’t there in recent times been some (ahem) “questions” about the methods of British cycling in that era, which maybe put some of Brailsford’s pronouncements in a different light?

  3. Very nice post and thank you for helping us through boring, boring interlull. I think Ramsey’s one of the informal leaders as he’s back in the team the minute he can walk. He’s also pointing, shouting and gesturing to the other players where to go, stand, cover ground and they mostly don’t seem to mind.

    Maybe there’s some fractions within the team where Ramsey’s a informal leader on one hand an then there’s Sánchez and Özil who’s clearly not that fond of Ramsey? Just guesswork ofc but in accordance to your thoughts of leaders🙂.

  4. “The only problem with Arsenal’s spending is that they seem to go one year spending big and the next year not spending at all, and leaving gaping holes in the Arsenal lineup in the process.”
    Here’s my theory: the club only wants to spend 50-60 million per season in the transfer market. That’s what the figures since 2013 suggest. The market prices and the availability of potential signings would explain the strange spending pattern. Unless you have a great scouting network, 50-60 million gets you very little in today’s market. So my question is: would the club still be in a healthy financial situation if it was willing to spend 90-100 million per season on transfers? Of course, the cash reserves would diminish, and if you are the shareholders, the dividend you might pocket would diminish too.
    “Right now there are two young players who closely fit the Cazorla mold – Saúl Ñíguez (Atleti) and Fabinho (Monaco).”
    Saul Niguez scores a lot of goals for a midfielder. I’m aware he has played as a defensive midfielder, but does he want to play in a more restrictive role so early in his career? Also, I don’t think Fabinho fits Cazorla’s profile. Fabinho is a holding midfielder, with great defensive skills but limited dribbling and passing skills. He would still be an upgrade over Coquelin as a defensive midfielder.

    1. Fabinho is 16/19 so far this season in dribbles and 1 key pass per game.
      Ramsey 1.3 dribbles and 1.1 key passes per game this season.

      1. I don’t quite understand why you bring Ramsey into this discussion since Ramsey is a box-to-box midfielder, and not a defensive midfielder like Fabinho or a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla. Also, where are those stats coming from? I love stats, but they are meaningless without context and without some qualitative analysis.
        So I retrieved stats from Squawka, comparing Fabinho with Fernandinho, Saul Niguez, Ramsey and Cazorla, using the per 90 metrics from last season’s domestic leagues, which provide a bigger sample than this season’s stats. For Cazorla, I’m using stats from the 2014-15 season, because it’s the last season in which he played 30 plus Premier League games.
        Fabinho: 0.94 key pass, 0.03 assist, 2.25 tackles won, 4.04 tackles lost, 1.05 successful take-ons, 1.58 interceptions, 0.29 block.
        Fernandinho: 1.05 key passes, 0.03 assist, 1.80 tackles won, 3.85 tackles lost, 0.91 successful take-on, 2.22 interceptions, 0.16 block.
        Saul Niguez: 0.78 key pass, 0.11 assist, 2.37 tackles won, 3.89 tackles lost, 1.13 successful take-ons, 2.16 interceptions, 0.25 block.
        Ramsey: 1.38 key passes, 0.29 assist, 0.73 tackles won, 2.91 tackles lost, 1.53 successful take-ons, 0.87 interception, 0.22 block.
        Cazorla: 2.02 key passes, 0.33 assist, 1.38 tackles won, 2.53 tackles lost, 2.62 successful take-ons, 1.23 interceptions, 0.15 block.
        You can make a basic pass to a player who’ll fire a speculative long-range strike, and that will be considered a key pass. Yet, it doesn’t say anything about your passing skills. That’s why I also included assists. Great passers like Ozil have a high number for both key passes and assists. In both categories, Fabinho is miles away from Cazorla. His numbers are closer to Fernandinho’s.
        In fact, Fabinho has a much more defensive profile than Cazorla. The Monaco midfielder makes more tackles and blocks than Fernandinho, Saul Niguez, Ramsey and Cazorla. His interceptions stats are weaker than Fernandinho and Saul Niguez because I guess Fabinho doesn’t read the game as well as them.
        For dribbling skills, Fabinho is again miles away from Cazorla. The big surprise for me is Saul Niguez’s stat, since the Spaniard has much better dribbling skills than Fabinho. There’s no way Fabinho could have scored Saul Niguez’s solo goal against Bayern Munich last year. And Fabinho can’t make those roulette dribbles and Cruyff turns like Saul Niguez.
        My conclusion is that it’s misleading to make Fabinho fit in the Cazorla mold. In his game, Fabinho looks much more like Fernandinho than Cazorla.

  5. Perhaps the discrepancy between Wenger’s reputation for “attacking football” and goals produced is explained as a difference of style vs. production. I get the sense that he has always felt how we score is just as important as how many. Hence the irritating and shallow claim from seasons past that Arsenal are always trying to “walk it into the net”. With the right balance and talent level of personnel (as you mention, 2002-2005) we were able to produce with both quality and quantity. Since then it seems we have been “a little short” to cope with key injuries, defections, and the tedious bus-parking tactics most teams throw against us.

    Regarding the leadership issue, I strongly agree this is a missing piece, that contributes significantly to the friction and lack of team cohesion we have seen last season and this. Wenger often praises the team spirit but I would have to agree it seems like there are factions in the team that don’t actually get on all that well, and differences flare up alarmingly when we’re doing poorly. Yet another area where Santi is sorely missed.

  6. “A huge coup would be to land Thiago Alcântara for £50m. But I don’t know how we convince him to come from Bayern to Arsenal.”

    I think, first of all, we need to qualify for CL. Secondly, we have to replace Alexis with another excellent attacking player (to “show some ambition”). Last but not least, we show him the money. I read somewhere he is at less than €100K/wk at Bayern. We can easily double it. It can be done but our transfer activity seems haphazard and not done with any real strategy. In any case, I am convinced now that it doesn’t matter who we buy or sell as long as Wenger is in charge. He is a “nearly” manager, as you yourself put it so well.

    I agree we lack leaders all over the place. I think where we miss it most is on the field. I never saw RVP or Fabregas as leaders. They were definitely our best technical players but when things got tough, they seemed just as brittle as the rest. I can’t remember the number of times I complained, many times on 7amKO, about the Fabregas era team not having enough of a back bone. We haven’t had an on-field leader since Vieira.

    Michael Emenalo quit as Chelsea’s technical director last week. He has been credited with many of the talented younger player purchases and development (like De Bruyne who was moved on by Mourinho – haha!) at the club. Apparently, he left “to spend more time with his family” but we all know things at Chelsea are rarely that simple. I think there is a place for a man of his talent at Arsenal. Would be a major coup.

        1. I think I heard it on the Totally Football Show podcast, somneone mentioned it there. I mean, life is certainly nicer on the french coast living tax free.

  7. Mate, great piece. I like loads of people look forward to your insight and analysis. I think though this piece is bit too introspective/arsenal-centric. Let me explain. I think the reason for Arsenal’s failure to win the league is down more to what has happened outside of Arsenal and in football; rather than what has happened inside of Arsenal. Take all of the oil money out of football and I am certain Arsenal would have won league several times since 2004. It has such an impact on competition, player availability and prices. Even in recent years, no oil money in football, would have meant we get Draxler, Lemar, Mbappe – all players no one knew anything about until Mr Wenger’s interest. He still works wonders (Kolasinac/Bellerin/Nacho) but oil money changed the landscape. You can argue that Arsenal has failed to respond to this challenge. But then again who has? Only Manchester United – who can compete financially and then only in the Alex Ferguson era. We cant be so introspective when analysing Arsenal’s trophy cabinet in the last 13 years.

    1. Is that an explanation or excuse? Oil money has been a reality for almost 15 years now. And we’re talking about 3 teams – City, PSG and Chelsea. Chelsea and City have been downright poor for periods during those years and PSG plays in a different league… and have been poor also. And we benefited mightily from City’s largesse early on – 25million for Adebayor?

      We’re one of the ten richest clubs in world football. We are not one of the ten best teams. That’s a disconnect that cannot be explained by the influence of oil money.

      1. Jack,
        Of course I agree with you here. But of course it’s also true that oil money (and the effect of billionaire sugar daddy owners more broadly) has had a huge impact on the footballing landscape, particularly in England. You can say it’s only two English clubs, but obviously those two English clubs account for a very large slice of the English trophies won since 2003. It’s perfectly reasonable to think that Arsenal, as one of the biggest clubs in England over that same period, would have likely won more if City and Chelsea hadn’t had the money to become footballing powerhouses almost overnight (it’s not just that those two teams wouldn’t have been nearly as competitive; it’s also that quite a few of their players, especially in Chelsea’s case early on, would likely have ended up at Arsenal, at least for a few years).
        Finally, even the most churlish Wenger-skeptic would have to admit it’s very, very likely that if Roman Abramovich had never bought Chelsea, Arsenal would have won the league *at least* one more time between 2004 and 2010.

        1. That’s completely dealing in hypotheticals. Maybe he could have won it, but so what? That’s basically saying with less competition winning would have been easier.
          Of course things changed significantly with the arrival of Abramovich. But so they did when the offside rule was introduced or when a professorial looking coach arrived at Arsenal from Japan and brought with him all kinds of innovation and knowledge. That’s the thing, the world changes all the time, so at some lamenting the changing landscape becomes self-righteous whinging, especially 15 years after the fact. Our club is still run like it was 2004, and that is the real problem. And it’s not like the were gaps in dominance we could have exploited, see Leicester.

    2. Tottenham challenge for the title with a significantly smaller budget than City/United/etc. Chelsea are now self-sufficient and while that does mean paying agents fees to ship players off to China, they are smartly working around their limitations. And let’s not even mention Leicester.

      But more to the point, what’s the problem with investment? Investment is how businesses grow. When City and Chelsea dumped a billion dollars into their clubs those were investments and they have paid off. Man United have invested in their club and it has paid off. The only club that hasn’t invested is Arsenal. They have, instead, saved and prayed that Financial Fair Play would save them. That the regulators would swoop down like angels and protect their “small” club. But it’s ridiculous, honestly, to even want that. Financial Fair Play, if it had worked (which it hasn’t) would have merely codified one team’s dominance (Arsenal) over other. It would have removed the level playing field and assigned clubs like City to a permanent underclass.

      People forget that when Wenger was winning titles, Arsenal spent money. We had the highest payroll, we broke records bringing players in and broke records paying their salaries. Arsenal was known as the Bank Of London.

      What you’re upset about is the fact that Arsenal are no longer number 1 or 2 in total spend. That someone else is now.

      1. I think you are confusing business investment versus strategic investment. Kind of like Uber and the rest of the models burning cash and going into a race to find more investors for more cash to burn.
        Uber passengers (fans) are happy while the taxi drivers and companies (non-oil football clubs) cry foul since you know, some folks are actually trying to make a living.

      2. This strikes me as simplistic and not a charitable interpretation of the standard complaint about “financial doping” in European football (I take it that Faith’s comment above is a variation on the standard “financial doping” theme, though I’m not defending the specifics of Faith’s comment):

        1. It IS possible to have financial rules that make a more-or-less level playing field in sports, e.g. American football and basketball. Obviously these systems are far from perfect (and there’s a further question as to why/whether we want perfect parity in the first place), but they do balance things out to a significant degree, such that smaller market teams can compete with bigger market teams, and the idea that some Russian oligarch could just come in and virtually buy the Super Bowl is ridiculous. Whether something similar (though inevitably different in many respects) could ever work in European football is a difficult question that I’m not qualified to answer, but it’s obvious that no one has significantly even tried to make it work.

        2. Even if we just look at what Financial Fair Play was attempting to do, it’s not obvious this goal was no better than letting billionaire owners financially dope, as you suggest (of course it’s failed, but that’s another story). Yes, there’s always been a financial hierarchy in English football, but the inequalities were less dramatic and also more “honestly” earned, over the course of a century or more. Of course, clubs with large fanbases in large cities were always going to win the lion’s share of trophies, whereas the likes of Stockport Town and Lincoln City, etc, barely even had a chance to compete against the elite. But, for example, the reason that Liverpool is one of the biggest clubs in England and Europe, rather than, say, Birmingham City or Aston Villa or Newcastle or Cardiff or Leeds or Sheffield United or (until very recently) Chelsea and Man City, is due in very large part to the genius of Shankly and Paisley and Dalglish, not to LFC just being bankrolled to success from the start. The same cannot be said for the recent success of Chelsea and Man City: once Abramovich and the Abu Dhabi folks bought those clubs, their huge success was almost inevitable. So, if teams like Leeds United and Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa and West Ham and Man City (before they were bought) would have been condemned to a permanent underclass–and I deny that all financial restrictions necessarily would have made this inevitable (see point 1 above)–this would have been, at least somewhat, just, since Arsenal was, by and large, well managed, on and off the field, for over a century, while these other clubs weren’t, at least not consistently, over that same time. In other words, answer me this: is there ANYTHING about the performance of Man City in their century-plus existence before 2009 that makes them deserving of being one of the foremost clubs in England and Europe (and world) football in 2017? No. Their rise is the equivalent of winning the lottery. Ditto (though less dramatically), with Chelsea. I think it’s legitimate to be an Arsenal (or Spurs or Everton or Liverpool or even Man United) fan and be somewhat annoyed by that.

        None of this is to let Arsene Wenger off the hook for his performances in recent years (especially the last 2-3 seasons), when he’s simply not been good enough, for the reasons the above article articulates so well. Nor to let the club off the hook for not investing the money they should have in the team.

        1. 1. You cannot have a salary cap in European Football unless all the teams agree to it and even then, how would you work it? Would it be a hard cap that was set at the max that, say, Bournemouth could spend? That might work in England but there’s still the massive discrepancy between even the smallest English clubs and their counterparts in Europe. Bournemouth’s revenue is higher than almost all the clubs in Europe! So, are we going to set the cap at the level of Herenveen in the Dutch Eredivisie?

          Another idea is that you have a relative salary cap or a salary cap tax. How that works is that teams can spend what they want but after they spend X amount they pay a tax on the amount over the cap. The problem there though are that A. you’re not at all hurting teams like Man City and that B. then you have to decide what happens with the tax. Typically this is redistributed among the teams but let’s say City spend £150m over their cap and they pay £150m in tax – split evenly the 19 other teams get £8m. That’s hardly going to suddenly make Bournemouth competitive in the Premier League.

          Clubs like City and owners like Abramovich and Usmanov aren’t operating on normal business principles. They are literally using these businesses as a means of getting their money out of volatile countries like Russia and the Middle East and into more stable countries like Brexit. They throw money around in the way that they do because they only care about getting the money invested in this new business and growing that business.

          2. On history. History is great. There have been 128 years of English football and three teams, Man U, Liverpool, and Arsenal have won 51 of the 118 titles available. 43% of the titles have gone to just three teams. One of the things that the making of the Premier League attempted to do was to solidify the grip that these three teams had on the top of the English table. And it has worked to some extent. I actually think that without foreign investment we might have seen Liverpool win a few titles. They have been far more hurt by foreign investors than Arsenal have. And wait a minute… isn’t Arsenal’s stadium named after some Emirate? Aren’t our shirts sponsored by them? Are we upset about foreign investment or that e aren’t getting ENOUGH foreign investment?

          But I find, ultimately, that the “we’ve got history” argument is one thrown around by fans of formerly big clubs looking back to a glorified past. It’s great to have history. I love old tapes of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. But I don’t think we deserve to win the League more than Bournemouth just because we have a history of doing so. Sport is about innovation, exploiting weaknesses, preparation, and organization. Leicester had zero history before they won the League and they won the League because they took advantage of all the things listed above. If Arsenal want to win the League going forward we need to innovate, to exploit weaknesses (in the transfer market, in player salaries, in opposition defenses, etc.), to prepare in a fully modern way (using data), and organize the club to be a lean, mean, winning machine. We used to do all of those things, that’s why we won titles, not because of our history. I don’t think we do those things anymore and that’s why we aren’t winning titles.

  8. Ok, I haven’t read the other commenters yet, but I just wanted to quickly say: terrific post.

    You’re right on so much above, but one thing I especially wanted to highlight: you’re so, so right about Wenger’s Arsenal (on average) not really being the best of the best in terms of attacking and goal-scoring. I always remember the Henry-era Arsenal being tremendous going forward, and the early Cesc era team was pretty tasty in this regard too, but certainly in the last 8 years or so, I’ve often felt Arsenal have consistently underperformed offensively.

    One more thing. You say:
    “Getting the balance right in Arsenal’s midfield by either replacing Cazorla or fashioning Ramsey into a Cazorla is the most important change that Wenger needs to work on for this team.”
    But surely, if we can re-sign him (and I’m with you in thinking there’s a very good chance he’s gone), and assuming he stays relatively injury free for at least a few seasons (ha ha), Wilshere, not Ramsey, is the man we should be looking to turn into the next Cazorla, right?

    1. No… a) Wilshere is gone, especially in light of Southgate’s comments about position, b) Wilshere has yet to prove any physical durability , c) Wilshere is badly one-footed, and d) why do we need another Cazorla? A team/manager should customize the set-up to suit the best players available while trying to stay loyal to an overall vision of playing style. If we don’t have a technically gifted two-footed midfielder to break the press and collect the ball off the back four, perhaps we need to adapt to a different set-up that makes the best use of the players we have.

      1. Being two footed is a bonus, not a necessity (many of the best players in football are very one-footed, which is not to say it’s not a particular weakness of Jack’s that can hold him back at times). Having a technically gifted midfielder at the base of midfield in order to have a way to reliably beat the press just seems like good sense to me (look at Spurs with Dembele), particularly if you’re not going to become an all-out pressing team yourself and you want to pass your way out from the back, as Wenger surely does. Of course he could give that up too, but at this stage in his managerial career, best to stick clearly and coherently to a style you know best, and find players that fit that style, rather than try to reinvent the wheel, or waffle frustratingly between styles (as it seems to me we’ve been doing at least since Cazorla got injured the first time).
        Of course, until we have someone to offer us (some approximation of) what Cazorla did, Wenger should be better at adapting our game to fit our personnel (one reason I think we should switch to three in central midfield, to make up for our players’ deficiencies there). But that’s not to say finding a Cazorla replacement shouldn’t be at the top of our list of transfer priorities (even if that player doesn’t look quite like Cazorla, e.g. Fabinho).

      1. I know you have stats to back up that claim, but my trusty “eye test” tells me otherwise. He’s not a great defender, at least prior to his injury struggles, he was a very diligent and useful tackler. The one-footedness hurts him here somewhat (he never wants to lead with his right side, which can make things awkward), but other than that, I don’t see why he couldn’t improve that side of his game to be a surprising/underrated defender in the Santi mold.

        1. To me the discussion about Wilshere ends at the point of can he be our main midfield guy throughout a season? I.e. more than 40 games a season. He won’t ever be able to sustain that anymore. It’s already madness expecting Ramsey to do that. Wilshere? No chance. He might be able pull off a freak season where he might just do that, but in general his body won’t sustain that. We’ve been alon this road often enough now setting our hopes on the fitness of injury prone players and it has cost us. He can never be more than a bonus player by now. All questions of actual quality are besides the point.

  9. Great to have a post paying deserved tribute to Arsene’s very real achievements for once. It’s too easy to knock him and ignore his outstandingly consistent record, perhaps the most difficult of all qualities to deliver.

    That said, I think you’re being too nuanced, not on the positives but on the negatives.

    Consistency isn’t a term that could be applied to the transfer strategy. Inconsistency, obstinacy and hesitancy more like. Arsene’s approach to the market reflects an egotistical desire to define himself in a different way, not to mix it with the big boys but to win with his own brand of football, his own brand of players and his own brand of market defying transfer coups. I think what worked brilliantly with Vieira, Anelka, Henry, Fabregas just isn’t possible any more. Or at least not without casting the net wider and buying more. Transfer strategy (or lack of) has been, and still is, a major drawback and I’m sure contributed to not buying the players we needed in those potentially championship winning seasons.

    The second major defect stems from his quite understandable dislike of conflict. Perhaps right in his reverence for talent, particularly technical talent, his oft reported avoidance of confrontation means he’s indulged his top stars, as currently with Ozil and Sanchez, but as before with Henry and van Persie. This means they don’t always get the rollicking their performances (only occasionally) deserve, but more importantly do nor get sold when they need to be. As previously highlighted, this massively impacts our team building abilities, while also undermining team and player discipline.

    Despite these major faults, or maybe even because of them, I’ve enjoyed the 20 year ride and think we’ve been uniquely blessed having Arsene as our manager. But all good things come to an end, and I look forward, with some trepidation, to his successor(s)’ era.

  10. What made Santi such a good central midfielder? When he was first played there, few applauded the idea but he flourished despite his lack of athleticism and small frame. He had a great appreciation of space, high commitment to teamwork in both phases, superlative technique with either foot and calm under pressure. He could dribble away from players or find a pass between the lines too. Before Santi, it was another former creative player, Mikel Arteta, who performed a similarly crucial role excellently 2012-14. It’s not just at Arsenal; Schweini, Pirlo, Gerrard and many other attacking midfielders finished their careers as outstanding anchors for really good teams. Why couldn’t Aaron Ramsey, or Jack Wilshere, or Alex Iwobi learn to play a similar role? They have the talent for it, the rest is mostly intangibles: discipline and commitment, and a willingness to let others have more limelight. My opinion is that the biggest difference between Santi and Arteta vs. Ramsey, Wilshere and Iwobi was their willingness to do the dirty work for the good of the team and let others have the glory.

    1. Completely agree. And are we sure that that younger trio are immovably unwilling to sacrifice for the team in that way, rather than just that they haven’t been consistently and clearly challenged to focus on playing that kind of role by the coaching staff?

    2. You can put Ramsey out wide on the left or the right and he just tries his best. So I doubt that it has anything to do with him being willing to do a job in the mid. He is not the most agile of mids so he gets passed easy; he tries, just that he isn’t that great in that role.

      Santi’s talents just suit that particular role. If you put him out wide or play him as a no.10, notice his impact drops dramatically in recent years when the lungs and the leg strength gives way.

      But at the base of the midfield, where he plays more of a supportive role, all he needs is a burst of technique (rather than acceleration) to wiggle away. That plus the sort of players in front of him makes his job at the base easy (for him).

      Now, if you put Santi in say a United mid, I think he will struggle.

  11. Oncea agin, great insight. So glad I found your site!

    I agree wholeheartedly about Wenger’s spending being inconsistent. He always seems to be 2 players short of a really strong side. The CF being the most recent example, and now a CM and CB short, IMO.

    But what is hard to capture in stats is his maddening player selections. This has been the case as long as I’ve watched. This year, refusing to play Laca against Pool and City. Or refusing to put Ozil, Sanchez and Laca together. Or last year, refusing to play Lucas. Or his choices at wingback vs. Pool this year. The list goes on and on. If he had some real consistency to his choices, there might be hope. But with each passing season, it becomes more baffling and frustrating to watch. History says he has been great. But player selection says he has been excruciatingly painful.

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