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.


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