The reason that I thought this post was needed is because players’ names and positions are seemingly moved around without any regard to this element.
First I would like to define what I mean by balance. It is not simply a question of having a symmetry of players left and right or up and down the field.
Real balance is where players are comfortable playing their ‘A’ game–a game which works well with those around them, and, above all, knowing what the other players–their teammates–need to bring their ‘A’ game into play. It is this interaction that is vital for the team to function at its very best.
This sort of balance needs to spread through to the entire team so that it can function as a complete unit.
There is also an individual balance that has to be struck between being too selfish or too unselfish. Alas, hindsight is usually the only thing that can determine which is right and which is wrong.
This ‘understanding’ begins at the back with the goalkeeper. Whether it is defending or switching to attack, all the outfield players should know how they can assist one another for the best outcome. Likewise, the fullbacks need to know when it is best to tuck in or go out to meet the attacker. There is a particular need for understanding between the keeper and centre-backs. Of course we have a very good example of ‘balance’ in our two CBs, Mertersacker and Koscielny. What the one may lack the other compensates for and it works very well.
We also saw last season the understanding which Coquelin and Cazorla had and it grew as the season progressed. Cazorla appears in another excellent working relationship with Ozil, and here it is much harder to achieve, as both are performing similar roles as creative midfielders, albeit each with his own style. It is worth remembering that it was Cazorla who made the deeper role work for himself, allowing Ozil the freedom to be the force he is. However, the point is that, between them, they have that key balance which allows both to be very good at the same time.
Ideally these cameos (partnerships) would all fit together and spread throughout the team. The truth is, however, that it is very hard to achieve all over the field. Most of us can remember that Podolski and Gibbs seemed to work really well together, but, when Cazorla played wide, Gibbs may have well stayed back due to the number of times his runs were ignored. I don’t believe it was a personal thing, just that Cazorla had no inclination to get drawn into one-twos in the corner of the pitch, as his view of player positions would be limited. By moving away from the touchline the whole pitch opened up for him allowing him to perform his best.
This brings me to the second part of the need for balance: having players who are comfortable in other areas of the pitch than where their preferences lie.
This is probably Arsene Wenger’s biggest headache because central midfield is choked by players who all want to operate there. I am not talking about players being designated to a central midfield spot, because, if we played all the players who have this tendency, we would hardly have any other outfield players to choose from.
Strangely enough, Ozil, when designated to stay wide, has shown he is very poor by comparison to his best. Yet he is the one player who has more lateral movement that any other and this is why he clocked more kilometres per game than the majority of his teammates. (Ramsey also runs a high distance per game but mainly due to his forward runs and getting back to assist the defence.) Still, when you see Ozil’s ‘heat map’ after a game, it is always hottest just inside either touchline. It is important for his ‘A’ game that he has freedom in his lateral movements. When he moves, he doesn’t necessarily just go to to the halfway point and then move further across. Instead, he is forever drifting around either side–and deep and forward–seeking to create space for himself and others. Essentially, he is a creator of opportunities from various angles. This is why he is so essential to this Arsenal team–and very difficult for the opposition to mark.
If we are to have a successful season we need better balance with players who compliment each other. Otherwise, teams who play a ‘park the bus’ style tend to find it easy just to allow our players to turn inside while keeping their players in two banks of 4, tightly bunched in the centre, waiting to smother them with sheer numbers. It gets so congested and very difficult to break down, as we have found on numerous occasions.
The teams from the lower echelon of the league have two options: either try and play–and then get exposed by our quick movement, or try and do the defensive wall, hoping they can hold out and maybe catch us on a quick counter. For those teams we need to be able to counter-attack before they get set. That means letting them have some possession, not trying to keep it to ourselves.
But then there were teams like Leicester who were very well disciplined so that they get back in numbers, even though they created numerous attacking chances. Should the top six sides see this as a way to beat Arsenal we may struggle even more because they have better players going forward (and are thus more likely to score) while defensively they can make it harder for us to break through at the other end.
Of course there are teams in the top six who can be defensively frail, for example, Manchester United last year. They lacked a set back 4 and consequently were quite easily beaten by teams other than ourselves. Chelsea on the other hand, I think, are mechanically drilled to be defensively minded first and then look for attacks when they happen. Although they will get numbers forward, they will also get men back very quickly and they are a very solid unit. Manchester City also have had problems at the back through individuals missing who were normally very reliable.
Below them you have the likes of Southampton, who, again, had a very sound defence when all players were available, but also were very specific when they attacked. Tottenham had a strong initial attack but it wasn’t altogether a cohesive unit in their midfield.
Arsenal need to beat all of these sides in this coming season if they are to become league champions. So, getting the balance in our team right so that it can handle different types of defensive challenges will mean changes in personnel and getting away from this very centralised way of attacking, at least some of the time.
I am not going to waste time by pointing out the areas of weakness in this because the transfer targets, should they arrive, will set up a whole new set of relationships to be worked on. Remember, we are not far off our first league game and we want to hit the ground running.
We will also be handicapped by one of our key players being unlikely to play those early matches. Mind, if management can force Alexis to stay away from the Emirates and get a proper rest–at least for a while–it should be to our long term benefit. We all saw last season what a draining effect just playing in a summer tournament can have on our key players–even more so when winning it.
That means a new balance will have to be in place from that which we have now. A lot will depend on how pre-season goes for the likes of Hayden, Gnabry, and Wellington Silva to see if they are likely to make their presence felt. But one would like to think Oxlade-Chamberlain, Debuchy, and Welbeck, all of whom missed a large part of the later season, will also be keen to get themselves noticed.
There is not a lot of point in discussing names of players who may or may not be joining us in this transfer window, but it is important that whoever comes in adds to the balance of the team as a whole. Arsene Wenger will make inquiries about any number of players if the data fits in with our requirements. He will also be looking at other traits before choosing his top choice. An example would be, say, in a striker who scores a hat full of goals from a few opportunities. But, if his profile has next to zero in the assists column, he will not be what Arsene is looking for. Why? Because, instead of opening up defences, we put all our eggs in one basket, and if that player goes missing, so do your titles hopes.
Having the right balance between players does not stop with them having a good understanding amongst themselves; they must also work as a unit out of their normal positions. I am thinking here of being prepared to do the defensive stuff that does not leave us open to a swift counter attack and being aware that committing too many bodies forward may leave colleagues at the back vulnerable. This is where the balance of experience and youth comes in, which is a variation on this same theme.
Finally, we must keep the same effective balance when making substitutions.
Very tricky this one, because often a single player can make a big difference in restoring the balance in attack or defence. Then, at other times, it is necessary to take two players off together, because the two coming on have an ‘understanding’ that can also change the course of a game, whereas, if you introduce only one, it is less effective. This is an area with which I think Arsene has difficulty at times, being overly cautious at upsetting the balance with those who are playing.
Overall, we are not that far off from having a balanced team, but it requires two things to make it as near perfect as we can get.
1, Recognising what works, and, when changes are made, that they too work with the unit as a whole.
2, Changing tactics or formations while maintaining that cohesion and balance.
Luckily, it is the manager who makes these decisions and it is his neck that is on the line. We, as fans, can argue all day long about who we would play where, and why. But please, remember …
Balance is the Key.