THE SEASON, TACTICS, PHILOSOPHY AND SUMMER RUMBLINGS (PART 1)
It has been a topsy-turvy season for Arsenal as fortunes alternated playing with Santi Cazorla, without Santi and then switching to a 3:4:3 format. These include finishing out of the top 4 for the first time in 21 years, getting crowned a record 13th time as FA Cup champions, Wenger-outism, Wenger-inism and all the numerous sagas of the dotted lines. Euphoria, toxicity, despair and hope grappled with each other all season in one hell of a ride.
Unfortunate for our season was Cazorla’s injury and a few other acts of fate that caused us to stumble in a fast paced race for the league title. Quickly up on our feet, our robust home stretch performance was a reassurance that dares us to survey the plains of next season with optimism. What better way to begin to ready ourselves for that new season but by X-raying the last. Three distinct segments in our performance are visible in the 2016/17 season: games with Cazorla in the starting line up, games without Cazorla, and games using the 3:4:3 formation
——————————P—W—-D—-L—-GF—-GA—–Pts/game—-% of Max Pts
From the table above are derived the following:
1) The rate at which we scored goals are relatively similar in the three segments (2.29, 1.96, 2.00 goals per game respectively).
2) With Cazorla playing, we conceded goals at the rate of 0.71 per game.
3) With the change of formation to 3:4:3, we conceded at the rate of 0.63/game.
4) Without Cazorla and using the 4:2:3:1, we conceded at the whopping rate of 1.48/game.
The following can be surmised about the way we were conceding goals:
1) In a 4:2:3:1 without Cazorla on the pitch, we conceded goals at more than twice the rate as when we used the same formation with Cazorla playing.
2) In a 4:2:3:1 with Cazorla playing, we conceded at approximately the same, much lower, rate as with the 3:4:3.
Can Cazorla’s presence on the pitch have such a dramatic influence on our defensive numbers? This is difficult to see and I would have explained it away as the fluke of a small sample–except that it has been a consistent pattern over the course of two and half seasons, particularly when Santi has been paired with Francis Coquelin in midfield. Coquelin has been his most regular partner and the source of the ‘Cazorla magic’ might actually lie in that partnership, the famed ‘CoCa’ combo.
Cazorla is so expert in protecting and transitioning the ball into forward areas that it allows Coquelin to play as a dedicated defensive midfielder, patrolling a small space in front of the central defenders. Dispensing with name tags, such a dedicated defensive midfielder can jolly well be viewed as a slightly forward positioned 3rd central defender. Note carefully that it is the excellence of Cazorla that permits Coquelin to concentrate on the defensive aspect of that role without the team losing adequate transitioning capacity. If a Santi-esque player is not there, a 3-man defence becomes like a ready-made equivalent option.
A question arises. Must we play with a 3-man central defence or a 2-man defence with a dedicated defensive midfielder paired with a Santi-esque player in order to attain a good team balance? We will find out. Arsene Wenger is a manager who is committed to an offensive philosophy arising from his emotional interpretation of what football is all about. Apart from central defenders, Wenger’s obvious bias leads him to acquire players with the skill sets and mentality for offensive play. Note his regular conversion of wingers to full backs and midfielders like Kolo Toure and Krystian Bielik into central defenders. I am yet to recall a conversion by Wenger in the opposite direction. A team assembled by Wenger can only be a reflection of himself.
To achieve the right balance for this overly offensive assembly requires mitigating adjustments to the structure of the team. In the case of the 3:4:3, it was achieved by replacing a player with a lopsided attacking skill set and mentality with a player who had good defensive attributes (e.g. Walcott out, Holding in), thereafter recasting the formation and assigning slightly altered roles to every player. The 7 offensive minded players to 3 natural defenders is a mix that fetched good results for us. Remember that a mix can only be right in relation to the available personnel. 3:4:3 has proven viable for the type of players we currently have. So also can a 2-man central defence with a top drawer dedicated defensive midfielder partnered by a Santi-esque player. What possibly trumps both is a 2-man central defence with a central midfield of two players, both excellent with and without the ball, such as the combination of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva. Its great advantage is that it makes a team very adaptive to different formations, which, in fact, is the dynamic state of teams during play. Unfortunately, such players are hard to come by and are totally absent in our current squad except for… For those names you’ll have to wait for part 2 of this post which will be coming out soon. 😀
A team of eleven well rounded players would be ideal, but trying to raise such a team would be like trying to find a needle in a hay stack. One of the great attributes of Wenger’s invincibles–a group which did not lose a single game on their path to the league title–was playing with 2 central defenders and a host of attack minded players along with the presence of the well rounded midfield pair of Vieira and Gilberto, two players equally good in possession as out of it. I can almost bet that Wenger thought he had found a player similar to those two in Granit Xhaka. Was he alone in thinking so? Now that we have accepted that Xhaka is no Vieira and re-calibrated our expectations, we have begun to appreciate him. Vieira stands alone as a player so special that even the current two-time league player of the year, N’golo Kante, cannot match him.
There have been attempts from some quarters to take swipes at Wenger by stating that he knows little to nothing about coaching. Little do such critics understand that they are only espousing their own ignorance of the subject. Coaching is not tons and tons of instructions. If it were, every professional footballer would have ended up the perfect player.
Coaching starts with the ability to visualize for building philosophies and then employing tactics with sufficient emotional content for stability. It is these philosophical templates that define the modus operandi of coaches. One coach might be more reactive in his philosophy as he chooses his journey. Another might be more proactive. One might be more developmental than the other, also defining their different routes. On the foundations of a chosen philosophy comes the onus to perceive and discern qualities in players then allocate roles that give flesh to the concepts. Then follows the job of creating the physical environment for drills to elicit certain responses from players, always with allowances for individualism. Even more delicate is the task of creating the right psychological environment for maximizing the overall output of the group which invariably includes coaches turning themselves into buffers for absorbing the shocks of collisions (of all kinds) from within and without the system to enhance harmony in the team.
To get all these and many more things right requires a coach who possesses a special capacity and emotional poise that doesn’t inundate intelligent and experienced players with instructions. This happens to be the Wenger way, distilled out of his experiences. Is Wenger the best coach around? You can as well ask me if Naomi is the prettiest girl in the world. Watch out for more SUMMER RUMBLINGS in PART 2..
BY PONY EYE