It is time to consider experimenting
While Einstein in fact never said that „the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different outcomes”, I would still argue that if you want different results than what you’re getting, you have to try different approaches.
I am not a seasoned football manager (as long as video games don’t count), so my opinion is strictly hypothetical. But I am positive that football is similar to chess or table-tennis in a way that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, and if you approach every challenge in the same manner you are in for a lot of – avoidable – disappointments.
As in table-tennis you play differently against an attacking player compared to someone else with a defensive style, and in chess you might follow different strategy against an opponent who is very experienced in opening play but less familiar with endgames than an opponent who plays quick, intuitive moves but are vulnerable to sudden sacrifices; it seems similarly self-evident that you play differently when you visit Anfield/Old-Trafford than when you host Aston Villa or West Ham.
It is not just about tactics. It is about priorities, possession, players and formation. Elneny might be a more useful asset (I hope there is no disrespect in the term in English, I have no such intention) than Xhaka, when it comes to break up counterattacks, but the latter would be my preferred choice when looking for defense-splitting passes against an opponent parking the bus. Against a team who seldom possesses the ball it might make sense to sacrifice a defender to have another body in the attacking third, but against a superior opponent the other way around could be more reasonable and trying to score from quick counterattacks and set pieces. While the trend of the XXI century that everybody has to defend, when the opponent is not interested in maximizing ball possession, we might involve a creative player who is less famous about his defensive contributions but has the capability of creating a handful of chances with sharp key passes and pinpoint crosses.
Hence my conclusion: a great manager must make his team ‘fluent’ in 3-4 different formations and playing styles! It will make it more difficult to predict his next line-up and strategy, furthermore it makes it easier to make substantial change during a game in the case when the opposing coach managed to predict the formation and found the effective countermeasures. Unless we dominate and win most of our games, there will be situations where Arsenal needs a game-changing substitution beyond the Willian-Pepe or Lacazette-Nketiah swaps.
Here comes the trap: if you agree with me so far there is a connotation. There should and will not be such thing as ‘Arteta’s system’ or Southgate’s system’. There could (and probably should) be his preferred playing style, but not being able to deviate from it – and not having enough experience in the alternatives – is a weakness. When after 25 minutes the opponent is leading by 2 goals, then it is a different game, and you might want to change formation before the 70th minute…
Coming back to TA’s previous topic, my intuitive viewpoint would be that both Arsenal and England have the right ingredients (players, backroom staff, facilities). It doesn’t make sense to replace half the squad when the opponent predicts your play and spoils your plans. Many of the people who were celebrating when we signed Willian are already demanding to sell/bench/release him. Which is obviously premature and unnecessary. As TA argued convincingly in August he can play as an AM, in a similar position as Fernandes for MU. But our belief means nothing as long as there is no data/evidence that supports or disproves it. Nevertheless I am confident we have the players to field a strong 4-2-3-1 team, without major compromises or having to spend 100+ millions in the next transfer window.
(Luiz and Ozil were excluded for their age/future, Sokratis, Mustafi and Kolasinac assumed to leave Arsenal in the January transfer window, no arrival is taken for granted. We have Macey/Hein, Saliba, Smith-Rowe, Willock, Balogun for the bench who didn’t appear in either formations.)
Don’t take me wrong, I am far from insisting that these line-ups above are the long term solutions of our problems (in fact, believing that there is a single formation solving all our problems would go against everything I wrote already). But the notion ’there is no place for an AM in Arteta’s system’ is no longer an excuse, as in Arteta’s system we have lost as many games as we have won (with a negative goal difference). I would like to see winning more games, and – with my admittedly limited managing experience – I don’t see any other way than experimenting. Maybe with an AM, or maybe with an entirely different approach. We probably don’t have to start experimenting against Leeds on the road, but we have the cup ties when playing imperfectly would be balanced by the squad quality. So at the end of the day the squad could get experience in different formations and tactics before they are thrown into the water on the deep end of the pool (Hungarian phrase, I hope its meaning is clear).
Arteta has my utmost trust and full support (maybe not ’ unreservedly’ as TA recommended, but not far off). Yet when he takes full responsibility for the big home defeat and the lethargic play against Aston Villa, I’m not feeling completely at ease. Admitting responsibility means that losing is not mostly the players’ fault and that Arteta is an honest and good guy. My problem is that WE ALREADY KNEW that he is a nice guy, and that the same team was already capable of defeating MU at Old Trafford.
What I would like to be reassured about is that he understands what went wrong – what mistakes he made – and he will not repeat them in the future. There are plenty other mistakes yet to be made. And with most of them I’ll be comfortable with, but the number of ’mea culpa’ cards in the deck is limited.
I’m not sure there is a way to defeat Liverpool at Anfield or Manchester City at the Etihad. But I’m pretty confident that there are many ways to win against Aston Villa in the Emirates stadium. So it is time to start exploring them. Maybe by experimenting with attacking midfielders. Or by something completely different…