These days I have limited blogging to the pre-match and post game pieces. There are a number of reasons for but the most important one has been the shortage of actual talking points. An agitated mental state due to some mind-boggling bloopers didn’t help as it prevented me from delving into stats and chalkboards. Even reading headlines has become a testing task. Some guy cooks up fake quotes and a gazillion headlines pop-up on Newsnow and Goonernews. I envy everyone who can get their daily Arsenal fix these days while maintaining their sanity.
In the last few days there have been some interesting comments/interviews which brought forth thoughts that felt different and refreshing. So I thought I will do a post covering some of those.
First up, I want to touch upon ‘Arry’s opinion, as expressed in The Sun, about the value of specialist coaches. Redknapp asks two very relevant questions – Should we have them? And what would they do?
Regular readers know that I have been talking about the need for a defensive coach at Arsenal for close to two years now. The more I watch the Gunners self-destruct the more it seems like a coaching problem rather than an individual one. Arsenal have tried four goalkeepers and almost a dozen central defenders over the last few years. They can’t all be useless. Indeed, we have seen both extremes from some players. Fabianski looked awfully amateurish at one point but recovered well enough to convince most, if not all, fans. Djourou seems to be going the other way at a rapid rate of knots. Similar observations can be made for others as well.
It just cannot be about the individuals.
However, saying a defence coach is needed and someone actually making an impact are two different things. As ‘Arry mentioned in his article, Newcastle once experimented with Mark Lawrenson (what were they thinking!) as a specialist defensive coach. The results were not so good.
On the other hand, there is some evidence (Thanks to Sameep for digging up that link) that the presence of Keown helped the defence during that solid Champions League run.
I believe defence, per se, is a very broad term. It’s hard to say what a defence coach is supposed to do. Unless it’s a very activity specific, like attacking balls into the box – which should ideally be something elementary at this level, having a coach can complicate matters.
Events in football are so intricately linked that any part cannot be isolated. For instance, a coach might train the players on organization, movement, and tackling when 9 or 10 players drop back to park the bus. But can the same coach then teach transitions into attack? Or does a team need a different coach for that? If a different coach is needed, there would be communication problems and both might have a different way of looking at things.
I have often felt that Arsenal pull Walcott too far back when the team tries to defend. It reduces counter attacking options significantly because he cannot quickly break into space in the opposition half. Now a defence coach might want an extra body behind and insist that the wide players drop back. But the offence coach might want to have the fastest player up front along with the striker. How does one find the balance? Will both coaches produce sub-optimal outputs in case of a conflict of interest?
I guess this is where the manager comes in and everything must be driven through his vision of the game. Such vision and understanding of the game is what separates Ferguson, Wenger, Mourinho and other great managers from the average ones. All managers know most of the formations and related details. It’s the subtle variations and attention to relevant details that only a few can achieve.
Managers like Alex McLeish or Tony Pulis, just as examples, might create a well organized defence that is hard to break down. But they use players in such a manner that transitions are harder and eventually end up forcing players to punt it long. One cannot argue against their ability to organize a defence but I can’t see them making a valuable contribution to a team like Arsenal with Wenger in charge. And let’s not forget these coaches eventually concede more goals than the Gunners in the league even with supposedly more focus on defence and better defenders (at least according to perception among fans who are tired of Arsenal’s woes and don’t really want to exert themselves mentally).
Ideally, Arsenal need a coach or manager who completely understand Wenger’s approach to the game and can add something to it. I agree with Le Boss when he says it’s not easy to find such a person but I remain convinced Arsenal will continue to struggle without such an addition.
Having said that, I also feel Arsenal lack a bit in terms of certain basics like tracking a run or attacking a ball into the box. These are activity based issues and coaching these would not lead to philosophical conflicts.
If we watch the Shrewsbury goal again, there was no pressure on the throw; there was no one close to Marvin when he received, looked up, and crossed the ball; and there was absolutely no one attacking the ball when it came in. The Gunners had more than sufficient bodies behind. But they just weren’t prepared well enough, or at least that’s how one feels when such a goal is conceded. I don’t think it should be too hard to find a coach who can add some training routines for closing down opponents, making it harder to cross, and for attacking balls into the box.
This might not lead to an earth-shattering improvement but could lead to a few extra points with and odd loss converted into a draw and occasionally a stalemate into a win. It will certainly lead to more confidence and who knows where that positive cycle can lead to.
Anyway, this issue about the defence is a difficult one to write about if one wants to do justice to the many aspects involved. I don’t want to dwell on it further at the moment. As far as Redknapp’s suggestions go, I believe there is room for specialist training but it has to be intricately linked with the managers. To an extent this is already the case. An assistant coach who works well with a particular manager might not do so well with another. Often managers take their staff with them when they change jobs. The extent of possible specialization is virtually limitless and a pioneering manager will develop a strong, diverse team soon enough.
Moving on to something completely different, I want to share an interesting titbit. In Arsenal’s group in the Champions League (Group F), three teams are really struggling in the domestic competition. Marseille only just got off the bottom of the table after their first win which took them seven games. Their record is P7 W1 L3 D3. Dortmund are 11th in the table with – P6 W2 D1 L3 – a sequence Arsenal can match if they win at home against Bolton. Olympiakos have only played one game in the Greek League so their form is not that relevant but what’s up with all the other teams?
It’s must be a random coincidence but there is something eerily sinister about that.
Then there was this comment from Wenger’s press conference.
I am completely focused on doing well. I can understand that people are unhappy and criticise but people are very quick to go overboard. I accept critics and I don’t say it doesn’t matter. I prefer it if people say I am good but I cannot complain when we lose a game and you are criticised. When we do well, we take all the plaudits so we have to take the blame when it doesn’t go well. But we have, on both sides, to take a little bit of distance.
It’s not quite Kipling’s –
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
But I think that’s the closest anyone actively involved in competitive sport can realistically get.
Many people have read a lot into Arsene’s demeanour on the touchline over the last few months. More often than not it has been a twist that suits their version of the ‘Arsenal in crisis’ story. The basic observation that Wenger is in pain and cuts a frustrated figure (exact words might differ but the gist is the same) is quite valid. But the only time I felt someone has captured the reality beautifully was when I heard Ivan Gazidis’ interview. I don’t think anyone can explain it better and there could be no better response against misguided, lazy, and/or spiteful opinions. Once you listen to the man it’s clear he is very closely involved and his understanding is based on real knowledge of all the work that’s going on behind the scenes. I’m desperate for the club to share more but even with limited information they deserve a lot more respect and appreciation. Well done Ivan, wonderfully articulated.
With those who are still with me ( 🙂 ) I want to share this link to a statistical comparison I did for the EPL Index website. I have taken some year on year averages for passing, crossing, tackling, etc to see how the current form looks. Those who enjoy some fact based analysis might appreciate that. I would also like to thank Mean Lean (@arsenalvision) for the introduction that led to this article and hopefully I will be able to do more such stat based pieces on a weekly basis.
Finally, I wanted to share this delightful compilation of Francis Coquelin’s performance against Shrewsbury. In case you haven’t seen the game or this video it will give you a good idea about this lad’s talent.
More, including a compilation of AOC’s performance, can be seen on the video maker’s excellent blog.