What is happening to our players?
By Tim Charlesworth
Walter has recently written a couple of interesting articles about Nacho and Coquelin, and the extraordinary improvement that they have shown over the last twelve months. These are the two most noteworthy examples, but actually they are not the only players to improve in the last twelve months, and this got me thinking about what was really going on.
Nacho’s case is really a great mystery. How did he suddenly change, from a failing player who was struggling to hold on to his place in the squad, to a top performer? Did he just have a bad run of form after he joined us? After all, he was an established squad member of that exceptional Spain team when he arrived. Is this a case of a player just taking a very long time to adapt to the PL? He Joined us in January 2013, so an improvement in late 2014 is nearly two years later. Was there some connection between his improvement and his period at CB? This seems unlikely, because I cannot see a mechanism by which such a thing might occur, but the coincidence of timing is difficult to ignore.
Whatever the cause, his improvement last season was unexpected. It is difficult to think of a similar case of a mature player having been with us for so long, and suddenly showing a big improvement. Obviously this happens with young players, but that is easy to explain, as they develop physically and gain experience. This cannot be the explanation for the improvement of a 29 year old, established international player. It happens sometimes with players taking time to adapt to the PL, but surely 2 years is too long for an adaptation period?
The case of Coquelin has been discussed on many occasions here on Untold, and I don’t want to get repetitive with this one. However, this player really is the most mysterious case I have ever seen in all my time observing Arsenal. At the start of last season, I had totally lost interest in him. He was one of many promising youngsters at Arsenal who had simply failed to make the grade. The list of these is long and distinguished. If a player hasn’t made, at least, a partial breakthrough by the age of 21, they are not going to. This is true throughout the football world, not just at Arsenal. I was even beginning to fear for his career. Some of the youngsters who fail to make it at Arsenal go on to have good careers elsewhere, but the long list of (not particularly successful) loans for Coquelin made it look to me like Arsenal were struggling to find a home for him. Usually the players who are going to make it have conspicuously successful loans (Wilshere, Cole, Schezny) and usually at the first attempt.
Maybe Arsene knew better and always expected Coquelin to come good? If so, he went about it in a strange way. By January 2015, one of the best players in the Premiership had less than six months on his contract. I don’t know how much he was being paid, but all the indications are that in February 2015, Arsenal signed him up to a contract paying c £40k per week, and that this was a considerable pay rise. The lack of a good contract wasn’t because he was a contract rebel, it was simply because Arsenal had not offered him a new contract. If Wenger had a secret plan to turn Coquelin into an exceptional defensive midfielder, he seems not to have shared it with Coquelin, who seems to have been genuinely annoyed at having his loan cut short at Charlton due to Arsenal’s injury crisis.
And the story doesn’t end there either. Cazorla is also a player transformed. His case it perhaps a little less outrageous than Monreal and Coquelin, but nonetheless worthy of comment. He was already a first team regular last season, so he hardly came from nowhere, but he did change from being a peripheral player to an essential player. He is also not the first player to find a home in central midfield late in his career. John Barnes did something similar. However, the success of Cazorla’s move is unusual. Usually when a player ages and adapts to a new position, they become competent at the new position and do a job for their team. John Barnes was never as successful as a central midfielder, as he was as a youthful, pacy, winger. Cazorla looks better than that, in fact he is making more contribution to the team than he ever has, and some of his performances have been truly exceptional.
And then there’s Bellerin. Bellerin’s case is a little less strange. On the face of it, this is just a young player growing up and establishing himself. But the pace of his improvement is exceptional. The most similar cases in recent times were Cole and Clichy, who were also young full backs who established themselves as they matured. Both Cole and Clichy were part of the squad as teenagers, Clichy at 18 and Cole at 19. Bellerin was nearly 20 before even making a meaningful debut. And he has gone very quickly, from an unknown, to a top performer. Keeping Debuchy out of the team is no mean achievement. His rise is actually not that different to Ashley Cole, and they share a similar physique, but even so, this is quite remarkable. Cole (despite the loyalty bypass) is probably the finest product of the Arsenal youth system in the last 20 years. He is the only major player who has left Arsenal during the Wenger years, and looked as good at his next club, as he did at Arsenal. If we have another Ashley Cole on our hands in Bellerin, then wow, what an amazing development that is (and how ironic it would be if this Barcelona boy proved more loyal than Cashley!).
So there a quite a few of our players showing considerable improvement over the last twelve months. These cases are important because they explain why it was not necessary to make a lot of additions to the squad which finished third last season. The shallow commentators didn’t notice, but actually Arsenal effectively have a lot of new players. Some of these cases are more unusual than others. All this requires a bit of explanation. I can’t think of another period when we have seen so many dramatic improvements in existing players (arguably something similar happened in 96/97 just after Wenger joined). My next article, tomorrow, will speculate on what is causing all this.