By Tim Charlesworth
A season of gambles
All managers have to take risks with the way that they put their squad together. It is not possible to have two or three world class players for every position. As well as being prohibitively expensive, world class players will not tolerate long periods on the bench. So managers try to provide a squad large enough to cover for rotation and injuries.
Rotation is reasonably predictable because we know roughly how many games Arsenal will play. Injuries are, of course, unpredictable. Particular problems come when a player and their backup both become injured. This happens more often that you might think. Often the backup is suddenly thrown into playing a lot of games after a long period of inactivity, and this is a great recipe for injury. In such cases, the manager must go to the third choice, or play someone out of position, and this starts to weaken the team considerably.
If we look at the season as a whole, Wenger took two big gambles. Neither came off. He gambled on Coquelin being an effective defensive midfielder and he gambled that Walcott could be an effective striker. The result of these failed gambles was that our central midfield was weak and we didn’t score enough of the chances we created. That was enough to cost us the title. Of course there are other issues that have affected the season (Sanchez’s form and injuries, the Ox disappointing again, Ramsey disappointing), but these two are the big ones. In the end, Walcott was only effective for a couple of months, and I will examine the striker situation in a separate article. In this article we have a look at the midfield.
One of my lasting memories of the season is watching Santi Cazorla warming up against Manchester City in the penultimate game of the season. It was sad because it reminded us of what we missed. It was also sad because, after Sanchez’s equalizer, Wenger changed his mind and bought Coquelin on instead to try to cement the point. Santi looked crestfallen, and who can blame him. The bemused look on Santi’s face reminded me of Robert Pires being substituted in the 2006 Champions League Final. Pires’ substitution appeared to be entirely sensible to us (following Jens Lehmann’s red card), but Pires could never reconcile himself to it. He left the club, and despite having a basically good relationship with Wenger, he still can’t accept the decision to this day.
This reminds us that footballers are individual sportsmen at heart. Although they play a team game, they can only focus on being the best that they can be. Pires and Santi are great team players, but they cannot control what everyone else does, and they necessarily see the world through their own narrow lens. And its not difficult to sympathise with Santi. He had waited nearly six months to return to the first team. He had the European Championships coming up. He is 31 and has always been slightly on the fringes of the Spanish team. He is unlikely to get another chance to go to a major tournament. He desperately needed to prove his ability to play at the top level before the end of the season, and it was torn away from him by a Sanchez goal. Of course he should be pleased about this, and the bemused look on his face suggested the internal struggle internally between the happiness at our goal, and the personal disappointment of staying on the bench.
Predictably, the one start against Villa in the final game of the season, was not enough to get Santi one of the highly competitive midfield spots in the Spanish squad. In reality, an additional substitute appearance at the Etihad probably wouldn’t have made any difference, but I can’t help but sympathize with Santi being denied his opportunity.
Cazorla the deep lying central midfielder
Amidst another midfield injury crisis, around the new year 2015, Santi moved to a deeper midfield role alongside Francis Coquelin. The experiment was an instant hit and the two stayed together during a very successful period which included a strong run in the league and a triumphant FA Cup campaign. We all hoped that the partnership (and the success it brought) would stay together in the new season, and it did. Their run in the team coincided with Arsenal comfortably scoring more points than any other team during calendar year 2015 (81 points in 38 games in 20015 is champions’ form – Leicester won with 81). Cazorla’s career had a new lease of life, and he was arguably playing better than at any time in his career (and he has been pretty good at other times)
The November curse
Coquelin was injured in a horrible away defeat at WBA on 21st November 2015. Arteta replaced Coquelin, played poorly and also got injured. It was effectively the end of Arteta’s Arsenal career. Coquelin returned in the new year, but was not the same player. This can happen sometimes. We have seen something similar with last year’s player of the season, Hazard, who has seemed to struggle to overcome the after-effects of injuries. Coquelin, like Hazard, is a player who relies on his athleticism, and for whatever reason he seemed to have only recovered 95% of his full athleticism. Although he returned in February, our initial euphoria was misplaced, he was dropped again as the season wore on.
The following weekend, 29th November 2015, we drew 1-1 away with Norwich. This didn’t look like a difficult fixture, and a win would take us to the top of the league. Instead we got injuries to Koscielny and then Sanchez. As a result, we had no substitutes left when Cazorla injured his knee, so he stayed on the pitch. Did Santi make the injury worse by staying on the pitch? Probably. Either way, his season was over too.
So a horrible series of misfortunes within seven days denied us our two starting central midfielders and one of their reserves. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we had effectively lost Santi, Coquelin and Arteta for the rest of the season. In Arteta and Cazorla we had also lost the only players in our squad really capable of playing the ‘second playmaker’ role. Hereafter the creative burden fell too heavily on Ozil, and it was too easy for opposition teams to stifle our creativity by heavily marking Ozil. In the second half of the season we seemed to lack imagination and this was very much a result of Cazorla’s absence. Can any team be reasonably expected to survive this?
On the one hand, this is an unfortunate series of events. On the other hand, statistically speaking, you can expect a run of bad luck to occur, at least once, in a long season. We seem to have had many consecutive seasons where we suffer bad luck in a crucial position. If something keeps happening, you have to conclude that it is not unusual. Although we have been unlucky in central midfield we have had a ‘fortunate’ season in other respects:
- Mesut Ozil has been basically fit all season
- Our starting centre backs have basically all been fit all season.
- Bellerin has been largely available all season, which was particularly important in the context that Debuchy went AWOL.
So the question we have to ask is whether or not Arsenal should have been prepared for this kind of eventuality, and have had a better ‘plan B’ in place.
Coquelin was an obvious risk
Certainly Coquelin was an obvious weak point in the team. He had never completed a full season as a first team regular. Despite his brilliant displays in the early months of 2015, it was not clear that he could sustain this for a whole season, or that his body would hold up to the challenge. Right from the start of the season, we looked vulnerable to any major injury he might sustain. I suspect that Wenger seriously toyed with buying another midfielder in the summer. The rumour mill suggested that he was flirting with Morgan Schneiderlin amongst others. In the end, Wenger decided it was silly to spend a lot of money on an expensive reserve (or the players decided to go elsewhere?).
His back up was Arteta, but Arteta has been next to useless this season. A combination of age and injury have robbed him of both game time and effectiveness on the occasions he has been on the pitch. With the benefit of hindsight, it obviously was a mistake not to acquire a backup for Coquelin in the summer. The purchase of Elneny in January implicitly recognised the error. But should we blame Wenger for the initial decision or was it an ‘understandable error’, only detectable with hindsight.
When I examined the question myself pre-season, without the benefit of hindsight, I basically concluded that the lack of cover for Coquelin was a risk, indeed the greatest risk in the squad, but that it wasn’t really practical to sign a top class replacement:
- Firstly, that would be a very expensive solution to a relatively small problem (it looked small at the time anyway).
- Secondly, a player like Schneiderlin would not join Arsenal on the basis that he would be a reserve for Coquelin. Signing a lesser player was pointless when you already had Arteta and Flamini (and maybe Wilshere).
- Thirdly, Arteta was a faithful servant of the club, and a reasonable (if not convincing) backup. It was not reasonable to sign a replacement that would effectively consign Arteta, our club captain, to the rubbish heap.
- Fourthly, we had further backup in the form of Flamini (and possibly Wilshere as well). Had I known that Flamini would basically get as much game time as Coquelin, I might have concluded differently, but Wenger couldn’t reasonably be expected to know this before the season started.
Was the ageing of Arteta predictable?
Mikel Arteta was 33 at the start of the season. Before the emergence of Coquelin, he was a vital cog in our team, and the team visibly suffered in his absence. 33 is an age when some players seem to lose the ability to play at the top level, but others seem able to continue. It was not ridiculous to assume that, with a lower playing workload, Arteta would thrive. We have seen this effect with many players, like Teddy Sheringham, Ryan Giggs and Lee Dixon, who could continue to perform well into their late thirties if playing less games. Wenger obviously thought that Arteta fell into this category.
In reality Arteta’s season was ruined as much by injury as age, and this might just be bad luck. It is all too easy to assume that a player gets injured because he is old, but this is not necessarily the case. He may have just suffered an unfortunate series of injuries like Hazard. However, we might observe that it appeared to fans that Arteta was losing pace and agility as early as the second half of the 2013/14 season, 18 months before the start of the 15/16 season.
Of course, I don’t see Arteta on a daily basis. I don’t have access to his fitness performance stats (and wouldn’t know how to interpret them if I did). Wenger presumably had this advantage over me, and made the wrong call. We could criticise Wenger on this basis, but I think that this sort of thing is more an art than a science, and I don’t think that Wenger really had a lot more useful information than me when making this judgement.
So certainly Wenger took risks in midfield when finalising his squad in the summer of 2015. We don’t know whether he tried to cover these risks by signing a new player, or he simply decided that these were risks worth taking. We can certainly question whether or not an emotional affection for Mikel Arteta coloured his judgement about his usefulness as a back up to Coquelin. Overall, I think risks have to be taken, and that Wenger probably took a sensible risk, and got caught out.
- Seven new players coming in, one more leaving as Arsenal’s transfers hot up.
- What will happen to the three Premier League clubs with their new grounds.
- At last, a new view as to why the media insist on ignoring the key issues in football day after day after day
- He’s at the airport and we are signing him. Arsenal’s first major transfer of the still closed window is here.
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- The Arsenal Yankee by Danny Karbassiyoon with a foreword by Arsene Wenger.
- Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace. By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football. By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.
- Making the Arsenal: a novel by Tony Attwood.
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal by Mark Andrews.
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