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By Bulldog Drummond
One of the great problems facing Arsenal, and I suspect other football clubs, (but I’ll stay with Arsenal for the moment), is that as soon as a player is transferred to a club he is expected to a) be brilliant in his own right and b) take the club to the oft-quoted but rarely defined “higher level”. And indeed it is fair to say I think that the higher the fee the greater the expectation and the shorter the time allowed for brilliant changes to be seen.
But the fact is that modern managers like Arteta don’t do the old thing of “buying a new left midfielder” or whatever the player was defined as. They are buying players who can play in any one of several plans. Thus if a game is not going the club’s way the plan can be changed mid-match – a very powerful concept given that it will almost certainly take the opposition several minutes to adjust their play to meet the new layout of the Arsenal team.
What this means is that the repeated articles which raise such questions as “the impact Declan Rice is having at Arsenal,” are ever harder to produce. Although that has not deterred many writers. Indeed we are only four games into the season and one headline has appeared asking “So what’s the verdict? Was Declan Rice worth £105m for Arsenal?”
To me, that whole notion of making an immediate judgment (well, any judgment after four games) is totally invalid. It might have been valid in the days of Pat Rice the defender – but now in the days of Declan Rice, no it doesn’t work like that.
Now things have gone much further because as far as I can tell (and of course there have only been three home games for me to watch so it is difficult to be certain) there are several different patterns of play going on in the same game.
That makes it much harder for the opposition of course because whatever defensive approach they are using, they are going to be torn all over the place if the Arsenal team move from one formation to another partway through a half.
It is also difficult to evaluate a player like Rice who has not only moved club but also doubled his level of tackling since coming to Arsenal.
The fact is that Arteta like Wenger before him, appears to buy players not just for what they have been doing at their old club but what they could do in the future. We surely remember how Dennis Bergkamp was derided in Italy. His final season there produced four goals in 26 games. In his first season at Arsenal he doubled that total, and by his third season he was producing 22 goals in 40 games.
What has happened with Declan Rice is that several commentators have attempted to put him in a simple descriptive box, describing him as a “number 6” or “number 8” and so on. But in fact he can play a mixture of different traditional roles, and not just change from game to game but within games – as can many of the players around him.
This multi-tactical approach is not unique to Arsenal, of course, but it really does confuse defenders who aren’t quite sure what tactic Arsenal are currently using or will be using in the next few moments.
Arsenal are still getting used to this idea, but even in a period of transition they are producing our second best start of the last ten seasons…
Yes it is true that Arsenal this season are not as good so far as last season – by having drawn a game instead of winning them all, and this season has produced a four goal worse goal difference than last. But compared to the rest of the decade this is still the second-best start to the season the club has had in terms of goals scored, goal difference and points, and the third best in terms of defence. I would say that is pretty good progress – particularly given the level of changes we have seen in the team and the squad this year.
But instead of celebrations of how far Arsenal have moved what we are tending to see are returns to the old lucky Arsenal reporting of earlier days. “Had the forward been an inch or two further back, Fernandes would rightly be praised for his involvement,” is just one such comment among many.
To be fair to the Athletic, their article did recognise that Arsenal are moving across to a process of “managing the moment” – recognising a situation and dealing with it not just to stop an attack but to initiate Arsenal’s response.
However, although their conclusion that, “Arsenal still need to improve as a collective in this regard — they are still conceding needless goals, with seven in 2023 coming from the opposition team’s first shot,” is undoubtedly factually correct, when the team changes not only personnel but also tactics, and not only tactics but tactics within a game, it is less and less relevant to point out certain moments. Arsenal are changing and it is getting harder and harder to compare one season with the last.
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