What is happening to our players? Part 1: The facts and the questions

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.


28 Replies to “What is happening to our players? Part 1: The facts and the questions”

  1. Excellent analysis Tim of the development of these players. As you say with the development of these players we didn’t need to add last summer.
    Bellerin was completely out of sight for us in the summer of 2014 when we “started with only 6 defenders” (Debuchy-Per-Kos-Gibbs-Monreal-Chambers) But we had a 7th close to the team we didn’t know but Wenger knew about all too well I think. The 8th defender has been brought on later that season.

    So now we have 8 to defenders in my opinion. Just imagine if Wenger would have spend 15M on a back right back…. It would have cut out the Arsenal career of Bellerin and we would have missed what might become the best right back of the next 10 years…worldwide.

  2. Tim – interesting. I agree with you. But I have always stated that Wenger’s greatest strength, of many, is as a developmental coach.

    Other current examples include Koscielny – joined mid-20s and wasn’t a nailed on 1st team regular to start with (memory may be playing tricks) but eventually kept our captain – Vermaelen – out of the team – and Ramsey of course, although he has slipped back a bit recently.

    A key part of this successful development is a player having a consistent run unhindered by too many injuries. Something sadly lacking in recent times.

  3. Another thought provoking article. The addition of Gabriel in the January window plus Cech in the summer has also given the team a much more assured defence.
    The emergence of Coquelin, who has been a stand-out performer in almost every game in the past 9 months, is also crucial element in this defensive cohesion.
    As you said, it has given Cazorla a new lease of life, and a role he could fulfil for maybe another 3-4 seasons.

  4. @Pete
    October 13, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    “…too many injuries. Something sadly lacking in recent times.”

    “lacking”?? more like forced on (to a great extent) by lack of protection from PGMOB!

  5. This wonderful improvement of Nacho and Coq shows that a talented footballer is not necessarily a team player. Both of them recognized their weaknesses with the help of the manager and other players and diciplined enough to stick to their team task and excelled. Together with Bellerin, young English players should learn from this trio.

  6. Thanks Tim, very interesting.

    You ant leave out worldies like Ozil or even Sanchez from that list.
    Alexis has been scoring from the start but let’s not take away any credit from his coaches for not only getting him to the club in the first place but providing him the platform to flourish. And, I think he’s also learning to pass too! 🙂

    Ozil has been working on his adaption to the PL from the beginning. From his very first comments! As with Koscielny who arrived at a similar age to Ozil it took about a season to work up some extra strength, in particular upper body strength. Ozil being Ozil and not a forward destroying CB took perhaps a tiny bit longer to start using that extra strength wisely but clearly in 2015 he’s been impressing people in that area. Barney Rooney writing disingenuously for the Manchester Grunt wrote that Ozil had finally arrived, a typical backhanded compliment from these lowlife hacks. Because as anyone with two football brain cells to rub together could understand such an improvement could only ever be made over time with incremental improvements. We’re talking professional levels of Gibberish here from Barney. Expert Gibberish!

    Which brings us neatly to Theo Walcott. A fascinating modern athlete and footballer. A late starter, many thought he’s never be able to develop a consistent technique at the high level, and those were always fun conversations. But he has! The AAA were once casting their credible gaze and comments on players like Lennon but Walcott has left all his peers from his age group behind a long long time ago. And that’s in spite of him losing about 1000 days to injury in his career so far. We’re looking at a player who will have juice left in his legs, who could still kick on to another level and also play on if he’s lucky with injuries into his thirties at high level.
    He’s worked really hard in training!

    Now. If only Theo could encourage Gibbo to work on that right foot of his 🙂 if Gibbs had more trust in his right peg he’d have scored the goal to beat Hull in the 2014 FA Cup final.
    That left footed goal by Jenkinson was quite nice the other week! Not as clinical as Bellerin’s outrageous goal against Liverpool but it was very encouraging to see. Never been any doubt in my mind that we’d see Jenkinson back at The Arsenal. Well, there was a little doubt but I believe the coaches will give him a chance.

  7. On that theme, I am very confident that IF Wilshere, Theo, Ox and Welbeck all have a relatively good injury free run then there is plenty more to come from all of them too.

    Note to the powers that be: they are all English. Think how much better the England team would now be if these guys had had some protection from the cloggers…

    So, Colario, I do agree with you!

  8. Bit harsh to describe Nacho as “failing”.

    Monreal started well at the club (‘I wanna be a Nacho man’), Gibbs was having some injury strife, and he eventually lost his starting berth. Only then did we see a drop in his levels unsurprisingly when he wasn’t playing regularly. An injury to Gibbs, he gets his shirt back, and he’s holding onto it at the moment.
    Almost all coaches talk about most players requiring games to get up to speed. Chambers’ first half against Liverpool being the textbook example.
    Michael Vaughan’s worries about the England test team’s recent preparations another.

  9. Apo Armani

    I don’t believe we have had a single injury attributed to a bad opponent tackle this season yet (knock on wood).

    Our long term injuries are :
    Wilshere – bad tackle by Gabriel in training. According to Wenger, it was a different ankle than got broken by Mc Nair.

    Rosicky – international duty

    Welbeck – got injured against Chelsea in April. Don’t remember the circumstances.

    Arteta – reacuring calf problems

    Short term:

    Koscielny – reacuring hamstring
    Flamini – hamstring
    Sanchez – adductor strain
    Mertesacker- flue
    Coquelin- knee ( landed badly in the Chelsea game)

    All this is from memory so I welcome any corrections, but unless I’m wrong, don’t you think you should keep your powder dry until we do get injuries caused by opponent reckless tackles?
    Otherwise it just cheapens your argument.

  10. I think for many of we human beings, in work and in sport, if you have a quiet confidence in your ability and are given the opportunity to use it, you will often come good.
    For so many of us though, that opportunity is never given and any talents we have will remain dormant for ever.

  11. It really has been a turn around for a number of players. Cant remember such a vast improvement like this across a team & am delighted to see them all excelling. Hector really has come on in leaps & bounds, & while still learning, is doing a good enough job to keep out an experienced player like Debuchy. He’s affectively doing the job of two players in the side, he attacks like a winger & defends as a RB. Stamina, speed & a mature head on young shoulders. Credit to him.

  12. If memory serves me correctly wasn’t the coq played out of position on loans and as a box to box with Charlton? I’m pretty sure Wenger and(or) coq himself stated that he was told he just needed to tackle, block and distribute to become the player he is and maybe not what he wanted to be

  13. Good article Tim.

    Just one quibble.

    Re Nacho:

    “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?

    He came in as back up to Gibbs, and despite rare and sporadic appearances, I don’t recall him ever letting us down, at least not to the degree he could be called a ‘failing player’.

    But other than that minor point a pretty good analysis of a selection of players that do seem to of improved at a very rapid rate over the last year.

    On a disappointing note I would suggest some have gone backwards:

    Ramsey, (Although perhaps only a goal away from re attaining his peak) Debuchy, Gibbs (Probably due to a lack of game time)

    or at least not improved as I would of hoped:


    Chamberlains an odd one. He does some wonderful things but has an alarming propensity to give the ball away in the most dangerous of positions. Personally I think he’s just trying too hard. I still think he has what it takes to be a top top player, he just needs to calm down a bit.

    Overall though a squad that is certainly at a much high level than 12/18 Months ago.

  14. A bit off-topic, but another thing that happened is that Ramsey scored a goal in the EC qualifiers. This will surely give him a confidence boost.

  15. My battery is almost flat. So, I’ll reserve my comment for another time. Thanks.

  16. Great stuff Tim..Is Wenger getting a new lease as a developmental manager?
    Sorry, off topic, but Tom, assuming you wrote that post about one of Polands great players and his tragic end? If so, it was a real interesting read, I am not the greatest fan of that blog…but sometimes take a look , but did you ever get to play with or against Deyna or maybe he was before your time? Remember seeing him on TV , can see where the ozil comparison comes in

  17. ” Cometh the hour, Cometh the man. ” When the situation or need arises , worthy men step up . It takes a man of great understanding and intellect to know when and who to chose to step up.Patience truly is a virtue and the reward for this is immeasurable .
    As for Cole , Cashley , the minute he met the Moaning one for dinner , he cut his ties with the club . Do you really think that if he stayed at Arsenal , his life and career would have gone downhill as it has ? At the very least , he wouldn’t have been allowed to bring in a gun to training and shoot up our younglings !
    And most probably all the other stuff too !

  18. I initially felt sad when I heard that Holland did not qualify for the EUROs and felt that our Dutch contingent would be very disappointed , but then I realised that we don’t have any Dutch players , not ever since that &*$%#@!^ left !
    Probably a sad end to his career ,too ! But then he will always have that single shiny EPL winner’s medal to reflect upon and the outpouring of bon homie and love that he will always have from Manchester .

  19. Ok Tom, if you are discussing the immediate injuries (from memory) then its different to saying “in recent times” – that would imply a lengthy period – in which we have NOT had protection, hence have lost many players for lengthy periods!!

  20. A son took his old father to a restaurant for an evening dinner.
    Father being very old and weak, while eating, dropped food on his shirt and trousers.
    Others diners watched him in disgust while his son was calm.

    After he finished eating, his son who was not at all embarrassed, quietly took him to the wash room, wiped the food particles, removed the stains, combed his hair and fitted his spectacles firmly. When they came out, the entire restaurant was watching them in dead silence, not able to grasp how someone could embarrass themselves publicly like that.

    The son settled the bill and started walking out with his father.

    At that time, an old man amongst the diners called out to the son and asked him, “Don’t you think you have left something behind?”.

    The son replied, “No sir, I haven’t”.

    The old man retorted, “Yes, you have! You left a lesson for every son and hope for every father”.

    The restaurant went silent.

  21. Tim I still feel you are not giving full recognition to the capabilities of our players.

    Monreal was never a failing player – he has certainly improved over the last season just as one would hope for as he became familiar with the EPL and benefited from AW’s tutelage. Now he is arguably one of the best left backs in the league.

    Bellerin has certainly been a revelation, having burst into the first team he has developed continuously and made the starting position his own. A very exceptional player who will soon be recognised as a world class player.

    Coquelin has indeed massively improved since securing a place in the starting eleven last January. The ability was always there, the improvement is due to experience, moulding, development and confidence. With Coquelin this all seemed to come together at once and now we have one of the best defensive midfielders in the EPL – to the surprise of those who pretend to know much about players but who really know relatively little.

    Cazorla was not just a first team regular last season – but since he first joined us. He is not a player transformed – he was always a very very top player. The difference this season is that AW is playing him deeper. This has at times allowed us to strike quickly out of defence – Cazorla is a very intelligent player who can be relied on to pick out the right pass. The partnership between Cazorla and Coquelin as a very mobile and skilled double pivot gives tremenduous fluidity to the whole team. It is no surprise that teams try to stop us playing by marking Cazorla tightly – MU resorted to this – and filed!

    So lets give credit were it is due – to AW for developing the team and its individuals!

  22. Good read. I think Coq was fortunate that he had another opportunity to play in the first team and he took it up and played extremely well, I think all those years away on loan probably toughened him up and made him realize he must make the most of this opportunity. Thankfully AW gave him that opportunity.

    I also think a lot of players begins to play well when their contract is about to end or a major tournament is around the corner eg Euro or World Cup and they want to be selected to play for their national team.

  23. Apo

    During Monreal’s spell at Malaga before his move he was competing with alba for the then world champions at LB! Not quite failing.

    When he was signed the Experts at the AAA were groaning hard about missing out on the likes of Remy who went on to not oust Giroud from the French squad following his move to a petro club.
    The Experts were groaning so hard that they missed out on understanding what a good signing Nacho was, his age and experience were the perfect accompaniment to Gibbs who has had injury strife and had spells out.

    Monreal’s signing was a sign of the club’s ambitions for this squad (two top LBs) and the harbinger of good fortune: Özil, the legend that already is in Sanchez, two back to back FA Cups etc.

  24. I don’t have any actual evidence to back this up, but the idea Monreal’s spell at CB helped his performances wide to me isn’t a crazy one. If we take a the reality that a team’s back line function as a unit, then Monreal gaining a greater understanding of specifically Arsenal CB defending would naturally lead to a greater understanding of how better to defend in conjunction with the rest of the back line while playing LB (again specific to Arsenal and this group of players – that’s key). Something like this wouldn’t necessarily be obvious, and the shifts in approach or positioning potentially quite subtle without deep scrutiny. To me this reasoning is plausible. Monreal seems an intelligent player, and it’s not like we haven’t seen Arsene do this with players before further up the field. Ramsey previously wide-right a couple years ago, Van Persie on the left before him, etc.

  25. monreal was never a failing player
    of course he has improved (thanks to hard battle with gibbs) but when he was playing as LB he was always reliable
    and i think a spell as CB helped a bit, even though those were not his best games

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