Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Why does nobody talk about stamina anymore?

Watch almost any interview with players who played against the Invincibles and they all mention the same thing. Although Arsenal fans remember them for their skill and perhaps their fighting spirit, opposition players consistently mention their athleticism. Over and over again, you hear the same comments about how you'd stand next to them in the tunnel and they just looked much stronger. Out on the pitch, similarly, former players comment on the "unbelievable" stamina the Arsenal boys had.

I think this is interesting and worth writing about, mainly because it highlights a really important point: the recent explosion of interest in tactics does seem to make people - even very intelligent people - ignore the physical side of the game.

There's an oft-told story, perhaps apocryphal but I see no reason to believe so, that Arsene Wenger's interest in Mathieu Flamini was originally piqued by seeing stats about how far Flamini ran. Granted he then went to watch him to make sure he was running 'intelligently' but it still goes to show how important fitness and athleticism is, perhaps even superseding tactics and positioning. Obviously this can manifest itself in different ways - witness recent Arsenal matches against Newcastle and Spurs where Tomas Rosicky demonstrated the utility of a series of short, sharp sprints in pressing, even if he cannot keep that sort of running up for 90 minutes.

The weird thing about those who doubted the impressiveness of Gareth Bale's performances last season was that they conveniently overlooked how many of his goals were scored late on. I think Bale's greatest – or rarest – attribute is his stamina. Definitely his pace is very important to his game, but it's very unlikely early in a game that a defender's starting position is going to be so bad that Bale can truly just surge past a whole team. But after 80 or 85 minutes, his ability to continue to deliver the same bursts of pace are a lot more effective because a defender's starting position becomes less important if he simply does not have the legs to close Bale down. It's not a lack of tactical awareness that causes mistakes - players at the top level often know what they should do, they simply lack the fitness to execute that play.

When Martin Jol managed Spurs, it was no coincidence or quirk of fate that Arsenal kept on coming from behind in North London Derbies. Jol basically did no conditioning, while Arsenal were the fittest team in the League (or so the story goes).

And something's changed. No longer are Arsenal by far the fittest team in the League. Between about 2008 and 2011, the last 15-20 minutes were very much 'Arsenal's time'. Definitely, other teams following what might be described simply as ‘sensible nutrition’ has ameliorated some of the fitness advantage Arsenal had when Wenger first came in. But that had already happened by 2008 when three seasons followed where Arsenal scored the most goals in the last 15 minutes of any team in the Premier League. In two matches against Barcelona (a team conventionally thought of as super-fit) in which Arsenal were neither decimated by injury nor hampered by preposterous refereeing, Arsenal scored four goals in the final quarter of the game.

It's hard to work out precisely what has changed. Perhaps it was simply isolated figures within that Arsenal team had particularly good stamina – Gallas, Clichy and Robin van Persie were all super-fit. Contrast that with how somebody like Santi Cazorla, for all his immense talent seems to fade badly when asked to track back and the players in the squad with great stamina like Vermaelen and Diaby (don’t laugh!) can’t get in the team for varying reasons. It’s also presumably about rotation – in recent seasons first Van Persie, then Cazorla and now Ozil have been required to play basically every game which isn’t going to help make somebody look super-fit.

But perhaps it really is after all about tactics. In 2010/11, there were almost no games in the second half of the season that were decided by 75 minutes, forcing Arsenal to demonstrate their stamina by chasing almost every match for a late winner. Somebody more intelligent than me could probably do some statistical analysis and use the energy exerted for a full 90 minutes for months on end as a causative factor in the complete meltdown at the end of that season, as fatigue did not so much take hold, as cling on for dear life before wringing every last possible bit of disappointment out of that season. I would know, I was at Wigan.

This season, the BBC says Arsenal have scored the first goal in 16 of 21 League games – when you’re leading it’s harder to prove your fitness, and yet when they had to at West Ham, they did. Even if they are more tired, it’s understandable – since March, there’s been a move away from a possession-based game to keeping a very good shape without the ball. Having to chase the game and press for longer probably is more tiring, but it’s also supremely effective as results show – the last 20 minutes no longer being ‘Arsenal’s time’ may well not be a bad thing.

Perhaps my main point here is just that people should understand footballers are humans, not robots – they may make mistakes, but that doesn’t make them tactically deficient, they’re probably just knackered.