Across Arsene Wenger’s 18 years in charge, there have been few consistent trends. One that does stand though is that Arsenal have pretty much always done better in seasons not preceded by an international tournament. The three seasons in which Arsenal have won the League under Wenger, he had a full pre-season. More recently, seasons in which Arsenal have challenged for the League title have tended to begin in odd years (07-08, 09-10, 13-14). The only real exception to this trend is 2011-12, and that’s fairly easily explained away by the disruption caused by the prolonged departures of Messrs Fabregas and Nasri.
Obviously, there’s a big difference between spotting a statistical trend and explaining it. As I am wont to say far too often, correlation is not causation. But in this instance, the sample size is large enough to argue with a reasonable degree of confidence that the cause of the trend is that Wenger teams do better when he has more time with them in pre-season. And that therefore, Wenger is - contrary to popular perception - good at coaching his teams.
The skill of great managers is to build a team which plays in a way that it becomes more than the sum of its parts. That’s particularly important for Arsenal: the club is simply never going to be as rich as Manchester City or Chelsea and so needs to overcome having weaker players by playing better as a team.
That’s something which is very difficult to work on during a season. I’ve really enjoyed reading ex-pro David Farrell’s blog in recent weeks, with his insider’s take on what it’s like to play as a professional footballer. This is his explanation of how training often works:
There is a general pattern most clubs will follow throughout the working week. Sunday/Monday will generally be recovery days. Light sessions of gentle exercise, five-a-sides, pool work and massage after the weekend game. Tuesday is the day when the main fitness work of the week is done. Aerobic work, strength and conditioning training, and more demanding possession and pressing sessions, alongside possible gym work in the afternoon. Wednesday is the traditional day off to allow for recovery from the exertions of the previous day. Thursday is usually when the technical work, practice matches and team shape is done, working towards the match and exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses, allied with some crossing and finishing and some small-sided games. Finally Friday, a light session, five-a-sides and possibly some set-plays. Some teams will also do some short, sharp sprint work to ready the legs and mind for the challenges of the match.
Note that this weekly schedule is entirely contingent on playing one game a week. At the point you play twice a week, you still need at least one day off, you still need some recovery time, you still need to do fitness work, but you have an extra day devoted to playing a football match. That leaves far less time for players to build the understanding needed to play together, particularly playing at the sort of intensity which is actually helpful in preparing for matches.
You can see how having a shorter pre-season for most of the squad, but particularly for key players like Mesut Ozil and Per Mertesacker, would actively diminish Arsenal’s play. Without pre-season, at a top club playing twice a week, it becomes much harder to build the understanding necessary to make a team tick. It’s one of the reasons why Santi Cazorla’s first season was so exceptionally impressive, in that he didn’t have a pre-season with his team-mates but was still consistently superb.
This lengthy goes at least some way to explain Arsenal’s travails this season. The next question is to what extent is the manager responsible. While he was never going to get a full pre-season after the World Cup, have his tactical choices exacerbated the problem?
To be honest, I don’t really buy in to the narrative of some wholesale system change this season. Insofar as the midfield three might be 2+1, rather than 1+2, yes. But I struggle to see why that should be be the biggest causal link behind Arsenal’s poorer performances year-on-year.
Probably the biggest tactical change has to been to favour more wing attacks, pushing the full-backs higher up the pitch, and asking the defensive midfield player to sit a little deeper. I think that’s a change based on personnel, but one that Wenger would philosophically want to make.
He’s an attacking coach by nature, whose philosophy of wing play is that if the opposition push players forward that leaves us space to exploit, and if they don’t, then there’s no harm in throwing players forward. And I’m not convinced those have been misguided tactics. With the personnel available, I think we were always going to ship a few goals this season. Chambers does not strike me as a full-back and Oxlade-Chamberlain is never going to be competent enough defensively to protect a full-back. So the attempted solution has been to outscore the opposition.
It hasn’t really worked, but in my eyes it hasn’t worked for two reasons. One, profligacy: the most curious aspect of the draw against Anderlecht was the over-abundance of missed chances. Against Leicester, 24 shots and just one goal. Against Tottenham, 16 shots and one goal. Against Hull, 25 shots and a scraped equaliser during injury time. Heck, even away at Chelsea we restricted them to just three shots on target - problem is, we haven’t taken our chances.
And that for me has been the biggest issue. I don’t think that’s a failure of the tactical system. I think it’s a failure of certain player’s finishing (especially Oxlade-Chamberlain) and just a bad run which is unlikely to hold in the long run. Similarly, I think Szczesny is a good goalkeeper and we will concede fewer goals as the season progresses.
The second reason for Arsenal’s problems has been a quirk of the fixture list. Arsenal have thus far dropped ten points from six games following Champions League matches, all of which have been in away games. In my season preview, I suggested Arsenal repeatedly having to play away after playing midweek would have a knock-on effect and it has. When you have a smaller squad than your rivals - at least in terms of depth of talent - it makes it far harder to rotate, and this means that your players are carrying minutes in the legs the opposition aren’t. Couple that with the fact it’s considerably harder to play away from home and it becomes especially difficult to win.
It’s one reason I expect a noticeable upturn in form over the next few weeks. After the Dortmund home game, there should hopefully be no competitive Champions League games until mid-February. This added energy, combined with the return of key players such as Theo Walcott (who is rarely guilty of the aforementioned profligacy) should give Arsenal the chance to kick on.
Ultimately, you might say that every season under Arsene Wenger is ‘same old, same old’. I don’t agree. I think in terms of personnel, Arsenal have improved sufficiently that they might well be able to beat a bigger team in the Champions League, something they have struggled with for several years.
But more importantly, even if you believe that the manager is tactically bereft, would another manager also be able to overcome the vast resource disparity between Arsenal and the two better teams in England? Because if not, you should be exceptionally wary of throwing away the benefits having Arsene Wenger as manager brings. The aspects in which Arsenal’s seasons are similar is that they do not win the League: that’s not the fault of the manager.
Keep the faith.