System Managers Need System Players
Arsene Wenger was well known for letting his Arsenal players figure it out rather than giving them strictly defined roles and responsibilities on the pitch. His approach was based on passing patterns, technical quality, creating overloads and off-the-ball movements. This approach produced some fantastic attacking football. But as the years went by, it started to work less and less. First against the top teams and then gradually against smaller teams with some talent.
The Champions League exit to Monaco in 2014 was an exhibit of all the frailty in Wenger’s approach, all the frustration and redundancy. It was incredibly frustrating for the fans that Arsenal were not able to do better than Top 4 in the league and the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Wenger seemed at his wits end in Europe, his last famous victory coming against a Bayern Munich that had repeatedly beaten him 5-1.
Domestically, as the coaching game advanced, Arsenal suffered. José Mourinho, the seeming antithesis of Wenger class and approach, always got the better of him with his rigid, systematic approach to football. The arrival of more super managers in Conte, Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp spelt the end of Wenger at Arsenal. These coaches were extremely detailed in their planning and execution and their teams regularly found Arsenal easy to play against. Arsenal soon dropped out of Champions League contention.
We needed some fresh ideas. Wenger’s approach had become staid and predictable. We needed one of those systematic managers to freshen things up. Enter Unai Emery.
The less that is spoken of Emery’s time at Arsenal, the better. We ended that relationship soon enough and appointed Arteta, a former player who had served in several roles with some of the best system managers in football, including Guardiola.
Arteta’s appointment made some sense. Former player and familiar with the club’s culture. Highly intelligent and prized by Guardiola. Destined to coach and praised by top players at one of the best football clubs. At the very least, he would have picked up some good things from his time assisting one of the best systematic managers in the history of the game.
Arteta has so far made good on his promise, with an FA Cup trophy and the Community Shield to show for it. That was an extremely promising return in his first six months of management. What has that established? That Arteta has trophy-winning potential and ideas. This is not even including how he’s settled down a ravaged and hurting club.
Into his first full season in the league, Arteta’s Arsenal sit 7 points off the leaders. Not great but not entirely terrible either, considering the quality of the league these days. What brings consternation to the fans and neutrals alike is the absence of the Arsenal heritage way of playing. In fact, there has been little of the modern football heritage either: possession in the opposition third, high and intense pressing, etc. Basically, in terms of style and quality, Arsenal are not playing the way they are expected to be.
This is confusing to some. Arteta clearly has the coaching capacity to install a high-press, high-possession system. In fact, we have seen some of that this season in the first half of the game at Old Trafford, where United simply found it difficult to get out. We are not even passing well enough. And our attack looks extremely disjointed. Against Leeds, we abandoned the 3-4-3 system that has served us so well in favour of the 4-3-3 which did not work against the man-for-man system that Bielsa’s sides use. We could not string together a couple of passes. The whole boat looks leaky at this point.
Here are some facts, though:
—We have one of the least shooting numbers in the league this season.
—But our few shooting opportunities are some of the best located in the league this season. Majority of them have been inside the box and close to goal.
—We are not getting the ball frequently enough into the opposition third
—We have implemented a high pressing scheme but are not good enough at doing it, especially when we are playing away. In fact, away from home, we have the least effective press. At home, we are moderately successful.
—Before the Leeds game, our main scoring outlet in Aubameyang had only 9 shots in 8 games.
—We complete a lot of our passes even under pressure but we also allow the opponents to have the exact same luxury, too.
—We get worse as the game goes on, indicating a lack of fitness.
—We keep the ball on the ground and are extremely slow in moving the ball up the pitch.
Basically, we are both Burnley and Manchester City in how we play. And we lack match fitness. The hope is that we start looking more like City and less than Burnley in the coming weeks, but Arteta needs City-type players to do that.
Some of our most progressive players like David Luiz are not playing. Elneny and Partey are among our fittest players but can’t play. We have no final third midfielder and Ozil cannot even be the answer as he’s not even registered to play. Our slowness in possession is crying out to be improved and the likes of Leno, Xhaka and Elneny are responsible. There is no one who can take the ball on the half-turn in midfield, beat a man and slide a pass forward except for Thomas Partey – and Thomas Partey is not an advanced midfielder.
We can’t even try to be more direct by going long because our forwards can’t win an aerial duel to save their lives. This is something that I have noticed Arteta has been trying to improve and it showed somewhat against Leeds. But all of Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang are very bad at aerials. And we can’t even press the second ball because we’d most likely lose the contest. Leno, meanwhile, can’t hit a flat, long pass to a man with accuracy.
There is only so much you can do in training without the correct player profiles. Almost every single player in Liverpool, including the short Salah, are good at winning an aerial ball. If Liverpool can’t get out, any one of Trent, Van Dijk, Alisson or Thiago can simply hit it long to Salah or Mane. We do not have players that can do that.
Arteta in the summer talked about the need for three new midfielders: a 6, an 8, and a 10. We got a world-class 6 in Partey but no 8 or 10. Hence the rumours that we are after Szoboszlai (a 10) in January and have not given up on Aouar (both 8 and 10). There is also talk of Boubakary Soumare (an 8) at Lille. The summer transfer business was good in terms of acquisitions, but it was not sufficient for our needs in midfield. We basically need a new midfield and a new striker that is aerially dominant. We didn’t get that and now we have to try to get them in January.
Jurgen Klopp needed Alisson, Van Dijk, Robertson and Salah to transform his team. Pep Guardiola needed Ederson, Walker, Sane and Laporte to make his team good. They have both sold many players. These are system managers. They want to play a particular way. They need particular players to be able to play the way they want. At Arsenal, Arteta has just received Gabriel and Partey. He has been unable to sell Kolasinac, Sokratis, Mustafi, Chambers and Lacazette. The attacking profiles he has are not what he wants. But he has to make do with it.
This is why we play in the manner that we do. This is why we do not play through the middle (because who will?). This is why we do not play lots of aerial balls (even the good crosses from Tierney has been largely wasted). This is why we have a carefully structured attack. This is why we are not successful when we press high (press high with Xhaka?).
Football is a simple game. A systems manager needs system players. Wait for Arteta to get them. Even City, with all their vast Qatari cash, had to wait a season.