‘When you read the book from the beginning’
An Arsenal blog from a coach’s perspective
I want to start with an admission.
I have barely looked at the Premier League table for many many years.
My doctor had asked me what I thought was raising my blood pressure because I am a calm guy. I told him that Arsenal‘s fortunes were the biggest issue and closely followed by paying bills by phone. I’m a people person and so pressing 1, then 3, then 7 then 0 because I should’ve pressed 0 earlier. Then listening to somebody with an accent that I cannot understand who wants to spend 3 minutes asking me the same questions that the person before just asked me. Then another two minutes thanking me for my loyalty to their company. And all this when they have every detail of me and my bank account already on file.
Maybe you can relate?
When the season started and after about two months, I still didn’t want to look at the table. I think it’s the permutations that raise my blood pressure.
Here comes admission number two….today I was at church and Max is nudging me wanting to check on the Liverpool Tottenham game. I tried to be the good Dad and resist and told him to sing the songs. Then I caved. I will ask for forgiveness later, don’t worry. After he looked at my phone I looked at the table in depth for the first time in the longest time (during my wife singing ‘Shout to the Lord.’). She doesn’t read my blog so she will never know.
Even after declaring that I think Arsenal can win the league last week, it seems even more real this week. It seems more real because I don’t feel alone. I feel that after yesterday the masses are starting to point at Arsenal. Anyone can go to Stamford Bridge and win 1-0 in this league. It’s more likely that we do in this form, but the result isn’t surprising. What will have surprised the neutrals in particular is the total 95 minute domination. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before even when Arsenal were Invincible.
So, how has this happened?
Firstly, modern football is centered around balance.
Which team can get the balance right between attacking and defending.
How many players should you have in attacking lines at one time and the flexibility to be talented as a coach and willing enough to switch based on game state and opponent. The coaches have this balance as their obsession. You will hear about it every now and again but it is what is going on behind the scenes. In my opinion, Arsenal are currently the best team in the Premier League in this area. City are more potent going forward but often are caught short going the other way. Arsenal are not so we get the bigger round of applause.
When Arteta came in he did two important things.
Phase 1 was him being wise enough to realize that he needed to think short term in order to convince the fans, the players and the owners that he could do the second thing. Winning the FA cup did that. Then he embarked on phase 2.
Phase 2 was walking into the classroom, telling the players to throw their old textbooks in the rubbish and giving them an updated version. The Juego de Pocision titled book needs much patience. It’s not necessarily the right way to play football. There is no right way. There are many ways. You just have to pick the right way for the group that you have. Part of me would love to use this same book with my high school team but that would fail because they unfortunately don’t have the foundation that I would like. You need a group who are firstly willing to learn. We didn’t have that. So, he ditched those that were too egotistical to learn and believe that he knew something that they didn’t.
He then started at the beginning of the book.
This might sound obvious but it is rarely done in football. Most coaches are fully aware that their stay is likely short. That every training session is simply focused on winning the game in front of you. Most are not given time to teach a new philosophy from the beginning of the book. They might actually be as talented as Arteta, but they know if they go to chapter one then they will have to suffer until they get to chapter 3 or 4. Their owners will lose their faith and they will lose their job. So, they open the book that they teach from on chapter 3 or 4 and continue coaching in a game to game way.
What might come back to being the single best decision that Arsenal Football club have made in the last 20 years is the decision to actually back the manager and not just say that you were going to and go with the breeze and the negative headlines. Ride the wave and be patient. Let him teach slowly and effectively without skipping chapters. Alongside this decision had to be proper investment and the owners have followed through there, also.
Then you have to look across town. Look at the contrast. Perhaps Chelsea‘s owners if they are smart will see that they also have a talented coach. He is already making noises about his appreciation for our style and I get the feeling watching his former team that he could do a similar work. He might have gone to the wrong team. Chelsea have no patience. Even though their new ownership might, the fans have been brought up with success, failure then fire. Rinse and repeat.
You look at the contrast in the two teams yesterday. Graham Potter said after the game that Arsenal are at a different phase of our development as a team. Chelsea played the game with a strategy but also off the cuff. Arsenal played the game with automatisms that are vital for long term success.
It was like watching one team try to build a house without starting by building the foundation. The other taking their sweet time, having extended lunch breaks and resting in the sweet sun with a cigar in their mouth. Then going back to work knowing that their house wouldn’t collapse because they were taking their time doing it the right way.
In football terms you see this clearly and how quickly the players make decisions. Chelsea‘s players are an equal to ours and can also make quick decisions but not necessarily the best decision. Because Arteta started at the beginning of the book he has taught our players the importance of the details. How their body position affects their decisions. How their first touch has to set up their second touch and is second in priority to scanning to ensure that where they want to pass the ball is a safe option. So, we see Chelsea pass the ball around but not make intelligent progress. Then we saw Arsenal moving the ball at a quicker speed and away from pressure and making intentional progress that has been practiced for three years.
Then what you get three years into reading, studying and executing this new book you see a game where players of equal quality look galaxies apart. Seeing Mason Mount have no affect on the game and Bukayo Saka having a consistent positive impact. Not sure that Gareth Southgate will pay attention to this but hey-ho. You also find yourself watching a game where the away team looks like they are playing at home. So comfortable. So assured. So much belief.
If anybody from any other fan base is reading this, this is not just a good run. You need to understand that. A good run is what any team can do if they focus on one game at a time, choose the right tactics and execute. This is that but with the foundation. Because it has a foundation, it has a future as well as a present.
If anyone ever finds this book, burn it. Everybody else is starting to point at Arsenal and they want a copy.
- Well, where do we start. There are lots….. Saka starts games by beating his man and going to his right first. Small detail but really important. He has a reputation for being very left footed and I have noticed that he has been using his right foot more. In order for his game to be increasingly effective he needs to be unpredictable.
- Gabriel Jesus has to be one of the most ‘impactful’ players I’ve seen . You could write a whole blog every game just on his performance. There is so much to see on both sides of the ball. Maybe these images will back this up and give you a giggle…
Aubameyang was never this bad at Arsenal as Arteta would not let him have such little impact. It does though show the vast difference in general game impact and it’s honestly a little embarrassing.
Gabriel Jesus is best described as a player who is willing to do more than others in his position. Defending doesn’t just include pressing for him. It includes chasing and tackling players when the team needs help. It means taking more kicks than anybody else but not letting it affect your game. Perhaps the detail that I am most enamored with is his willingness to back into defenders. Most strikers just will not do this. They will let their defender win the ball because they don’t want to make contact with somebody that will likely hurt them. Because Jesus backs in, the opponent cannot win the header or send it where they want to. On many occasions he will win it himself where other strikers aren’t even trying. He’s now off on the attack after bravery, an incredible first touch and a delightful twist and turn where the other strikers are taking a nap break whilst their team defends.
- I love that our textbook is being adapted. This is seen in playing out from the back. Most teams who play out from the back do it exclusively unless they are under big pressure. Arteta has built our midfield and forward line to become physically able to contest longer passes and win the second balls. So, statistically we are actually only playing out from the back 30% of the time (I’m accurately informed). Again, variety and unpredictability makes us harder for our opponents to read and prepare for.
- Back to Gabriel Jesus. He has yet to be rewarded for his intricate dribbling inside the box. Yet to score a goal from it or get a penalty kick but that is coming. You can see it. Yet another string to his bow that the others don’t have.
- There is so much that you could say to compliment William Saliba. So much I’ve already said. Recently, he hasn’t been in poor form but made just a couple of mistakes. Then he goes into a London Derby against a top team and you’d think that he’d be concerned about these mistakes. Instead, he was the Man of the Match. Then put on a clinic in defending. Perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay him is that Centre Backs ordinarily hit prime at about 30. He doesn’t look like a youngster or play like one. He plays like a prime elite Centre Back who could play for any team in world football.
- Alongside having a talented coach who is doing the right thing at the right place at the right time, you can see every week the buy-in from his players. I will pick up three examples… firstly, I closely watched the players during the medical emergency. Chelsea‘s players wandered over towards Potter at their own pace. Every single one of our players jogged over because they wanted to hear from Arteta who they know can help them. There is such humility and respect in that. Secondly, one team looked like they were 100% focused on winning an important Premier League game. The other teams look like they had the majority of their players trying not to get fatigued and injured for the World Cup. Lastly and maybe most impressive, watch Kieran Tierney. He has been through so many disappointments this season. He may not look happy at the end of games but what matters is what he does on the field. Most players who are frustrated by not being selected will not put in the focus and effort that he does. This is a credit to him but more so it is a credit to the coach for instilling the importance of professionalism over personal emotion. Most coaches cannot do this no matter how hard they try.
- If you can’t see that Ben White is worth the 50 million that we spent on him then I feel for you. Coaches want top players but coaches really want top players who are consistent. Ben White is in the latter category.
- Keeping your eyes off the ball you can see a very interesting role that Zinchenko plays. When we have possession he seems to have the freedom to fill the attacking holes that are available based on the game rather than a pregame decision. Only an intelligent and very technical player can pull this off and I believe that we will be reminded of his qualities in this area after the World Cup.
- I loved the hunger in Gabriel when he scored. He really wanted it. If you watch the replay, he had to really extend himself to get there. Such determination but no surprise there.
- I wonder if our coaching staff are recruiting players and intentionally choosing players in certain positions that have serenity. I think of Ben White, Saliba, Partey and Odegaard in particular. Why is this important? If you have players who are serene, have a chilled personality then the helter skelter of playing Premier League football will not rattle you, especially when under intense pressure. Think about these four players when they are under intense pressure. Do you ever see panic? Other teams do not have this like we do.
- I’m sorry that UK readers have to listen to Jermaine Jenas. We have better here in the USA. We shouldn’t because it’s not our league, but we do. Ordinarily, we have Rebecca Lowe with Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe. There isn’t the same obsession with having the big names as the English networks have had for the entirety of Premier League coverage the last 30 years. Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe were average PL players who were not big names but have a whole different level of intelligence and an analytical eye. This has nothing to do with Arsenal but is a frequent annoyance for me even though I don’t experience it. I just think that English football fans want and deserve so much more. I’m sure it’s not just Arsenal that have better football analysts, writing and podcasting and so the dedicated modern football fan is aware that there is significantly better out there. I would actually prefer if the English networks would just tell everybody that their pundits are biased which I’m actually OK with. All of us have a bias. That is part of the sport. You can’t ask Jermaine Jenas to not be biased when he is watching Arsenal so just admit it. Let him go in two footed but stop pretending that it has to be fair or that he’s an analyst. Stick him next to a biased Arsenal former player if you have to and let them have at it. At least it would be entertaining even if we got zero productive analysis.
- I found this on an Orbinho tweet….Bukayo Saka has been booked three times this season. Only one player has been booked for a foul on Saka. If the referees understood the game properly and knew what goes on in the changing rooms before the game, they would see rotational fouling. They would see intentional and illegal intimidation. They would see what looks like a little foul actually being a crucial foul. How is that statistic even a thing? Unreal.
- If I had the opportunity to encourage Jesus and his desire to score again, I’d encourage him to follow other players shots. He does it occasionally but not enough. If you run directly at the goalkeeper then if he saves it it will end up somewhere in his vicinity. It also distracts the goalkeeper who has half an eye on you running at him.
- I don’t want to spend too much time on this as I can explain better in the podcast below. Simply that we could kill games off if we had Jesus or another player running in behind in central areas in the final third. We are over-complicating certain opportunities.
- We scored from a corner kick but recently we have not been as effective at them. We now have a team littered with physicality and aerial threat and we have quality delivery but the two are not connecting.
- Looking forward and although it’s only November, the transfer window will now be at the very front of the clubs mind. They get an extra month to work on it. Rumours are starting to circulate and I have thoughts on a few. Firstly, I do think it is important to understand that the majority of the signings over the next two transfer windows will be players that are the equal of our current first team. Our second team is very good but one step down from the first team in most cases. There is no point purchasing ‘squad players’ as we have good ‘squad players.’ Sambi Lokonga’s situation is the perfect example. He is a very good prospect but currently cannot offer what Thomas Partey can. Why would Arsenal go buy another player who is a step down. Especially when the teams that they are trying to catch like City have players of equal quality that they rotate without any difference in final outcome. I cannot emphasize enough how convinced I am that this is what we are trying to do. I think we will see it in the summer when we replace ElNeny with a player like Declan Rice rather than let’s say, Tyler Adams. The same goes for Rob Holding. We aren’t going to get a slightly faster version of Rob Holding. It will be somebody who is equal or better than Gabriel. Somebody like Milan Skriniar at Inter. It looks like we will win something this season. I struggle to believe that this team will win nothing. If we do, then Arteta will know having been at City, that you do not want your players to get big headed or complacent. So you have to bring in players that make their eyeballs get bigger. The rumors of Facundo Torres and Ibrahima Bamba are likely a different thing. I think we will also purchase players that are low risk/high upside. Much like the Martinelli purchase. 10M, why not? The rumours have started again about Tielemans. He’s having a better season even though Leicester have struggled. His long range shooting is certainly something that could be an addition to Arsenal. We now have a midfield that are scoring and even from long range, but not with the same consistency. I do wonder and speculate that Arsenal are looking at two players that can play both as a six and as an eight. Tielemans is one and Gundogan is the other. Both out of contract in the summer I believe and both could be the equal or even better than what we have in our first team. We have also had success buying from City so may go back. I will mention Miguel Almiron again. I know that we were interested when he was at Atlanta United and it’s taken him a while but he isn’t just the form player of the league. He has attributes that are hard to find in a purchase, particularly electric pace when running with the ball.
- It was probably intentional that they subbed Aubameyang at the time that they did. The Chelsea and Arsenal fans both were likely ready to boo him off the field and that’s not great for his fragile ego. He’s their problem now. They have a past prime, older player on a massive contract who loves doing it the way that he wants to do it.
- So good to see this picture today from Monza.
Can only wish Mari the absolute very best.
Boy, I’ve enjoyed writing this. If you could do me a favour and share this particular blog today. I’d really appreciate it. It took me a rather long time (6 hours) and I think it’s decent.
Finally, as Arteta said after the game, “the fans have transformed the club.” I am simply one of them that feels this unexpected joy.
I think it is only fair to say that the fans are so encouraged because of what he has done and what the owners have allowed him to do.
Convince me that we can’t challenge. It’s a dare.
Former Highbury regular. Moved to TN, USA in ’99. Married with 3 kids. Coached in UK and US for 27 years.
Mike McDonald Soccer Academy in Morristown TN, Olympic Development coach, Regional Premier League Champion.