Posts Tagged ‘Gunners’

This is the third blog looking at Arsenal from a scientific angle. Following Schrödinger’s Arsenal and Wenger’s Room I felt compelled to add a third for a trilogy of entries, those that know me well will know why.

After having tackled Schrödinger’s Cat and Mary’s Room, I scoured for another theory or thought experiment that could be applied to Arsenal when I stumbled upon a psychological theory that was very intriguing and thought-provoking.

The theory I encountered was the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This theory, in layman’s terms, states that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress). Very simply put, at a certain level of induced stress, people perform better. But if stress goes well beyond this level, performance decreases. So it’s all about finding that sweet spot to achieve optimal performance.

The theory is often times better shared using the following illustration:

stress

Now, when performing intellectually demanding tasks, the level of arousal doesn’t need to be high to achieve peak performance, as the lower level of stress will allow for better concentration. For physically demanding tasks, a much higher level of stress is needed to hit peak performance.

So, how can we apply this to Arsenal?

Having followed the club we all know that Wenger is a man that coddle his athletes quite a bit. Time and again we see the likes of Rambo, Theo and many, many more, continue to get chance after chance after poor displays or less than stellar runs. We see the squad, quite often, start off matches in a surprisingly docile manner, with a lack of urgency which leads to comments like, “Same old Arsenal starting slow. Well, we’ll get going in the second half.”, etc. How many times during a season do you find yourself saying, “Where’s the urgency with this team?!” My suggestion is that the squad, at those times, doesn’t find itself stressed enough to hit peak performance.

On a player level, places are pretty much guaranteed as there are limited bodies – regardless of performance, there is little threat of losing one’s starting position. Even if wanting to make a change, depth of quality is limited at many positions, but we’ll leave that aside for now. The calmness some often praise Wenger for could actually lead to a lower stress level which would be detrimental to achieving optimal performance levels in athletes. Of course, as stated earlier on, you don’t want to go beyond that sweet spot of arousal or you end up with a decrease in performance, much like we saw last year with Mourinho and Chelsea.

What’s the sweet spot for Arsenal? How is it achievable on a constant basis? We can all agree that it won’t be the same for all players. Some will have a higher tolerance for anxiety than others. That’s where man-management comes in. This is where I believe, more than anywhere else, Wenger has lost the edge. In the past, when he wasn’t able to get the best out of X or Y player, he had leaders (Keown, Adams, etc.) that could certainly up that stress level and increase that urgency to get the best out of those players. This current team has a lack of leaders so Wenger doesn’t have that luxury anymore and hasn’t for quite some time.

Now, I’m not saying Wenger needs to be like Conte or Simeone on the sidelines or throw boots about in the dressing room like Fergie, although many of us wish he would adopt SOME or MOST of those methods from time to time. But he HAS to be more ruthless and instill a sense of urgency in this team. He needs to bring in quality bodies to ensure no player is comfortable in their position, ever. If you don’t perform, you ride the bench until you show you can, or until your replacement doesn’t perform. This would create the right level of stress for the squad to fulfill their potential. We’ve seen this squad start slow, uninterested and without urgency far too often for a top team.

In the end, the majority of supporters want Wenger to find the balance he once had. Every detail matters in football, man-management is what sets apart the good teams from the great and Arsenal need Wenger to be a great man-manager again, to find those levels of stress to get the best out of the team as whole, if that means hurting some feelings along the way, and that’s okay.

Up the Arsenal!

 

Next year, we’ll be better.

Next Year, the board will allow for spending or force Wenger to spend, depending on who you believe.

Next year, we’ll buy the players to fill our needs.

Next year, those players will FINALLY be available.

Next year, Wenger will be more tactically aware.

Next year, we’ll make that zonal marking work.

Next year, we’ll shoot more, as a result – we’ll score more.

Next year, the players will self-motivate or Wenger will be a better motivator, whichever comes first.

Next year, Leicester won’t be as good or we as bad.

Next year, Aguero’s hammy will definitely give Pep fits.

Next year, Tottenham will go back to their “normal”.

Next year, no way do United, Chelsea or Liverpool improve.

Next year, our forwards will finish Mesut’s chances, if Mesut decides he’s ready for another year.

Next year, Theo and Giroud become World Class.

Next year, Alexis won’t play 25 matches before October.

Next year, we won’t injure our own players by overusing them.

Next year, we’ll allow players to warm up properly on cold weather days.

Next year, our title bid won’t fall apart by December.

Next year, we won’t scramble in January to sign a player at a position everyone knew was a need in the summer.

Next year, the supporters won’t create a “bad atmosphere” – haha, imagine the nerve of that.

Next year, we’ll definitely do better against “lower teams”.

Next year, we’ll be better in the London derbies.

Next year is almost here. Are you ready?

Up the Arsenal…

Yesterday there was a report from the journalist Paco González of Cadena COPE/Mediaset Sport that our very own Arsène Wenger had “phoned” Karim Benzema in an attempt to convince him to move to Arsenal. As it is summer time and the typical crazy transfer season mentality takes over conventional, rational thinking, not many people bothered to see what else the journalist had to say about the situation.

Let’s just begin with what was actually said and the proper translation of it.

Paco

Paco Gonzaléz has assured that Arsenal have called Karim Benzema this summer to convince him to leave Real Madrid but that the forward has rejected any proposal.

“Benzema has rejected Arsenal. There has not been a formal offer to Real Madrid, but this summer Wenger has called for the second straight year.” said the reporter on Cadena COPE where he explained that “the rumour that was going around (implied) was for Dzeko, but in the club they have it clear that it’s neither Dzeko nor anyone else.”

Now. You can plainly see that even though a call was supposedly made, there was an outright rejection, and for the second summer running. I won’t get into the implied tapping up that occurred here, so let’s move on. I find it interesting, as I have told several people, that Madrid had several objectives for the summer and when they saw those objectives weren’t going to be possible, they moved to plan B which was to concentrate on role players and shoring up certain areas of the pitch, which they have done and likely will continue to do. The last bit about Dzeko was a rumour that was floating around about Real Madrid looking at a certain striker and Paco saying that it was dismissed. He went on to clarify that Madrid are not interested in Dzeko or anyone else but still remain intrigued by Castilla prospect Borja Mayoral if they do have a need for a striker. If you are to believe the above report from Paco, you have to believe the entirety of it. You can’t pick and choose what to believe.

Some will say “But remember Özil said he wasn’t going to leave in a press conference!” Yes, that was outwardly in a public setting & while speaking to the press where, despite what is going on behind the scenes, Madrid like to keep everything looking all proper and tidy. Despite him saying this, behind the scenes for the better part of a week, the negotiations where already being finalized for his move. In this instance nothing is being played out publicly so Benzema telling Wenger/Arsenal no over the phone isn’t for theatre. There is no audience to pander to.

Furthermore, the recently extended Benzema is very happy in the Spanish capital and is ready to fight for his place (which Paco alluded to by saying he would indeed have to win his place) and for his squad, Perez still believes in him, and an internal memo conducted by Benitez and staff came to the conclusion that overuse of star players caused timely injuries that led to the trophy-less season. Can things change? Of course they can, but not likely to.

So once again we have a certain part of the media and a certain part of social media that take only the parts of the reports they like and disregard the others. When one starts to edit out parts of reports to suit their wants, I guess you can see how they’ll believe anything.

After having written Schrödinger’s Arsenal, it was a natural continuation to take another thought experiment and introduce Arsenal variables to see if it could stand up to scrutiny. There were many experiments that were intriguing, but then I stumbled onto one in an old textbook and knew right away there was no need to look any further. It was a perfect fit for the one subject that all Arsenal supporters weigh in on, almost on a daily basis – Wenger.

 

The Theory

Before delving into the actual experiment one must understand what it is trying to disprove, mainly the theory of physicalism. This philosophical theory states, broad strokes view, that mental processes are the result of, or can be reduced to, physical processes in the brain. There are many unique theories both philosophical and scientific that stem from this but all contain the same notion, that there is only one substance with a place in ontology, the physical. For the moment this is all we need.

 

The Thought Experiment – Mary’s Room 

This variation is quite modest and tackles one example of a multi-layered argument first made by Frank Jackson in 1982. It’ll do for the purposes of this entry. Mary’s Room is a very simple thought experiment that means to prove physicalism false, specifically the branch of physicalism that claims completeness of physical explanations of mental states.

Mary has been confined her entire life in a room which purposely lacks any colour. She’s never seen colour although she does have the ability to see it. Through books, also devoid of colour, black and white monitors and other colourless media, she is practised in neuroscience to the point where she is an expert on the subject. Mary is educated on everything possible about the perception of colour in the brain and all the physical facts about how light works and the process necessary to see colour.

After Mary’s education is complete she is allowed to leave the room. This is when, for the first time, she experiences direct colour perception. She sees the colour yellow and just by seeing it, learns something new about colour perception; what the colour yellow looks like.

Jackson concluded from this simple thought experiment that if physicalism is true, Mary would have gained all the knowledge about colour perception through her education, but since she learned something upon leaving the room, physicalism must be false. He goes on to explain:

“It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.”

Got it? Good. Now, what does this have to do with Arsenal? I’m glad you asked.

 

Wenger’s Room

For the purpose of this entry, we’ll say that Wenger’s 10 year trophy-less time was his period in the colourless room.

Wenger, for all intents and purposes, was severely restricted for most of those ten years. In theory he had a transfer budget, but it wasn’t what it had been upon his arrival. I say he was restricted for most of those years as it was obvious from the expenditures the last few years that the restrictions were lessened by the end of the drought.

So Wenger in this white room, had to educate himself in financial restraint. Selling off top-end assets, acquiring lesser assets to combine and attempt to replace the originals for the sake of qualifying to the CL year after year. Maintaining that status quo and paying off the stadium debt became paramount and winning titles, or at the very least truly competing for them, was something that was lost in the bargain. Legends were replaced with boys with big dreams, big demands and no backbone. Wenger during this time became a good businessman, but as a manager was unable to mould those kids into champions.

Lesser managers would have seen the club drop out of the top four, sat with a new stadium and increasingly less attractive product on the pitch and in financial turmoil. Better managers, wouldn’t have stuck around under those restraints. Wenger taught himself rather well and was able to push the squad on year after year. Sometimes underachieving, sometimes overachieving, but always in the mix near the top. The football, whilst not title-winning, was attractive, until, ironically enough, the restrictions began to lift and there was more money available. Wenger was finally let out of the white room, but had he lost his mojo from the early years at Arsenal? It certainly seemed so. Attractive football with memorable matches were replaced with laboured wins and forgettable losses.

The club seemed behind the curve in things like training methods (one example), that were once hailed as revolutionary. The time in the white room seemed to have dulled Wenger’s ability in the one thing us as supporters care about the most, the product on the pitch. Take all the things mentioned and add the increasingly bizarre way that Arsenal, year after year, climbed the injury table you could easily come to the conclusion that he had “lost it”. Was it fair? Absolutely not. Was it likely. It appeared so, as there was no evidence to the contrary bar the annual trips to a competition Arsenal had very little chance of winning but needed to stay ahead in the financial game. Even when the restraints were slowly lifted the team lost players and signed the likes of Squillaci. Even with good times around the corner, there still were/are, some growing pains. There was an increased rate of turnover as “Project Youth” came to a halt and there was a greater effort into recruiting more mature, experienced players that were indeed, more talented as well. Wenger was seeing colour again as if for the first time, learning something new…or re-learning.

So now, over the past few years with lessened financial restraint, the boss has reinforced the squad with the likes of Özil, Sanchez and just recently Petr Čech. Obviously unshackled Wenger has found his stride with two FA Cup wins in two seasons and partial runs at the title derailed either side of Christmas due to injury. Has the old man learned something he was missing or just back to basics now unburdened with having to be cheap as opposed to just prudent? For me, I would like to think it’s a bit of both. Wenger came out of this period with a more hardened sense of truth. He saw boys he groomed into top players turn their back on him and betray his trust. This definitely had an effect on him, you can see it in his shrewd decision-making of late. Sitting Vermaelen, as captain, benching Szczesny in league play for Ospina, etc. I could go on but I think you catch my drift. The reinforcements he’s added and is seemingly continuing to add show the restraints are now a distant memory. The youth that is now being given a chance have a deeper sense of loyalty as well. Lessons lived, lessons learned.

All in all, whether we like it or not, Arsenal went through this period and the face of it, the embodiment of it was Wenger. Through thick and thin the man stood there and took his shots, deserved or not, and for that he deserves praise. The juggling act he performed to maintain the status quo certainly hurt the rest of his duties, denying that is just folly, but the man, like the club, persevered and learned from it. Now we can watch a revamped side push on and truly compete for titles, with a few more additions and a bit of luck! The journey is not complete, when is it really ever complete in sport?

The lesson’s learned IN the room in this case are just as important as the lessons learned and actions taken once free of it. The club is in an enviable position to push on now and for that, we should all be grateful.

 

There is a thought experiment in quantum mechanics called Schrödinger’s cat, born out of the need to explain the complex nature of theories in quantum mechanics and how they would play out (absurdly so)  in everyday life and how under the proposed theory of the day published in 1935, a quantum system such as an atom could exist in multiple states. These multiple states all corresponding to different outcomes, this was referred to as quantum superpositions. The theory of the day known as the Copenhagen interpretation, stated that a quantum system existed in this superposition until it was interacted with or observed by the outside world. At this point the superposition would fall into one of the definitive states possible.

Schrödinger developed his experiment to show how someone could create a superposition where a large-scale system was dependent on a quantum particle in said superposition. Hence the cat in the box. He wasn’t out to prove the Copenhagen interpretation right, he was out to show how ridiculous the current (in that time) view of quantum mechanics where when applied to everyday life.

There have been different interpretations of this thought experiment throughout the years, some more elaborate, some less, dependent on the audience, but in essence, here is the theory;

A cat is sealed inside of a box. The cat is not alone in this box mind you, it’s sealed along with a contraption built out of a Geiger counter connected via relay to a hammer and a tube of hydrocyanic acid. The last piece of the puzzle is a small piece of radioactive substance. Over the course of an hour, the radioactive substance could remain stable and the cat remains alive or the substance could decay. If the substance decays, it would cause the Geiger counter to go off, setting off the relay that would free the hammer to smash the tube that contains the acid that ultimately kills the cat. Under the Copenhagen interpretation and the view of quantum mechanics, the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Arsenal? Well, let me explain.

First we have the cat. The “cat” for me is achievements; wins, progression in competitions, cups, etc. Then we have the system, the “system” is everything at the club; players, manager, etc. Then finally we have the small substance in a superposition state, that’s Arsenal’s performances. The time allowed for the experiment is the time between matches, where anything and everything is possible, the time where Arsenal exists in multiple states. The opening of the box, the observation from the outside world to see what state Arsenal is in, would be the performance and/or results on match-day Follow me?

We as supporters all throw out different scenarios for any given match. The box is closed. The cat is very much alive or very much dead, we don’t know. We hope it’s alive, we wish above all else it remains alive, when it comes to match-day we cheer it to be alive still, but more often than not these days, we have no idea if we should get the cat food out of the cupboard or go online to shop for burial services, such is the inconsistency surrounding Arsenal.

The nature of the inconsistency is mind-boggling. Let’s take the Monaco match as an example. Arsenal have reinforced, not to the best their ability, but have done so nonetheless. Most of the key players are healthy, the majority of the team has the experience in the Champion’s League thanks to the year in and out of qualification. Finally, after a fair number of years with difficult ties to progress, a seemingly manageable tie was on the cards against an undermanned team, and yet – capitulation ensued. Leading up to the match, after a good run, with the only blip being the NLD loss, one would have thought this was a statement match, yet there was no urgency, no passion, from top to bottom.

Now, Arsenal face a crossroads. It isn’t a crisis as some may have you think. It’s a chase for identity. For so many years, especially for those teams led by Cesc and Co., they were chasing giants and legends of football. Now, this team, with the likes of Özil, Sanchez, Cazorla, Ramsey, they need to make their own way, their own legend, and they are somewhat struggling to come to grips with the label of being a “big team”. You see flashes of it, what Arsenal “could be”. Then you see flashes of what Arsenal were, in those years after the Invincibles, “also-rans”. This current team is dealing with one of the worst cases of multiple personality I can remember in sports. On their day, with the talent available, they can beat anyone, yes, anyone. But on a bad day, they can lose to anyone, yes, again, anyone. The box is closed.

What makes the difference in one match to the next? In a wonderful performance and meltdown? One would say opposition, but that’s not necessarily the case. AFC has beaten good teams and lost to mediocre teams as well. Sometimes week to week. That is not the trait of a settled team, that is not the earmark of a team pushing to be elite, or being pushed?

I hate to say it, but I must bring it up. For 10 years Arsenal were trophyless. There are many reasons, but the truth remains. There have been talented teams that underachieved and so-so teams that may have overachieved. The one constant has been Wenger. There is no denying he was a great manager. I don’t think you can find many that would dispute that. The real discussion is – is AW still one now? He was innovative in tactics, nutrition, etc. Is he still now? Has Arsenal stagnated by clinging on to the past or is this the period where the team is built for the next big run. Are we all fooling ourselves thinking as much? All hard questions. None of us have the answers. That damned box!

For my part, I believe that Arsenal will take that next step, further reinforce, become more consistent. Whether Wenger is a part of that or not remains to be seen. Taking that next step doesn’t guarantee any more success than now though, it just guarantees a better shot at it. Teams like City, Chelsea, Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, PSG, etc. will all continue to spend money on the biggest names. Arsenal will have to become more consistent whilst they close that gap, it won’t be easy, but it can happen, will happen I dare say. For that to happen, there has to be some accountability. If that includes replacing the manager or certain players, so be it. As long as it’s good for the club.

In the meanwhile, there really is nothing to do but support who is on the pitch and who is guiding them from the sideline. There will be no additions and there won’t be a managerial change from now until the end of the season, so there is no point bringing negativity to the party. The first step to cleanse the atmosphere from the loss on Wednesday is Sunday versus Everton. A sign of a good team is being able to bounce back from adversity and Arsenal have managed that over the last few years, giving us all hope. Certainly if Wednesday was meant to be a statement match, after the result, one has to think Everton has now become one as well, more important even.

This is the chance for the players to take a step forward and show what they’re made of. This is a chance for the manager to make changes that signal mediocrity will not be tolerated. For a great many reasons, this match on Sunday could make or break the spirit of this team for the remainder of the season.

I for one back them to make that statement, what about you? Right now, Arsenal exists in multiple states, anything is possible. What will be the outcome? Will the cat be alive or dead? Sunday at 2:05pm we’ll open the box and find out.

Disclaimer

*It must be said that my understanding and knowledge of quantum mechanics and all the attached theories is very basic. I am explaining it to you as I have come to know it, which is to say, how a college professor taught me, a failed athlete that was half paying attention in class when this was taught. I also took the liberty to brush up with web searches, naturally! To those with extensive knowledge on the experiment or this field, my apologies if any mistakes were made.*

No one can really point out exactly when or where it happened. I certainly don’t have the exact date – the hour, minute, second or location it occurred eludes me. I think you’ll find it eludes us all, the exact point it happened. When did supporting a club go from an enjoyably insufferable dedication that brought family and friends together, to a 24/7 news cycle addicted, horde mentality with a generous serving of self-entitlement? Where exactly is it written that Arsenal MUST win, just because some, you, me, say they must. Let’s attempt to narrow it down.

Sport. Those that follow it, are engulfed by it. Sport, football in particular, Arsenal to be exact, is the reason you are reading this now and the reason I’m writing it – It’s a wondrous thing. Sport can show man in his purest of form. Athletes competing, in unison, striving to achieve a predetermined goal. Then there is the supporter, who plays their part, who at times cheer and push those athletes to higher levels, sometimes beyond themselves, to achieve – something, anything. It is a relationship that is mutually gratifying most times.

Alas, like sport, which is cyclical, the relationship between supporter and club (from players to owners) have their rough patches. These patches nowadays tend to show the nasty side of man. The abusive, cursing, violent side that is sometimes excused by some due to the sense of self-entitlement that now surrounds certain teams. Cue the fist-fights, protests, banners, etc.

My team, your team, our team, Arsenal is going through one of these rough patches, or so “they” tell us. “They” talk a lot don’t they? “They” like to tell you and me what should be, because of course “they” know better. All of this despite just recently having achieved one of those coveted goals, an FA Cup win. “They” apparently want their Arsenal back. Which version? The one that wins a trophy a year? The one that buys the exact needed reinforcements every year? Guess what? That version of the Arsenal never existed. Further news update, the version of Arsenal that competes near the top of the table year in and out is only a recent incarnation as well.

It’s really very simple, the self-entitlement of the modern Arsenal supporter has made it so that “grading” the team is now based solely on the trophies won that year. Now let me clarify, when I say “modern” supporter I don’t mean age, I mean mentality. There are plenty of “older” modern supporters. Still with me? Good.

So, where is this sense of self-entitlement coming from in the Arsenal supporter base? Where is it written that after the normal cyclical success of the club throughout its history, that not winning something on the season is now a failure? Every elite club in Europe has had a spell(s) where they weren’t relevant. So both historically with the results of the club and knowing that in sport nothing is assured, why now do we expect to win something every year?

The answer to that isn’t so simple, so I’ll start with the less controversial portion of it. Passion and access to information. The passion for the club, whether you are young or old, hasn’t changed. With the utmost confidence I can say we all truly love Arsenal, and it would be a truthful statement. You couple that passion with the access to information we as a society now have, and you have borderline obsessives throughout the supporter base. No longer is it just reading the daily newspaper or sports magazines to get the latest info. No longer is it waiting for the next radio show or the next match to get your “fix”. Now, all things about the club you support, the club you love, is at your fingertips. Access to players and their personal lives, commentary on the club from a thousand pundits, other supporters that have both similar and differing views on many subjects are RIGHT THERE, at your fingertips, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. You can access that information whilst at work, in the WC, on your commute, anywhere, anytime. That submersion is difficult to counteract. When you have so much information, about anything, then you feel you have all the answers, how could you not, how could we not (I’m as guilty as the next guy)? With that sense of knowing, well, everything (so we think), how can those in the club not see it? How can they not fix it? How can they not win, each year, every year in fact! Therein lies the delusion or is it just an illusion? Or better yet, in this age of Football Manager commentary, is it just a bad simulation?

The second part of the answer is obvious, even though some won’t want to admit it. Who has contributed the most for setting the bar so unbearably high that winning a trophy is the only sign of success? Who is responsible for fueling the modern, self-entitled supporter to feel as such? Well, funnily enough, the very man that receives all, well most, of their abuse – Wenger.

Now, some of you have read my posts here and follow me on social networks, you know I’m the furthest thing from an AKB. I am not afraid of change at Arsenal, I do blame Wenger for a good portion of our inadequacies in personnel in recent years, and the current “weak” mentality that seems to be festering at the club, but I also understand that Arsenal wouldn’t be where it is, on the brink of competing with the elite, if it weren’t for him. Arsenal Football Club has a long, proud tradition, but the fact is that there were many, many down times as well. What Wenger has done is make it so those “down” times now are near the top of the table and playing in Europe. It’s switch in mentality and execution at the club that he instilled into the fabric at Arsenal and the man has now become a victim of his own success.

What a bad joke it really is when you think about it.

Man comes into an institution, changes the path of said historic institution for the better, has unprecedented success, positions said institution for greatness, then progress is stalled for some time, and the supporters for that institution who have become emboldened with a sense of entitlement bestowed upon them by said man, now abuse that man. That’s what it’s come down to. The modern supporter, using his passion and his information, having selective memory and with his sense of entitlement now abuse the man who helped create that winning atmosphere, thus the entitlement, at the train station, on the pitch as he comes on or off. They abuse the players much the same and on social media. The vocal few spoiling it for everyone.

I am not an apologist for Wenger the manager, there is plenty of criticism to be thrown his way on a variety of issues. I am not an apologist for the players and their bad performances, which there have been plenty. But I do know you don’t achieve anything with abuse, with that abuse, you lower the standard of the club you claim to love. On the reverse side of that, abusing those that take things too far is just perpetuating the cycle of idiocy that now seems rampant. Protesting, speaking out, organizing, etc. is everyone’s right who chooses to partake in it, and done properly, with class, can be beneficial for all supporters. We as supporters, should never think we have a right to take that away from those who choose to go that route.

The situation with supporters these days has become so complex. A bit of clarity and perspective is needed. Success has bred a sense of entitlement with supporters of Arsenal. That has led to some really unfortunate circumstances recently both with those abusing and those trying to correct the abusers.

The growing pains of becoming an elite club are apparent. More trophies, bigger stadium, more success – more expectation. More expectation, more entitlement. If that entitlement can be curbed with a backwards glance at the history of the club, and the realization of just how far we’ve come under Wenger, we may be able to put out more fires than are started, because as we know too well in sport, no matter the era, there will always be those that take it too far. But unlike years prior, the modern, entitled supporter has many mediums to make themselves heard. Sometimes, too much of a good thing turns bad.

Up The Arsenal.

August 31st, 2011; Just three days after being humiliated by Manchester United 8-2 at Old Trafford, fielding a team that included Traore, Coquelin, Jenkinson, Djourou and Miquel, Özyakup, Lansbury and Sunu on the bench, Arsenal went on a Transfer Deadline Day spending spree that saw the likes of Arteta, Mertesacker, Santos and Benayoun join the club.

It was a busy summer that saw a lot of movement in and out of the club. Short term it was a step backwards, but could yet be looked upon as a turning point to better times, but I digress.

The departures that summer were big names like Cesc and Nasri and lesser names such as Clichy, Eboue and Traore. The arrivals were Jenkinson, Gervinho, Chamberlain, Park, Toral, Bellerin, Olsson, Gnabry, Campbell, Eisfeld to add to the names mentioned earlier. It was definitely a turbulent time.

I want to focus on two players that Arsenal acquired that summer and that are under scrutiny by pundits and supporters alike – Mertesacker and Arteta.

There are a multitude of positives that these two have in common. Character, professionalism, experience, an ability to “read the game”, and most importantly, what was so desperately needed at that time, in conjunction with all previously mentioned, leadership ability.

The short journey for both players has been a bit different but for me, they are both at the same point in their careers and exhibiting the same weaknesses. Let’s break it down by player.

Arteta:

Arteta isn’t a DM, holding midfielder, etc. , whatever you want to call it. That’s just a fact. He played a more forward position at Everton and was in fact a play-maker and sometimes scorer. Upon his move to Arsenal, where he took less money to play in bigger matches with a bigger club, he also took on, at 29, a more defensive role. He did it as best as could be expected given the age at which he switched positions, the demands of the position given the style of system he was thrust upon, the upheaval in personnel he had to endure and the pressure all of that entailed. In summary, the man sacrificed what was left of his career to go to a bigger club and do what they needed him to do to get on the pitch and contribute. It was utterly professional – selfless even; A rarity in sports.

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For the first 18 months, he was AN answer, just not THE answer at the position. For the last 18 months, it has been rocky, to say the least. The issue with Mikel is simple; Playing deeper, in the position he was/is asked to play, he’s being tasked with covering the back four, particularly the CB’s who are left exposed by the attacking FB’s, against players much faster and stronger than him. With his diminishing physical abilities (most noticeably pace), he simply isn’t able to do this task effectively. It was admirable to watch in the first half of his Arsenal career, the effort, the organization, the leadership, all on display, that helped us grind out results. His experience and ability to read the game allowed him to be relatively effective against most teams (top clubs excluded) and his clear passing talent allowed for some opportunities in the attacking end. It was a “bend don’t break” approach and it was OK given the transitional nature of the period. It isn’t what is needed now however, with the talent acquired by Arsenal these last few years.

Midway, since his arrival, whether it be age, the physical toll of the position or simply that the opposition knew they could – Arteta has been overrun in midfield. Where as before it was by more talented opposition, the deterioration of his physical abilities has allowed for less adroit teams to take advantage and run roughshod over the Arsenal midfield. Long story short? Arteta is getting old, is slower and has less of a motor. He was never meant to be the complete answer at that position but has been plugged in to stop a leak, but now the damn has broken – the water found a way through as it always does.

This isn’t new news, it’s been easy to see for quite some time. What was at one point admirable, is now cringe-worthy most times. There is a reason why in the last two summers there has been SOME effort to replenish the ranks at that position. I say some effort because if there was ABSOLUTE effort it would have been accomplished. Arteta can’t help getting older, getting slower and being played there despite obvious flaws for the position.

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Mertesacker:

Mertesacker had a bit of a tough transitional period after his move. The rigours of life in the EPL are immense to deal with and it showed with the big German. He was even confused by pundits with Metzelder who briefly played for Real Madrid; what’s in a name ey? Slowly but surely, he became (still is) a fixture in the side. Like Arteta, Per is a true professional that embodies all that is right in sport. Just like Arteta, Mertesacker is not exactly blessed with physical prowess, although he’s a tower of a man. Despite this, he was able to use his vast experience to be at the right place, at the right time – most times.

The similarities of the decline of their physical attributes is especially intriguing given that both arrived at the same time.

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Mertesacker is a mountain of a man, but funnily enough doesn’t use that to his advantage. He is a more technical player that uses positioning to ward off attacks. Since day one, where he has struggled has been his lack of pace and power. More physical forwards can out-muscle him and more pacey forwards can outrun him. Players that possess both attributes absolutely destroy him – Lukaku for example.

Although the above scenarios do occur, they have been offset by the dynamic pairing with Koscielny and were limited to exceptions rather than norm as the pair became better acquainted. Experience and great positioning coupled with physicality and grit – A great duo.

Yet, I am concerned with the deterioration of Mertesacker’s decision-making and positional awareness versus attackers that have one or both of the attributes mentioned before. Simply put, whereas Arteta’s decline can be attributed to physical limitations, Per’s is more mental. That’s not to say Per hasn’t “lost a step”, but never being fleet of foot before, the decline there is minimal and surely can be compensated for. The mistakes where Per misreads match situations have gone up considerably over the last months of last season and into this year. As an example, there has been much praise for Debuchy on his arrival, due to his “sweeping up” of play – coming behind attackers to dispossess them or make the final tackle to save the defence. Although some of that was with Chambers beside him at CB, some of it was also with Per there, that’s never a good sign when coming from one of Arsenal’s most experienced players.

There have been times during this period (end of last year – beginning of this year) where replays show Per knows where he needs to be and is unable to get there or something out of the ordinary happens; a fall, an off-side trap poorly executed, etc. There are also times where he is just physically outdone. Such was the case of Lukaku’s goal a couple of weeks back where, although fouled, the BFG was simply tossed aside. Is it rust? Is it a player in decline and if so, is the decline mental or physical?

Better yet, is any of this fixable?

Remember, we’re talking about Arsenal’s captain and vice-captain here, as well as a major portion of the spine of the team!

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What does this all mean?

So, after giving my take, and in the end that’s all it is, what does this all mean?

I have been waiting for Arsenal to get a proper holding midfielder for the last 6 years. It has cost the team time and again. There is a need for a player with technique, power and pace to compliment the creative talent in the side. There are players available, the funds (also available) have to be spent to acquire one!

For this position, Arteta isn’t going to suddenly get faster, stronger, meaner, etc. The physical attributes will continue to deteriorate. He is 32 going on 40. I like Arteta, I really do. I have said it time and again. He can be a squad player, he can continue to guide younger players, he is a great leader and a wonderful professional. He just shouldn’t be Arsenal’s main choice for holding midfielder. The solution is clear and has been for some time – Arsenal need to sign a holding midfielder!

For Per, I have a lasting hope that he can improve on his present form. The BFG just needs to be more aware of his surroundings and adjust for the opposition faced. There needs to be better communication across that back four and the team in general. The mistakes have gone up, yet hopefully can be curtailed as the season progresses and the partnerships with new players grow. The need for Arsenal to address proper CB cover is still an issue with or without Per’s issues or improvement.

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Football is a funny game. Nothing happens as you think it might. On that August in 2011 when Arsenal went “bargain shopping” as some called it, to fix the many issues at the time, the club ended up with these two players that brought stability, professionalism, pride, work ethic and class when it was sorely needed and missing. They have been the embodiment of professionalism ever since and I don’t think you could find anyone associated with the club that could speak ill of either player.

But this is sport, sentimentality is in short supply. Football teams and players are in the business of entertainment, results, and money. Will Arsenal do what they must to take that next step? Or will we as supporters be having these same discussions next September? Questions about how the summer was a missed opportunity to get on even footing with the elite? Time will tell.

For me, it’s clear what needs to happen as I’m sure it is with you. Will it happen is another thing altogether. Those decisions are left to those that know better than us.

They do, you know – “know better than us”, that’s what’s so frustrating.

Up the Arsenal!

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