Helen Trantum tries to understand if Arsenal’s lack of players combinations lies at heart of many poor performances this season.
Arsene Wenger has never cared much for individuals.
I don’t mean that he doesn’t care about his players as people – nothing could be further from the truth – I mean that for our Frenchman team interplay comes far ahead of individual skill on his scale of importance.
So if team interplay is so very much the lifeblood of the Arsenal we’ve seen for the last 20 years, it’s perhaps of little surprise that we’re struggling to convert good spells into extended periods of success when we seem to have lost our best player combinations.
Yes, there’s the “Iwelbi”, a partnership which is much too far in its infancy to truly count, but beyond that it’s a struggle to think of a pairing in this Arsenal side – in any area of the pitch – where the understanding is almost animal in nature.
Take Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
They pass to each other a lot, and are often found playing tippy-tappy football on the left wing. However, there is nothing subconscious or learned about their interplay.
Although they look for each other as if they acknowledge that they are the two standout players needed to make something happen when the going gets tough, I’d argue that it’s all very perfunctory and deliberate.
That means the half-second jump you get on defences from an innate understanding is missing.
Long-time readers will know that it’s a particular bugbear of mine that we don’t play enough long balls, whether over the top or slicing through enemy centre backs, in the way that has been oh so very successful for Leicester this season.
Part of that is team strategy no doubt, but some of it also boils down to those important combinations.
If I asked you to name the player who has the best understanding with our England international, you might be at a loss.
So I took an element of subjectivity out of it and looked at the statistics thanks to Julien Assuncao over at cotestats.fr.
Walcott’s 45 Premier League goals since the 2010-11 season have been assisted by 19 different players, and only two have contributed more than three of those assists: Robin van Persie (obviously dead to the idea of Arsenal combinations) takes second place with five, and then there’s the man who is top of the pile with nine, almost double anyone else…Santi Cazorla.
This may feel slightly counter-intuitive in light of Santi’s more withdrawn role in the last couple of seasons, yet the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.
Walcott has pace to burn, and the best way to maximise the benefits is to play the ball early and fast, on the basis that ball can travel faster than man, and Walcott can travel much faster than his opponent.
That means playing the pass quickly and from deep, a skill which Cazorla possesses unparalleled by any other within the current Arsenal squad.
Little surprise, then, that Walcott hasn’t turned in the same kind of return as previous seasons when his chief provider has spent a large spell on the sidelines, coinciding pretty well with Walcott’s own terrible run of form.
In fact, if you take Santi out of the numbers, only 11 of Theo’s goals were assisted by current first team players who’ve actually played a handful of games this year.
Ozil and Giroud have three apiece, Ramsey two and Gibbs, Campbell and the Ox a solitary Walcott assist.
Back it up
It’s not just in attack where we’ve struggled for the right combinations either.
If you look at the minutes played by the top centre back pairings in the league, Morgan and Huth have played a combined 5,850 minutes, and Alderweireld and Vertonghen have played 5,114 in spite of the latter’s injury.
Meanwhile, our most minuted pairing contributes 4,123 minutes.
All three of our main centre backs have played in excess of 1,400 minutes, largely because of form rather than injury. That’s before you take into account that they have, at times, been swapped in and out, game-to-game, rather than just starting a new partnership following a long-term injury as Alderweireld had to do with Wimmer.
The stability and understanding that a regular combination brings has been so sorely lacking.
There is no easy answer of course.
A side fighting in as many competitions as Arsenal has an unarguable need to rotate, and getting the balance right while doing so is difficult.
However, it seems to me that our very style of play, relying on the intelligence of players rather than a fixed formula, ought to increase resilience to loss of personnel.
Yet in reality it seems to have the opposite effect.
It seems there are two approaches that teams tend to take:
The first is to rotate more to reduce the number of long term injuries they pick up, risking inconsistency game-to-game. This is the approach Arsenal (and most of the teams in Europe) usually adopt, albeit somehow we still manage to pick up an obscene number of injuries.
The second strategy is to rotate less (or not at all, if you’re Leicester!) with better short-term success and then when the inevitable injuries do happen (or not, if you’re Leicester!) then you have to plug that hole and hope that the new solution takes shape quickly.
If you look at both sides above us in the table, you could name their first choice XI with very little debate, yet when it comes to Arsenal most of us would be hard pushed to agree our strongest team.
I have a season ticket, watch each and every game, and write recreationally and obsessively about the club. Yet I’m not sure I could even come to a landing on it by myself, let alone agree with anyone else on the matter!
Perhaps it’s time we gave the second approach a go instead, since the first strategy hasn’t worked so well for us! After all, if it means that we find some understanding across the pitch from playing a consistent team then that will surely only benefit us.
Leicester have proven this year, as Chelsea did last, there’s no guarantee at all that the injuries will come if you rely on a very small number of players.
If we can get our most dangerous players performing with consistency, and more importantly together, then we’ll have cracked the combination code.
Who knows what treasures that will unlock?