This advice to Arsenal comes from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
It refers to the idea that one must take a step back and engage in different forms of self-renewal before growth can occur. In the literal sense, in order to most efficiently cut down a tree, you should take time to ‘sharpen the saw’ to ensure it’s working at its optimum.
This advice seems so obvious but is difficult for individuals and organisations to integrate. We are all so wrapped up in the here and now’ and an immediate sense of accomplishment that it feels as if we are wasting time if we take a step back.
It’s why people visit psychologists; Why Businessmen go to professional conferences; Why teachers engage in professional development; Why self-help books are readily consumed; Why we take vacations to get away from life’s stressors. Both personal and organisational betterment result from thinking differently and stepping out of a comfort zone.
Arsenal Football Club is at a crossroads.
It’s time for the entire organisation to take a step back and ‘sharpen the saw’ in order to progress. The transitional period we are about to embark on will have major ramifications for years to come. Will we continue to stress entertaining, attacking football? Will we delegate responsibility more evenly throughout the organisation? Will we start to seriously challenge for titles again or fall to Europa League-type levels?
We see change on the horizon.
The Arsenal fanbase is intelligent and well-informed. Even the most positive of which now see deep-rooted structural and philosophical flaws that permeate from top to bottom. This piece won’t mention our manager. The club is bigger than one man. It may be uncomfortable and enduring a few below average seasons.
Here are some ideas that Arsenal should consider in order to “sharpen the saw” and get us back to the Premier League summit.
Adopt an holistic footballing philosophy
For a little over a decade, Arsenal has become synonymous with free-flowing, possession-based, attacking football. This ‘on the ball’ excellence has so become a part of our ethos that we struggle when forced to play in a different style. Tactical flexibility is vital against the best clubs in the world. Our performances against Man City, Chelsea, and Bayern are evidence that when forced away from our attacking identity, we struggle to excel for extended periods. You can go back to most big games over the last decade and see the same narrative.
It’s time to be more holistic and play in a variety of different ways. The meaningful commitment and drilling of different styles means we can adopt different approaches for different games as well as make in-game adjustments. We are a possession-centric team but let’s have it in our locker to play counter-attacking, expansive, and pressing styles as well.
Take an expansive playing style for example. It’s a common criticism we that play a far too narrow and centralised game. The best way to allow for creativity and individual brilliance is by expanding space. Ozil has spent most of this season attempting to find space in a system that has very little. As a result, he is criticised due to lack of involvement. Bayern played with such width against us on Wednesday that, despite employing 2 banks of 4 behind the ball, still had space to exploit and get in to playmakers. Their fullbacks and wingers still have chalk on their heels from collecting on the touchline and assessing interplay options from wide areas.
Give clearly defined roles based on tactical approach
One value our club promotes is individual creativity and freedom while players cultivate their own on-pitch relationships with teammates. This is often an area of praise for our football club, but I struggle to think of recent major trophy-winning football sides that have not given players clearly defined roles.
Football’s changing landscape over the last decade has placed clubs on a more level playing field. Sports science, advanced analytics, and scouting networks mean tactical approach and man-management are vital to obtain a competitive advantage.
I hope to see more man-management from Arsenal going forward. If we want to play with width, let’s drill Iwobi to stay wide instead of coming inside as is his default intention. He’s proven he can dribble by opponents on the flank just as well as he can engage in quick, centralised passing interplay. If we want to press high, let’s get players on the same page when doing so. Theo Walcott doesn’t need to be strong in the tackle to harass and harry opponents and channel play to different areas of the pitch. Let’s drill players defensively to maintain distances and keep shape off the ball so we can hit teams at pace with a Walcott or Welbeck on the counter. All of these approaches are not possible without a dedicated and meaningful drilling of player responsibility.
Cater to player strengths
Who in our current squad and system do we put in a position that brings out their best? I would argue only Alexis, Cazorla, and Bellerin. Last year it was Ozil given license to roam into the soft spots between the opponent’s midfield and back four. This year it’s Sanchez wanting to be involved in most everything and occupying these areas more. As a result, Alexis’ goals, assists, and chances created have skyrocketed while Ozil has only seen an increase in goals scored.
With the exception of Cazorla, we have a group of midfielders that would be best utilised in a midfield three. Xhaka, whom I see as the future lynchpin and creative catalyst, cannot cover distances well enough in a two. He should be the deepest lying midfielder in a three with support to his left and right.
We have a team full of internationals, many of which in the prime of their career that have flourished for country but not always with club. We saw Giroud in the Euro’s combine well with the attacking flair around him. We saw Ramsey thrive in his role with Wales in the same competition. Ozil was given a freer role against lesser opposition and a clearly defined wing role against top sides on route to winning the ‘14 World Cup. When healthy, Elneny put in industrious performances for Egypt with some clinical finishing to boot in AFCON.
Make amends with the fans
I am of the belief that Arsenal haven’t owned their size since ‘06. That being said, we are still a massive club due to our tradition and support throughout the years. The fans are the lifeblood behind our club, yet Arsenal have done little to empower them in recent years. This needs to change.
The evidence is plentiful. We have a majority shareholder that rarely speaks of a passion or commitment to the club. We pay the highest season ticket prices in the world with constant increases. When wanting to stand and sing at home matches, we are told to sit. Season ticket holders are threatened with surcharges for big Champions League games despite lack of success in this competition.
There are many ways to get the majority of fans universally trusting the club again. Clearly communicated targets for success with managerial and/or board accountability if they are not met. A freeze on season ticket increases until a Premier League or Champions League title is won. Establishment of safe standing at the Emirates. More transparency at the board level and the recruitment of established and credited “football minds” into the club hierarchy.
It’s time for Arsenal Football Club to take a step back and re-assess their goals and ambitions.
They must “sharpen the saw” in order to own their size and have a stature akin to Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich.
The last 10 years have seen the Arsenal “saw” grow incrementally more dull; Let’s pause and refine our tool.