So, as everyone really knew, but many pretended they didn’t, football wasn’t ‘coming home’ (as if!).
Unless you are French – which a majority of us at Daily Cannon called before the tournament, largely due to the sheer quality of the squad at the manager’s disposal, in all positions.
In the semi-final against England, Croatia showed better fitness, more polished technique (in midfield at least), greater experience and ultimately more strength of character and concentration in the key moments.
It would be easy to say that England’s semi-final performance was ‘a bit Spursy’ in terms of looking good until the pressure bites, but ultimately, this was an average group of players with fairly obvious weaknesses over-achieving due to a favourable draw and a good fit of a manager.
Some players like Pickford, Maguire, and Trippier showed greater ability than we expected, but most performed at about their level throughout the tournament, with John Stones sadly making his customary mistake in extra-time of the semi-final having been excellent all game up to that point and for most of the tournament. Ultimately you look at the England squad, and it’s an ill-balanced and technically average mess that Gareth Southgate created a system, a style and a focus for that maximised its strengths and diminished its weaknesses.
The semi-final was proof that England miss a Luka Modric like ‘the deserts miss the rain’. That said, the diminutive playmaker winning the golden ball suggests that most teams would have benefitted from his contribution to varying degrees. While Jordan Henderson probably exceeded expectations as a deep-lying playmaker, particularly given his injury problems of late, one cannot really suggest this has been an area of strength for England in recent times.
This is the first link between the England team and Arsenal.
At 17, the now dearly departed Jack the lad looked like he could be that multi-faceted creative midfield player for Arsenal and England. A brilliant natural talent with the touch, eye, and mind for possession football, he was never afforded sufficient protection by officials or himself. A few too many ill-advised tackles from himself and games of being kicked from pillar to post with official blind eyes turned, and ‘the next Liam Brady’ is a shadow of what he was, let alone what we hoped he could be. So rather than captaining Arsenal and being that missing piece for England, he’s been allowed to leave his boyhood club for his other boyhood club on a free transfer and watched the World Cup on TV like the rest of us.
However, rather than embarking on a rant about British officiating, training methods and the continued stone-age view of VAR in the UK, time is better spent looking forwards and learning from elsewhere.
Many reading this might find linking Arsenal’s first team squad to England’s as a bit of a stretch, given that the last decade has seen Arsenal’s cup run over in terms of technique, whilst having fallow fields when it comes to tactical clarity and maximising talent.
But those major differences are exactly why it’s useful to see what England did well and where they failed.
The greatest strengths of this England team have been meshing logical tactical consistency with flexibility, creating a slightly non-traditional system and positional use of players to maximise their overall effectiveness as a unit, and making the most of set-pieces. All of which come from the coach. And all of which have been notable by their absence for much of the second half of the Wenger years.
We know that Unai Emery is a much more detail orientated coach than the brilliant polymath that shaped almost every aspect of our club for two decades. We also know that when given a free reign he has shown good tactical flexibility within games. What we don’t know is how flexible he is about systems, in terms of adapting his preferred set up to fit the strengths and weaknesses of the players at his disposal.
We saw a deviation from his preferred set up at PSG, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that certain players were calling the shots rather more than the coach, and notably, their best performances in big games came in his preferred tactical shape.
The other question mark is about set-pieces; for years Wenger’s Achilles heel, but actually very effective in an attacking sense last year, with Arsenal the second most effective in the Premier League at scoring from dead ball situations (and near the best defensively). Unai Emery has traditionally prepared these extensively, but by his own admission did so a little less at PSG last season due to the excellent delivery and improvisational talent of Neymar. The question is, can Arsenal regain their pre-Wenger tradition of maximising set-piece opportunities while remaining miserly in defensive situations as a consistent theme. Certainly, England’s progression, and the World Cup as a whole (see Umtiti’s semi-final winner and the first two goals of the final) have shown how important this is even for the biggest teams, quite apart from the Stoke City’s of this world. And of course, as illustrated by Kieran Trippier of all people, this applies as much to direct free-kicks, an area where Arsenal have been woefully lacking in recent years.
Looking at other tournament positives for England, there was a unity and togetherness of the squad that led to a unity of endeavour and focus. A major reason for the groundswell of support for this England team was that despite their comparative mediocrity, they worked their guts out for each other, the system and the manager. This was partly evidenced by how well they started games on the whole, and how many chances they created from a losing position against a strong Belgium team in the 3rd place playoff.
This, clearly, has been an issue for Arsenal squads in recent years. Workrate, motivation, unity of intent and starting games with the right intensity have all been alarmingly lacking at times in North London in recent years. This has equally been the case when responding to adversity against superior opponents.
Despite the difficulties of keeping those star names accustomed to strolling through most Ligue 1 games fully focused when in Paris, Emery’s Sevilla and Valencia squads were recognised for their unity, work-rate, and commitment to the cause and each other. Accordingly, this seems like a lesson more for the Arsenal players than the management. That said, Emery confessed that he sometimes struggled to keep the squad switched on in Paris, and his time in Seville was characterised by periods of domestic inconsistency, so he needs to develop greater variety and excitement in his methods in order to keep players engaged. The hope is that the contrast in his approach to that of his predecessor will be half of the battle in this case.
Despite all this, however, we all know that the England team had several glaring and obvious flaws, which were always going to be exposed at some point – most evidently in terms of personnel. Where Didier Deschamps had such alarming depth he could omit the likes of Lacazette from the squad, and Germany felt they could ignore Leroy Sane, England were umming-and-aahing for months about the prospect of utilising Jake Livermore.
In terms of comparative technique levels, the Arsenal squad is light years ahead of the England team, but it has shared some of the same weaknesses.
England had no left-footed set-piece takers; Arsenal have had no right footed ones for a while. England’s long passing was often optimistic rather than penetrating, and while Granit Xhaka is excellent at spreading the play, we haven’t had a convincing executor of longer through balls since Santi first started getting twinges in his Achilles, or perhaps since Fabregas succumbed to his Barca DNA.
Elsewhere, England were tactically limited by a lack of legs in midfield, Lindgard apart; Xhaka, Ramsey, Elneny and, until recently, Wilshere aren’t known for their pace or acceleration. England also suffered from a lack of attacking authentic wide men, which really limited their tactical options, a problem that has been raised repeatedly in relation to Arsenal in recent years.
Looking beyond positional, physical or technical limitations, England’s naivety and lack of winning experience were both nearly exposed against Colombia and badly shown up against a Croatia team of hardened top-level winners.
In comparison, many of the current Arsenal players, particularly in terms of last season’s transfer business, are nearer the end of their careers than the start. But there isn’t much absolute top level ‘winningness’ there, let alone the merest hint of cynicism or win at all costs shit-housery.
Of course, Ozil has won a World Cup (there’s another topic for discussion), but while a creative force par excellence, he is not a driver of a team on a regular basis, or a character to drag others through adversity. The only other Arsenal player last season with a proven record of winning prizes beyond the FA Cup is Petr Cech, who, while undoubtedly in possession of fantastic character, and by all appearances is a great human being, is clearly on the downward curve of his career parabola.
Beyond that – not so much.
We also know full well that Wenger’s latter squads, in contrast to his earlier ones, were characterised by being very ‘nice’. Off the pitch and on it. While a more effective player than his critics have oft given him credit for, the sight of Theo Walcott leading the team out with the captain’s armband hardly inspired confidence or left the opposition quaking in their boots.
Much to the surprise of everyone who regularly watches the Premier League, this England team managed to be far too nice as well. To show the impact of Southgate’s character, Dele Ali didn’t dive, leave his studs in or give a snide dig to an opponent once in this tournament. I’m not suggesting this behaviour should be encouraged, but the line between trying to ‘win in the right way’ and not displaying the level of aggression needed is a fine one to walk along.
Looking beyond England, the best teams in this tournament had strong, mobile and hard working spines to their team, something that has been lacking at Arsenal for a while. Both finalists have exceptionally mobile central midfielders, and despite very different styles, both teams had very impressive effort levels consistently throughout the tournament. Croatia in particular consistently demonstrated a level of application, especially in the face of adversity that can only have added to the pride of their vociferous fans.
It would be easy enough for even a casual observer to see the contrast with the Arsenal teams of recent years, where the spine of the team has often been ill-balanced, immobile and guilty of wilting under pressure.
So, how do Arsenal’s transfer dealings stack up against the clear lessons to be learned in this World Cup, particularly from an Anglo-centric perspective?
Unsurprisingly, a significant focus has been on the team’s spine, and more broadly on positional need over reputation.
Since the ‘catalyst for change’ triumvirate (Sven, Ivan, and Raul) first came together in January, Arsenal have signed six spinal players: A striker, a number 10 who can play wide, two defensive central midfielders, a centre-back and a goalkeeper. Which pretty much reflects most Arsenal fans’ wish list for the last couple of years.
Crucially all of these guys, bar Leno in goal, are mobile, and bring much needed legs to an Arsenal team that had slowly morphed into something ponderous and predictable.
While Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, officially the final signings of the Wenger years, aren’t exactly known as types for fighting in the trenches, they have already brought an upgrade in physical and technical levels, and there has been plenty to suggest already that they will be very important players over the next couple of years at least.
By contrast, the summer arrivals in Islington are rather more combative by nature.
Our non-spinal signing, Stephan Lichsteiner (filling out other glaring positional need) is a well-seasoned footballing warrior, and has been for about a decade, and at the sharp end of European football. Team-mates speak of his fighting spirit in glowing terms, opponents speak of his toughness and unrelenting approach, and even referees have commented on his pig-headedness on the pitch.
As a back-up to a younger player of great talent, he’s a great fit for what this squad needs, and hopefully he can mentor Hector Bellerin and others with greater success and selflessness than the understandably disappointed Debuchy managed.
Elsewhere, Sokratis Papastathopoulos should help to fill the gap left by Laurent Koscielny’s long-term injury, whilst also bringing some of the pace in the backline that will be lacking in the Frenchman’s absence. While not the biggest centre-back, he is certainly fairly uncompromising and no-nonsense, whilst also being a surprisingly progressive passer. It seems clear that aiding the development of countryman Konstantinos Mavropanos is a key part of his remit judging by articles and interviews on Arsenal.com.
And of course, as a player with top-flight professional experience in multiple leagues, and a good command of English, as well as good relationships with the other ex-Dortmund boys, he should in theory settle more quickly than other overseas signings might. While his signing was undoubtedly influenced by a sudden and glaring need for experience in the backline with our part-time captain retiring to academy duties and our vice-captain’s horrible Europa League injury, he brings some of that aggression and general physicality that has been all too absent. In addition, as vice-caption of Dortmund & Greece, he is used to exhibiting the leadership all too lacking form this squad.
Probably our most exciting summer arrival, however, has been that of Uruguayan pocket dynamo, Lucas Torreira. While he may not be that dominating physical hybrid of Vieira, Petit and Gilberto that is the wet dream of defensive midfield possibilities, he brings a skillset that is genuinely new to the Arsenal squad.
At 5”6 and only about 10 stones in weight, he is hardly the traditional midfield destroyer, and couldn’t be much more different to the perennially linked, ex-Emery favourite Steven Nzonzi. However, as N’Golo Kante has proved in the Premier League, and now in the World Cup, mobility, positional intelligence, and quick recycling of possession can trump a larger stature in most situations.
In recent years, our holding or more defensive midfield options have all been specialists rather than multi-functional players, leading to some idiosyncratic combinations, in which each player was heavily reliant on the attributes of their partner. Granit Xhaka is excellent at distributing from deep and scoring the odd long-range belter, but his defensive awareness and recovery pace are clear areas of weakness, despite improvements in the second half of 2017/18. On the other hand, Francis Coquelin was a dynamic, all-action ball-winner, but despite a great partnership with Santi Cazorla, never developed the technical gifts to flourish in the Spaniard’s absence. Similarly, Matthieu Flamini, who was a player that looked really effective alongside the genius of peak Fabregas, but was exposed without him, particularly as injuries took their toll in his second spell at the club. At the other end of the spectrum, we had Mikel Arteta, who for Arsenal was largely a right footed Xhaka with a little more game intelligence.
The closest Arsenal have had to a midfield all-rounder since Abou Diaby’s renaissance in a deeper midfield role was cut short by injury has been Mohammed Elneny. The Egyptian can never be faulted for his work-rate or willingness to fulfil whatever tactical role is asked of him, but is such an all-rounder that he almost seems a bit diluted. While I have no doubt he is willing to work hard enough to develop himself as much as he can, he seems a player always destined to fill in here and there as required, rather than ever pinning down a role. That said, his flexibility may get him more game time under Unai Emery, for whom positional rotation is more of a theme than under Arsene Wenger. Much for him will depend on the development of Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Torreira, however, is a true possession style holding midfielder. He certainly possesses a level of ‘garra’ (the Uruguayan term for a combination of grit, guts and a degree of cynicism) far too absent at Arsenal in recent years. Equally importantly, ex-coaches and observers constantly point to a combination of technique, determination and tactical intelligence that marks him out as ideal for the role he has fulfilled for club and country. According to Marcello Donatelli, Pescara’s assistant manager during the club’s promotion season in 2015/16 when Torreira first really emerged, “After Sergio Busquets, he is tactically the strongest midfielder in Europe.”
High praise indeed. But tactical intelligence without the capacity to apply it on the pitch makes for a better coach than a player, so what of the rest of his game? Having started out as a striker and later an attacking midfielder, his playmaking and ball striking have long been strengths to his game, and when former world cup winning defender Massimo Oddo shifted him to a deeper role, he didn’t lose any of his ability for penetrating passes or long-range shooting, and he has performed as an effective fulcrum in a variety of tactical set-ups.
Elsewhere, his acceleration and low centre of gravity are reminiscent of Kante and allowed him to make the 3rd most tackles and 6th most interceptions in Serie A last year, with totals not seen at Arsenal since the Invincibles. Accordingly, he is also very effective at pressing the opposition, which should afford Unai Emery greater tactical options in his deployment.
Another string to his bow, which bar Granit Xhaka has been rather lacking in Arsenal’s midfield, is his durability. Hardened by the archetypal South American tough childhood, and a testing transition to Europe, including playing through injury to get his chance, he has missed only 5 league matches in the last two seasons, despite his combative style.
On top of all this, Torreira is also mean set-piece taker, with excellent delivery from wide areas (as evidenced in the World Cup), and with some eye-catching direct free-kicks for Sampdoria, including a 40 yarder into the top corner that has been circulating around all kinds of YouTube videos.
The upshot of all this is that our new Uruguayan, although usually deployed in a holding role, can flourish with multiple partners in a 4-2-3-1, whilst seamlessly flourishing in the 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 formations he has usually played in.
Added to this, Arsenal have also recruited Mattéo Guendouzi as another option for central midfield, who provides a further variation on our defensive and box-to-box midfield options.
The ex-Lorient man obviously has a far less developed footballing CV than our other arrivals, a fact not helped by being frozen out after an argument with the manager and then again when he refused to extend his contract beyond 2019. I can’t claim to have seen much beyond you-tube compilations and scouting reports, but a combination of the two and stats would suggest he is combative midfielder with an eye for a pass and calmness under pressure. At 6”1 he is rather closer to the traditional stature of a defensive midfielder, but his record in aerial battles isn’t impressive, and he is more of an interceptor and reader of the game than a tackler. Indeed it is his technical ability and long passing that are cited as his greatest strengths. Crucially, as is the theme of most of our recent signings, he possesses good mobility and can get around the pitch well.
Lastly, we have Bernd Leno from Bayer Leverkusen. The World Cup certainly highlighted the importance of good goalkeeping, with genuine competition for the golden glove award, and it is an area that hasn’t filled Arsenal fans with confidence over the last two seasons. Petr Cech has the track record and the stature, but mistakes have crept into his game, and Ospina has never given the impression of being a plausible first choice keeper at a top club. So, is the German the man to solve our problems?
At 7 cm taller than Ospina, he will probably inspire more confidence on crosses than the Colombian, and with 270 Bundesliga and Champions League games under his belt, he certainly doesn’t lack experience despite being only 26. Opinion however is divided. Some see him as a wonderfully gifted goalkeeper with the tools to reach an elite level, others see him as a goalkeeper who makes too many stupid errors. As ever the truth lies in between. He has made less mistakes leading to goals in the last two seasons than Cech did in 17/18 alone, but a couple of errors for Germany in the confederations cup (in a game they won) in 2017 seemed to damage his reputation in Germany. He’s been voted the Bundesliga’s best keeper twice in his career – no mean feat given the competition – but the feeling was that he needed a change of scenery to fulfill the potential he showed as a young goalkeeper, and regain the confidence that seemed to slightly depart following those mistakes for the national team.
One thing he definitely brings to the table, again highlighted in the World Cup and lacking at Arsenal in recent years, is penalty saving. He earned the nickname ‘penalty killer’ in 2013/14, saving 6 across the season. From then on until this last season, though, the fortunes of Leno and his team took a bit of a downward turn, as a side used to possession football and building up from the back suddenly became much more gung-ho under new manager Roger Schmidt, and Leno’s comments suggest that his own form was affected at that time, probably due to the almost total lack of specialist goalkeeping training taking place at Leverkusen at the time. Given that the flaws in this area of activity at Arsenal have finally been addressed, hopefully Leno can re-discover the consistency and confidence of his earlier career.
The great advantage he has is that with Petr Cech as both competition and mentor, the German is not under pressure to adapt to the Premier League overnight, and for the first time since he was kid training with Jens Lehmann, he can learn from and compete with someone with the stature and mentality of a top-level goalkeeper.
So far, and unsurprisingly given the squad’s weaknesses and last season’s signing, the incoming players have all had a defensive focus. The World Cup reinforced that age-old truth that winning trophies invariable requires a strong backline. While relatively understated, the excellent defensive partnership of Varane and Umtiti, and the protection in front of them was probably more key to Les Blues triumphant performance than the electric performances of Mbappe or Griezmann’s ability for big moments. It was certainly the difference between them and Belgium’s golden generation and crucially allowed them to approach games differently depending on their opponents.
At Arsenal, the problem has been both systemic and personnel based, and the hope has to be that augmenting the personnel can only help the tactical and training changes implemented by the new manager. Certainly, investing in players that bring physicality, energy, aggression, tactical intelligence and mobility can only help address the problems shared by Arsenal and England, and the hope is that Torreira’s dead ball proficiency can also help the club address on of its other weaknesses, illustrated again by the world cup to be so often the difference between winning and losing in tight games.
Interestingly, in press conferences, the manager has clearly left the door ajar for another potential arrival, even if it is clearly less of a priority than those signings already made. Even beyond the slightly curious Andre Gomes insurance policy (against Ramsey not signing a new contract) rumours, the club are repeatedly linked with a particular profile of signing to finish off our summer business. That being a clear area of weakness that again is a commonality between Arsenal and England, and the value of which was benefitted from by both finalists – a pacy, direct winger with dribbling ability and a goal threat.
The closest we currently have at the Emirates is Aubameyang, and he is clearly a striker who can score goals from wider positions due to his pace and finishing, but he isn’t really an authentic winger who can beat players. To varying degrees, one can say the same for Danny Welbeck and Lucas Perez, and both Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are attacking midfielders who can play wide.
More optimistic stories have linked us to new world cup winner Ousmane Dembele, for whom the price tag would surely be prohibitive, but other more plausible options have been discussed. Kingsly Coman from Bayern would certainly fit the profile, but given their financial strength, this wouldn’t be a cheap option, with figures of €50m being quoted. Christian Pavon is another who has been linked for a while after a brilliant season for Boca in Argentina. And of course, the legal uncertainty around Gelson Martins and his on-off move to Athletico Madrid may yet re-open that door.
Either way, if Arsenal can bring in a genuine wide-man on top of the business already concluded, I think all realistic fans can only view this as a very successful and efficient transfer window, and one that addresses long-standing concerns and lessons learned during Russia 2018.