Transfers Aren't The Only Way To Improve, As Arsenal Prove
The transfer market has become a self-sustaining industry in its own right in recent years, to the point that the SSN driven soap operahas begun to pollute football analysis somewhat. A sort of swap meet is beginning to develop with elite coaches too. As such, the transfer market is so prevalent that it is often viewed as the one and only way for a team to improve.
Whilst a very important tool for squad enhancement, with good players and competent coaching, internal improvements can blossom from the training ground and often, just from the natural development and maturity of the footballer’s character. We forget that the majority of elite level footballers are in their 20s, a time of steep personal growth. Last season, Arsenal demonstrated this rather aptly, with the emergence of players such as Francis Coquelin and Héctor Bellerin.
Olivier Giroud and Nacho Monreal’s performances moved through the gears, to supplant the sprinkle of stardust Alexis Sanchez’s arrival gave the team. Some of these improvements arrived organically, as injuries once again engulfed the Arsenal squad. The Gunners find themselves in a similar situation this year and, as the second half of the season approaches, will hope for a similar effect.
Last season, Coquelin and Bellerin came in through necessity and made themselves indispensable through their performances. Injured players in other positions, such as Olivier Giroud and Mesut Özil returned refreshed, reinvigorating the team. Arsene Wenger will hope for a comparable pattern to emerge this season. If one of Joel Campbell or Mathieu Flamini can perform beyond expectation and if a couple of Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere or Tomas Rosicky return to infuse new life into the squad, Arsenal will hope it can spark the sort of run we saw in the second half of last season.
A repeat of the form which saw Arsenal win 42 points in the second stanza of the campaign might be enough to take the league title this year. I think there are three Arsenal players in particular this season that are on upward trajectories in terms of their personal development. (Four if you include Nacho Monreal, which we ought to really). They’re arriving at different plateaus via different means, but each bears closer analysis.
At the beginning of 2015, Theo’s situation began to look ominous. He was slowly blended back into the team after a cruciate ligament injury, but after a defensive lapse contributed to Tottenham’s sickening late winner in February’s North London derby, Walcott was virtually banished from the team. He was an unused substitute on six occasions between February 10th and May 20th. But a late season hat-trick against West Brom has proved to be a significant fork in the road for Theo’s Arsenal story.
That hat-trick became a set of jump cables that reanimated his Arsenal career. He played and scored in the Cup Final as a centre forward, signed a new contract and when Olivier Giroud endured another of his bouts of melancholy at the beginning of this season, began to establish himself as a centre forward. Currently, he is charged with replacing the absent spark of Alexis Sánchez from the left. It is a task he has responded to. Certainly his curling strike against Manchester City was an “Alexis-y” moment, a breath taking strike in a big game.
Walcott has always been characterised by technical frustrations - a player just as likely to trip over his own feet or smash a cross into orbit as he is to score a goal. He remains a peripheral player, often venturing around a dozen passes in a single match. But these interventions are becoming increasingly decisive. A Walcott performance no longer typically encompasses the basic motor failures that could easily have been accompanied by comedy sound effects. He has always been a bit of a match winner, but his inclusion no longer carries the technical or physical tariff it once did.
Özil’s improvement has gathered pace since the turn of 2015. Much of this has developed quite naturally. He has been at the club for 2.5 years, he is becoming more accustomed to and settled in the team and he is comfortable with his status within it. He’s even begun to relish it. Physically he has bulked up and, at 27, he is entering the peak years of his career. It is a sumptuous cocktail for improvement.
In recent years, Arsenal have had productive creative players of world renown, most notably messrs Bergkamp and Fabregas. Fabregas’ great strength was to recognise the qualities in his teammates and tailor his delivery to their needs. For Walcott and Henry, measured balls into space in the channels. For Adebayor, play the ball from distance and at chest height, allowing him to isolate a centre half and bully him physically. The Spaniard created many fruitful partnerships during his time at the club because he could play to individual specification.