Arsenal wound up second in the Premier League this season just a year after finishing third. On paper, the Gunners are making progress. However, it’s an illusion because Arsenal fell out of the title race by March while Tottenham stayed in contention until May. The danger with such an illusion is that it feeds complacency.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Complacency has infected every level of the club. At the top, the owner is happy to pocket 3 million pounds every year while the club is achieving great financial results. The board is obviously on the same page as the owner. Financial sustenance and consistent performance with top-four finishes every year give them no incentive to question the manager and the squad. At the bottom, the scouting staff (yes, I’m looking at you Grimandi) still has the manager’s trust despite some poor signings in the past few years and an inability to unearth hidden gems.
From 2006 to 2013, building a competitive squad was an issue because the Gunners were losing their best players as the club had to reimburse the cost of the Emirates stadium. No manager could have done a better job than Wenger in such circumstances. Then Arsenal had more maneuvering room financially and signed Ozil in the summer of 2013, giving hope that the club could contend within a few years.
This season was an eye-opener for a lot of fans. They suddenly realized that Arsenal did not need heavy spending like Chelsea and the two Manchesters to become a contender. The two clubs that fought for the title in the final months, Leicester and Tottenham, have a smaller budget than the Gunners and spent less in the transfer market. In fact, Tottenham even made a net profit in the transfer market in the past two seasons while Arsenal made a net loss. For estimates, you can check: http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/tottenham-hotspur/transfers/verein/148/saison_id/2014 and http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/tottenham-hotspur/transfers/verein/148/saison_id/2015.
From dysfunctional to contending
Wenger was recently questioned about a possible overhaul in the summer and said that the top three sides “have not changed their team a lot.” That’s simply not true. Both Leicester and Tottenham have signed a lot of players in the past two summers to upgrade their squad. Let’s analyze how Pochettino has rebuilt Tottenham in his two seasons at the club. I’m taking Spurs as an example, first because they have the youngest squad among the top teams, and second because I think that they will be contending for the next couple of seasons while it could be a one-off for Leicester.
Spurs were a dysfunctional team during the 2013-14 season, first under Villas-Boas and then under Sherwood. At that time, Lloris was already the first-choice goalkeeper, Rose and Walker the first-choice fullbacks with Naughton and Fryers as back-ups, and Vertonghen and Dawson the regular starters at centerback with Kaboul and Chiriches as second choices. In midfield, Dembele, Paulinho and Eriksen often got the nod over Sandro, Bentaleb, Capoue and Sigurdsson. Chadli was a regular starter on the left wing while Lennon and Townsend were fighting for the spot on the right wing. Up front, Soldado was the first-choice striker with Adebayor, Lamela, Defoe and Kane desperately fighting for playing time.
If you compare with Pochettino’s best starting lineup, five changes have been made within two years. Lloris, Rose, Walker, Vertonghen, Dembele and Eriksen are still regular starters, but Alderweireld, Dier, Alli, Lamela and Kane have replaced Dawson, Paulinho, Chadli, Lennon and Soldado in the lineup.
Ruthlessly assessing a squad
Improving the team wasn’t a straightforward process for Pochettino. He signed Davies, Vorm, Dier, Yedlin, Fazio, Stambouli in his first season at Tottenham while letting Gomes, Livermore, Sigurdsson, Dawson, Sandro, Fryers, Naughton and Assou-Ekotto go. All those moves didn’t lead to a significant change in the results as Spurs only climbed to fifth place in the league from sixth under Sherwood.
In his first season, Pochettino made four changes in the starting lineup. Fazio replaced Dawson but was not a success at centerback, so Dier ended up teaming up with Vertonghen. After several loan spells, Mason came back to the club and surprisingly took Paulinho’s spot with Bentaleb and Dembele fighting for the other spot in central midfield. Lamela got the nod over Townsend and Lennon on the right wing while Kane beat Soldado and Adebayor for the striker role.
There was again a lot of activity in the transfer market for Pochettino’s second season with Alli, Wimmer, Trippier, Alderweireld, N’Jie and Son joining the squad while Paulinho, Friedel, Holtby, Capoue, Kaboul, Stambouli, Chiriches, Soldado, Townsend, Lennon and Adebayor were shipped out. Pochettino proved ruthless in the assessment of his squad as he sold Stambouli and loaned out Fazio after just a year at the club.
The Argentine manager made three changes in the starting lineup with Alderweireld replacing Dier at centerback, and Dier and Alli getting the nod over Mason and Chadli in midfield. Those moves paid off as Spurs became contenders against all odds.
Poor at both ends of the pitch
Pochettino has done a great job in a two-year span. Spurs have the tightest defense in the league this season, leaking only 35 goals compared to 53 goals the previous season. You can’t deny Pochettino’s coaching skills since Lloris, Rose, Vertonghen and Walker were already regular starters under Villas-Boas and Sherwood. The Argentine manager has only added Alderweireld to stabilize the defense.
Offensively, Pochettino was a bit lucky with the quick blossoming of Kane and Alli, but you have to give him credit for trusting youngsters and putting aside more experienced players like Soldado, Adebayor and Chadli.
When you compare Pochettino’s tremendous work with Arsenal’s inefficiency at both ends of the pitch, fans can only feel frustrated. Wenger has replaced the slow-footed Mertesacker with Paulista at centerback and the error-prone Szczesny with Ospina and then Cech in goal, but the defense is still shambolic.
Up front, we lack a reliable centerforward. Giroud and Welbeck aren’t as clinical as Kane, Vardy and Aguero. The right wing has also been an issue with Walcott’s poor work-rate, Campbell’s inconsistency and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s stagnation. The Gunners finished the season with the fourth most prolific attack in the league, scoring only 65 goals -the club’s lowest total since the 2006-07 season.
While Pochettino has rebuilt a young squad that can contend for the next couple of seasons, Wenger has relied on a declining and aging squad to finish second in the league. Here’s Pochettino’s best lineup with the age of the players for this year in parentheses: Lloris (30), Rose (26), Vertonghen (29), Alderweireld (27), Walker (26), Dier (22), Dembele (29), Eriksen (24), Alli (20), Lamela (24), Kane (23).
A massive task this summer
Lloris is the only starter who will be in his thirties this year, and 30 is a young age for a goalkeeper. Only Vertonghen and Dembele might lose a step in a couple of years. The back-up options are quite young and some still have room for improvement: Wimmer (24), Davies (23), Trippier (26), Mason (25), Bentaleb (22), Carroll (24), Chadli (27), N’Jie (23), Son (24). Pochettino has put Tottenham in such a strong position that he should only need two signings this summer: a forward to rest Kane and Lamela, and a centerback to deputize for Alderweireld.
By contrast, Wenger has a massive task on his hands this summer. Here’s Arsenal’s best lineup with the age of the players for this year in parentheses: Cech (34), Monreal (30), Koscielny (31), Mertesacker (32), Bellerin (21), Coquelin (25), Cazorla (32), Sanchez (28), Ozil (28), Ramsey (26), Giroud (30).
We have six starters in their thirties. That doesn’t bode well for the club’s future. You can lower that number to five if you consider that Paulista took Mertesacker’s spot at the end of the season. The back-up options are quite young: Gibbs (27), Chambers (21), Elneny (24), Oxlade-Chamberlain (23), Wilshere (24), Iwobi (20), Welbeck (26), Campbell (24), Walcott (27). Some can still develop but many won’t improve.
Pochettino has been very good at identifying his team’s weaknesses and finding the missing components. On the other hand, I’m not sure that Wenger has identified his team’s weaknesses. He relied on Mertesacker at the start of the season even though the German defender can’t stop counterattacks. Wenger also thought that Walcott could be a decent alternative to Giroud but Walcott proved a failure in the lone striker role.
A younger Wenger
The reason why I think the Gunners have become complacent is the contrast in attitude between Pochettino and Wenger in the offseason. Pochettino has been ruthless in clearing the dead wood, acknowledging Fazio and Stambouli were mistakes after just a year and letting old-timers like Lennon and Townsend go, while Wenger has been sentimental with Arteta and Rosicky, whose contracts were extended although they were past their prime and had fitness issues. A younger Wenger would have released Arteta and Rosicky a year ago. Will the manager be ruthless with Mertesacker and Walcott this summer or will he be too loyal again?
Pochettino has also been very active in the transfer market, always looking for possibilities to upgrade Tottenham’s squad, while Wenger has been lazy, letting his squad decline. Don’t get me wrong: Wenger works very hard for the club throughout the season, but he seems to switch off in the summer.
A year ago, Arsenal signed Cech and shipped out Podolski and Diaby. The summer of 2013 was also relatively quiet. Wenger let seven players go (Gervinho, Chamakh, Arshavin, Squillaci, Denilson, Santos and Mannone) but only signed Ozil and Flamini. Only the summer of 2014 looked like a decent year for Arsenal in the transfer market with Sanchez, Ospina, Welbeck, Chambers and Debuchy joining the club while Fabianski, Sagna, Vermaelen, Djourou, Park and Bendtner left.
When you look at Wenger’s first decade at the club, you kind of wonder whether he has mellowed in his old age. Arsenal won three Premier League titles under the French manager, and each of those titles was preceded by a relentless activity in the transfer market. The first league title came in 1998 after the club signed Vieira, Garde and Lukic in 1996 and added Anelka, Overmars, Petit, Grimandi, Upson, Boa Morte, Manninger, Mendez and Wreh in 1997 while releasing Dickov, Hillier and McGoldrick in 1996 as well as Linighan, Hartson, Morrow, Merson, Rose, Shaw, Harper and Clarke in 1997.
Finding a second wind
The Gunners had to wait until 2002 for the next league title. The club signed Ljungberg, Kanu, Diawara, Vivas, Pennant and Grondin in the 1998-99 season while Wright left and Platt retired. Arsenal then added Henry, Suker, Luzhny, Sylvinho, Malz and Volz in the 1999-2000 season while releasing Bould, Diawara, Caballero, Garde, Anelka and Boa Morte. The 2000-01 season proved quite hectic too with Wiltord, Lauren, Pires, Edu, Demel, Stepanovs and Danilevicius joining the club as Winterburn, Suker, Bothroyd, Overmars, Petit and Wreh were shipped out. Wenger found the missing components in the summer of 2001 by signing Jeffers, Van Bronckhorst, Campbell, Wright, Inamoto, Toure and Tavlaridis while letting Vivas, Lukic, Malz, Demel and Sylvinho go.
The manager did not rest on his laurels and made crucial moves to build the Invincibles. Arsenal signed Cygan, Gilberto Silva, Shaaban and Warmuz in 2002 and released Wright, Manninger, Dixon, Adams, Sidwell, Upson and Grimandi. A year later, Wenger added Lehmann, Djourou, Clichy, Fabregas and Senderos while shipping out Seaman, Luzhny, Warmuz and Barrett. My point here in listing all those names is that squad change was the norm under a younger Wenger and stability was the exception.
What Wenger does this summer will define his legacy. It won’t affect his reputation as Arsenal’s best manager of all time. Winning FA Cups and Premier League titles, finishing in the Top 4 for 20 years and helping the club reimburse the cost of a new stadium with a shrewd transfer policy are achievements that very few managers can match.
Does Wenger want to be remembered as the manager who successfully guided the club in the transition era but struggled to take Arsenal to the next level? Does he want to be remembered as the manager who left the squad in a poor shape because he was too sentimental? Or can he find a second wind to rebuild the squad and put the Gunners back into contention in a Premier League which is becoming more competitive?
That’s my last piece for this season. I’ll be back in August.