Arsenal’s Pre-Season Cohesion
Arsenal is approaching the 2015-16 Premier League campaign with a sense of calm.
Unlike the disquiet bordering on panic that has characterized some recent summers, the club’s representatives and most supporters seem comfortable and content. The main sources of this feeling are the continuity in the playing squad and the clear camaraderie that exists among the players.
We saw that spirit on Arsenal’s successful visit to Singapore for the Barclays Asia Trophy. Its most striking expression came in the hotel swimming pool, where Santi Cazorla completed 14 headers in a row with encircled teammates. Here’s the video. That’s genuine glee among individuals who enjoy each others’ company.
The chemistry is also evident in the statements players are making to the media. In an interview after soon after his arrival, goalkeeper Petr Cech, who has participated in many teams, emphasized the camaraderie. “I’ve only been here a few days, but I can feel the team is together,” he told the club Website.
What’s more, Cech seemed to draw an implicit contrast between this Arsenal team and his previous club Chelsea when he said, “I found that the team spirit is extraordinary in the way that everybody pulls in the same direction.” One interpretation of this observation is that even in Chelsea’s title- and Champions League-winning sides, he hadn’t experienced this quality.
That will surely encourage manager Arsène Wenger, who has placed a clear priority on common understanding and togetherness. In almost every interview of the pre-season, Wenger has emphasized the point. For example, after watching his team score six goals against Lyon in the Emirates Cup, he noted, “We have more cohesion than at the same period last year,” when the World Cup, multiple acquisitions, and injuries hampered development of the collective.
He had also identified this dynamic very soon after the team assembled in July, observing after its victory over Everton in Singapore, “It’s very satisfying, and it look like everybody shares the way we see the game.”
Early evidence on the pitch
Many will point to Arsenal’s demolition of Lyon as proof of this vision in action, and, indeed, the 10-minute first-half period in which Arsenal scored four goals featured some scintillating signs. Three of those goals came from free-flowing offensive moves that required precise passing, knowledgeable positioning, and common understanding.
That followed the fine display against Everton a week earlier and half a world away. During the Barclays Asia Trophy final, Arsenal befuddled and exhausted its Premier League counterparts with sustained movement, control, and passing that usually happen only with a team on the same wavelength.
Although these pre-season offensive displays have caught the eye, the defensive performances have been just as encouraging. Arsenal have conceded just one goal in four matches and displayed both solidity and flexibility in the most recent match against Wolfsburg.
The first half of that encounter was particularly interesting because Arsenal did not dominate possession and weave its passing around Wolfsburg. Instead, the group maintained its collective defensive positioning and generally forced the opponents into wide areas. From there, Wolfsburg did serve up some crosses, but the Arsenal defense ably dealt with all but one of those, which reached former Arsenal man Nicklas Bendtner at an awkward height in front of goal.
A notable aspect of this performance, for me, was that it came after Wenger had completely changed the team’s back five. The group of Cech, Hector Bellerin at right back, center backs Calum Chambers and Gabriel, and left back Nacho Monreal had never played together before.
What this signals for the League campaign
Granted, we shouldn’t read too much into pre-season performances, tactics, or personnel combinations. Fitness is the priority.
The strengthening of collective understanding is promising, though, because it’s enhancing the players’ confidence and self-image as real title contenders. Captain Mikel Arteta: “We have been together a while now, and we have this belief now that we are capable of achieving something important. It took time to build this cohesion, this momentum.” (Arsenal.com)
The year-to-year continuity of the playing staff and its sense of togetherness are vital because Arsenal face the stark correlation between expenditures on wages and transfers and final league position, a relationship favoring Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United. For this reason, Wenger, his staff, and the players must get the intangibles exactly right. Those include player relationships, a relatively clean bill of health, immediate responses to setbacks, and better performances against opposition in the top half of the table. (See “Arsenal’s Title Ambitions” for a more extensive examination.)
In other words, the chemistry and understanding we’ve seen so far are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for an Arsenal title challenge. If fortune and other factors favor the Gunners, there’s a real possibility of a title challenge, by which I mean leading the league or trailing the leaders by less than six points as April arrives.
If those conditions don’t fall into place, though, Arsenal may well fall short. That’s just the reality of the connection between finances and success.
We should accept this as a plausible, though not inevitable, potential outcome; it needn’t be a result of poor planning, transfer errors or oversights, player apathy, or failed chemistry. Setting the expectation in this way will make Arsenal’s accomplishment that much more satisfying.