Post transfer-window, one of the arguments I saw posed by fans was that the current squad cannot win the league because the current squad hasn’t been able to do so for the last two seasons.
On paper, that makes sense. How can the same group of players, who have failed to put up a challenge for two consecutive seasons, somehow turn that around in one season?
Of course, we all know, football isn’t played on paper.
My counter-argument was that squads DO improve. Players DO improve – whether individually or collectively. I’m not talking about adding new players, though, of course, that can help or even backfire.
It’s a difficult thing to explain and I can only think of personal examples from my university days where both I and my team have felt completely out of depth versus certain opposition when playing them for the first time; but, over time, the loss versus those certain opposition turned into draws which eventually turned into wins. University squads usually don’t change too much unless there’s an overload of graduating students in a team.
For me, personally, in those particular games that we lost, it was about the opposition being quicker than us – passing and moving quicker, closing you down quicker – and that panic would also make us commit silly mistakes as committing early on the flair players. The panic was a result of not being used to it i.e. till then, most of the opposition we played weren’t as good as us, so, suddenly we were in the unfamiliar position of being on the back foot.
However, next time, because of those one or two experiences, we were a lot more aware of what we have to do how we need to play – ‘we’ is the key word because it would take an effort in all parts of the field. We would organize better to counter the pace, we figured out how to help each other out or improved ball protecting and/or passing combinations to counter the pressing.
Moreover, it’s a collective improvement; it’s a result of better understanding your team mates – knowing the positions they take up in certain situations, knowing who needs to be helped when, who likes the ball how and where, etc. Of course, the talent needs to be there as well; some players really were limited and could not improve.
So, this was the experience that helped form my argument and/or theory, so to speak.
The problem is, professional football is of a much higher level so it would be quite naïve for me to apply that theory blindly. So, I thought I’d do a little exercise to help support my theory to an extent.
Let’s take a look, primarily, at two squads in Arsenal’s history who have won trophies. The first squad is the ’71 Double winning side and the second squad is the ’02 Double winning side. Let’s have a look at the data first before I make my points. Whole squads will not be shown; rather, only players who played regularly i.e. more than 15 appearances in a season. The data has been taken from http://www.thearsenalhistory.com
’71 Double Winning Side
In 1966, Bertie Mee was appointed manager of a team that had not won a trophy since 1953 and whose league performances grew increasingly disappointing year-upon-year – 8th in ’64, 13th in ’65, 14th in ’66.
8 out of 10 outfield players played very regularly for Mee’s first three seasons. The team finished 7th in ’67, 9th in ’68 but almost won a cup, ‘4th in ’69 and almost won a cup again.
That’s virtually the same team for three consecutive seasons – they not only improved league form eventually but came close to cup glory twice.
In ‘69/70, 3-4 players were included in the regulars and the team finished 12th in the league but went on to win Inter-Cities Fairs Cup aka UEFA Cup later on. Was the lowly league finish due to the Cup run or the new players brought in? Or both?
The ’71 Double winning side consisted of almost full season appearances by the 7 out of the 8 mentioned above players. The 3-4 players who were relatively regular the season before made more appearances in ‘70/71. Imagine that though, the same squad finishes 12th the season before whilst winning a European honour then goes onto win the Double the next season!
The same core squad minus Samuels but plus Alan Ball, finished 5th the following season! In the Arsenal History documentary McLintock speaks of players relaxing after the Double win and not being as serious as they used to be. Plausible?
The same core squad then went on to challenge again and finish 2nd in ’73 though one or two of the regulars can be deemed to have played relatively less than in previous seasons.
Graham and McLintock left the club at the end of the ’73 season; leaving 5 of the 8 players mentioned at the start of this section. The team finished 10th at the end of the ‘73/74 season; that’s a big drop!
Before I try to figure out if any of this means anything, let’s take a look at the Double winning side of ’02.
’02 Double Winning Side
The ’02 Double winning side is a slightly different story.
Arsenal finished 2nd two seasons in a row – ‘99/00 and ‘00/01. You can include ‘98/99 as well if you want; the squad was changing so I did not include that year.
In fact, I have excluded Overmars, Petit, and Winterburn from the ‘99/00 squad as they were to leave at the end of that season hence having little bearing on the outcome of ’02.
11 outfield players were ever present during ‘99/00 – players who made more than 20 appearances. That number became 13 for ‘00/01 as Pires and Wiltord joined the ranks. Players like Ashley Cole and Lauren also started making regular appearances as well. Arsenal reached the FA Cup Final that season whilst finishing second.
‘01/02 saw the arrival of Sol Campbell. Club legends Adams and Dixon played enough games to ensure they get a medal; the former replaced by Campbell while the latter was replaced by Lauren. Ashley Cole became a regular that season as well. Once again, 13 players made more than 20 appearances that season. Two out of the thirteen from the previous season were replaced by two very able players.
I won’t go into details for the seasons that followed but it might be worth noting that 9 outfield players that won the double in ’02, were ever present for the Invincibles season as well – 8 of those 9 were together since ’00/01. Again, that’s almost the same team competing season after season.
So, What Does All This Mean?
It can mean several things from the manager matters to talent matters to how competitive the league was at the time matters!
However, one cannot deny that these teams made progress. In the case of the ’71 squad, it took them longer than Wenger’s sides. Either way, a consistent core of players went on to achieve.
Wenger’s side went through quite a makeover post-2005 but even then a consistent core formed and almost delivered the league in ’08.
These two squads are an example of how cohesion develops.
Implications for the Current Set Up
The current squad has a core of players that have been together for at least three seasons now. Injuries have hampered a cohesive progress – players playing in different positions, some players never having played together much [read: Ozil and Theo]. Nevertheless, there are also players on the outskirts who can make contributions during the season – as with previous squads.
I believe we have the talent but also believe three seasons should be enough for the players to develop an understanding. Consistent top 4 finishes and 2 FA Cups is a move in the right direction but a title push is rightly expected this season – new signings or no new signings.
I guess my whole point was that the argument of the current squad not being good enough to challenge because they haven’t been able to do so till now, is a myopic view of things. I understand I could have strengthened my case with examples of other teams but I wanted to keep this relatively short!
Anyway, we’re actually quite lucky that we haven’t had major departures in the last three seasons otherwise it could have hampered the development of a cohesive unit. Yes, so far this season the team has looked anything but a cohesive unit and I really can’t offer an explanation for it; especially after the showing in the second half of last season. I can offer an explanation for lack of goals so far; you can read my own piece here or fellow blogger @AFCBVB1410’s piece here.
I’ll end this by saying keep the faith; this squad just might surprise us, COYG!