The new season is right around the corner and I’m excited! Apart from the fact that I will be able to watch my beloved Arsenal play almost every weekend, so many questions surrounding the adequacy of Wenger’s squad and transfer business over the summer will start finding their answers. Questions regarding his philosophy will also be settled.
That’s an interesting one; Wenger’s philosophy. What comes to your mind when Wenger’s philosophy is mentioned?
For me, till now, it was about the following:
- Style of football
- Financial prudence and self sufficiency
- Developing youth
I believe there’s another aspect to his philosophy – player empowerment.
So, another question that can be added to the list; one that is vital when judging the pros or cons of a leadership style:
Will Wenger’s preference for empowerment finally pay off?
This post will look at:
- Two contrasting leadership/management styles and their possible impact on player development [for context]
- Why Wenger’s leadership style may finally pay off
- Long-term implications if the philosophy pays off or does not
Control, Control, Control!
No, not ball control! I was tempted to term this as a dictator style of management in football but that would be slightly harsh.
A controlling style of management is simply that – controlling. The manager wants things done his way down to a T. On match day he will be barking instructions non-stop from his designated box to make sure his tactics/game plan are followed word by word.
Example? Jose Mourinho. The self-proclaimed special one has a game plan for each match and drills it into his players before a match and makes sure his players follow it during it.
A great example of Mourinho’s controlling style is from last season and I wish my memory served me better but I think this was in the 1-0 win versus Manchester United. There was a moment in the match where Azpilicueta was bombing forward, as he crossed the half-way line, Mourinho was there on the edge of his box yelling at Azpilicueta to stop and track back. You actually see the fullback cross the halfway line, stop, literally make a U-turn, and track back – with no opposition player around him at any point during his run! The player with the ball, near the opposite flank, had anticipated Azpilicueta’s presence further up on the opposite end of the field and hit what suddenly became an aimless pass in an empty space! Chelsea were leading, Mourinho did not want to give United, or whoever the opposition was, any space to exploit. He saw something that may not help him achieve his objective and he rectified it immediately.
You may be thinking ‘so what? Chelsea won the match, and Mourinho has won titles.’ Fair point, he has, doesn’t mean that this style has its shortcomings.
If the man at the helm of things is capable enough, this style can reap dividends. If he knows exactly what he wants and has the skill set then you can expect efficiency and results. He will make sure things are done the way he sees best to achieve objectives.
A player’s development can potentially stagnate under this management style.
Players become dependent on their manager’s instructions and are less inclined to think on their own. They become less inclined to take ownership of situations on the field simply because they’re not encouraged to do so; or, if they are, it’s to the extent that it matches the manager’s exact thinking/instructions.
For example, if a conversation took place between Mourinho and Azpilicueta and Jose was trying to give his players a bit of freedom, it could go something like this:
JM: Cesar, if we’re 1-0 up versus United, what, in your opinion should your priority be?
CA: Defend, boss.
JM: Yes! What if there is an opportunity to counter-attack?
CA: Of course boss, exploit their space and try to score another goal to seal the victory. I should go on overlap.
JM: Yes, that is possible, but is there something else we can do?
CA: Keep Hazard stationery while I make the run?
JM: Okay, that is possible too, any other option?
JM: Maybe you don’t make the run at all and stay back to make sure they don’t get in your space?
CA: Yes, that is possible…
JM: Good, think about it, and let me know your thoughts.
*After speaking to the rest of the players*
JM: Cesar, did you think about it?
CA: Yes boss, I thought putting the result beyond any doubt may be of more benefit?
JM: Cesar that’s admirable, but why take such a risk when we are so solid defensively? Think about it again and get back to me…
*Some time later*
CA: Boss, I thought about it…
CA: I think I should be less adventurous in such a scenario and stay back to protect the lead.
JM: I think so too! Good lad!
This approach conditions people to prefer spoon-feeding more than anything else. Yes, they can learn from the spoon-feeding as well.
However, cast your mind back to Chelsea post-Mourinho and pre-Ancelotti. No manager was able to get the best out of that squad again despite continuous significant investments.
Frequent change of manager is a reason of course; but, I also feel that those managers were dealing with players who had become accustomed to a certain way of playing and being managed. Mourinho developed them into champions so that momentum allowed them to challenge continuously; but, perhaps there were times when certain on-the-pitch situations required players to take ownership they fell short? Couple that with the manager’s less controlling style and the likelihood of falling short in certain matches increases.
We can even look in Arsenal’s history and perhaps George Graham comes close to this? I didn’t see Graham’s era but more senior supporters can either validate or reject what I’m saying. From the little that I know, Graham was very hands-on and Arsenal saw the positives of the efficiency he instilled and then the negatives of his controlling tendency during the latter years of his reign.
If a squad, which has played under a controlling manager, remains relatively unchanged, it will become difficult for a manager with a different style to bring the best out of the squad immediately.
So, what’s the alternative?
This is the other end of the spectrum. This is a style that allows players a bit more freedom and flexibility. A framework is laid in front of them to operate under and the rest is up to the players.
The players have to communicate a lot more with each other and make in-play decisions more than the manager does. Communication and leadership becomes imperative – each player must talk more, certain players in certain areas of the pitch must step up and become leaders. Players learn to trust one another, rather than trust being thrust onto them.
This approach also carries both risk and reward.
Player development is the major plus here. Basically it’s throwing a non-swimmer into the deep end. Let them learn on their own. You’ve given them the guidelines; now let them apply and learn.
If the players have it in them, they will become leaders in their own right. They will become effective communicators. More importantly, they’ll become more intelligent.
Empowered players will make better decisions on the field – when to go forward, which space to move into, which space to cover.
They will take ownership of the match and grow a sense of responsibility – I’m playing, I’ll not only do my best as per my ability but also make sure my team is pulling in the right direction.
Sounds great, what’s the risk then?
Firstly, it requires the right sort of manager/coach. Just because a manager has decided to empower his players; it does not mean his responsibilities to teach have vanished. The players also need guidance from able coaches/managers when they understand they need improvement in some area.
Secondly, it takes time for empowerment to bear fruit. Different players have different motivation and aptitude levels and it will take time for that desired level of cohesion – there it is, that word that has been overused since Wenger mentioned it earlier this summer and I tried my best not to use it till now! Dammit!
Thirdly, most of the squad should remain unchanged – assuming the squad has the talent of course. Otherwise, you’re restarting the collective learning process.
Lastly, player selection is vital here. A manager will want more than just footballing ability, he has to make sure that the mental attributes are there, if not now then at least that the player has the potential to develop those mental traits.
That’s a lot of IFs and BUTs, eh?
Wenger and Empowerment
This is the style that Wenger seems to have adopted. Fans complain that he doesn’t get involved during a match as much as other managers seem to; he seems to just sit there and observe. In most cases this quite true i.e. seems like a passive observer.
Has it cost us matches? That’s a tough one to answer. In so many matches over the years we have seen the same mistakes; whether tactical or individual, repeated. Have those been a result of tactical naivety on Wenger’s part as some like to believe, or has they been a result of him being stubborn with his style of man management i.e. empower the players and let them develop that maturity to figure out how to rectify their mistakes on the pitch?
I’ll take a break from this line of thought just for a moment and mention an anecdote that Robert Pires shared on a Premier League Greats type program; this won’t be word for word because of my memory but you’ll get the idea:
“In the beginning I used to get really frustrated and after a match, once, I was angry and said to Arsene ‘that player did not pass to me when he should have’ and he replied ‘why do you think he did not pass to you? Do you think you could have been in another position or space to make it possible for a pass?’ “
This is an example of enquiry-based coaching and is used to not only empower but also develop thinking and understanding capabilities.
What Wenger can be blamed for, if he indeed has a philosophy of empowerment – the assumption I’m running on – is keeping the long-term in mind all the time. The long term would mean you have a team that has developed leaders who will take ownership of challenging situations during a game. A team that would be able to, once developed, challenge consistently and win trophies.
The ’98 Double winning team underwent significant personnel change in midfield and up front over the next couple of years. However, once a core of players settled down, a Double was won in ’02 and the same core barring defense, went on to become the Invincibles the year after next.
Unfortunately for Wenger, he hasn’t been able to maintain a stable squad for more than a couple of seasons in one go post-2005. Injuries and the like also added to the plight but that’s not the focus here.
We all know that has not been the case over the last three years now and this is why I’m feeling optimistic.
Why Empowerment Just Might Pay Off
The current squad has experienced thrashings by title rivals together. The current squad has experienced leading the Premier League for good portion of a season before falling when they had to stand. The current squad has won trophies together; but not the big prize. The current squad has committed the same mistakes to get knocked out of the Champions League.
Throughout it all, Wenger seems to have done very little. However, apparently the players had a major influence in the way they played versus City away last season. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I believe the loss to Monaco at home was the turning point mentally. Enough was enough.
A grit and determination started to show up more consistently in performances that followed that defeat. I believe ownership has finally seeped through in most of the players.
I have seen Ozil go from hovering in the final third sometimes on, sometimes off, to dropping deep in the early minutes of a game to get a touch of the ball and assert his influence in any way he can. Sanchez had ownership since he set foot on the pitch. The togetherness of the last three seasons of most of the players will have improved the communication, trust, and a hunger to achieve something big together.
It will be interesting, if not fascinating, to see how our team plays when the going gets tough. There seemed to be an improvement last season against the big boys but some unexpected hiccups versus other teams; do our players finally have the maturity to make the right calls on the pitch when required?
I have a feeling this squad has finally matured, time will tell of course.
Long Term Benefit of Empowerment
To wrap this long post up, I’ll briefly discuss the long term benefit of empowerment; though I have pretty much stated such in broken parts earlier.
In the long run, if empowerment has paid off, you have a bunch of players capable of challenging consistently because of the positives aforementioned. You have a squad in a position that may make it easier for new signings to settle in on the pitch because they’re intelligent enough to guide them.
IF empowerment does not pay off i.e. if the same on-pitch shortcomings rear their ugly head this season, Wenger just may want to consider a slightly different approach to man management. Not necessarily become a dictator, perhaps a hybrid. It will be a major lesson for football management as well.
In the high-pressure world of football, an empowering approach is a major risk to take but its success would be more than just a footballing victory.