What a paradox! This winter’s definitely was the transfers window I enjoyed the most – Yet Arsenal basically had zero activity.
The window shut down last night and there was no anxiety, no drama, no speculations, no anger and no frustration, which is a very pleasant change, compared to recent seasons.
Have we finally moved one step forward and stopped being the one-injury-away-from-doom Club we used to be?
I know Santi Cazorla is very likely to be out for the remainder of the season and I’m aware that we’re short in midfield, at the moment, but – overall – an injury is no longer seen as an irreversible tragedy.
We’ve shown we can cope with the odd physical niggle when Gabriel stepped-up to replace Hector Bellerín and also when an injury kept the in-form Theo Walcott out for a few weeks; we dropped some points here and there but it wasn’t because of this or that player being out, which is a good sign if we compare to what happened in very recent times.
Since we can’t expect the manager to have three top-class options for the same role, because it will result in a dressing room mutiny when everyone’s fit, our 28-men squad looks well balanced.
What is often misleading in the perception of this season’s team is the fact that we don’t have direct replacements – or at least we have very few – but instead we have a good number of very versatile players who can cover different positions in different ways.
When you think about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis Sánchez, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Alex Iwobi and Lucas Pérez, you realize how exciting and unpredictable this team can be, especially going forward, with the pace, trickery, finishing, strength and flair we have at our disposal.
Still, blending those ingredients and finding the correct balance is a very complex exercise that Arsène Wenger will need to master, or our season will derail again.
We have plenty of difficult games coming, against opponents that apply very different solutions to either make our life difficult or proactively expose our weaknesses; finding the correct tactical approach for each of these games is going to be extremely tough, given the number of options available.
This is where versatility could become a liability.
As once written by former Argentina and Real Madrid striker Jorge Valdano, a professional football player often is an individual who is thrown into the arena and – to avoid crumbling under the massive pressure – goes straight to what he knows best, to restrain the risks and avoid being exposed with his limits.
To make it simpler, football players tend to avoid thinking, when on the pitch.
Given this scenario, a player is very likely to perform better if played in his “natural” position and will most certainly repeat the moves and gestures he used to prepare in training, day after day.
This way, he will feel confident, reassured and safe, while making him think could generate anxiety and stress. If we follow this logic, players like those aforementioned could under-perform if they’re played in a different position every week; if not given straight, crystal-clear instructions, they might feel lost on the pitch.
Could it happen to us? Could those players, whose flexibility is key to a successful season, lose their way and end up in a positional limbo, where they can cover all positions without having their own, natural one?
Arsène Wenger’s philosophy and coaching principles will make the difference, hopefully.
In a world where managers and trainers seem to be control-maniacs, he always promotes individual thinking and decision-making to his players, asking them to freely choose the best option available; it worked wonderfully well against Southampton – for example – and much less in other games, when the team looked out of its depth and unable to make the correct calls, both collectively and individually.
Now that the season is slowly entering its most important days, every decision will have a huge impact on whether this season will be successful or just another near-miss.
We have almost everyone fit, we have plenty of options for every position and we seem to enjoy a very encouraging free-scoring season – now it’s time for Arsène Wenger to make the right calls from the bench.
To create the correct setup for his players to flourish in such different situations – think of Bayern Munich and then Sutton United, for example – will be his ultimate mission during what could be his last six months in charge of the Arsenal.