New calls for Wenger Out

To be fair, it was the Arsenal defence, not just Cech.

But it highlights the posture taken by the team. Don’t score, then hope not to concede. Aim not to concede, then try to score.

Get defensive cover. Forget Aubameyang, who will only become another Sanchez. Plug the hole where it matters.

Maybe a change in thinking is required, which is where a new head may be better.

And the new manager is …

Where would you find the team “al”?

That’s Arsenal without Arsene.

Is Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal finally coming to an end? Last weekend’s defeat to Nottingham Forest, embarrassed 4-2 by a club with only a caretaker manager in his second game must certainly seem that this is the last season for a manager whose popularity is slowly dying, even among the most hardcore of Arsenal fans. And having surpassed Alex Ferguson’s record of most Premier League matches played, there is nothing really much for Wenger to aim for. He could try to have the best winning percentage, but he would have to win a lot more than he is winning now to have a chance of doing so – and it looks highly unlikely.

The only thing left for Wenger is either number of games managed – but he is about five hundred short of the 2155 set by Ferguson from 1974-2013, and he would need around ten seasons to accomplish that. Either that or he could manage teams in different parts of the world, or find one to manage in the summer break of the Premier League to shorten that length of time.

Of course, it would help if Arsenal were a top team, playing Champions League Football and competing on various fronts. But Sunday’s defeat against lower opposition was surely enough for everyone – ex-players, the board, the fans – to see that the longer Arsene Wenger stays, the longer he hurts his reputation, and the longer he causes Arsenal to slide.

The last two seasons have been a difficult time. Last season light aircraft were flying the Wenger Out banners and they would have done the same this year, had Manchester City not so dominated the league that everyone else is fighting for the top four spots. The thing is, even the most hardcore of Arsenal fans looks at the team and sees overpaid, underachieving players. It is not their fault that they are underachieving. It is just that the manager doesn’t really motivate them to want to do well.

Arsene Wenger is not the kind of inspirational manager to be prowling the sidelines, gee-ing his team up in the most combative manner. He is reserved, a man more often seen to sit on the bench, rather than in the technical area shouting instructions to his team. He is less manager now, more executive coach. Has he, after two decades at Arsenal, lost the confidence of the team? The star player is vehement he will not sign a contract, the next best player is uncertain over his future, yet all Wenger does is live in a world inside his own head, so consumed by his own thoughts. The less vocal members of the group – Wellbeck, Giroud, Bellerin – perhaps seemingly tolerate Wenger’s presence, because he is such an authority figure that no one dares say the unmentionable and risk being another pariah like Alexis Sanchez. But the truth is, Arsenal are in decline, their ex-players are calling for Wenger to leave, the fans want him to go – depending on whether the team performs or not – and the players are not motivated by him.

The thing with Arsenal is that for all the talent they are stocked with, and all the internationals on their bench, they are not performing and this year no one even cares much if they get into the top four or not. In the past there was always hope that Arsenal might win the league, that their summer signings might help, that the year might always be that year, but they have always gone on a cold weather collapse. Lose in late November, from second to fourth, slide further within the top four in Feburary, and that has always been a source of the Arsenal fan’s disappointment – that the team do not live up to potential. In previous seasons they have always had Champions League football to blame, being stretched by a competition they would never win, but found redemption to stave off the execution by winning FA Cups.

This year, even without Champions League football, and with less matches, Arsenal have always had a bad November and December, are still losing to minor teams. Now without the FA Cup to hid behind, perhaps the patience with Wenger is starting to run thin.

Wenger hasn’t really learnt from his mistakes of the previous season. The uncertainty behind his contract last season influenced his team in the tail end of the season, so much so that their neighbours Tottenham overtook team in the standings. Not Premier League champions? Never mind. No Champions League football? Never mind. FA Cup winners? Who cares. But placing below Tottenham? It is the ultimate insult an Arsenal fan has to bear, being ribbed about it for at least a year. What’s more, Tottenham are still having a bad season by their standards, in fifth while they were second last year, but are still better than Arsenal in terms of points. They should have resolved Sanchez’s contractual situation in the summer, selling him off instead of letting him remain under a cloud. Sanchez has the potential to be a divisive figure. He pulls the team, but many despise him for his attitude. When he scored against Crystal Palace, only half of his team mates celebrated with him. But Wenger has to rely on him because he is such a star player. They might be further down the table in eighth or ninth without the heroics of Sanchez and Ozil, but had they sold them, they might not have been much worse.

Even if Sanchez had been sold in the summer with no replacement, things might have turned out better. He is like the Christmas present you don’t really want but have to keep because it was from your grandad Bertie.

How many recognised strikers do Arsenal have? Olivier Giroud. Theo Walcott. Lacazette. Welbeck. Sanchez. Ozil. Walcott, a signing from Southampton in his teens – he was so good that he went to the World Cup in the summer under Sven-Gora Erikkson before he had made an appearance for Arsenal – has had his development so curtailed and stunted that he is playing for Arsenal B, and not doing a good job of it all, considering how the team lost 4-2 to minnows Forest. Even Southampton are considering taking him back. How terrible it would be, to go back to the team he once played for, without having made much progress in the interim? Embarrasing.

It may be after the game with Chelsea, the semi-final of the Carabao club, that the full weight of resentment against Wenger is seen.

What can Wenger learn from former Stoke manager Mark Hughes? If you rest a team ahead of a key game, you’d better win the key game. And if the team has to lose in fhe key game, then don’t be embarrassed by a big scoreline. Hughes found himself at a difficult situaton losing 5-0 to Chelsea, then 1-0 to Newcastle, before losing in the FA Cup and being dumped by Stoke.

Wenger has already lost the FA Cup game. Recently he lost a few Premier League games against weaker opposition. A further loss to Chelsea would cement his fate.

A good clearout might be good this summer. The central defence is either aging or inexperienced. There is Mertersacker or Koscielny playing, two aging warriors past their prime for Arsenal. Nacho Monreal is perhaps the most solid at a back three, while Calum Chambers and Rob Holding are inconsistent. Is it surprising that the defence of Arsenal is what lets it down? As with Liverpool, they can have a good attacking threat with the likes of Giroud, Lacazette et al, but when your defence leaks in goals and you are prone to conceding at set pieces you will lose points. It used to be thought that even if Arsenal were two goals up with ten minutes to play, they might just find a way to drop points. These days, it is still never sure. Arsenal may have played out a 2-2 draw with Chelsea but don’t forget after Hector Bellerin scored the equalising goal in injury time, Chelsea nearly won and rattled the bar after that. Arsenal just switched off and nearly paid for that!

Who have Arsenal got in the midfield? Ramsey, Wilshere, Kolasinac, Xhaka and Bellerin are a pretty good unit, but what would Wenger do now with Elneny and Coquelin?

A clearout would do some good. Start rebuilding the team. And you know’ what? There might be the losing of games, but really, Arsenal have lost so many and are really a top-table team, that the fans won’t really care. In fact, if the fans adjust their expectations to feel they won’t win every game, even against lower opposition, they might just get less annoyed with an underperforming team. But if you really want to start rebuilding and a clear-out, start with Wenger and Steve Bould.

Who would you bring in? Mikel Arteta? The former Gunners captain, who so impressed in his Everton days but found himself often injured, is now a Manchester City assistant coach. Wenger recommends him but anyone wanting a change is unlikely to want the scent of Arsene around. Arteta however does fulfil the criteria of the kind of manager the Gunners need. Young, emotive – the kind of manager who might swing a ballboy around when they score a winner. Not the kind of guy that is often seen fumbling with the zip of his raincoat.

This season could be Wenger’s last. In fact, I predict at the end of the season that Arsenal will have a big clear out and Wenger will be in the boardroom. The hunt for Arsenal’s manager starts now, but the position is so tainted, as the leader of an underperforming bunch, that top managers might avoid it. Just like top players seem to shun Arsenal.

So who do you get to replace Arsene Wenger? You want a young manager keen to prove himself. You want a young manager used to winning. You want a young manager with good playing credentials. The problem is, if you look within the organisation, you won’t find someone who fits the bill. You don’t want an ex-player turned pundit because everyone knows all they do is talk and they are rubbish managers. Just look how Alan Shearer faired, unable to prevent Newcastle from being relegated in four games. Look at Gary Neville, failed at Valencia. And really, despite it being ideal that the new manager be Arsenal through and through, the fans don’t really care if the new manager never played for Arsenal. Because Arsenal in recent years have been on a slide that being Arsenal through and through just means being, really, a loser.

Arsenal need a manager who is young, has the drive, the vision, and is equally keen to demonstrate his qualities, instead of the current one who is content to sit on his laurels.

Arsenal don’t need a manager with Arsenal in his veins. They need one with winning in his veins.

Does this manager exist? You bet. @Arsenal, you need:

Ryan Giggs.

More English Premier League players? Change the youth game approach

Soccer has changed considerably over the past two decades. Tactics have evolved and are constantly evolving, often in reaction to previous tactical changes. Technically, there has been a shift towards a more possession-based game where keeping the ball for long sequences is emphasized. Physically, club scouts are now prizing speed rather than size and strength. More value, though arguably not enough, is being placed on the psychological element of the game. These changes have real and serious implications for the coach who is working to develop the youth soccer player. It is a necessity that coaches working within youth development are preparing their players effectively for a game that has changed significantly in recent decades, and which will continue to change.

Given the game’s rapid transformation, the coach is arguably preparing players for a kind of game that does not yet exist. It is therefore imperative that the coach remains up-to-date with the evolution of the game to keep their players up-to-speed. As a result, we need to examine how a ‘win at all costs‘ mentality affects the development of players in terms of their tactical, technical and physical development, within the context of how the game is evolving. We also need to inspect the implications of our coaching on the psychological and social growth of our players. We will find that all these changes are inextricably linked.

Creativity, imagination, risk-taking and personal expression are compromised to play in a safe and effective way. The greatest players in the world of soccer today grew up playing in the streets without adult coaching and supervision, and learned to play by freely trying things without the consequence of making a mistake. Learning becomes greatly impeded when mistakes are not tolerated.

Will your under-10 team learn more by ‘chasing’ a game and bombarding the opponent’s goal area with Alamo-style attacks and Rory Delap-esque throw-ins? Or by remaining calm and trying to penetrate the opposition’s defence with creative passes or a flamboyant individual pieces of skill? Will the players gain more in the long-term by forcing a crude equalizing goal or by problem-solving more creative ways of scoring a goal? Both questions are clearly rhetorical, but they appear frequently on youth pitches the world over.

A pet hate of mine is the simplicity of the pre-match team formation screens shown before televised games. It depicts, to the wider world, that tactics and movements are performed in straight lines when, in reality, they are free flowing and chaotic. I will accept that these simplistic visuals help the viewer quickly understand their favourite team’s formation, but basing our understanding of tactics in this way is very misleading. Soccer is not chess. The variables of a game are unending.

In Bounce – The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed points this out in an explicit manner, noting that the complexity of predicting soccer is virtually impossible, unlike the predefined moves of pieces on a chessboard. [Some may argue that set-plays or ‘restarts’ are predictable as they can be rehearsed and staged. This argument, however, is only partly true as a successful set-play still hinges on the correct technique and decision-making of players, and also on the ability and reactions of the opposition.]

Syed tells a story of a group who were attempting to create a computer program that simulated the complex combination of combinations and variables involved in a soccer game – and found it impossible. We therefore need to produce players who can deal with these variables and chaotically unpredictable occurrences, rather than teach them to become tactical robots as represented to us on our television screens.

The role of the forward player is changing immeasurably. There has been a huge tactical shift towards playing with one striker, and indeed, with the success of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from 2008 to 2012 and the Spanish national team’s European Championship victory in 2012, more teams are willing to consider playing with no natural striker at all. Playing with no recognized striker (or 4-6-0) is expected to be the next revolutionary tactical shift in the game over the next decade. As a consequence, strikers are becoming a dying breed, or at least those that are only goalscorers are.

Jonathan Wilson sums this up concisely in his excellent book on the history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid: “The modern forward… is far more than a goalscorer, and it may even be that a modern forward can be successful without scoring goals.” Wilson traces the career of Michael Owen. Midway through his career, with the impact of teams prioritizing one multi-functional striker, a 25 year old Owen, with an international goal-scoring rate of almost one in every two games, was unable to find a Champions League club to invest in his services, and ended up joining (and being relegated with) Newcastle United. [Owen later joined Manchester United where he arguably became the club’s fourth or fifth choice forward, making an average of ten appearances a season for three seasons.]

Winner of the Ballon d’Or (the award for being the best player in Europe) in 2001, Owen himself admitted that he needed to evolve his game by adding skills such as link up play, dropping off the front, and holding the ball up. He felt he could no longer just be a goalscorer that made runs off the shoulder of the last defender. Had soccer tactics not evolved to prioritizing the use of just one main striker, there is a strong argument that the careers of goalscorers like Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe may have been even more prolific. The tactics or strategies that coaches adopt and implement need to reflect footballing chaos and variables, and allow players to survive in these types of scenarios. Players also need to be taught the technical skills required to thrive in this environment.

Due to the variables involved in a soccer game, a coach must encourage technical creativity and risk-taking in his players. How else can they learn to deal with the diverse situations that are thrown up by the game? The same coach, however, must accept that if you facilitate this creativity, players will make mistakes, and the team may lose games as a consequence. FC Barcelona’s risk-taking in possession, and their ultimate effectiveness of ‘possessioning’ the opposition into submission, is a direct product of players being allowed an abundance of trial and error as they evolved as youngsters. The club and its coaches had the foresight, during these early years, to allow this risk-taking to flourish and allowed players to develop into the adult footballers they are.

Taking risks, being creative, and ultimately making mistakes are true learning curves for players. It is vitally important to foster this. Ensure players know that it is okay to lose, so long as they learn the lessons from defeat. Technically, defenders and goalkeepers must now have the skills in possession that are at least comparable to their midfield team-mates. It is therefore exceptionally important that, during the full pressure of match days, these players are allowed to test and develop their technical skills in ‘real’ situations.

Asking a goalkeeper to whack it down the other end of the pitch any time he is in possession does not develop any type of skill. It stunts their ability to play out from the back and stunts the development of receiving players. Defenders are also required to have the technical traits to be able to manipulate and move the ball. The modern defender no longer just kicks and heads it. He receives possession from the goalkeeper and is the starter of attacks. He relieves pressure from midfield players and advances up the pitch in possession.

Take defender Jamie Carragher as an example. Carragher is not a player who is especially renowned for his technical qualities. Despite this, the Liverpool centre-back had a somewhat surprising pass completion rate of 92% from 24 games in his last Premier League season at the club (2012/13) (source: Squawka.) In addition to this, of the 10 players with the best pass completion rates in Europe in the 2012/13 season, three of them were centre-backs (Dante 90.8%; Gerard Pique 91%; Per Mertesacker 92.2%). [Players must have played at least 20 games and completed at least 1,000 passes.

The unsurprising number one on the list was Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez, with almost a 3% higher pass success rate than the list’s number 2, Mikel Arteta (source:]

If your young defender is taught to ‘get rid’ (an often heard term to clear the ball as far away as possible), the coach is doing him a great long-term disservice. A young defender needs to be taught passing and receiving skills, as well as the key movements needed to be able to play his position in a modern way. Once again, it is only by allowing players to trial and error this within competition that you can affect real improvement, tolerating a mistake and a lost goal along the way.

The technical qualities required by the modern midfield player are vast given the different types of midfielders that exist. They vary from those who sit deep and distribute, to those who ‘carry’ and run with the ball, to those who score and provide goals. Midfielders need to be expert in terms of passing and receiving, taking the ball in defensive areas, and controlling and manipulating the ball in tight attacking situations. They need the ability to score goals, intercept passes, cross, dribble, and more. If these players spend their youth watching their defenders ‘getting rid of the ball’, and goalkeepers thumping goal-kicks as far as they physically can, it is unlikely that they will develop their skills sufficiently to move their game on.

The rate of change in the role occupied by strikers has huge implications for youth coaching. During their development of young strikers, coaches need to add more and more traits to their forwards’ repertoire. José Mourinho is quite clear about the need for “multifunctional strikers”. He noted, “To them (English youth coaches) a striker is a striker and that’s it. For me, a striker is not just a striker. He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross…”

The changing role of forward players has had knock-on implications in other areas of the pitch. More and more midfield players are given greater freedom and license to get forward, score goals, provide assists and bridge the goalscoring gap that not playing with a natural goalscorer leaves. These attacking midfield players ‘play between the lines’ and are constantly searching for pockets of space between the opponent’s midfield and defence. They have excellent receiving skills and make penetrative passes between defenders. Plus, they score goals. Certainly in England, this type of player is rarely produced.

Arguably the most prominent player of this ilk produced in England in recent decades has been Joe Cole. Cole, however, spent a career being asked to play in more stringent wide positions rather than his natural position playing ‘in the hole’. As a teenager he was constantly summed up as a player with lots of quality, but someone who needed to eradicate maverick-type flamboyancy from his game. It is possible that had Joe Cole been born ten years later, this flamboyant nature may have been prized more highly.

With the prominence of these types of creative players, and a future reliance on them, it is imperative that youth coaches work to produce attacking midfield players that encompass these skills. In the English Premier League (2012/13) the top five players to play passes in the final third were all foreign imports: The Belgian Eden Hazard, Spaniards Santi Carzola, Juan Mata and David Silva, and South Africa’s Steven Pienaar, all of whom could be considered physically diminutive.

Over the longer term, players that develop physically earlier and who dominate games purely because of size can, in fact, see a huge reversal in their influence on games as they age and their peers begin to catch them up physically. Big players need to be taught other skills involving ball manipulation, vision and fundamental movements so that they have the tools to adapt their game as their physical advantage diminishes.

Likewise, those that develop late physically need to be trusted by coaches and be given ample playing time to learn the game, rather than being cast aside as ineffective in the short-term. With this trust and foresight, their long-term development is secured and the moral fibre of the coach remains intact.

If these late developers can learn, on a regular basis, how to affect games through technique and individual traits, they will possess a very accomplished armoury once they hit their growth spurt and will able to match other players physically. Because they lack relative size and power initially, maybe they will inherently adapt their game and start to play in-between players, rather than in close combat against them? Maybe they will learn to receive more quickly and move the ball on more quickly before the big guy gets too close? Maybe this will produce more Carzolas and Pienaars that have spent a childhood playing in tight areas and pockets of space? They would have the physical, technical and tactical skills to bypass their peers. Not to mention the ability of taking and dealing with physical contests where they are disadvantaged.

A weekend of records

So what happened in the league this weekend?

Arsenal and Liverpool split a six goal thriller on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to the Emirates. The Gooners scored three goals in a five-minute spell in the second half, before Roberto Firmino’s header dashed all Arsenal hopes of a win.

And what sort of a record did this set? Well, Arsenal didn’t fall apart in a big game, after a two-goal deficit. Usually they just go to pieces after they concede in a big game.

Remember the 6-3 defeat of Arsenal by Manchester City? Or the 8-2 defeat by Manchester United?

You can see why some of the stars of the team wanted to leave. Arsenal always had a reputation for losing big games with the top six. And when they lost, player such as Mesut Ozil always got the blame for switching off, and for their poor body language.

Certainly no one could fault Alexis Sanchez for effort. The ____ – bound Chilean hustled for the first goal by nipping in front of the Liverpool center-back and getting back a goal which he really had no business of winning.

And what about Mesut Ozil? Often accused of switching off in big games, he scored the third goal in the five-minute second half blitz.

Incidentally, it looks like Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata has been swotting up on Ozil’s style.

At least it wasn’t this.

Speaking of Chelsea, could Alexis Sanchez be off to Chelsea instead?

Manchester City’s record breaking season continues and continues without Alexis Sanchez, giving the casual onlooker doubts about what Alexis Sanchez could add to that team.

And if Aguero is already unhappy about his playing time in the team then what happens when Alexis Sanchez arrives there? Two sulks on the bench when Gabriel Jesus plays?

In fact the longer it drags on it appears Sanchez might not be City-bound but may consider a move away to another club where he can still win trophies, such as Manchester United, or increasingly possibly Chelsea. Or why not Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich?

Sergio Aguero scored his 100th league goal at the Etihad, Manchester City eclipsed more than 100 goals in the calendar year. And Harry Kane equalled Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year.

Goals. Goals. Goals.

Yet if you looked at the Premier League table, only the top six teams have a goal difference of more than 1.

It tells you how the Premier League teams are playing this year. Like Burnley, playing to scrape points rather than lose games. Aiming to win by 1-0 on 25% possession, rather than playing good entertaining football.

While Sean Dyche’s Burnley team have done well, and are a remarkable side considering what they achieve on their budget, you might well say they deserved to lose 3-0 at Turf Moor against a Tottenham side. When you set out to get a point for a draw, or play for a 1-0 win, as a neutral fan you might prefer it if teams played “who cares about defence” attacking football like Liverpool and Arsenal did.

The gap from 13th to 20th remains at six points, which means win two and you’re out of the drop zone. Which is exactly what Sam Allardyce and Everton have been trying to do. Score goals, don’t concede; but if you’re up against a team like Chelsea, then don’t concede, and hope to score, letting the fans put pressure on the better team. A run of wins and clean sheets has helped Everton rise up the rankings.

Make no mistake. The Premier League developments at the bottom end will be more interesting than at the top end. The bottom three change more often than the seats in the X-Factor’s six chair challenge.

Speed or possession? The most important stat

Is football a game of speed? Is the speed of the game increasing? When you watch a game of football, sometimes a stat flashes up telling you how much distance a player has run, or his fastest sprint. You might be forgiven in thinking that speed is certainly not the essence of the game, if you watched the game from five years ago. Certainly the Spanish teams made a meal and influence on the game in what they called possession football, where the players kept the ball, passed it among themselves, then slowly walked it up the opponents half and then tried to thread it into the goal with some one on one skill. This concept of tiki-taka was copied by various teams across the continent until Spain were demolished by Holland 5-0.

Newspapers ran the headline “Tiki Taka is dead” and from then on the teams slowly transitioned to a different kind of play, a counter attacking style, waiting for the team with ball control to run themselves out of energy while launching short bursts of attack themselves. You didn’t need to have the ball for long periods, all you had to do was be clinical and make the most of your limited opportunities. And then defend and frustrate your opponents as they burned up their own energy trying to think of ways and ideas to get past your walls of players. It is the game plan teams employ against the football club Arsenal, by holding out against them defensively while they burn their own energy, both physical and mental, trying to probe for a link; then counterattacking and trying to make Arsenal continue wasting their energy. Having the ball and not being able to do anything with it can be very frustrating, and the more possession you have, the more it works against you.

This counter attacking of football bears many resemblances to modern life. Modern life seems to operate on two speeds, a slow, waiting for things to happen speed, and one that has got to be very responsive and reactive. It is like the world of home buying, for example. According to The Property Ombudsman Service, this waiting for long periods without much movement, followed by a short period where everything has to happen very quickly puts the average homebuyer under a lot of stress. It may or may not be a stretch to equate home buying with the world of football but certainly some similarities can be drawn.

What happens when two counter attacking teams play each other? Is it end to end action, or do they gift it to the other so they can play their normal game?

The modern game happens so fast and hinges on split second decisions. Sometimes coaches point to incidences on the field that could have changed the course of the game; an offside decision, an outside goal, a penalty that should have been awarded or otherwise, and while some may be attempts to deflect criticism on the players, some may be true.

But sometimes it is not on the field incidents that coaches refer to as if they changed the course of the game. This weekend Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp charged that had he been allowed to bring on substitutes when he wanted to, he would have emerged triumphant at Chelsea. Instead his side conceded an equaliser before the substitutes were allowed on the field in the closing stages of the game.

You can question the decisions in the game when the result didn’t go your way, especially if the game changer happened in the closing stages. But it is easy to overlook the remainder of the game and overlook the chances to kill the game that were not taken.

Football is a simple game. Start on level terms, then score more goals than they do to win. How much possession you have is irrelevant. You could score from the kickoff and then set up to defend for the rest of the game. Whether you play possession football, or counterattacking football, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, just make sure the ball ends up more times in your opponent’s net. That is the most important stat.