On Sunday, as I was writing yesterday’s blog of my thoughts, takeaways, and analysis on Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat to Leicester, I was searching for answers. Answers to Arsenal’s problems, answers that could ease my frustrations, answers to our formation choice, the roles and responsibilities of players, and answers around the goods, bads, and downright ugly aspects of our performance. In the background, I happened to have America’s NFL on the television. You know, for the comfort of sporting noises, even if the dull roar of the crowd is piped in through television magic.
I was hardly paying attention, but I happened to catch a soundbite when they were covering the Arizona Cardinal’s coach, Kliff Kingsbury. He’s 41 and this season will be his second season after being hired in January 2019. What caught my attention more than anything was a quote from Kingsbury.
”One of the hardest lessons to learn when young and coaching talent, is sometimes you just need to stay out of its way.”
In his world, it was about coaching a younger Patrick Mahomes who has since been the league’s best player in 2018, and someone that just lead their team to a championship at the age of 24. Immediately it struck a chord with me and I couldn’t help but feel as though, there is was a connection between a quote like that and our own young manager, Mikel Arteta.
I mean, what a difficult, great lesson to learn for a young manager. Put yourself in a managers shoes. You’ve likely been waiting for at least a few years, spending your time as an assistant of some sort, or a youth manager, building up ideas and plans of how you would run your team or what tactics you would want them to carry out.
Even on a weekly basis. You spend your week working with your staff, watching film, devising a plan and a vision for exactly how you envision the match scripting out and you trust yourself. Letting go a bit, making a less rigid, more flexible plan, and getting out of the way would be a tough aspect to learn.
It’s odd to say this given he was a player from Spain, a member of Barcelona’s youth squads, and a professional under Wenger, but it’s a coaching trait that is likely made worse through his upbringing as a coach at Manchester City. It’s well known that Pep Guardiola is fiercely stubborn and rigid in how a team should play. There is a right way to play and a wrong way to play. Pep is certainly a genius, but may be the benefactor of managing some of the best sides in the world with more talent than a manager knows what to do with.
Now, Arteta steps into the light and it seems he wants to see his team carryout and execute his vision with similar rigidity. Is it overcomplicating things? Testing the side and trying out combinations? Maybe, but carrying out his vision through whatever means necessary may be a concept that factors into lineups like Sunday’s in which we saw Aubameyang not only restricted from this preferred central position, but from his second position on the left wing as well. Forced to occupy the right wing for much of the game, Aubameyang was entirely docile, which shouldn’t be that much of a surprise given Arsenal’s lack of objectivity in their attacking preferences.
We have seen Pepe, Willian, and anyone else brave enough to step into the right wing role, struggle immensely to combine and make a difference in matches unless they create it for themselves. We saw Thomas Partey struggle to get service in the midfield, Ceballos completely uninfluential from his wide-right role within the midfield three, and in the end, Arsenal struggled to convert shots into goals.
Yet, throughout the game, despite Arteta shouting out directions for Ceballos to get wide or instructions for Lacazette, there was a feeling that this was within the scope of Arteta’s vision for the day. Create the 2-3-5 attacking shape with wide central midfielders making up the three, allow the two outside backs to have the freedom to overlap and get into the attack, and hit long balls into the channels to quickly drive the ball from back to front, in order to prevent Leicester from settling in defensively. Yet, I struggle to understand why Aubameyang would be moved to the right and the midfielders asked to play in the completely defensive, shielding fashion they were.
Arsenal didn’t really play with three central midfielders the way we hoped they were when the lineup was announced. Instead, we saw them play with one isolated, deep central midfielder in Thomas Partey, and two midfielders shift wide as though they were nearly wingbacks. Which brings us to the point of today’s blog.
Sometimes, you just need to stay out of talent’s way.
I love most of the work we have seen Arteta do at Arsenal. I have enjoyed the mentality he has brought, the early identity we saw established, the defensive work, and his early success installing a 3-4-3 after Leno’s injury and Arsenal’s struggles. But I truly believe, when it comes to guiding the team, and himself, through this transition to becoming a more attacking team, Arteta needs to let talent guide the way.
That is not a knock on Arteta’s footballing IQ either. It is simply the belief that finding a way to recognize the most talented tools he has at his disposal and allowing those players to shape the tactical plan we take into a match may be more critical than forcing squares pegs.
For me, that looks like Aubameyang down the middle, or at the very least the left wing. It’s clear instructions and intentions of getting Partey the ball in the middle and supporting him. It’s keeping Ceballos engaged and in the game because it seems he is the type of player that brings his best play when he is in the thick of the action from the first whistle, not when he is reduced to a right wingback type of role.
It’s keeping the five-channel attack we have seen since Arteta’s first days, but adding an element that involves Ceballos or Partey or Willian from the midfield at times, rather than the repetitive presence of both fullbacks. Despite Tierney and Bellerin being two of the better creators for Arsenal, I have to believe there are a few others in the side that can do a little more with the ball at their feet. Get them involved, let them show what they can provide, and allow the teams talent to shine.
It’s early days for Arteta and there is a lot of be positive about, but if the quote is true for young coaches, and I believe it is, learning how to coach and instruct talent but knowing when to get out of its way is still a lesson Arteta is learning within his tactics.
Leaving it there for the day! Enjoy your Tuesday. Champions League tonight. Arsenal have a Thursday game so we should hear from Arteta Wednesday. And then we have another go in the Europa League with Dundalk. It’s a match I hope to see a rotated side and another attempt at an attacking performance.
Stay safe, stay well. See you on social media!