Fans like to believe that their club has some intrinsic identity. There is some quality that must exist within those 90 minutes for a club to be recognisable. In actuality, the DNA of a club lies more within its infrastructure and community rather than in an unchanging style of play. It’s impossible to stay still in football, and the job of a manager is not to riff on the styles of teams past but to search for the identity of the squad in front of him. This task of sifting through the gumbo of talent is something which has plagued Arsenal managers since Wenger’s later years.
Arsenal’s recent resurgence into a top-four challenger is indicative of Mikel Arteta’s success in “finding Arsenal” with newfound defensive solidity and attacking freedom leading to a string of impressive performances and results. So, how did Arsenal fix the problem? Well, they threw money at it, but not in the traditional sense.
Splashing cash in modern football usually equates to a shiny new signing for the fans to fawn over, the practicality of which is often an afterthought. For Arsenal, it meant paying players, sometimes fan favourites, to go away. This philosophy was particularly present through the January 2022 window where an already thin Arsenal team gave up a further five players including club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Three of those players had their contracts cancelled. Arsenal’s lack of meat on the bone has been a source for fan anxiety, but has allowed Arteta to hone in on their identity and to solidify his philosophy.
Accept the Process, Love the Process
“We need a team with 100% of people involved in what we do […] respect, commitment and passion, those three things are non-negotiable”– Mikel Arteta for Sky Sports (2021)
The “non-negotiable” idea had become a point of ridicule for Arteta through the less successful eras of his reign but is also an example of him being clear and direct about what he wants from his squad. After the latest transfer window, Arsenal look exactly like the team he describes in the quote above. The evidence lies in recent performances against Wolves, both home and away, and away at Liverpool where the cliche of Arsenal’s “soft underbelly” has been disproven. This is an Arsenal team who can dig in with great defensive performances with ten men to salvage points and, in the case of the Wolves home game, come from behind to win against a team who have not let a lead slip in almost three years.
However, some of the steps taken to achieve this success have been questionable. Freezing out and subsequently cancelling Mesut Özil’s contract left Arsenal with a dearth of creativity. Loaning out Ainsley Maitland-Niles during AFCON left the club with just two senior midfielders. Cancelling Aubameyang’s contract has put a significant goalscoring burden on goal-shy Lacazette for the remainder of the season. These decisions have hindered and may still hinder Arsenal in the short term, but the larger scale benefits are worth the hit.
Managing a smaller squad is a godsend for a coach. Especially Mikel Arteta, who has a very particular style of play he wants to instil at Arsenal and has been seen coaching players to a molecular level even during matches. Having fewer players to teach lessens the time needed for the message to land. Arteta was quick to identify the players who either did not respond to his ideas or lacked the ability to carry them out. He rather ruthlessly removed them from the first-team picture, and in due time they became transfer window outgoings.
Though seemingly harsh, this was an important distinction for the club to make. Just one player who is not bought into the manager’s philosophy can be corrosive to a squad’s motivation, something that was evident in Emery’s reign through to Arteta’s second season. Another notable feature of Arsenal’s permanent exports is the age profile of the player. Arteta has been intentional in reducing the age of the squad. Again, this is a risky move due to the importance many place on experience, but any coach will preach about the ease of training a young mind versus an older one. Arteta finally has a malleable squad that he can mould into his ideal picture of Arsenal.
It’s All About Partnerships
Thinning the herd also makes for harmonious living for the playing staff. A small ecosystem forces people together who may have limited contact had the group been larger. There is no room in this Arsenal squad for a frozen out player, there is no room to make cliques and factions of the dressing room. There is one solid group working towards the same goal.
As always, this idea is not risk-averse. A major injury or a significant falling out could see the entire balance of the squad shift, sending the group into turmoil. Additionally, players feel secure with their roles in the squad, which is great for morale but comes at the cost of real squad competition.
However, this is the path Arsenal have chosen, and cutting out competition for places in each position may have been a necessary evil to develop on-field partnerships, a chemistry Arsenal have lacked for years.
One of Unai Emery’s largest failures was his inability to stick to a style, a lineup, or a midfield configuration. Indecision was his downfall as the lack of cohesion between players led to league and Europa League collapses. His successor seems to have struck gold in this department, with Ben White and Gabriel looking like the makings of an iconic centre back duo, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka’s understanding looks to be building week-by-week and Thomas Partey’s link up with the two 8s in front of him bringing out his best.
Since the last transfer window was used in a quite non-traditional way by Arsenal, player contracts and squad gaps make it unquestionable that signings will need to be made in the next. The foundation Arteta has set amongst his small group means that the integration of new players will be smooth. When the best managers sign new players, it is merely a natural expansion of their philosophy. Taking the time to eject dead wood and strengthen the core relationships at Arsenal has defined what an Arsenal player looks like; it has birthed a new identity.
A New Arsenal DNA
The last couple of decades have taught us that to compete at the highest level in football is to be in a pissing contest of high transfer fees and shirt sale signings. Too many teams look to win titles off brand recognition alone. Not every transfer window should look like the one Arsenal just had, but it was a smart, necessary exorcism of the expectations of the modern game. That right there is the identity of the club.
While their rivals are relying on 36-year-old blasts from the past and players approaching their twilight years, Arsenal sit alone with a group of under 24-year-olds, none of which are recognised international stars, and it’s working. The alternative route Arsenal took could have left them lost in the wilderness but instead turned out to be a shortcut to success which few others failed to consider. Arsenal fans recognise their club again, not because they’re the invincibles, not because of their tiki-taka stylings, but because they have purpose again.