By Tim Todd, Sneakerist
I have a friend who called me up the other day and asked me to come have a drink with him. I’m not one to turn down booze and company so I agreed to meet him at the local watering hole. But before we got off the phone, and yes I did actually speak to him on the phone, he excitedly told me that he got some new shoes. “They are New Balance, I’ll wear them.”
When I got to the bar, he was already posted up on a stool, and when he saw me walk in, he let out a huge smile, then pointed to his shoes. “Do you like them?”
They were purple. I looked at him. I looked at his shoes and laughed, “no.” His response was about how I didn’t know anything about style and fashion, and I admitted that’s true. I don’t know anything about why a man would buy a pair of purple sneakers.
I never asked but I keep wondering if they were meant to be ironic. That’s the thing these days, everything is ironic do it’s hard to tell what’s ironic and what’s authentic. I see kids wearing bow ties as they bag groceries at the local Fred Meyer. The bow tie was once worn exclusively to high society events, black tie events, and now it’s worn by kids to bag groceries.
Eyeglasses are the same. When I was growing up no one wore glasses. Even the kids who couldn’t see didn’t wear glasses. These days? People who can see perfectly wear glasses. It was all the rage there for a little while for NBA players to wear fake glasses.
But here’s the thing, if you’re doing something ironically, you’re still doing that thing. And one day, you’re going to find your old Facebook account and there will be pictures of you with a Snidely Whiplash mustache, a bow tie, fake glasses, and purple New Balance sneakers and you will look at that picture and say “wow, I was so coool. What happened to me?” And then you will yell at your teenage daughter for wearing some clothes that aren’t ironic enough. “You go to your room and put on some see-through yoga pants and a Journey tee-shirt right now, young lady! No daughter of mine is going to face the world with a semblance of authenticity.”
Unlike the hipster trend of the last 15 years, Arsenal’s New Balance is authentic.It’s a shift in managerial philosophy and from there the changes are rippling down throughout the ranks.
Tomas Rosicky let the cat poke its head out of the bag a bit last week when he talking about a shift in tactics and in match preparation.
We changed some stuff slightly in our preparation for these games. We’re doing a little more tactical work and we changed some stuff against the big teams. I don’t want to go into the details but there were some adjustments and it’s paid off for us. Recently we’ve been successful against the big teams but we still have to play Chelsea and Manchester United, so we would like to carry on like that.
And in terms of the games I think you can see Arsenal’s balance reflected in the relatively stable positions that players are taking up on the pitch. This new-found positional stability is a key reason why Arsenal seem to be able to cover for their teammates better all over the pitch.
Against Burnley on Saturday, Arsenal started with Giroud up front, Özil in the #10 spot behind him, Ramsey and Alexis playing wide midfield and Cazorla and Coquelin in the central midfield role. For the full 90 minutes each player stuck to his position, more or less, and kept the team shape.
If you were new to football and you read that last sentence you might say “yeah? Isn’t that what the players are supposed to do??” And yes, that is what most teams and most managers have done for the majority of football history. But Arsene Wenger isn’t most managers and his teams in the last 10 years tend to have more fluid lineups, with lots of interchanging between left and right wings, pushing fullbacks up out of position, and other methods which seek to destabilize the opponent by playing a more improvisational, jazz-like football. But this team feels more orchestrated.
One of the key movements to Arsenal’s New Balance is that Wenger has swapped Cazorla and Ramsey, putting Cazorla centrally and shoving Ramsey out wide. It’s a counter-intuitive move. Both are central midfielders, and Ramsey excels at the link-up role which is now Cazorla’s. Meanwhile, Cazorla is used to playing in the #10 spot behind the striker and Arsenal fans are used to seeing Cazorla given a wide role when Özil is available, simply because Özil is a better #10.
But this swap pays off because Ramsey provides a little more defensive muscle wide while Cazorla provides a little bit better link-up play in the middle.
Here is Ramsey’s Dashboard (from the Statszone App) from the Burnley match:
For the most part, Ramsey stuck to his task on the right wing. There were a few plays where him and Sanchez swapped sides but Ramsey largely stayed wide right. He also played deeper and more defensively than his counterpart on the left, Alexis:
As you can see by the green X’s, Alexis is still making defensive tackles, but he’s clearly playing a much more offensive role: he had 5 shots and 4 dribbles (the arrows are shots, the stars are dribbles), and almost all of his dribbles were in the opposition final third. Ramsey had just the three shots and despite his more defensive role (ironically!) scored the only goal of the game.
If there was any chink in the armor against Burnley it was that Ramsey mostly protected Hector Bellerin on his side of the pitch (there was one moment where Bellerin slipped but that was a one on one and hardly the fault of Ramsey) but because Alexis was going forward so much Nacho Monreal was attacked by the Burnley right side.
Burnley tend to focus their attack through their right side anyway and perhaps Wenger looked to keep the Burnley fullback, Trippier, occupied with Alexis but Burnley still got plenty of the ball down the right. All of those green X’s O’s and ^’s are Nacho Monreal being attacked mercilessly and him responding excellently. In fact, Arsenal’s clean sheet could easily be attributed to Monreal’s near-flawless defensive performance.
This is a key feature of Arsenal’s run of wins, the players stay home. During the run of 8 consecutive wins, Monreal has been chosen to start over Gibbs in each of those matches largely because he’s not as adventurous of a fullback as the Englishman. And so, if Wenger is going to play Alexis on the left, where he will look to come inside all the time, he needs a stay-home fullback behind Alexis to clean up when the opponent looks to counter. Thus, Nacho.
And finally, there’s Coquelin. Here’s his dashboard:
For years I have joked that Arsene Wenger doesn’t play defensive midfielders, he plays a guy who is “the most defensive midfielder on a team that doesn’t really play much defense.” But with Coquelin, Wenger has a true defensive mid. While it is true that Coquelin created two shots for his teammates (the aqua lines) and even took a shot for himself (the red arrow, it was way off target) there was a moment which illustrates his defense-first attitude.
The Burnley keeper hit a poor clearance which was collected well by Coquelin. The Frenchman drove forward with the ball and hit a hard pass to Alexis, who took a dribble, and then a shot. None of that was unusual, but what was unusual was that after Coquelin hit the pass to Alexis, he didn’t follow, he stopped running. He stopped because he knew it was his job to protect against the Burnley counter if Alexis turned the ball over or if his shot was blocked. This isn’t something I’ve come to expect from an Arsenal midfielder, to actually hold. They usually all run forward with abandon! That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean if you’ve watched Arsenal play over the last decade.
To my untrained eyes, it looks like it is a simple change that Arsenal have made to their game. Wenger is playing Cazorla through the middle in the role that Ramsey made his own over the last two years. He’s also pushing Ramsey wide and telling him to cover down the right, to not be as adventurous. He’s got Monreal on the left starting most games so that he can play Alexis in front of him. And finally, Wenger has Coquelin in midfield, a true defensive midfielder on a team which clearly decided to play a little defense from now on.
The good news is that Rosicky is saying that there is nothing ironic about this team. It’s not a pair of purple New Balance or a set of faux glasses and bow tie to make them “look” smart. The change is authentic. And personally? I’m a huge fan of authenticity.