I remember Tiger Woods when interviewed after a round where he two-putted every Green, saying he was really pleased with the way he’d putted. This seemed strange, especially as he’d gone round in par without recording a single birdie: when asked about this he replied that his putting stroke felt really fluid and it was only a matter of time before the putts dropped, and pars became birdies. In much the same way, you will hear cricketers these days talking about the importance of bowlers getting it into the right areas, and this football season has seen more and more reference to the expected goals statistic. Get the process right, success will follow.
These days the concept of ‘life coaching’ is increasingly prevalent, emphasising as it does the importance of process-driven growth, rather than a goal-oriented approach. The idea being that rather than setting your sights on short-term peaks of success, a longer lasting value-driven approach will lead to greater happiness: this also finds its way into sports coaching (or was it the other way round?) and most young athletes these days are exhorted to find, and then trust, the process that is best suited to them. Going back to golf for a moment, the thinking is best described like this: if the player thinks ‘if I hole this putt I will win the tournament’, the putt is literally make or break, tension creeps in and disaster beckons. Current coaching philosophy says ‘forget about the outcome, trust the process that has seen you hole thousands of such putts, go into auto-pilot, and the likeliest result will be the successful one’. I find as I write this not golf springing to mind, but rather Steve Davis’s missed Black in that epic encounter back in the 70s. He would have done well to put outcome out of his mind at that moment.
But what of The Arsenal amongst all this? As the signs began to emerge this season that Mikel Arteta was not necessarily the answer to The Arsenal’s on-field issues, fans were either quick to call for his head or offer support by suggesting he needed time to get the players he wanted, and then more time to get them playing his preferred style. ‘Trust the Process’ became the cry, the implication being that at long last the club was going about its business in the right way and that once the non-negotiables were no longer being negotiated, success would surely follow. After all, he had been Arsene’s on-field general and knew the Arsenal way, while many Manchester City watchers were also quick to suggest that he was the real brains behind Guardiola’s success. Well maybe, but it’s worth remembering that not many monkeys make it to organ grinder.
And trusting the process surely became the mantra for the players too. Keep believing, keep doing the right thing; keep creating triangles, keep seeking overloads; keep executing the training ground plan, keep finding the final pass and as night follows day expected goals will become actual ones. What could possibly go wrong? Theoretically very little, but there’s many a slip between theory and practice, as this season has so eloquently demonstrated. While it is right and proper to go into a game with a plan, most managers would have a couple of other plans up their sleeve should the preferred option prove unsuccessful – and one of the main frustrations for Arsenal fans of late has been laboured sideways and back passing repeated ad infinitum, with seemingly little real intent to quicken the pace and go for the jugular. Even some of the great Wenger sides would occasionally lump it long, and they certainly knew when an injection of intent was needed.
But watching the so-called season-defining game last week against Villareal I realised two things. The first was that if a single game is season-defining then you have the exact opposite of trusting the process: the single match has become too important, the players too fixated on the outcome to play with any natural fluidity. And the other thing (which is no doubt why we ended up in such a situation) is that the players do not seem technically good enough to play the way the manager expects them to. Too many passes are hit fractionally behind players, causing a breakdown of momentum, too many passes needlessly gift up the ball, too many passes when received are mis-controlled. Playing out from the back becomes an open invitation for the other side, attacks (when they finally come) are telegraphed so long in advance that any defence worth its salt can snuff out danger whilst also having time for a cup of tea and a read of the paper. Midfield control is out of the question, especially when the only midfielder worth his salt is played out of position. And, most damning of all, the moments of individual and unchoreographed brilliance needed to take charge of a game have long since been either coached out of the players, hampered by chronic uncertainty or are simply not available to players who seem at best just a little bit better than average in Premier League terms.
Trusting the process needs a process worth trusting in, but it also needs players with enough ability to make it work. If we are to stay with the players we currently have then I think a different playing style is needed, a process that is more robust defensively and less complicated in attack. The sort of approach adopted by the Leicester title-winning side maybe, which once in a blue moon may see outrageous success but is more likely to consistently see a placing between 4th and 8th. It would need to see a different manager and would likely be the cheapest and swiftest way to see progress from the shambles of 20/21. If the club decides to stick with Mikel Arteta, and if he continues with his process, then he is going to need much better players to make it work. It will take time, a lot more money, and far greater ambition than I suspect the club is willing to invest in. It is also worth wondering if Arteta has the confidence to coach players more talented and successful than himself: past experience does not necessarily seem to say so.
My guess is that the club will end up falling between the two stools: Arteta will stay, there will be a few arrivals and even more departures, a lot of money (but not enough) will be spent and this money will be largely wasted because the new players will not be quite good enough and the manager will not be pragmatic enough to ditch his Pep inspired tactical dreams and settle for something that might actually work. I can’t see next season being much different to this one, I’m afraid. It’s all rather sad, to be honest, but with mainly Saturday afternoon non-televised games, and no European matches to look forward to, I will at least save on Sky and BT subscriptions, which is certainly a process that will go down well with the rest of the family.
Tim Head @foreverheady