He may have an economics degree but chemistry has always been of interest to Arsene Wenger.
The Arsenal coach has long wondered if there was a way to measure chemistry in a team and has developed his own thoughts on the matter. Arsenal fans, frustrated every summer in the thwarted quest to sign a new striker, can probably guess what they are. Every big-name player coming in sends a message to the kids who are coming through; your path is blocked, we don’t back you, there is no chance here.
The corollary effect in today’s media-saturated digital age is that lack of spending is confused with lack of ambition. Man United fans might claim ‘we want it more’ because their team has spent big on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly. This is patently not true. It’s just a different way of doing business.
Wenger might be onto something. The coaching talent in the Premier League may be as strong as it’s ever been but each of the new bosses faces serious challenges at their clubs: five of the seven teams that finished between fourth and 10th last season start this season with a different coach.
So there is something to be said for stability, for cohesion, for long-term improvement. These are terms not often associated with Tottenham Hotspur or their chief executive Daniel Levy, but he seems to have recognised that with Mauricio Pochettino on the bench, the club is going places. Spurs were Leicester’s closest title challengers as the season drew to a close, and only a late collapse pushed them down into third spot. Perhaps that’s why they are out of pundits’ thoughts ahead of this season’s prediction game. Spurs have barely been in the news, such has been the clamour over Jose Mourinho’s latest comment, Pep Guardiola’s snazzy waistcoat or Conte’s new-fangled fitness regime. Instead, Levy has quietly and efficiently improved a squad that went so close last season. Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen offer reasonably-priced back-up to key players Eric Dier and Harry Kane, while Georges-Kevin Nkoudou could provide an X-Factor that Clinton N’Jie lacked.
The signings may not be headline news but they are more than decent. Wanyama could be a starter at most top-four clubs and while there is often some doubt about signings from the Eredivisie, the way Janssen bullied England’s defence in Holland’s friendly at Wembley in March suggests he is more Van Nistelrooy than Kezman.
And yet Spurs are barely mentioned as a top-four option, let alone a title contender, for the coming season. There are some weaknesses in the side, for sure – the full-backs are not brilliant defensively – but what team has no flaws this season?
This is not to say Spurs will win the title. Question marks have to be raised over their late-season slump last year – numbers show Pochettino’s teams regularly drop off in the last 12 matches of the season – while the added pressure of the Champions League could leave a toll on the squad.
But then there’s the chemistry factor. Unlike Guardiola, Mourinho and Conte, Pochettino knows his best system, knows his best 11 and more importantly, the players know it as well. Kane is in his third season leading the line, Dele Alli in his second behind him. The same back five, which conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League last season, will start again. These are important factors when you compare the impact of a new centre-back starting in a team or, if Manchester City complete the signing of John Stones, a player coming in once the season has begun.
Take Leicester out of the equation and Spurs would have been the story of last season. They played the best football in the division and with a bulk of English players – Walker, Rose, Dier, Alli and Kane – at their core. The team’s improvement was proof that smart coaching can make players better. They were only pitched as the villains of the piece because Leicester’s rise was so astonishing.
Turnover naturally leads to instability and it’s a rare player who carries on at a new club where he left off at the last – not to mention a similar effect for coaches. That is one reason why Wenger is a reluctant market mover.
It’s taken a long time for Levy to get the message, but it seems with Pochettino in the dugout, the Spurs project is going the same direction. Like at Arsenal, there is a new batch of young players ready to make a breakthrough this season as well, among them Josh Onomah, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Marcus Edwards. But for the purpose of the Premier League narrative, the headline act is in Manchester this season. New coaches, new signings, but less chemistry. Pochettino will quietly get on with his business. The understated Argentine prefers it that way.
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