Team Maturity: Young Gunners or Dinosaurs?
By Sumaiya Vawda
Arsenal are (on average) the youngest team in the Premier League. It is a fact that has been used to lavish praise on rising players, cloak inconsistencies in the underlying metrics and (in the case of Gary Neville) question Arsenal's transfer window on the whole. Young players hold much promise, but this discussion is not about age. The adage of 'age is but a number' rings true in many aspects of elite sports where team maturity is transcendent.
If your parents trust you with the house keys at a young age, they believe you to be responsible and mature- just as it was for Granit Xhaka growing up. On a footballing end, the maturity of the collective prevails but is certainly impacted by the individuals in its composition. Here, team maturity is the group's ability to understand a tactical vision and consistently execute it in every action and phase of play. No, it's not about David Luiz's team spirit or Mesut Özil's locker room disturbance. Team maturity is a crucial determinant of what a group of players can achieve.
Performance maturity is why Bukayo Saka plays over Nicholas Pépé weekly despite the latter's talents. Additionally, Arsenal's youthful transfers point to a willingness on Arteta's part to guide their discovery of their full potential. Players still early in their maturing require more in-depth strategic modelling. This can weigh heavy on the footballing mind and may explain the mini collapses of the current Arsenal side. When uncertainty creeps in, some of the principles fall away. Against Liverpool, long balls forward from Ben White and Gabriel were aimless. The side that won almost every second ball against Aston Villa barely attempted to compete on that front at Anfield. The quality of opposition is certainly a factor, but the inability to execute in every facet over 90 minutes is attributable to team maturity.
A mature team appears telepathic in its play. Maturing players provide their own input to coaches and require simpler specifics of a new context to transfer their gameplay from match to match. Aubameyang, Lacazette and Partey are the players heightening Arsenal's average age. These are undoubtedly mature players, with Partey and Aubameyang arriving from Champions League mainstays led by experienced managers. However, it's difficult for the Arsenal skipper to impose himself on a game when he is not receiving the ball in the opposition box.
Further, he and Lacazette occupy the forward line where passes are risky, and much of the movement goes unnoticed. Thus, when the team is struggling to hold on to the ball or build a passing rhythm, the experience of these two players is not felt in calming the situation. Comparatively, Partey plays in the team's central zone and should exert a greater influence on proceedings. He has the ability to dictate play in a way that elevates his younger teammates but has been unable to command the space against strong opposition. Deputy editor Rob Worthington has chronicled his Anfield troubles.
This argument is to say that Arsenal persist with this group as their maturity is moulded together. Sokratis and Luiz have been fielded at Anfield to a more calamitous effect than less experienced players. Arteta's vision will have clicked when this group can execute the game plan in each of their contributions repeatedly. This maturing phase is only the crescendo to the ultimate 'bang' he envisages for the project.