Arsenal are renowned for playing some of the most exhilarating, fluid football in Europe, but clearly such high-tempo interaction between the players takes plenty of practice.
That’s where the training sessions come in. Everyday during the season, if it’s not a matchday – and with a few exceptions for days off – the Arsenal first-team squad report for duty at the club’s London Colney training centre.
There, under the guidance of Arsène Wenger and his trusted coaches, the Arsenal players hone their skills for about an hour and a half each morning on the perfect playing pitches.
"When I signed Robert Pires, in the first small-sided training game, I put him in the same team as Dennis Bergkamp. After five minutes I knew how good he was because Bergkamp kept giving him the ball!"
But what exactly does training for a modern Premier League club entail? How does the boss decide what his players will work on each day and what does he look to gain from the sessions?
In the first of an exclusive two-part special on Arsenal’s training programmes, the manager reveals what the players get up to behind the closed-doors of the training centre…
How do you decide what the training schedule will be each day? First we have a general rule where we work on some qualities every day of the week, every week. So we have a general pattern for these cycles of approximately three weeks. Then we’ll have one week where it’s a little more cool, more based on recovery. You also have to consider what happened in the last game, what do you have to work on specifically? Then you have to look at the individualised work. Everybody’s in different form, some need to work on more physical aspects of their game, while some have to work more on the technical aspects.
So we try to put that all together and get it right for the week, then the result that you get is always shown by how sharp your players are and how sharp the team is on the Saturday. Even with the vast experience I have, that’s never completely 100 per cent predictable because you can sometimes make mistakes when you want to do too well on a certain aspect. You insist on working on some areas of the game that were not right and you can spend too long working on that if you’re not careful, so it’s not easy. But of course that has to be put right before the game every week, and sometimes twice a week.
When do you decide what exercises and drills will be included? How far in advance do you work? Well I know some exercises that I will want to work on for that day’s session, but then we have meetings as well with the fitness coaches. We plan and adapt both together to get that right. Sometimes the fitness work is included within the game that I had planned for that session, or sometimes the fitness work is separate, when we work more with the ball. Some aspects of fitness can only be worked on by running, so it’s adapted every day in the staff meeting.
That’s where you get the final perfection before the training session. You sit together and speak about it in the morning, also because you know that the personnel will have to be adapted every day – not everybody’s available all the time because some players will have knocks and injuries. The medical people and coaching staff work together and sort that out before every training session.
How much do you vary training depending on the next opposition? The day before the game and even two days before the game, the intensity goes down to approximately 20 per cent of match exertion. That’s when we do the final part of the preparation which is more tactical, sometimes mental preparation. So in these last two sessions before the game, the focus is not so much on the fitness anymore. It’s more down to the mental preparation, the focus and, yes, the tactical approach too.
During the season, what percentage of the work is physical based, and what per cent is more technical or tactical work?You cannot separate some aspects of the work between technique and tactics, because they are linked in the same exercises. But what you can say is that technique is the basis of our sport. If you have no technique, even if you have the best desire and mental aspect, you’ll go nowhere. That is always the case. A pianist works every day with his hands and a footballer works every day on his technique with the ball at his feet. It’s not natural to split your attention between looking up and down. You can’t keep looking at the ball then looking up, and be perfectly co- ordinated. That is the basis of our training.
Then of course you have to make sure that your technique is efficient for the team and you have to liaise with every other player in the team. As well as that, when your team doesn’t have the ball, you have to make sure that you can help your team to win it back. Those are all different aspects that are very important. We like to have the ball but to have the ball you have to be able to win it back when you lose it. You cannot say that some players are only good when they have the ball – because then who wins it back? In the modern game it’s important that everyone is able to win it back together or else you can’t play. All these aspects have to be right.
How do you keep training fresh every day? When did you last introduce a new drill for example? There’s something new every day because we never do the next day exactly the same as the day before. Every week we come in after training and talk together about what went well, what was interesting in the exercises and what we should repeat. It’s a mixture of creation and repetition because the basics have to be right. If you play on the flanks you have to cross the ball, which means there’s a repetition to get it perfect if you’re practising the crossing. Then you also have to get the guy who plays on the flank in a position where he can actually cross the ball and that means the movement around him has to be right, the passing around him has to be right and his runs have to be right to get into crossing positions. To achieve that you need to connect with the other players around you and you need to develop these connections with repeated exercises.
Do you tell your players to train as hard as they play? Yes I do. The general plan is to play in training like you do in the game, or even harder. But some days you do have to ease off completely and not have the intensity because you need to recover as well after games. But basically you need to give the players the same intensity that they will face in a game.
Have you ever watched a training session and thought it was at the same level as a Premier League game? Yes, many times. Even the day before a game you can think to yourself ‘that intensity is absolutely amazing, the players are ready to go out tomorrow and perform at that level’. The team always gives you a vibe in training, like a weather forecast. Sometimes you think ‘yes, that’s right, they are there.’ Or other times you think ‘nope, they have switched off, they’ll have to work on their concentration otherwise they will have a disillusion on Saturday’. It’s never set though, you always have to adjust it a little bit because everyday you face a different problem. Sometimes its physical, sometimes it’s the concentration levels, sometimes it’s the harmony within the side. Sometimes it could be one or two players who are disillusioned. These can all pull the energy levels down so you always have to correct and adjust things to get it right for the next game.
Would you ever select a player purely on the strength of excellent performances in training? No, the priority is the last game. If the team has done well and the confidence level is there, then if he has one or two bad days in training during that week it’s not always a specific reason to take him out of the team. If you feel he is really tired, then yes. If you feel he will suffer in his position against the characteristics of the next opposition, then maybe you could take him out too. Selection is a combination of the problems you will face in the next game, the team’s last performance, and the vibe you get in training.
Do you learn more about new signings from their first training session with Arsenal than when you scout them in matches for their previous sides? Yes, you learn something straight away. If it’s an offensive player I always put them alongside very good players in the small matches when they arrive for their first training sessions. Then you see how much these players give them the ball. I’ll give you a concrete example. When I signed Robert Pires, in the first small-sided training game, I put him in the same team as Dennis Bergkamp. After five minutes I knew how good he was because Bergkamp kept giving him the ball! So Bergkamp thought he was a good player, they linked up well together so then you know you have won the battle. Of course you put them in conditions in training where you can see if other players think they are good. That’s always very important, because players want to be respected by the other players in the dressing room. Also it’s important that they can be in an environment where they can express their talent, so you want to do that as early as you can in a training session.
There must have been players in the past who were excellent trainers but could never transfer it to the games… Yes, many times you have had examples of that, of course. You get excellent trainers who are less good competitors, and you also have excellent competitors who are less good trainers. But after a while you get to know your team and your players and you know that they will do it in the games. For example we had Nigel Winterburn, who was a bad runner in training and didn’t like some aspects of training. But when the matches started in training, he was a competitor. And when the game started in competition, he was a competitor. If you asked him to do ten laps though, he was very bad. However if you told him we were playing five against five, he was ready to die to win the game. You get to know different aspects of players when you live with them every day.
Do you ever see the opposite? Players who perform in training but not in the games? Yes, you speak about inhibition there, and that’s a major problem for us in our job. Inhibition is an important factor – it can be individual or it can be as a team as well. Sometimes when you are in a bad psychological position in your results, you see your team performing extremely well in training because they want to do well. But when the game starts you don’t see collectively what you have seen in training. For individuals it’s exactly the same. A striker who hasn’t scored for five games, you tell him not to worry, it will come. But he puts the pressure on himself – he tries to force it. At the top level it’s always a good mixture between concentration and being relaxed. As soon as that is disturbed, you don’t get your best.
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