Arsenal: The Jens Lehman difference that has been long in waiting

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 18: Jens Lehman of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premiership match between Everton and Arsenal at Goodison Park on March 18, 2007 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 18: Jens Lehman of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premiership match between Everton and Arsenal at Goodison Park on March 18, 2007 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images) /

Rob Holding has spoken of the ‘demanding’ nature of Jens Lehmann coaching style. It has, unfortunately, been long in waiting at Arsenal football club.

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain decided to join Liverpool in the summer, leaving Arsenal after six years at the club that he was the assumed future of, he cited the need to take ‘myself [sic] out of the comfort zone’ to ‘take me [sic] up to the next level.’ Essentially, Chamberlain viewed Jurgen Klopp, not Arsene Wenger, as the better manager for his career.

In very similar circumstances, Francis Coquelin, after his January move to Valencia, admitted that ‘you tend to get into a comfort zone when you stay for several years in the same clubs.’ He acknowledged that he ‘needed a new challenge’ after 10 years with the Gunners and declared that he was ‘thrilled by the project’ at Valencia.

This speaking of the ‘comfort zone’ is something that has hung over the management of Wenger for some time. He is a manager who endears himself to his players. He supports them, relentlessly. He is indefatigably loyal to them, allowing them to make mistakes, to learn from them, instilling a positive atmosphere in the dressing room, one that seeks to empower rather than critique.

In theory, they are all good and moral characteristics to strive for. Compare the Arsenal dressing room to those governed by Jose Mourinho. The longevity speaks for itself. But when that trust grows into a stale comfort that allows mediocrity to creep through the back door, it can numb the club into a sense of a contentment at underachievement. Not good.

Thank God, then, for the introduction of Jens Lehmann. The abrasive, aggressive, shouty and sometimes unhinged goalkeeper was added to the Arsenal coaching staff last summer. His impact has not gone unnoticed. Here is Rob Holding speaking about how Lehmann interacts with him on the training ground and how it has been different to the workings of the player-coach dynamic in the past:

"“Jens has been a big difference since he’s come in. He’s very demanding and not afraid to get down and dirty with you – he’ll get at you and I’ll have a little snap back. But then after training we’ll speak about it and we’ll come to an agreement on what went on and then the next day it’s like nothing happened. There’s no grudges held and it’s what I think is the key to getting the best out of me.”"

Contrast the ‘demanding’ Lehmann to the comments of Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. There is no way that the German madman would allow the pair to peacefully sit in their comfort zone and merely roll through the motions, seemingly unmoved by the results of the team and the stage of their development. Lehmann, as Holding states, is different.

Unfortunately, though, the conflicting, challenging style of Lehmann has been missing from the Arsenal coaches for far too long. Such is the stranglehold of Wenger on the inner-workings of the club, from the food that the players eat to the drills that they partake in in training, that those coaches working under him often have to abide by his code of conduct: A comforting arm around the shoulder, not a wagging finger in the face.

Lee Dixon, for instance, at the Arsenal Supporter’s Trust AGM earlier this year, stated that Steve Bould, Wenger’s assistant, is not given ‘as much [stuff to do in training] as he would like.’ Likewise, Pat Rice was always a more unassuming, quieter figure who was rarely seen ranting and raving at Wenger — I am sure that it did happen in private, but it was not as blatant as other, more trying but progressing coaches.

Sir Alex Ferguson would always surround himself with those willing to say ‘no’ to him. Ferguson was challenged by his coaches in Aberdeen, before the Manchester United empire was ever constructed, regarding his over-involvement in training. The assistant manager, and other coaches, came to him and said that he needs to step back, allow the coaches to coach, and for him to take a more observatory role. It worked. ‘Once I stepped out of the bubble, I became more aware of a range of details, and my performance level jumped’, Ferguson said in a 2013 interview with The Daily Telegraph.

It’s difficult to imagine Wenger making the same admission of failure based on the response of his coaches. He is meticulous, detailed, almost obsessive over every sinew of the club, every minute aspect that can be manipulated will be done so, and by him. It is not a healthy way to run a football club. He is also stubborn, proud, unbending. The combination of the two can become toxic.

And so, for many years, Wenger’s commitment and dedication to his players has gone unchallenged and unquestioned, even when the performances of the individual have not merited such a response. Lehmann, consequently, seems like a necessity.

The trust that Wenger places in his players is now being checked by the critique that is provided by the German; the loyalty and belief that Wenger instils are disputed, examined and even defied by the catechism and scrutiny of his understoody. It is a balance that has been long in waiting, one that has been needed for far too long.

It is undoubtedly pleasant to see.  Although the results are yet to match the change in process from a collective standpoint, as Holding details, Lehmann inspires and produces ‘what he needs to be as a centre-half.’ Those individual improvements will, in time, ripple through the squad, changing the culture of the team, the atmosphere in the dressing room, and the results on the pitch. The comfort zone, as long as Lehmann is around, is no more.