Sean McVay's L.A. Rams Trajectory Offers Further Hints at a Big Arsenal Summer
“Stan [Kroenke] is very innovative. He appreciates the young entrepreneurs, people like that in the business world who are bright and making a mark on the planet..."L.A. Rams General Manager Les Snead.
In 2017, Kroenke Sports Entertainment faced two critical decisions. Both of the company's marquee franchises, the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, and the Premier League's Arsenal, were drifting. Both had long-standing managers in Jeff Fisher and Arsene Wenger who seemed past their coaching primes. Each club had restless fan bases desperate for returns to past form.
KSE made two wildly different moves. In London, Wenger was convinced to stay on one last year, to restore his squad to Champions League contention before walking away. In Los Angeles, owner Stan Kroenke and Rams general manager Les Snead took a bold and diametrically opposite tack. They hired 30-year-old Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, to reverse their fortunes.
Bold proved better. McVay restored the flash the Rams sported in their "Greatest Show on Turf" days of the early '00s. In two seasons, Los Angeles went from doormat to title contender. The speed of that culture change no doubt figured into KSE's thinking this past January, when Arsenal replaced the floundering Unai Emery, the "safer" replacement for Wenger, with 37-year-old Mikel Arteta, a young, untested but well-regarded candidate whom Arsenal had first considered when they hired Emery in 2018.
Arteta, like McVay, has shown that being younger may be an asset when re-directing a youthful, mercurial locker room. If anything, Arteta may actually be on a faster rebuilding curve than McVay. That said, the season and a half head start McVay has on his counterpart should make KSE more comfortable giving Arteta the personnel upgrades he's called for. If KSE follows the Rams script many of the names being teased as Arsenal transfer targets may be tangible, and not merely fantastical.
Let's take a quick review of McVay's project, noting the many ways his approach anticipated Arteta's. Let's also note how quickly KSE put real financial support behind McVay once he proved himself.
Winning The Rams' Way
Recent Arsenal fans, raised on Wenger's attractive, attacking style, pine for a return to "the Arsenal way" of daring, flashy football. McVay faced a similar challenge when he took over the Rams. That club made its modern reputation as "the greatest show on turf," an aggressive, attractive offensive attack that threatened to score on every play. Led by Kurt Warner, the St. Louis Rams spread the field and stressed defenses with speedy receivers and the sublime Marshall Faulk, a running back as dangerous catching the ball as he was running it.
The Rams lit up the scoreboard, winning the Super Bowl in 2000 and losing in an upset to the Patriots two years later. Eventually, the club aged and the rebuilding was trusted to Jeff Fisher, a defensive coach who had done the impossible, making the Tennessee Titans winners while keeping the mercurial Bud Adams happy. That team's owner was notorious for changing coaches the way some people change cars, but Fisher managed to work with Bud for seventeen seasons.
Fisher had impressed Adams by keeping the then Houston Oilers competitive while they relocated to Tennessee in the last '90s and took their new name. KSE had a similar task in mind for him. The Rams were moving from St. Louis back to Los Angeles, where they played from the '50s until the '90s. Fisher had also played his college ball for local USC, so the Rams could sell him as bringing the Rams "home."
It was a great marketing concept but terrible in practice. Los Angeles is home to Hollywood, and the locals wanted the Rams to resemble the go-go teams from St. Louis. Fisher was a defensive coach, who preferred physicality to flash. His Rams not only lost more often than not but did so playing boring football. Arsenal fans who still care to remember the Emery Era can relate.
McVay took over a club that was 4-12 in Fisher's last season. His mandate was clear. Win more and do so "the Rams way." McVay delivered quickly. He revitalized young quarterback Jared Goff and the Rams offense soared. They had been the NFL's lowest-scoring team in 2016 but led the league in 2017, more than doubling their points scored. They reached the playoffs for the first time in thirteen years.
Just as important for our comparison, McVay accomplished this with very little roster turnover. His 2017 squad, with a few minor improvements, was the same club that has played so poorly under Fisher the year prior. The Rams brass knew they had their man and opened their wallets in 2018. The NFL is a salary cap league, but a losing club like the Rams, with a young roster playing on first contracts, had plenty of money to spend in the summer of 2018.
And spend they did. Snead used every tool at his disposal to upgrade the lineup. He traded for veterans like Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Brandin Cooks. He signed free agents like Ndamukong Suh and Sam Shields. The Rams' aggressive moves paid off. Most of these moves improved a leaky defense and the 2018 Rams tied for the NFL's best record. They made it to the Super Bowl, where they lost a defensive match against New England.
The Rams again took an aggressive approach in 2019, trading for big-ticket corner Jalen Ramsey. 2019's set of moves was not as successful, but the Rams and KSE have shown their hand. They feel McVay's window for winning is now, and they're willing to spend heavily to get him a title.
Winning Again the Arsenal Way
Move the narrative to London. Like McVay, Arteta assumed a mismatched squad with a porous defense and a moribund attack, one many fans said, rightly, no longer resembled "Arsenal football." Like McVay, Arteta was given little personnel assistance in his first transfer window. Pablo Mari was the lone January addition and has battled several injuries.
Like his Zoom partner (Arteta mentioned during the COVID break that he and McVay had held several video conferences to discuss ways of preparing their squads) Arteta showed a zeal for man-management. He took a slightly different approach from McVay, working on stopping the defensive bleeding before working on his attack, but similar results have come quickly.
- Record Emery/Ljungberg: 5W-8D-5L, 28% wins
- Record Arteta: 8W-8D-2L, 44% wins
- Record Arteta since Feb. 16th: 7W-1D-3L, 64% wins
- Goals against Emery/Ljungberg: 1.5 goals/game
- Goals against Arteta: 1.0 goals/game
- Goals for Emery/Arteta: 1.3 goals/game
- Goals for Arteta: 1.6 goals/game
- Goals for Arteta, since Feb 16th: 1.9 goals/game
Unlike McVay, who started his first campaign with a 0-0 record and a full training camp in which to instill his system, Arteta assumed a team midway through his season. Arsenal had a 5-8-5 record and was closer to the relegation zone than to European football. He had no time for experimentation. Arteta needed quick results.
As the chart shows, Arteta's half-season can be divided into two sections. He won only one of his first seven games, adding five more draws to the team's dubious league-leading total. But Arteta had a plan. In those games Arsenal's defense tightened, going from yielding 1.5 goals a contest to 1.0, a number they've maintained after the COVID break.
The scoring ebbed in those seven games but has returned with interest. Since a 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle on February 16th, the Gunners are averaging 1.9 goals a match, nearly doubling their output in Arteta's first six weeks. They're steadily moving towards winning and winning the Arsenal way.
Arteta has done this with Emery's men. His half-season in 2020 looks a lot like McVay's full 2017. He's passed the audition. If Mikel wins his final two league matches against Aston Villa and Watford he'll close winning 69% of his final thirteen matches. A record that strong over 38 games would put Arsenal back into top-four contention.
“Stan [Kroenke] is very innovative. He appreciates the young entrepreneurs, people like that in the business world who are bright and making a mark on the planet…"
Stan demonstrated in 2018 and in 2019 that he valued McVay's contributions to the Rams. In Mikel Arteta, he's found another young football entrepreneur, who has already made a positive mark on the Arsenal planet.
It should be clear to KSE that investing in Arteta this summer the way they invested in McVay two years ago could let Arsenal again make a mark on the football planet. It's not too much for fans to expect.
Find out what are Arsenal's transfer plans for the summer.