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Lessons from team rebuilds: Green Bay Packers

Arsenal: the Green Bay Packers of the Premier League.

Green Bay Packers v Carolina Panthers
The other kind of football.

My Arsenal fandom is still quite young—I’ve been following the team for a little over three years now and I’m still growing into it, whether that’s learning trivia about club history or occasionally needing to remind myself to watch the entire team instead of just the ball. My Green Bay Packers fandom is much older—I’m from Wisconsin and it’s practically a religion there, so I’ve been a cheesehead since I was old enough to sit through a game. And as I’ve dived deeper into Arsenal fandom, I’ve realized that I support essentially the same team in both types of football. Green Bay is the closest thing to Arsenal that the NFL has, and given the two teams’ history, and fans, and recent form, it’s a rather good approximation.

Unfortunately for Gooners and cheeseheads, Arsenal and the Packers have stumbled in the past season or two, and despite their shared dislike for change, both have realized that they’ll need to make some modifications to get back to the top of their respective leagues. With relatively homogenous team structure in the NFL, the Packers can move faster than Arsenal can—which means that we’ll get an accelerated look at what an Arsenal rebuild might be like when a newly refurbished Green Bay team returns to the field next fall.

Before we address the problems at hand, let’s look at their similarities.

History: both teams have it. Arsenal’s stretches back to 1886, beginning with the founding of the club at a Woolwich armory. Since then, the Gunners have moved to North London and won a record thirteen FA Cups, and thirteen league titles as well. The Packers are the oldest team currently in the NFL, just thirty-three years younger, and over the decades they’ve dropped the “Acme” from their name and won thirteen league championships, four of which were Super Bowls.

Star players: check and check. Past Arsenal squads have included players like Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, and Tony Adams, and today the Gunners have underappreciated midfield manager Mesut Özil. Meanwhile, the Packers have fielded Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Ray Nitschke, and Reggie White, and now they have future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers at QB (or they will again next season).

A legendary coach: yep yep yep. Whatever we think of Arsene Wenger now, the man can safely be considered a club legend thanks to the previous two decades. More than half of Arsenal’s FA Cups came with Wenger at the helm, he was in charge for the club’s Invincibles season, and he has had a profound impact on Premier League football as a whole. In the US, Green Bay played for eight years under Vince Lombardi, namesake of the league trophy and architect of the team’s rise in the modern NFL. Lombardi’s Packers won five league championships in seven years, and he coached the Ice Bowl, which any Packer fan can tell you about in probably more detail than you’d like.

Invincibles: yes, in their own ways. Arsenal had a literal invincible side—the 2003-2004 squad, which went unbeaten in the league for the entire season (and forty-nine games total). The Packers have never done that, but I would put their five-of-seven title stretch with Lombardi in the “Invincibles” category—although they weren’t perfect, they had quite the lock on the NFL.

Cross-town rivals: mmhmm. Arsenal have Tottenham and the Packers have the Bears, although the Bears have been way more spursy than Spurs have been recently.

Consistency: absolutely. Until the last couple of seasons, both the Gunners and the Packers have been unwaveringly very good, but not great, making near-annual top four (or playoff) appearances for the past two decades, with the occasional, infrequent league title (or Super Bowl) to top it all off. Both teams also just had their streaks snapped, last season in Arsenal’s case and this season in Green Bay’s.

So far I’ve been listing mostly good stuff, but the teams share some problems as well.

Resistance to change: oh yeah. Wenger has managed Arsenal for twenty-one years, and although we’ll always have the club’s recent history, results have declined in the past few years as the game has changed and Wenger hasn’t. The Packers don’t like change, either, and while that’s led to some good things—the citizens of Green Bay still own them, for example, rather than some corporate bigwig—it’s also caused them to hold onto some of their coaching staff for longer than they should have.

Unrealistic expectations: indeed. There are non-negligible populations of Gooners and cheeseheads that are seemingly never happy with their respective teams, and although everyone is entitled to fan however they want to, I imagine that it’s not pleasant to be perpetually disappointed by typical results for one’s team. Stadium atmosphere is largely up to the fans, too, and both the Emirates and Lambeau Field could benefit from some coordinated and strident support. (Lambeau is usually pretty good, but there was a significant drop-off after missing the playoffs this year—the Vikings’ skol chant should never be the loudest thing in that stadium.)

Injuries: affirmative. You could probably fill a hospital wing with injured Gunners and Packers in December. Arsenal struggle with depth during the winter stretch with two or three games every week, and for the past few years the Packers have lost either half of their offensive line or half of their defensive secondary, or sometimes both.

Bandaid players: most definitely. These are the guys that patch holes with their good play, and while that’s not the worst thing on a game-by-game basis, the holes that they patch go unfilled, and then their teams take nosedives when they get hurt. For Arsenal, these players are Özil and Aaron Ramsey. Arsenal’s recent record before Rambo pulled his hamstring? The Gunners won seven of their previous ten games. After? They drew with West Brom and West Ham and lost to Bournemouth. Ramsey is a good player, not a spectacular one, but he works well with Alexandre Lacazette and Granit Xhaka, and he provides lot of scoring opportunities himself. There is a similar dip in form without Özil on the pitch—the team is visibly sharper and livelier and more composed when Özil plays and directs the play around him.

Across the pond, Rodgers is a full-blown figurative tourniquet for the Packers, as was demonstrated so painfully for cheeseheads this season. Before Anthony Barr broke Rodgers’s collarbone, the Packers were 4-1, and they finished the season 7-9, out of the playoffs, and having been shut out by the Vikings in week sixteen. Rodgers’s ability to scramble and make awkward throws outside the pocket lets Green Bay get away with a leaky O-line, and since such salvaging of plays kept their drives alive and let them run up the score with relative ease, they got away with a sieve-like defense as well.

As agonizing as this season was for the Packers, they have gotten some good out of it—having their bandaid taken away prompted them to start patching some of their holes. They started by showing defensive coordinator Dom Capers the door, probably a couple years too late considering how long their defensive problems have persisted, and then moved general manager Ted Thompson upstairs and brought in Brian Gutekunst to take his place. Like Wenger, Thompson tended to be too set in his ways, and with a new GM, the Packers should stop repeating some of their previous player acquisition and retention mistakes.

Meanwhile, Arsenal seem to be headed in the same direction. Although they have Wenger under contract for this season and the next, the club have started making structural changes, most notably bringing in scout Sven Mislintat to help with finding players. Wenger won’t like giving up control, but with several different competitions and a league season thirty-eight matches long, it is nearly impossible for one person to manage a team and staff it. Mislintat, and anyone else Arsenal bring in, will take some of the pressure off of Wenger and let him focus on coaching, and they will make sure that Arsenal keep pace with other clubs with more modern setups. Because Wenger has been in charge for twenty-one years and their backroom positions are a little more customized (and because their offseason is only about a third the length of the American football offseason), Arsenal can’t just swap people in and out like NFL teams can, and their structural changes will be more gradual—but coming out of their own recent disappointing season, Arsenal have finally started to make them.

If done properly, changes in leadership can revitalize a team, regardless of the quality of the previous leader, and Arsenal and the Packers are both well on their way to finishing some much-needed repair work. The Packers will likely move faster and get the results they want first, but with their own deficiencies made clear, the Gunners will (or at least should) be right on their heels. Given the teams’ similarities, the upcoming NFL season in Green Bay may be an interesting one for Arsenal fans—as a test case, and as a look at what happens when a team finally gets around to patching its holes.