I don’t know how you spent your Christmas but mine was full of the three F’s: family, food, and football.
On Christmas Eve I wrapped my daughter’s presents, had a few bottles of Snow Cap and gave myself the gift of re-watching Arsenal’s 5-2 win over Tottenham, from February. I have to say February because, as you know, Arsenal have beaten Tottenham 5-2 twice this year.
The next day, after my daughter had played with her Legos and eaten her gingerbread pancakes and bacon, her mom whisked her off to a second Christmas and I settled in for a long day of snoozing, eating, and reading. Mostly, reading about Arsenal.
The book I read is Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub and it is probably the most important book about Arsenal that any fan of football, but especially a Gooner, can read. This isn’t a book review, that may come later, but I do want to impress on you that it’s an important book; not because you should believe every word but because almost every word in it dominates the narrative about Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.
I was given this book two years ago but, oddly, only started reading it last weekend. Had I read this book two years ago, my blog might be very different today. It might be more “Angry” or “Grove-y” because every criticism you have read about Arsenal and Arsene Wenger is in Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub. The weird thing is that these facts that we all know are presented not as a criticism, but rather as an example of why Arsene and Arsenal are so great.
For example, Arsene Wenger’s training methods are deeply criticized by many folks. The critique being that Arsene doesn’t prepare players for the opposition, rather that he has a set training routine he goes through. That fact is in Arsènal but the conclusion is not that Wenger doesn’t prepare his team but rather that Arsene’s approach to preparation is simply different. Moreover, Wenger’s approach is a well respected training regiment and coaches from all over the world want to emulate Wenger’s approach.
What we learn from Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher’s excellent book is that Wenger’s training method prepares his team to play together as a team, so that they can instinctively know where their teammate will be at any given moment. He also focuses on fitness so that his team can take advantage of the opposition who will invariably have to work harder to stay in the game. Once he’s prepared his team physically and mentally, he then kind of turns them loose on the opposition.
Rewatching Arsenal’s 5-2 win over Tottenham, with the advantage of this newfound perspective on my side, I saw things differently than when I first watched the match. And even differently from when I watched the match this summer.
The first thing I saw differently is this notion that Wenger doesn’t change his system and that he rarely responds to changes by opposition managers. It’s somewhat true, because we do know that Arsene sends his men out to play like a jazz band might; rather than having a set of sheet music from which they play every note perfectly, they are free to improvise within the confines of the piece they are playing. And like a good jazz band, sometimes that’s fantastic and sometimes it’s as tedious as a Phish concert sober. But no matter what happens, when that doesn’t work, he is very reluctant to change.
However, you can see two things from the Tottenham match in February that are either the exception which proves the rule or the reality which disproves the rule, depending upon your inclination.
Louis Saha’s goal in the 4th minute was pure luck but it was born out of Arsenal playing such a fantastically high line and affording a player like Saha the room to run and get between the defenders and to even get the shot off. Whether that was Arsene Wenger’s call or whether that was the players deciding to play that high up the pitch is unknown. But what is known is that, factually, Arsenal stopped playing a high defensive line and stopped pressing so high up the pitch. Here’s the tackles map of the first half versus the second:
As you can see, Arsenal played deeper in defense for the second half.
Another change Wenger made was actually a reaction to something that Redknapp did at half-time. 2-2 at half time and it was basically a new game so Redknapp did what many Arsenal supporters call for Arsene Wenger to do: make substitutions at half-time to “win the game.” Redknapp brought on Sandro and van der Faart because Spurs had been overrun in midfield. It was Redknapp’s plan to change his system to a 5-man midfield, the kind of change which would have made ole George Graham proud.
And just like against Wigan last weekend, Arsenal saw the five-man midfield and knew how to beat it, by attacking wide. Here are the passing maps which show first half passing versus second:
Again, is that the players just changing the game on their own or was that Arsene Wenger telling them to get wide? Your answer might depend on your inclination but I’d like to offer a third path: if the players changed the game on their own or if Wenger did it from the sidelines is irrelevant because both are part of Wenger’s tactics.
As we learn in Arsènal, and I mentioned above, Wenger expects his team to play fluid football, like a great jazz band. If he never utters a single word on the sidelines or changes his formation at half-time, he’s deploying a tactic. You might not like it, but it is a tactic.
One of the other revelations in the book that struck me is how Arsene puts such a heavy emphasis on interplay between players. We actually already know that, if we’ve paid any attention to how Arsenal play, but seeing it written and confirmed actually turned a light on for me.
This idea of Arsene focusing his team on interplay between players means that the longer he keeps players together the more automatic their play should become. Again, using the match against Tottenham from February, there’s some great exchanges between Theo and Robin which only happen because they had a “telepathic” link. Same between Song and Arteta, Song and Robin, and Song and Vermaelen. In fact, of the two players who Wenger sold this summer, it was Song’s connection to his teammates, workrate, and controlled aggression in that Spurs win which was most impressive to me.
I got a lot of stick for my post a few days ago that Arsenal, and specifically Wilshere, needs to be more in your face with the opposition, more aggressive getting stuck in and less passive moaning or retributive about the opposition tackling them. That Tottenham match was the perfect example of what I want to see from Wilshere and Arsenal, and it was driven mostly by Alex Song from midfield. The whole Arsenal team responded to Song’s very aggressive approach to that game. Arteta and he combined to basically take the opposition midfield out of the game. His constant nibbling at the opposition earned Scott Parker two yellows for retribution and he put Sandro in his pocket after the Spurs man picked up a yellow card just 16 minutes after being introduced. Then they neutered van der Vaart with close tackling and a little bit of rough treatment.
Nothing over the top, no Stoke on Trent tactics, just plain physical play.
That’s what I want to see from Arsenal. That’s what I want to see from Jack Wilshere. That’s what Wilshere can do to lift this team. He’s already trying to do it, but he’s trying in the wrong way. You have to be hard but controlled and right now he’s too wild and acting out with retribution instead of simply getting stuck in early and often as Song did against Tottenham. You do that and it lifts the entire team, gives them an edge. It’s what Arsenal did with Vieira and Petit and it’s what Arsenal should be looking to do again. English refs are the most permissive in the world, might as well use that to our advantage.
I will plainly say that I think Arsenal are missing Song as much if not more than Robin. Go back and watch the Spurs game again. He was a beast. Arsene gambled that Diaby would come good and that gamble failed. Since that roll came up craps, Arsenal need to replace Song. The midfield is starting to look run down and lethargic, like a zombie if you will. They need an injection of energy and some rotation to get that fire back. Maybe Coquelin can do it? I’m not sure and if not then I would like to see someone brought in now, especially given the importance of interplay and building those telepathic links.
This season had been depressing me quite a bit but watching that Spurs game again and reading Arsènal actually gave me hope that Arsene can pull this off and build what would be his fourth side. The components are all there for this to be a great Arsenal team; Podolski is a clinical finisher, Giroud is the perfect target man, Wilshere can be our pit bull, Cazorla is the band leader, and Mertesacker is a calming presence organizing the back. The pieces are all there, just how Wenger rolls the right numbers to get it to work is the interesting part.
Oh and this idea that Arsene is a gambler? It’s in the book.