Last week I posted a blog about Arsene Wenger and
his merits as a tactician. I explained why I felt that he’s hugely underrated
in this department, and gave an analogous explanation to hopefully highlight
the tactical differences between Wenger and his peers.
This article was my opinion and mine only. I thank
Gunners Town for giving me a platform to post articles and engage in
discussion, but I would ask any readers to please understand that all opinions
expressed are mine and mine only. Gunners Town is a site which publishes
individual writers: we don’t have a collective opinion on any subject.
During the week I read interesting response to my
piece, posted here on You Are My Arsenal, in which DaAdminGooner quite
rightly points out that Arsene Wenger’s abilities as a coach enable him to
perhaps get more out of players than his contemporaries, which accounts for our
consistency in reaching minimum last 16 of the champions league. He also
acknowledges that far from being a bad tactician, Wenger is actually pretty
good, but contends that tactics are not his main strength and can often be a
Now we all know that Arsene is often extremely
stubborn in his approach to games. To the author’s mind, a major tactical
shortcoming is that he rarely shows the flexibility to change formation when we
hit a defensive brick wall. While I agree that he rarely makes large structural
changes, I feel that there are areas in which he is quite a way ahead of
‘mechanical’ tacticians, and his philosophy in my opinion more than compensates
for what onlookers call his ‘rigidity.’ In this piece I’ll go further than I
did last week, to hopefully explain why I still feel he really is one of the
best tacticians in the modern game, and why I feel that his abilities as a
coach complement his tactical approach, but do not mask his deficiencies.
Before I continue please note that I have
acknowledged that Wenger has deficiencies. He is not infallible by any means,
and as pointed out on You Are My Arsenal, his stubbornness in his approach can
hurt us at times.
In my opinion however, that doesn’t stop him being
one of the best. Personally I think he’s been wanted by the best clubs in world
football not just because he’s a great motivator, but because within his system
the best players in the world would be formidable. I think we can all agree on
one thing: overall, he is a fantastic manager and his record shows just that.
But what makes him so good? Is it his tactical approach or his ability to get
the most out of his players?
To me they’re not mutually exclusive.
There’s no doubt that Wenger is one of the most
prolific coaches in the game. He’s known for improving most of the players that
he manages, certainly over a period of two or 3 seasons he has managed to turn
plenty of promising talents into top level performers at Arsenal. But when they
leave they rarely replicate their form at other clubs. Alex Song, Samir Nasri,
Emmanuel Adebayor, Alex Hleb, even Mathieu Flamini, Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy.
They may have won trophies but none became better players.
The reason I included this fact in last week’s
piece is because for me it’s the proof that they’re being deployed in a way
that gets the best out of them during the match. That’s a really important point because most of
them have gone on to join world class squads, with top level managers and world
class coaches, to play in a 4231 system with what one would assume given
Arsene’s shortcomings, is greater tactical flexibility. It shouldn’t be that
different to their roles at Arsenal yet aside from Cesc Fabregas and Robin van
Persie, who were in my opinion proven world class players when they left, none
have found the same inspiration, not even around better players. You have to ask
yourself whether even an above average tactician can get the most out of a
group of well-coached players on the field. In my opinion he’d get more out of
them than an average tactician, but he won’t get more out of them than some of
the best managers in football at the highest levels of the game: the types that
our departing players usually end up with.
I don’t believe they become worse players
overnight, or that somehow the meticulously planned and expensively maintained
coaching systems at Barcelona and Man City are somehow sucking the talent out
of them… their teammates seem to flourish.
My humble opinion is this:
Wenger somehow gets the best out of them on matchday, even while they’re
still incomplete players. When playing with freedom, Arsenal’s on-pitch leaders
became extremely attractive to the biggest teams in Europe. Some of them
(Nasri, Adebayor) even looked world class for a while. They expressed their
strengths superbly within Wenger’s tactical framework but it was also designed
to balance out the deficiencies in their game, which he was still coaching them
out of. They didn’t stay long enough to perfect their art, and they got found
out having moved for massive fees to join squads with actual world
class players. Yet no matter how many leaders we lose, the system finds
new leaders every year as supporting players grow into their roles and learn
how to express themselves fully.
It’s the formation, instruction and blend that gets
the most out of the team. It’s the tactics.
Our quality movement that is constantly referred
to, could also be described as a constant change in formation. When the
opposition can’t seem to own the ball with any authority and get pegged back,
it’s because they can’t follow our shape so they can’t adjust. They back off to
protect as much of the goal as possible and invite us on to them, so they don’t
have to follow our patterns and make themselves vulnerable.
Arsenal’s formation depends entirely on where we
win the ball and what shape we have at the time we do. 4231 is purely for
defensive shape as it’s the most efficient for covering space. You leave 1 man
high, and everyone else concentrates on getting the ball back. In attack, it is
433, 442, 2323, 352, 451, 424, you name it. I’ll try and illustrate the point
In this regular scenario:
We win the ball on the edge of our 18 yard box
through Kos who works it back to Wojciech Szczezny. At this point we’re in a
4231 since we’ve been defending. The team move upfield, with Theo Walcott wide
on the right. Per Mertesacker takes the ball and feeds Bacary Sagna. To make
space for Sagna, Theo makes a darting diagonal run inside the fullback and
looks to receive. The fullback backpedals 20 yards to shut off the pass to
Theo, and Sagna advances into the vacated space. Theo is now occupying the
space between cb and fullback, facing Sagna to figure out what to do next. Aaron
Ramsey has come from centre towards the right to offer support.
At this point, we’re in a 352 with Per, Laurent Koscielny
and Kieran Gibbs at the back, Mikel Arteta and Ramsey in the middle, Santi Cazorla
on the left, Tomas Rosicky looking for spaces in behind Olivier Giroud and
Walcott, and Sagna wide right. That’s how we have set up for this attack
because it’s the easiest way to protect the ball in the context of the game.
Sagna has space to join midfield. As the deepest player wide of our goal, he
was the most protected, so it’s logical he carries it forward. There are times
when Theo receives the pass, and if he slows it down from there, players go to
support him, the emphasis shifts and we morph into a different shape. When
Cazorla goes high and wide, he’s unlikely to run in behind so our shape and
point of attack changes again etc etc.
Because of the fluidity of our shape, if executed
correctly there are always options and ways to work a player into space.
Understanding this collective movement is what enables Wenger’s players to
express themselves with freedom. It’s how he raises their level… remember:
they rarely replicate their Arsenal form elsewhere.
Consider the level of tactical understanding that a
manager must have, to be able to put a system like that together. It’s far
beyond above average. The promise was to develop a unique and exciting brand of
football that sets Arsenal apart in the modern game and brings success.
At present, the way we play sets us apart in the
modern game but it hasn’t brought success. You can point to tactical
inflexibility but given the reasons I’ve stated above, I think that’s unfair.
To my mind the issue has been entirely about personnel. We have come
excruciatingly close to success in the Premier League on two occasions, only
for our rivals to pick our squads apart the following summer. I don’t think
it’s an accident that both Chelsea and Manchester City attempted to plunder our
squads and secure our targets as soon as they wanted to compete with us. It
made sense to weaken a team that looked like they could win the league given
The 10/11 squad lost momentum after Fabregas and
Van Persie were both sidelined with injury, the latter during a particularly
soul-crushing cup final defeat. The way the team ended the season was a massive
shame… at one point they were fantastic. That also applies to 07/08… that
team had only lost one game by Christmas, but then fell apart when they lost
confidence following Eduardo’s harrowing injury.
So did 02/03, the year before they became
That team was unplayable for a large part of the
season before they lost confidence and momentum…so unplayable that Wenger had
already seen the potential in them to do the impossible and go unbeaten, and
they did it the following year. The difference was that the leaders in 02/03
squad stayed together, regained momentum, and didn’t lose it again for 49
I also think that when assessing Wenger’s tactical
performance over a season you have to understand that losing your leaders every
season would ordinarily cause a philosophy, especially a unique one that’s
based on the talent available, to collapse pretty quickly.
When we fans talk about needing leaders on the
team, we’re talking about players that can do what’s necessary: the ones that
make the good choices and put us on the front foot when we’re floundering. We
have traditionally lost those players, and over the course of subsequent
seasons have had to work up the understanding within the system, and let new
When the emphasis on our attacking chemistry is
clearly not going to get us over the finish line, Wenger is not scared to
revert to a more solid, less expansive system in order to win matches and
secure our position amongst the elite. Twice in recent years we’ve lacked the
fluidity and cohesion and looked like falling away from the top 4. Twice we’ve
adjusted to a more solid, functional shape, become the form team in the league
and forced our way in.
Until that critical point, to maximise the creative
potential of the group it was important to allow his players to try and work
out a balance between them. When it became evident that they were struggling to
find regularly effective patterns and remain solid, he switched to a style that
managed to outmanoeuvre our opposition in a different way. I talk a little bit
about that in this piece here: http://www.gunnerstown.com/arsenal/2013/6/22/ray-parlour-mathieu-flamini-aaron-ramsey-and-arsene-wenger-loves-perpetual-motion-and-defensive-possession
He’s that tactically aware, that he has a failsafe
‘Champions League guaranteed’ formation in a league where everyone is
outspending him. Once he gets us over the line he can look to add in the areas
that we were lacking, and we can always count on natural improvement if the
squad stays together.
Now I’m not saying he’s a perfect tactician by any
means, but you don’t have to be perfect to be one of the best. My assertion
last week was that Wenger is one of the very best. In the modern game he has
found a unique approach that gives his team fluidity and freedom of expression.
It helps them to come together and be stronger. It helps them all to be the
best players they can be. It keeps us ahead of any club that doesn’t have a
spare 500m, and ensures that with a net profit on players during our austerity
years, we never failed to reach the last 16 of the Champions League.
@goonerdave66 posted a wonderful blog yesterday
which emphasizes the fact that arsenal are finally building from a position of
strength since we haven’t lost any players this summer.
I completely echo that sentiment, and would go as
far as to say that we haven’t been this strong going into a summer since 02/03.
A couple of world-class decision makers in the lineup, and the strength of our
squad at the beginning of the season will finally give Arsene Wenger the
opportunity to test the Arsenal way from a level playing field.
Given the results he’s managed vs
the quality and experience in his previous squads, if he has top class players
playing the Arsenal way, I wouldn’t bet against him.