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Arsenal’s new approach is not rocket science. It is much more complex than that.

“Making the Arsenal” – the book of Arsenal’s decline and rebirth

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By Tony Attwood

Goals are on the up – more are scored in the Premier League than in the top leagues in Germany, Spain and Italy.   Good for us.  Except when we lose 8-2 of course.

Meanwhile club owners and managers are buying strikers and then more strikers, paying £30m or more for players of only modest ability, and the new approach is one of endless attack.  Hate them or hate them, Man City have not specifically gone out to deaden the opposition with their defence, but rather they aim to win by scoring lots of goals and rarely keep a clean sheet.

The new mood is called “expansiveness”.  Everyone lets in a goal or two more often than not.  In fact so profligate are defences that Sir F Word felt he had to reinvent the notion of 1-0 last week.

So what’s going on?  And why?  And how does this affect Arsenal?
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Part of the issue is that old time defenders who have been around a while are starting to get a bit, sort of, old.  John Terry is the obvious example.  With a career in abuse, shop lifting or drug dealing open to him when he retires (although of course I make no allegation that he has any connections with any of his family’s businesses) he is starting to look ready for a new life, as are many other central defenders across the top clubs.  (You can always tell an old defender – the ball goes past, VP runs by in a whirl, and the old boy sits down.)
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Which leads on to the big question: why now.   Why is the art of defending out, and the era of manic scores in?
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There are several possible answers
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1.  Rubbish defending
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Ray Houghton was asked by the Guardian what he thought of defending at the moment (no particular reason but someone met him down the pub and asked him).   He said,  This goal glut is down to dreadful defending, simply as that. I’ve felt for ages that the art of defending has gone from most Premier League sides…”
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So we get more goals because suddenly we have no defenders of quality.  Right, it’s rocket science.
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(I should explain: the phrase “it’s not rocket science” which is commonplace in the English language, is basically twaddle.  Of all science, rocket science is just about the simplest science.  You have a load of stuff which when heated expands.  It pushes gas out through the exhaust in one direction, and the rocket moves in the other direction.  Do people really think that when they light the touchpapaper and stand well clear their fireworks are powered by quantum mechanics?  No, it is rocket science, and and it equals simplicity.  So saying we let in goals because all defenders are rubbish IS rocket science.  OK?  Right!)
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2.  Better attacking
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There is of course a contrary view, that attackers are getting better.  That’s slightly more complex than rocket science because it means that the art of attack and the art of defence are different.   With attack we have more and more options, with defence we have more or less explored all the options.
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Thierry Henry invented a new form of attack by being a centre forward who played left wing while his mate Robert came in from the left and took up Thierry’s position in the centre.   Put like that it seems like rocket science – ie dead simple – but it was astoundingly effective, and the lumbering big central defenders never quite got it.
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3.  Defenders get injured more
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I wonder if this is true, and must take a look at Dale’s figures to see if it is.  Or maybe defenders, not needing to run so fast, carry small injuries more often.  Either way, because of the nature of their work, defenders are out of the game more than attackers.
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Certainly for Arsenal it seems true.  Remember the Year of the Seven Left Backs?

4.  The view is not “you do not beat us” but rather “we will score more than you”

This is philosophy rather than rocket science, and not very complex philosophy, but nevertheless it is a reversal.  We have all seen it.  George Graham built his successful team from the back – the famous back five who now earn a living in part on TV (apart from Tony who is in foreign parts and David who doesn’t seem to be doing much these days).   Mr Wenger did the reverse and built a team out of attackers.

Could it be that others have followed?  Could it be that the philosophy at Man City is not, “win at all costs” as it seems to be at Ch3l5ea but rather “win whatever it takes, but make it look nice and score a few too”.

5.  The creative players are getting more creative.

Maybe it isn’t that we are always finding creative players – maybe we are finding players who are more creative than those of earlier days.  If so it is a bit too early to say, but this view is perhaps the most amazing one of all – that Mr Wenger, having discovered earlier ways to win the league is now not just building a new team, but an utterly different type of player – a team that is built on a new form of individual creativity that we are only slowly seeing emerge.

6.  It is not the creativity of the attacking players but the creativity of a new system of playing.

I guess we will know more when we see the likes of Oxlade-C and Ryo burst through, but the liberation of Van Persie into a goal scoring machine of the type we have not seen since Theirry H. suggests that something is going on under the surface.

The argument that we are just lucky that VP has come good at the right moment isn’t quite right.  Theirry came good at the right moment, but didn’t blossom utterly until he had friend Robert at his side making the whole system work – a system that utterly bemused defenders.  Are we seeing something like that again?

I think we are seeing a combination of these factors – more creative players, plus the evolution of a new system: Wenger 3.0.

Wenger 1.0 brought life back to a crumpled and run down team, destroyed by and large by an simplistic and intransigent Rioch who was letting good players go to waste.   Wenger 2.0 was Henry/Pires – and it revolutionised not just Arsenal but football.

Now we have Wenger 3.0 and one or two other clubs are looking to create new systems which bemuse defenders.

So the argument is, defenders can’t really be that creative in their new style or approach – they defend, there isn’t much more to learn.  But there are lots of new ways of developing attack, and Wenger 3.0 is the new approach we are seeing at Arsenal.

Interestingly it is happening as we have a really good set of defensive group of players – including not only our first choice pair of centre backs, but also some rather interesting fellows coming through from the ranks.

But there is one more thing: the newly evolving philosophy of football which I think Mr Wenger is spearheading is actually forcing a rethink of the defensive approach.  Which is why we have Santos.  He’s not a defender in the normal sense – and for commentators like Lee Dixon there is only the old standard normal sense – the simplistic rocket science.   But Mr Wenger has often got his defenders to do the unexpected, and Wenger 3.0 includes this approach.
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So that’s it.  Defending is starting to change to, in response to Wenger 3.0 football, but it is a bit behind the revolution happening in attack.  Meanwhile the big spending clubs have decided that the only way to win over the commentators is to score lots of goals, so people forget to ask questions about money.
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It’s not rocket science.  It’s far more complex than that.
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22 comments to Arsenal’s new approach is not rocket science. It is much more complex than that.

  • Scott

    Referees are harder than ever now on defenders…..point one.
    With more foreign players,there is more diving,which creates even more pressure on defenders…..point two.
    Combine these two points,add in more skilful players in the league than ever,and you get goals.
    Simple.

  • Red-Man

    For a long time now, football technology has also been designed with more goals in mind – Anyone remember the Addidas Predator?

    And don’t forget the constant improvements in ball design – making them rounder, lighter, swerve more, all innovations made in an attempt to increase the unpredictability of incoming shots/crosses.

    Who’d be a defender/goalkeeper? They can cope with rocket science, but this is Football Science!!! 🙂

  • Amr

    @Scott, sorry mate that just racist….Lets name some prolific English divers…Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard, Michael Owen, Joe Cole etc. etc.

    I do agree with you about the Referee parts though, Defenders have such a hard time these days, even midfielders to a certain extent, I couldn’t imagine Leeds legend Billy Bremner playing in this day and age….

  • Sammy The Snake

    Love this new high scoring football! All time full excitement.

  • Amr, it is important to separate racism from analysis by country. At least in English law, the two are not the same.

    If I call an American a “bloody Yank” that might be insulting, as would an US citizen calling me a “bloody Brit”, but it is not racist.

    Racism relates to race, at least in English law, not country of origin. So commentators on the BBC can get away with saying, “typical Spanish player, always overdoes the injury. Get up!” but he could never get away with talking about a player because of his racial characteristics.

  • Shard

    Sorry to be pedantic, because on the whole I like the article, but this is Wenger 4.0.. Wenger 3.0 was the team built around the likes of Cesc, Flamini, Clichy and later Nasri.

  • Stuart

    It’s true, the Defense is moving towards (and has been for a while now) being responsible for making the first pass out and launching the first attack

  • merkin

    Stuart- “the Defense is moving towards (and has been for a while now) being responsible for making the first pass out and launching the first attack” and overlapping with the fullbacks to keep the attack wide and pressing the center halves up to cut clearances short and to find passing lanes in the middle. Total team football.

    You could say that defensive players have done a better job of adapting to their added attacking roles than the attackers have adapted to their new defensive responsibilities.

  • Shard – no I would say that team was Wenger 2.5

  • WalterBroeckx

    It (they) should have been part of Wenger 3.0

  • Shard

    @Tony

    Now who’s being pedantic? 🙂

  • rusty

    Tony, I highly recommend zonalmarking.net for more insight in the way the tactical game is changing — loathe as I am to say it, it looks like Pep’s Barceloanus sides really have innovated, rather than just played excellent tiki-taka football.

  • para

    Most defenders come from previous attacking positions today, maybe this is why it has changed so much.
    Soon we will have a team of just football players, no forwards, no defenders, no midfielders, no strikers, all capable of doing each job equally well.

  • Paul Collins

    I think Scott has hit on one of the most important points. I remember football very clearly in the 70’s and 80’s and heard enough from my father to know what it was like in the 50’s and 60’s as well. Being an attacker in those days was a dangerous profession. Defenders had the right to assault you. Van Basten was driven from the game at an early age. Anyone who saw it will never forget the “Butcher of Sevilla” against Maradona. Pele was kicked out of the 1966 WC. In England we had the likes of Storey, Hunter, Stiles and many others. In the 50’s and 60;s you had to kick a leather sack as well as deal with madmen like Dave Mackay. One injury could end your career, like Brian Clough (anyone who doesnt know how great a striker Clough was, look his stats up on wiki). It was not good to be an attacking player, especially a “flair” player. The 90’s saw referees given strict orders to enforce new laws against assault on the pitch (such as the tackle from behind and professional fouls), and the backpass law was changed (the change to the backpass law altered defending more than any other thing in my opinion – look at our Championship winning goal at Anfield 1989, that would not have happened today).

    Those new laws didnt change things overnight. Things like that take a generation to feed through. We are now a generation removed from those rule changes and it is now safe to be a small, quick atacking player. It is sexy. Recent years have seen an amazing crop of young, hugely talented attacking players emerge in numbers unlike anything I have seen in my life. Defending is now so much more difficult without being able to chop an attacker in half.

    Arsenal have been lucky that AW was, and is, a manager whose philosophy on football perfectly fit the new way the game was being played. I do not think he has done anything to change the game, rather I think the game has changed to fit his philosophy perfectly.

  • nicky

    Tony,
    “There are lots of new ways of developing attack” you say and I quite agree. Arsenal simply must act on this , because, on too many occasions when faced with massed defences, we have been found wanting. Since the time of Henry “in his Pomp” days, certain of our rivals seem to be able, on too many occasions, to stifle our attack completely, either by a near 1-10 formation or by an over-physical presence.
    When a team opposes us but is prepared to play football (you know who they are), then a good exciting encounter is well on the cards.
    The problem arises when Arsenal, with the inevitable high-line defensive posture, meets a pronounced defence. The final 2/3rds becomes a crowded melee through which we do not appear able
    to progress.
    I look forward to the day when, as you imply, intense coaching and tactics will be able to reap its own reward.

  • Paul Collins

    Nicky,

    I dont think Arsenal are by any means alone in having problems breaking down a “crowded melee” as you put it. I dont think tactics would change that either, unless by a change in tactics you mean finding a Rory Delap and tall strikers and going long-ball.

    Talent breaks down packed defenses, as we at our best have shown, and Barca show virtually every week (and Man City are showing more and more with Balotelli, Toure, Aguero, and especially Silva, who is looking amazing).

    When we had Henry, Pires, Bergkamp, Vieira and Freddie L. we could break down any defense, no matter how packed. Only RvP is at that level right now. Hopefully as Ramsey, Walcott and Wilshire continue to develop, as Gervinho settles into English Football, and as guys like Ryo and Alex 0-C progress, we will return to something near that level again.

    The fact is that this season, without Cesc and Nasri, was always going to be difficult. Doubly so with the injuries we have suffered. As last season ended I dont think ANY of us expected to play Utd in the 3rd game of the season with the side we ended up putting out at Old Trafford. That was a perfect storm of disasters. Whether or not we should have strengthened earlier is a whole other issue.

    In recent years, at our best, we broke down any defense. We are not as good right now. But we are improving every week. I just dont think it is tactics that need changing, we just need the players we have to play better, simple as that. And if they can’t play better, then we need to find and buy players who will.

  • dy

    it’s certainly a change at the fundamental side of Arsenal’s line-up and play. Because we bring in Arteta and having Song , with a more able and effective defending back four. These ARE the corner stone of this new Arsenal team. I’m not too worry about not scoring many goals as long as we win. Yes, the creative spark of Fabregas is gone but I see a more confidence growing Ramsey and WIlshere. If they can’t provide the offensive tools then perhaps someone has to come in in the future.
    To me we’re going away from “we’ll score more than you” to “we won’t let you score more than us.”

  • Jas777

    I also think that the following has affected it too

    Better quality pitches especially in winter.

    EPL still plays most of their games during the day

    EPL needs goals as derives a lot of income from external sources and who wants to watch 1-0 or 0-0 overseas. (Just look at Italian league overseas popularity now to 10 years ago).

    Defenders not getting same pay as strikers/midfielders so players gravitate to those positions more

  • Domhuaille MacMathghamhna

    Comparing players from the Tony Adams/Pat Rice era is rather a losing proposition since the following, among other things, have changed the game irreparably:

    1)The players today are physically taller and more muscular than their predecessors of a decade ago yet also often faster and pacier.In fact recent research has shown that in some sports, the younger players have 10% more muscle mass and almost 1 inch (4cm) height advantage along with greater upper body strength.
    2)The playing regime, thanks in large part to AW’s innovations in diet,training and after hours discipline is very different than the pre-Invincibles era. Many of the players of that era were very heavy drinkers and carousers and shortened their careers because of it.
    3)Tactics and teamwork have evolved from the old 5-3-2 lineup to the 442 or 433 positioning. While this evolution is not recent (the first time a 433 lineup was seen was in the first European Cup – Real Madrid in 1955).
    4)The concept of attacking fullbacks is far more recent and was first seen in Holland with their Total football displays.
    5)The Italians perfected the catenaccio defense in the 60’s and 70’s which tightened up the backs defensive style and introduced the sweeper concept.
    6)Since most defensive players are playing with their backs to their own goal most of the time, it is much harder for a defensive-minded player to turn quickly and catch a forward running player like Walcott or Gervinho. We saw this with Cole and Terry’s dreadful defending against AFC’s relentless pacey attacking last Saturday.
    7)Defenders, in general tend to be the more experienced players in a team and therefore older. Consequently they are also less agile than the attackers, who are generally younger and pacier, especially in AFC’s case.
    8)With the modern tendency to flood the opponent’s area on set pieces and fast counter-attacks, there is always a communication problem between the keeper and his back four, or at least in Arsenal’s case (and I see it in the other big 4 teams as well.)

    I am not sure that the pendulum has entirely swung towards attacking Football, but it certainly has swung away from hermetic and strong defensive displays of the last decade. There is also the obvious possibility that the quality of top defenders in the EPL has diminished as older players slow and get error-prone while their younger replacements are caught out more often because of inexperience and over aggressive attacking.

  • Domhuaille MacMathghamhna

    By the way points 5 and 6 are there to remind people that traditional defenders still have that approach in their heads when they play and are very reticent to become attacking defenders or defensive attackers, as you will.

  • Arsenal can no longer (perhaps never could) play the way Barcelona are playing now. Barcelona couldn’t play in our league the way they are playing, they’d win the first five games 7-0 and then Messi would be in a wheelchair.
    We have gone down a different path. You can’t press for 90 minutes against a decent ball retaining side (Barca have proved it) and you can’t play a high line without pressing – it’s defensive suicide (which we’ve seen first hand). So instead we will invite teams into the middle of the park to try and win the midfield battle. Our front three can’t win 3 vs 8 but they can win 3 vs 4 because of their pace & trickery.
    The plan is obviously to draw teams out, rather than hem them in, which is something new. Our signings point to the idea that we will tempt the opposition into thinking they can retrieve the ball and hit us on the counter, at which point we counter-counter-attack them with extreme pace.
    It’s not going to work against a packed defence that refuses to play but we probably still have enough quality to force a goal regardless and then stand-off to get either a 1-0 or annihilate them depending on their tactics.

  • Le Patron

    @ Woolwich Peripatetic. I think your comment is a brilliant analysis of Arsenal’s play this season