Hold the front page, Wenger is talking about tactics
By Tim Charlesworth
Amidst all the joy and celebration following the Bayern result, you may be forgiven for missing something unusual: Wenger made a comment about tactics. This is remarkable because of its rarity. For some reason, Arsene doesn’t like to talk about tactics. Perhaps he feels it gives an advantage to opponents to give an insight into his tactical thinking. He has a pretty similar attitude to transfer plans.
An interesting article in The Telegraph reports Wenger as saying (after Bayern): ‘I decided to drop Ozil a bit deeper to make it tighter around the box and to catch them on the break, because we have the pace to do it’
This sort of statement is very common in football, but not from Wenger. There are two particularly atypical things about his statement:
1: Normally he is keen to keep any tactical considerations close to his chest – did he just get carried away in the moment of victory and forget himself?
2: It is very ‘unWenger’ to instruct a player in this manner. He usually likes his players to work things out for themselves within a structure. This quote however, suggests that he gave Ozil a very clear, almost ‘Mourinhesque’ instruction, which he expected Ozil to follow.
Wenger’s failure to discuss tactics has led to quite a lot of speculation over the years that ‘Wenger doesn’t do tactics’. This is a bit of a silly observation, as tactics are clearly part of a football managers armoury, and even the most pessimistic assessment of Wegner must conclude that he is, at least, quite good. It would be strange if he achieved his success without using one of the tools available to him, i.e. tactics
So what do we mean by tactics?
Tactics can be confused with analysis.
For example, in the Bayern game, Arsenal went for fairly aggressive passing, looking to move the ball forward rather than sideways, and often going for long passes. I don’t think that this was really a ‘tactic’ in the sense of a pre-planned strategy. I think it was more the case that Bayern forced them to play like this.
Bayern showed brilliant execution of one of Guardiola’s trademarks, the ‘high press’. In a high press, midfielders and attackers aggressively pursue the ball, rapidly closing down the man in possession, and trying to cut off the available outlets for him to make a simple pass to.
This tactic hopes to elicit a mistake from the man in possession, thereby setting up a dangerous attacking situation. And Bayern succeeded with this on a number of occasions, notably when pressurizing Sanchez, of all people, to lose control of the ball and give away a very good shooting chance.
When you are faced with a high press, the only real option you have is to try to ‘spring it’, by getting the ball past the onrushing ‘pressers’ and up towards your attackers and midfielders. This means passing forwards, not sideways. If you can do so, you are likely to have a good attacking position because the pressing team has committed players forward to the press and will now have a lot of players in front of the ball. This will expose the opposition defenders to the space (represented by the shading in the diagram above) between the defensive line and the pressers.
So, if Wenger had talked about the ‘tactic’ of Arsenal’s aggressive forward passing style, this wouldn’t really be a tactic at all, but a natural response to Bayern’s play. The Arsenal team may well have discussed these scenarios before the game, but the choice of passing style is not really a tactic, it is simply an inevitable response the high press.
The decision to drop Ozil deeper however is a genuine tactic in the sense that it is a pre-planned action intended to shape the game. The intended effect was presumably to allow Bayern to pass it around their back four more easily, but to make it harder for them to penetrate Arsenal’s reinforced defensive lines.
Indeed this is pretty much what happened. It looked to me as if Sanchez was playing deeper as well, but this may simply have been a response to Ozil’s positioning rather than a pre-planned tactic.
How does Wenger approach tactics?
The rumours that ‘Wenger doesn’t do tactics’ may also have been fuelled by Wenger’s slightly different approach. Like many great leaders, I think Wenger is normally the kind of person who likes to ‘ask questions’ rather than ‘furnish answers’.
An incident that has always stuck in my head, is an often repeated story about a meeting during the second double season (1997-8). I have heard and read this story a number of times, and it has sort of drifted into Arsenal folklore. Nonetheless, I believe it to be true, and a fairly prosaic description of it can be found on pp 116-117 in Tony Adams 1998 autobiography Addicted.
The meeting occurred in December 1997 after a particularly dire 1-0 home defeat by Liverpool on 30th November. Arsenal were well of the pace in the PL and looking defensively disorganised. Arsene gave the players a couple of days off and then organized a meeting at Sopwell House, near the Arsenal training ground.
During the meeting, the Arsenal defenders, led by Adams, got a bit irate with the midfielders (particularly Vieira and Petit) for failing to provide them with enough protection. Vieira and Petit certainly seemed to amend their playing style in the second half of the season. It is also true that Arsenal went on a fantastic run after this meeting, which delivered both the PL and FA Cup titles.
The interesting point about this story is that Wenger appears to play a limited part in it. If it was Ferguson, one might expect to hear that the manager launched some kind of verbal or physical assault on Vieira and Petit in order to get his message across. But Wenger seems to have made no direct intervention. All he did, was tell the players that he was unhappy.
He then gave them a couple of days off, to let them know that they needed to do something and to give them time to think about it. He then facilitated the meeting, but didn’t try to tell the players what the answer was. He basically let them work it out for themselves. This approach seems to carry two advantages:
1: The collective wisdom of the players is likely to come up with a better answer than the manager working alone. After all, the players are on the pitch and have the closest possible experience of what is happening. Unlike other managers, Wenger does not assume his players are fools.
2: The players are much more likely to properly implement tactics that they have worked out themselves. If a tactic is simply instructed, players may doubt whether it is right. This often seems to be the case with Mourinho, who seems to get frustrated that his players don’t do what he has told them to.
So what do we conclude from all this? Wenger did something unusual in talking about his tactics, and perhaps also something unusual in the way that he instructed Ozil. I can think of three possible explanations:
- Actually Wenger quite often gives instructions like this, its just that we don’t hear about it. Perhaps he was just over excited, or maybe he was a bit too pleased with himself for getting ‘one over’ Guardiola.
- He slightly changes his approach in big games like Bayern and becomes more likely to ‘instruct’ players. If this was the case, you might imagine that such instructions might carry more weight with the players due to their rarity. Ozil certainly did look like he was sitting deeper, as requested.
- Wenger is changing his approach. This doesn’t necessarily mean a permanent change. Wenger is a thoughtful man. Perhaps he has just decided that this team needs to be managed in a slightly different way to some of the other teams that he has had. Over the last few years, we have seen a lot of games where Arsenal dominate possession and still lose. Maybe Wenger has lost faith in this group of players to work out their own problems and decided to give them a firmer steer than usual.
Whatever is behind the tactical choice that Wenger made, I am pretty sure that we won’t be hearing a lot of similar comments in the future. Even if he has changed the way that he instructs his players, I am pretty sure that he will not be talking about it so openly again. We were all on a bit of an adrenalin high at the end the Bayern game. It was nice to get this unusual insight into Wenger’s tactics, but you can probably expect normal service to be resumed in the coming weeks.
More anniversaries for today
- 26 October 1938: England beat the Rest of Europe 3-0 at Highbury on a Wednesday afternoon. Early closing of the local shops allowed 40,185 to attend. Hapgood and Copping played. It was the second match to be shown live on British TV.
- 26 October 1997: Arsenal complete a 12 game unbeaten start to the season with a goalless home draw with Villa, 12th league game of the 2nd Double Season The second double: part 1, part 2, part 3.
- The Untold Arsenal Banner is now on permanent display inside the Emirates Stadium
- A Memorial to the founders of Arsenal’s Highbury dynasty.
- And we’re on Twitter @UntoldArsenal
The Untold Books
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal