By Tony Attwood
Even if you don’t know the exact numbers, you’ll probably recall from endless articles plus radio and TV broadcasts, that over a five year period from 2009 to 2014, Arsenal did rather poorly against other teams that ended up in the top four.
Of course losing against a fellow-top-four team means zero points just as it does if the team loses against anyone else. And in such debates the fact that Arsenal constantly got into the Champions League, and thus gained more cash with which to pay off the bank debt, was easily forgotten. Winning seven matches in 30 games against top four rivals was the proof that Mr Wenger was “tactically naive”.
And yet it seems staying in the top four year on year, is a bit harder than it was assumed to be during those years – as Chelsea and Manchester United have found. Of course it doesn’t matter to either of them, as they have far more money than Arsenal could dream of – one through the sponsorship of a multi-billionaire and one through having a club with the foresight to go into the business of world wide marketing at the end of the 1950s long before anyone else in England was thinking about it.
But there is something rather amiss with the tactical naivety explanation. Why would a manager who had won two doubles and an unbeaten season, suddenly be tactically naive? Were those trophies just luck? Was it that Mr Wenger had just one tactical system which happened to work for a while, but then he had no other approaches?
Some people believe that, but for me it seems unlikely. More reasonable is the explanation that is fairly widely accepted in some quarters – that you can only get away with the tactics that fit the players at your disposal. At the start of his reign Mr Wenger had the players he wanted. Prices had not yet escalated due to the entry of Chelsea into the marketplace, and so players of the highest order were found (Henry, Pires, Campbell etc etc) while others (Bergkamp, Parlour) who were there already found new leases of life.
Then the period of “tactical naivety” or “a massive decline in the sums of money available just as the price of players was escalting” and Arsenal struggled – but not so much that they dropped out of the Champions League.
And that takes us up to Arsenal’s 2-0 win away against Manchester City in January 2015 by which time we were starting to see a new Wenger team made up of youngsters he had trained from the earliest days (Francis Coquelin is the perfect example) and older players he could now afford to buy (Ozil, as the prime exemplar here).
The fact that it was more than tactical naivety that made it hard to beat the other clubs from the top four is to be found in the fact that both Chelsea and Manchester United are not playing in the Champions League this season. Now suddenly it is Mourinho (“M”) who is tactically bereft of a suitable approach – according to the media.
But again the question must be why?
After all neither Chelsea nor Manchester United have a shortage of money, nor a shortage of talented players, nor a shortage of youth team players coming through. So what could “M’s” problem be?
For problem there seems to be as he has won only one of the last eight matches against the top clubs.
Certainly “M” has his own particular habits and shouting at medics seems to be one of them – there are descriptions of his outbursts in virtually every club he had been to – and it is being reported that he has demanded an “inquest” in the current injury problems and what are called “the practices of his medical team”.
But at the same time his tactics (for example against Manchester Airport and against both Liverpool! and Chelsea) clearly were not right. But that only leads to more blame being cast upon the medical team, the players own inability to follow instructions, and the officials. Or indeed the rival manager.
Although you might find it hard to believe (unless you are a great follower of actual results rather than make-believe headlines), Arsenal haven’t done too badly against Manchester U in recent games. Here’s the last four…
|09 Mar 2015||Manchester United v Arsenal||W||1-2||FA Cup|
|17 May 2015||Manchester United v Arsenal||D||1-1||Premier League|
|04 Oct 2015||Arsenal v Manchester United||W||3-0||Premier League|
|28 Feb 2016||Manchester United v Arsenal||L||3-2||Premier League|
Of course this run doesn’t fit with the pre-ordained agenda of the media, so instead we get the list of Mourinho v Wenger games – particularly focusing on the period when Arsenal had less money to spend because of the stadium building programme.
As a tactical approach, blaming the medical team and the players doesn’t seem to have much going for it – but “M” can only use the tactics that his team can adapt to.
However we have now been getting tactical commentaries from the all-knowing media through much of this season:
13 August: (4-4-2)
Man United tactics: Mourinho must go for 4-3-3 – as Stats Zone proves …
24 August: (Football 365)
Manchester United: Mourinho’s tactical tweaks
17 September: (Daily Mirror)
Jose Mourinho must change Manchester United tactics