From the start of football there have been tough players – defenders for example who would say to a passing forward “go past me once more sunshine and I’ll break your jaw”. And he would and the ref would give a freekick. Maybe.
The first manager I ever heard talk openly about playing Anti-football as a complete tactic was Lawrie McMenemy who managed Southampton from 1973 to 1985. He was always on panels on TV giving his opinion, so he never got criticised – not even when he said, about one game against Arsenal in which his team was so dirty it even left the Liverpool focussed media of the day with their jaws dropping, “they’ve got more talented players than us, so we have to play dirty.”
So Anti-football was born. It is, in essence, the use of every tactic you can get away with to stop the other side playing football. There used to be time-wasting, kicking the ball out of the stand, all that sort of thing, but then rules were changed to stop it. And so clubs started to find ways around the problem – to break up the flow of more talented teams, while not getting penalised. Anti-football, the antithesis of Total Football.
In the 21st century Bolton and Blackburn took Anti-football forward by introducing rotational fouling, followed by rotational time wasting. The fouls and time wasting are there, but never by the same player, and so the number of cards is greatly reduced, but the opposition is broken and frustrated.
Aston Villa use one of the most sophisticated rotational fouling systems yet seen, and they have added another element to anti-football which I certainly haven’t seen before. When a Villa player goes down he holds his head, and the ref stops the game, in accordance with the rules. Then, having stopped the flow of the opposition, he gets up, either with nothing wrong, or (as we saw during yesterda’s game on one occasion which happened straight in front of me) to have treatment on an ankle.
Thus when the one really serious injury did occur – Sagna being totally crippled by a bad foul – play went on and Villa scored. If he’d held his head rather than waiving at the medical team, Villa would not have scored.
So the issue is, why can’t we beat the clubs that play Anti-Football? Part of the answer was given by Mr Wenger when he said, “If you want to be champions, first you want to be consistent. At the moment we are not.”
But there is more. In the great days of Henry we were able to overcome Anti-Football in all its guises because we had there players of such stunning ability that singlehandedly they could take on the Anti-Football game. At its simplest Henry would stroll out to the left and take two defenders with him. He could side-step all the lunges and kicks sent his way – often passing to Pires who through tactical know-how could get himself into the space left by the defenders who were Henry watching.
At this moment we don’t have the same supreme quality that can get the goal quickly at the start, and thus make Anti-football invalid.
But, there’s a bright side. Henry joined us in the summer of 1999, and that season we were 17 points behind the ultimate champions. The next season 2000/1 we were 10 points behind. In his third season we won the league.
My point being that some things take time. Of course it can be argued that either a) time is what we don’t have, or b) we’ve already had 3 years without a trophy.
But, contrary to that, what we have is a superb team that is inconsistent. If that team was made up of 28 year olds I would be worried, because at that age in football you can’t learn consistency. But at 21 and 22 you can – just as Henry learned his trade between August 1999 and August 2002 when he really started to fly. What we have also is an extraordinary team coming up behind.
Those supporters who left early and missed Theo’s one man tribute to those who stayed, perhaps do believe that success today is everything and success tomorrow is not worth waiting for. They perhaps won’t even be happy about the extraordinary talent at the club. They will maybe have seen Fabregas underperforming of late, and think, that’s the end.
But Cesc will get his ability back – after all it hasn’t gone totally, and a player will emerge who will singlehandledly be able to unlock Anti-football, and we will be back and running.
It didn’t happen yesterday, and that’s upsetting. The boos that rang around the ground was upsetting also. I can only hope that Theo really did carry the message back to the dressing room that some stayed, and some chanted “Arsenal” until he left the pitch.