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July 2021

If today’s football news teaches us nothing, perhaps can we learn from Arsenal’s history

by Tony Attwood

I won’t deny it, it’s been a really naff week for football news.  Take this headline for example…

£50m Chelsea raid, Liverpool defender swoop, Man United talks, Arsenal exit wanted

You have to plough through quite a few adverts and bits of tittle tattle to get to the “Arsenal exit wanted” bit and then you find…

“Arsenal midfielder Ismael Bennacer wants Arsene Wenger to let him go out on loan again next season.”

Which sounds rather devious and a bit bleak, and you will be astonished to know that the interview with the young player in  La Gazette du Fennec doesn’t quite have him saying anything like this at all.  He says that “Wenger talks a lot to me, he gives me a lot of advice about my career”, says that he is enjoying being on loan in France even with a struggling club, and he hopes to get more chances to develop his career.

But exits are the theme of the day in the bloggettas, with this sort of statement from Football London being typical:

Mesut Ozil and Hector Bellerin are the most likely players to leave Arsenal in the upcoming transfer window whilst Marco Reus is one of the most likely stars to join the club, according to bookmaker Betfair.

One wonders where they get these ideas from.

But desperately moving on we find the second lead headline in the Daily Telegraph to be  “Friend of Sir Alex Ferguson sacked by Manchester United after putting arm around female colleague and calling her ‘love'” which I suppose is the second most important news surrounding football for some people.   (The lead tale is “Southampton eye Mamadou Sakho as Chelsea-bound Virgil Van Dijk’s replacement).

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At this point I must admit my mind began to wander to points elsewhere, not least, the work I have been doing for the past ten months writing a history of Arsenal in the 1930s, the first draft of which is now on the Arsenal History Society website.

It turned into a huge task, (200,000 words at the last count) and I did it not just because no one else had, but also because I personally wanted to know what it was that turned Arsenal from a team that had never won either of the major trophies in English football at the start of 1930, into a club with five league titles and two FA Cup wins by 1938.

Now some people will answer this by saying “Herbert Chapman”, but I have never found that answer alone to be enough.  Chapman came to Arsenal in 1925 and did not win his first trophy until five years later, during which time Arsenal finished 2nd, 11th, 10th, 9th and 14th in the league.  So what was he up to all this time?

And the other problem with just citing Chapman, but nothing else, is that of the five league titles and two FA Cup wins, only two of the league championships and one of the FA Cup wins were won by Chapman.  The other trophies in the 1930s were won by Shaw and Allison.

So what did Chapman do that brought such success?

Very curiously none of the books I have read about Chapman seem to answer this very clearly.  They talk about his successful transfers – although like all managers he also brought in a large number of players who simply didn’t make it.  There are always articles about his introduction of the WM system (what we would today call 3-2-2-3) but without much detail as to what that meant.   There is talk of the “Bank of England club” being able to outbid others, but that money came not from the owner (Sir Henry Norris in the early part of Chapman’s time at Arsenal) or the directors, but from the large gates Arsenal had – which in turn came from success on the pitch.

No, there is an answer, but not that.  In fact there are several answers.  Chapman did indeed evolve a new style of lineup through bringing in new players, but he also realised that to make it work he had to do three other things.

First he had to bring in a player in defensive midfield who could receive the ball from the defenders and instantly pass it to an attacking midfielder who would then with great accuracy get it on to one of the three attacking players (known in those days as the outside left, the centre forward and the outside right).

Second, and in effect in order to make this happen, he needed to play a counter attacking style of game.  This encouraged the opposition to pour forward, attacking Arsenal’s defensive lines.  Then if Arsenal could get the ball and move it rapidly through the 2-2 line up in the middle of the pitch and on to the forwards, they would have a chance of beating the much more onerous off-side rule that existed in the 1930s, and the lumbering defenders rushing to get back.

But then came the final twist – and I have not seen this written in any other analysis of Chapman, so for the moment I continue to claim it as my own work.  Chapman used this notion of playing the counter attacking game in exactly the same way both at home and away from home.

If you study the league tables of the late 1920s and the 1930s you will find all the top teams generally had an utterly dominant home form (sometimes going the whole season undefeated at home) but a much poorer away form.   Teams lower down the league picked up most of their points at home, as is often the case now.

But when Chapman won the league for the second time with Huddersfield Town he did it with a league record that showed a better away form than a home form.  When he first won the league title with Arsenal, his team had an identical home and away record.  No one else ever did that.

In case you are interested in the heritage of our club, and indeed its greatest ever period of success, the first article in the series, which deals with Arsenal’s first ever major trophy – winning the FA Cup in 1930, can be found here and at the end of that piece is a list of all the other articles.   As I mentioned this is the first draft, so there are still some rough edges in some of the articles, but I’m now starting to update them.

I am working with colleagues to see if we can publish the finished version as a Kindle books, but there are technical problems with reproducing the league tables which appear throughout the story in Kindle’s unique format, but if we can get it done, I’ll let you know.  Meanwhile, the whole series of articles is on the Arsenal History Society website.

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2 comments to If today’s football news teaches us nothing, perhaps can we learn from Arsenal’s history

  • Chapman was a genius and years ahead of his time. He demanded a level of fitness that was unheard of in the English game. He was very “clever” in his transfer dealings and his negotiating skills were legendary. At the time English teams played a dribbling, possession and dwelling on the ball style, Herbert turned instead to counter attacking allowing the opponents possession up to the old 18 yard line where they came up to a massed Arsenal defence with a centre half who could “play” the ball out of defence (not just a lump of a player as employed by other teams)
    Because of Herbert the Arsenal were given the nickname “boring or lucky” and yet this team scored 127 goals in a Championship winning season.
    The man was a genius and the greatest manager in our history.

  • colario

    Mike Walsh
    28/03/2017 at 8:34 am

    Wenger is second only to Chapman.

    Chapman is Second only to Wenger.

    Both revolutionised football like no other manager.