By Tony Attwood
(You can go back and read the article from the start, by clicking here).
So the revised Wengerian philosophy emerged out of practical considerations. It had these basic points…
a) The new youth system is working and some of the players coming through (Wilshere is the most obvious but there are many others – just look at this season’s list of fringe players, or come to that the current reserve and loan list) are truly wonderful.
b) These players can be supplemented by young players from elsewhere – players young enough to be a gamble, but not be of too much concern to their home clubs (Ramsey, Theo, Vela, and of course Cesc, with others coming up behind them). One doesn’t have to get each one right, because the fees will be small and at first the wages modest, but even a 25% success ratio is a vast improvement in money terms when compared with the regular transfer market. Wenger has also realised the benefit of the loan system (hardly in use at all when he joined the club) with players such as Coquelin given the chance to play for a year to prove they really can step up).
c) The use of the Cups as games that more junior players can play has developed. At first we were using it for virtually unknown players to play in. Now the names are becoming familiar, as the system is bedded in.
d) To the notions of fitness and speed should be added intelligence. Players need more than just an ability to play outside their own country – they need the brains to be able to handle their private lives. Before footballers were expected to be as thick as the proverbial two short planks. But no more. They are selling their skill to the club and as such they need to nurture and refine that skill through looking after themselves, and that message is hard to put across to someone who believes that one is not being a man if one is not out all night. I recall Wenger saying once that if he ever called Thierry Henry at home at 9.30 in the evening he was always there, preparing for an early night. That’s how it is done, and that model has filtered through the club. Of course we still have incidents – Bendtner and Wilshere have both been seen out late – but the move is towards an intelligent use of the body.
The tactical change
But even when this new approach was being implemented two other problems hit Arsenal. Just as Arsenal’s approach in buying in players had changed as a result of other clubs’ greater awareness of the success Arsenal had in the international transfer market, so the tactics of how to deal with Arsenal’s play changed. Wenger’s revolution in playing style and players was so overwhelming that it took a number of years before other clubs could even begin to think how to handle it – but they got there in the end.
So we got the notions of rotational fouling, parking the bus, rotational time-wasting, and “Shawcross” tackles came into the game. Teams played Arsenal looking to put them off their free-flowing stride, and were aided in this by refs who had a very liberal approach to the rules. If you ever want to see a film of just how relaxed refs can become, take a look at Arsenal winning the league at Manchester United. It is one of the most shocking examples of unpunished brutality ever seen on a football pitch.
Part of Wenger’s response to this comes from his insistence on using younger players to give him more speed on the pitch, and as a result of this we saw the new problem: the eternal injury crisis.
It has run for the last three years – and there were early signs of it at Highbury when we had the year of the seven left backs. Whether it is still going this year only time can tell. I don’t think it was anticipated – and indeed how could it be? No one has ever experienced anything like it before.
It came because of the belief that Arsenal can be knocked aside literally – a view that has been most overtly propagated by Allerdyce, and amplified by the media where journalists have responded to the issue by glorifying the leg breaking tackle. “He’s not that kind of a player” has become a phrase used throughout football to excuse Shawcross style approaches.
But it also came about because the new insistence on speed increases the chances of injury, and the ever increasing number of cup games for the club and country games in friendlies and internationals, has put even greater pressure on players. There is, it seems, a limit beyond which many bodies cannot be taken.
So problem upon problem:
- Other clubs following Arsenal into the European transfer market
- Home Office tighten regulations, Uefa stop the Beveren project
- Chelsea and most recently Man City queer the transfer market
- Clubs automatically up the price if Arsenal are interested or try to bring in Chelsea or Man City, who may pretend to be interested
- The youngsters who joined aged 9 and 11 cannot be used until ready
- The unprescedented injury run
- The advent of the team bus approach
- The advent of the Shawcross style of play.
And the solution:
It could have been, sign more and more players, but that was part of the problem – the more Arsenal move in the transfer market the more it puts the price up. (Of course we are not the only club to have this problem – apart from Man City and Chelsea, Man U also face price inflation. But the simple fact is that Man U don’t have the money they once had, and Liverpool have now dropped out of the running. On the other hand Tottenham seem to want to spend money here there and everywhere. So we can say that maybe four or five clubs have this problem – it is not Arsenal’s alone. The difference is that Arsenal are the only club financed from their own activities rather than from oil wealth or companies hidden in the Virgin Islands and Bahamas.)
Wenger could have decided to change the approach to speed and youth to cut the injuries – and I think there has been a slight shift in this direction of late (not so much on the speed but more on the seeking to add a few more 27-28 year olds to the squad. But this has not been done at a way that reduces the effectiveness of play.
We needed to hang on for a few years while the rest of the youth side developed (Lansbury, JET, Coquelin, and the like), but there was nothing to stop us building up a bigger and bigger youth team – and that has happened. Craig Eastmond, Chuks Aneke, Benik Afobe are now being added to the more established names while Watt, Sunu, Cruise, Barazite are all coming through to a level where they are approaching the point where they can slip into the “25” if need be.
So step one was to increase the numbers – not the numbers in the “25” – clearly impossible – but the number of under 21s who really could move in and play for the first team when needed.
On the pitch no protection could be expected from English referees who had been brought up in the English tradition, so instead we needed to change playing styles. Not easy, but possible. Not just one player who could reliably score, with a number 10 behind him, but four players on the pitch together who were goal scorers. Of course it compromised the defence a bit, but it was a solution.
As time went on it became more of a solution. How can a rotational fouling side cope with a central half who scores screamers from 25 yards out? Indeed the move towards scoring from outside the penalty area was itself part of a reaction to rotational fouling. What does a Shawcross orientated team do when facing a side who kick off with four (yes four) players standing on the half way line, as Arsenal are doing this season.
In fact the speed is now being used in two ways. First in the traditional Henry way, which Theo can do when not crippled by England, second by the speed of passing, and third by the constant movement up and down the pitch of what might on occasion be called a rotating front six. (You may have noted that Arshavin is listed by Arsenal as a mid-fielder – that shows you how much movement is going on and how the old positional approach has changed.)
So add that factor together with the expansion of the squad first in the league cup, then the FA cup and later the final group stages of the Champs League and we have an extra training grounds for the youngsters not in the 15 or so who end up on loan. The players are got ready, and the injuries pour in, so there are more young men ready to stand up and be counted.
And this is the twist: whereas the reputation of Arsenal goes before the club now (as I mentioned before, it is a case of “if Arsenal want him he must be twice as good as I realise – the price is going up”) with youngsters it is the other way around.
Everyone knows that Arsenal look after and nurture their kids. I think for many of us in England it is hard to appreciate the reputation Arsenal has world-wide for this. So if three teams are looking at a young lad in the home counties, or five or six are looking at a 16 year old, Arsenal start head and shoulders above the rest. That doesn’t mean we get everyone we want, but in this regard, the reputation of Arsenal for youth development, built by Wenger and this team, is unsurpassed.
We have one of the biggest youth squads ever assembled by any club in the UK, possibly in Europe, maybe in the world. 56 registered players – an extraordinary achievement.
So Arsenal, under Wenger’s leadership, have changed the model to cope with the changing world, and revolutionised football once again in a whole series of ways.
a) We have five flexible squads (the 25, the cup teams, the loanees, the reserves, the youth team) and below them a whole production line of 9 to 16 year olds playing the Arsenal way.
b) We found players who could score goals all over the pitch as a way of handling the negative tactics developed by Blackburn and Bolton.
c) Young players like Theo, Ramsey, Vela and Cesc are brought in very early on from other clubs.
d) Arsenal moved from fluid 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and amazingly even 4-2-4 in some games this season.
e) The loan system was expanded and expanded again. 15 loanees at any one time is not unusual in the second half of the season.
e) And then at last, at last, at last, the great youth team started to come through, and this season we see the earliest signs, while knowing that not only will they mature, but also there is another lot coming up behind them.
The whole thing is complex (changes of tactics on the pitch, Chelsea and Man City in the transfer market, clubs putting prices up because it is Arsenal, etc etc etc), and as a result the solutions have been complex.
Is it surprising that such an amazing revolution (following hard on the heels of the first revolution) has taken five years? Not at all in my mind. Is it surprising that we have managed to stay in the top four, for a record amount of time in the English top division while all this is going on? Absolutely – it is an extraordinary achievement. While every other club has dipped in and out of the top four, we have been there, year after year after year. I doubt any club will ever achieve this again.
So why do many people not see Wenger as the great reformer and saviour of Arsenal?
I think to answer this I would like to quote a piece that was posted on this site, in response to the first part of this series. Here it is in full…
Tony, Its the same old tired spin.
Hes signed a new contract, so hes flame proof. Hes just lost the plot.
He isnt a winner anymore. end of story.
No power players, no goalkeepers, tired old system of playing players out of position and finally seeing Wenger propped up by his past.
I think that shows the point. It has taken me something around 5000 words to explain how I think the Wenger revolution has worked and what he has been doing all this time. That reply, which I believe is symbolic of many who are against Wenger is written in under 50 words.
My argument is not that just because I can make an argument long it must be good. Rather that if you believe that the debate about Wenger can be conducted in 50 words, then the chances are you will be against him, because that is the only argument that can be built in 50 words. “It’s obvious we need a new goalkeeper – Wenger can’t see it – so he’s lost it and must go.”
For a century football in the UK was simple. Tactical changes were virtually non-existent. Everyone played 2-3-5 until Chapman, and then everyone played 3-2-2-3 (although the programmes always drew the squad as 2-3-5). That was it – one tactical change in almost 100 years. A simple game played in the mud. England managers chose big centre forwards because foreign goal keepers are dodgy.
With such football you can write about a manager in 50 words. It wasn’t Wenger alone who made football infinitely more complex, but he has been one of the men who has changed the game, and quite probably he has had more influence than anyone else.
And best of all, he has built up a heritage that others can follow.
I mentioned before that the Chapman revolution lasted for 20 years and two subsequent managers before the club finally slipped back. I would like to see this revolution last for 40 after Wenger goes. I won’t be there to see it all, but it just gives me a nice feeling to think it is possible.
Wenger has delivered, I believe, a total revolution that is already moving out of Arsenal and into other footballing arenas. I am sad that my father, who watched the Chapman revolution in the 1930s, has not been here to see it, but I am so thankful that I have had the chance to watch the greatest period in Arsenal’s history.
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- Arsenal v Lens: what we found, what we felt, what they did
- Arsenal v Lens: the team, the home/away form and the strange coincidences
- Arsenal v Lens: they had a poor start but are now flying
- Where there is power, money and greed there is corruption