Tactics Column: Winning ugly, the final frontier

“Arsène Wenger believes that with a little organisation, simple instruction and faith in playing the game his way, their talent will see them through.” Mikel Arteta

A 25 years younger Arsène Wenger might have been a little stung by the accusations that he doesn’t do “tactics”. As an upcoming coach in France, tactics, not to mention his embrace of alternative methods of conditioning, were his domain.  “It was always tactic, tactic, tactic,” said Youri Djorkaeff of Arsène Wenger during his time at Monaco. “I never saw him nervous. At half time, he would only say two or three things. Positive things, tactical things. He was the only coach in France who worked this way.”

Nowadays, Wenger’s approach is more refined, favouring a style based on freedom of movement and a capacity for his players to produce the audacious. This approach has been developed over time, moulded and recast through a certain foresight acquired over managing many matches over many years which many coaches haven’t had the privilege of.

Indeed, that’s backed up by the recent comments from Pep Guardiola who says he would like to in the future, play a game based on fluidity and interchangeability but that’s not really possible in the infancy of his career/team. Of course, his Barcelona side and now Bayern Munich are noted for their enterprising attacking play and spontaneity on the ball, but even that’s been shaped by heavily by the hand of Guardiola who likes to control every aspect of their play (to the point that burnout was the crucial factor cited for his unexpected departure from Barcelona).

The accusation of course, is not of Wenger’s integrity but his intransigence to alter his approach in big matches, particularly in Europe where his stubbornness seems rooted in his determination to make a name winning his way in the Champions League. The season Arsenal reached the final, in 2005/06, showed Wenger is prepared to compromise but that counter-attacking approach has now become a necessity when playing the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

The assertion, though, that Wenger doesn’t do tactics is a fallacy. There are many examples where he has (though has sometimes failed): against Barcelona in 2011; in a defeat to Chelsea in an FA Cup semi-final where he played with two “natural wingers”; man-marking Wayne Rooney in a 1-0 win against Manchester United in 2011; and a recent one, moving to 4-3-3 in a 0-0 defeat to Chelsea. From a broader perspective, you can see track how he has switched his system to a 4-4-2 which the Invincibles side used, to a variant of 4-2-3-1 which he opts for now. Even then, there are subtleties within the system that gives it its uniqueness; playing mostly through the right-hand side with Sagna/Walcott and developing a style which goes through Olivier Giroud.

The battle with next weekend’s opponents Chelsea – but more specifically, Jose Mourinho – has probably accentuated the stubbornness notion frequently levelled at Wenger. It raises an interesting question however; when one team counter-attacks, as Chelsea invariably does when it faces Arsenal, what then is the best, most advantageous response? For Wenger, with the players at his disposal, his answer is to pass the ball even faster and combine in spaces in front which Chelsea will naturally concede. If game theory kicked in, Arsenal and Chelsea would both probably chose a counter-attacking strategy for the second encounter between the two (would that then lead to a stand-off?!). For Wenger though, the optimal strategy will almost always be passing the ball quicker and making sharper movements. The problem often, though, is not that they are outfought or out-muscled, but face an outstanding individual like Didier Drogba which sometimes there can be no answer to.

Arsenal’s approach in the 1-0 win over Tottenham last weekend raises another intriguing development ahead of the clash against Chelsea. Wenger shifted to a 4-3-3 formation, just as he did when he faced Bayern Munich in the Champions League. That was probably because he wanted to maintain the same shape that the team had practice all week and it would be foolish to disrupt the rhythm. But also, it was a reaction to a crucial period for Arsenal and without key personnel: Walcott, Ozil, Ramsey and Wilshere, they need to find other solutions.

Against Tottenham, the response was to drop deep, perhaps initiated by Arsenal scoring the early goal, inviting Tottenham on and looking to break with the pace of Oxlade-Chamberlain/Podolski, set up by the passes of Rosicky/Cazorla.

Arsenal’s willingness to drop deep and soak up the pressure was displayed in their approach v Spurs. The team retreated to a clear 4-3-3 shape, with Santi Cazorla abandoning the “Ozil role” to play alongside Arteta and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Arsenal’s willingness to drop deep and soak up the pressure was displayed in their approach v Spurs. The team retreated to a clear 4-3-3 shape, with Santi Cazorla abandoning the “Ozil role” to play alongside Arteta and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

But then again, this season, Arsenal have shown more of a willingness to drop deeper, to win ugly when under the cosh. Arsenal might have dropped slightly to the wayside in the title race – something that can be rectified by coming up on top in this tough March schedule – but learning to win ugly is the frontier that Ed Smith, writing in 2008, said Wenger must cross to break their trophy voodoo. “His [Wenger’s] next masterstroke might be winning ugly, as sportsmen call it,” writes Smithy for Intelligent Life. “For a few seasons now, Arsenal have been football’s romantics and purists. But any strategy, no matter how well thought-out, is weakened by over-familiarity.

“No one wants Arsenal entirely to relinquish their exquisite style. But it will have even more converts if it is shown to pay dividends. A paradox, then–a few ugly wins for Arsenal may lead more teams to follow in their elegant footsteps.”

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