Friday, August 19, 2022

A smash of glass and the rumble of boots

What constitutes an entertaining style of football has become one of football’s thornier ‘moral’ debates of the last decade. At least, it is a debate that has become peculiarly moral. Whilst John Beck’s Cambridge side and Wimbledon’s infamous ‘Crazy Gang’ were always frowned upon as scallywags, with saturated coverage and rocketing ticket prices, the phrase “playing the right way” has become trusted shorthand for the half arsed pundit. The concept of “the right way” to play has become even more morally embedded in the last ten years.

The ‘Guardiolisation’ of football has meant that a slower, more deliberate passing style has not just become fashionable, but is seen as an inherently superior way of playing. Reasonably effective mid-table managers such as Mark Hughes and Sam Allardyce have recently been told, rather publicly, that shit-housing their way to the comfort of mid-table is no longer satisfactory for club chairmen. They must throw in the odd sashay and pirouette en route, much to the grizzled chagrin of both.

Nowadays managers speak of ‘philosophies’ and ‘projects.’ This is usually to appear intellectual and therefore capable of bestowing this footballing ballet upon the dribbling masses. I believe this move towards a more deliberate and technical style to be at least partially responsible for a general decline in stadium noise. The technical level is much higher across the board, which is no bad thing, but needless to say a couple of haymakers from a heavyweight boxer are more likely to have you out of your seat than Jackson Pollock’s number 5. You can appreciate both of course, but one draws a much more visceral reaction. That tackling is now dealt with much more harshly is both cause and effect of this.

I believe football may have lost this balance a touch in this period of relative dandyism. Because whether or not it is the most effective way to play, a long ball pumped into the mixer can be pretty bloody exciting too. For all of the dismissive mockery, watching Rory Delap’s bionic arms launch the ball headlong into a penalty area, like a meteor hurling towards the sun, certainly got the blood pumping. Variety is the spice of life. That there are many ways to skin the cat explains the game’s enduring appeal. Anything that is within the rules is fine; the rest is just a matter of personal taste.

Arsene Wenger’s early Arsenal sides were as entertaining for their gladiators as they were their ballet dancers. It was the perfect balance of the two that brought them success and that entertained supporters. This Arsenal model is, in response to the direction the game has moved, more deliberate and more technical. Ten years ago, a Vieira tackle and a quickly released pass to Pires or Bergkamp would jump-start an attack. Nowadays, with deeper, more schooled opposing defences and midfields focused on pressing, a slow, rhythmic build up is favoured. Mertesacker, to Arteta, to Wilshere and so on.

The question as to whether Arsenal play entertaining football anymore is one I have seen debated amongst Arsenal fans over the last couple of seasons. The wider footballing consensus has been slower to grasp this nettle. One always scrutinises one’s own team much more closely due to a level of intimacy outside observers cannot match. Labels stick with teams for a little while whether they happen to be true or not. Even back in 2012-13, when Santi Cazorla was Arsenal’s only creative player, newspaper columns spoke only of adding muscle to the Arsenal roster when it was pretty obvious that it was creativity that was sorely lacking. Ozil was written off as a luxury when he was a necessity to any repeat observer of that Gunners side.

But this is Arsenal right? They always play with eleven featherweight technicians in the public psyche, so the discourse continues long after this ceases to be the case. The same is true of any team with a reputation for purveying a certain ‘style.’ Whether or not Arsenal still qualify as one of the foremost flag bearers for technical football is worth considering. It’s a difficult subject to deal with because of its subjective sensibilities. It’s also loaded with emotive subplots. Arsenal aren’t as successful as they were ten years ago, ergo, for many that automatically demotes the current fare.

Last season, Arsenal led the league table for two thirds of the season with a fairly methodical, pragmatic style reliant on a deep defence, absorbing pressure and being efficient in the final third. It was effective for a while, but not the most coruscating brand of football an Arsene Wenger side has played. The Gunners were seventh in the table for chances created last season and those chickens came home to roost in spring when Ozil and Ramsey were laid up with injury. This partly explains Wenger’s attempts to shift the dynamic of the midfield and attack this season so as not to be so reliant on individuals.

Wenger is often portrayed as football’s great aesthete and there is some truth in that insofar as he feels a responsibility to entertain. Yet his style still has some sound mathematical logic at its heart. When quizzed about his refusal to embrace a more direct style a few years ago, Wenger answered, “Which club won everything last year? Barcelona. They play good football. I am not against being pragmatic, because it is pragmatic to make a good pass, not a bad one.” The latter is true in both an offensive and defensive sense. If you starve the opposition of the ball, they cannot hurt your defence. That said, with Adebayor, Giroud and Sanogo amongst his more recent striker acquisitions, he is not as abash about being direct as people believe.

I think the honest answer is that Arsenal do not play the game as crisply as they used to. However, I still think they play in what critics would refer to as “the right way” to a better standard than most teams. The signs of an extremely high technical level are there, elucidated by Day-Glo goals against Norwich and Sunderland last season. The component parts are certainly there for a consistently aureate brand of football. Players such as Wilshere, Ozil, Cazorla, Arteta and even Giroud, with his ‘soft feet’ at the tip of the Arsenal attack nod towards a pleasing one touch style. (Waiting in the wings, Gedion Zelalem and Hector Bellerin are also capable of furthering the triumph of technique).

What is interesting is that Arsenal have a mix of more ‘bombastic’ players too, such as Ramsey, Walcott, Chamberlain and the hyperactive Alexis Sanchez. None would win points for subtlety but all are very effective in an attacking sense. The dichotomy of the two styles are emphasised by Mesut Ozil, the methodical scientist, who probes with delicate brushstrokes and Alexis Sanchez, the Tasmanian devil, who tosses grenades into the wilderness and waits to see where they land. Both are expected to lead their ‘categories.’

Ozil is more precise, but Alexis more exciting. Both are effective, but in different ways. And herein lays the crux of the issue. This Arsenal side has the potential to be more exciting, but it needs time to establish familiarity. (It would help greatly if the players weren’t injured so often, of course). The Invincibles’ style took a few seasons to imprint. Lots of Arsenal’s forward players are still quite new to each other. How Arsene Wenger can marry these two categories together and how successfully he can cajole Alexis and Ozil to lead their divisions will determine how gracefully this Arsenal team can age. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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