Sunday, April 21, 2024

Tactics Column: Wenger’s one-dimensional approach exposed in derby

Mauricio Pochettino talks about energía universal, a sort of invisible force that he believes influences everything and channelled correctly, can have a positive impact on a team’s fortune.

“I believe in energía universal,” he said. “It is connected. Nothing happens for causality. It is always a consequence [of something else]. Maybe, it is one of the reasons that Harry [Kane] always scores in derbies. I believe in that energy. For me, it exists.”

Some may dismiss it as hippy crap, a new-age management speak that explains nothing, but for Pochettino, the important point is the need to stay strong and to confront negative energies that might invade the group. To do that, he quickly realised when he was hired by Tottenham, was to reverse the reputation of the club as flaky underachievers and instill a hardened mentality that each player buys into.

Kane explains Pochetinno’s impact: “The gaffer has installed his philosophy with the way we play – the pressing and getting the ball down – but he’s also installed that steel in us; that we’ve just got to find a way to win. He’s a very passionate manager and that bleeds into the rest of the team.”


Over the years, it’s become harder for me to write this column. For that I feel I have betrayed Arseblog somewhat: the quality has been there, but perhaps not the quantity. That’s not to say I’ve become disillusioned with watching the Gunners because I feel I’m part of a band of fans who have become weirdly nuetralised to Arsenal winning or losing.

But it has meant that it has allowed Arsene Wenger to have a free reign at managing Arsenal without the pressures of succeeding or failing, and we’ve been willing to accept that because he’s been such a important figure in our life – more than just a manager, a second father even. And after back-to-back FA Cups, and Ozil and Alexis in our roster, perhaps we believed he was able to turn it around – or deserved the chance to.

Wenger inspired me to write about tactics because at that time, after the 2007/08 season, he still seemed at the vanguard, and Arsenal played vibrant, attractive football. Wenger also played on the romanticism of tactics feeding the press with snippets of his philosophy and thinking. These days however, he’s reluctant to divulge much information. After the 2-0 defeat to Spurs, he was asked whether he has the sufficient personnel to make the 3-4-3 a long-term success, but he said he “didn’t want to to answer”. Maybe he was tired after such a draining loss to go into detail.

Indeed, before the game, in the programme notes for Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Leicester City in midweek, Wenger was full of quotes about why he switched formations and how it suits certain players. In any case, he explained, that switch was implemented more as a response to the psychological need to lift his team, and to introduce something different to spark the focus again than any sudden, piercing insight. The 3-4-3 he said, was a defensive formation, and it was not something he would look to take forward into the long term.

Tim Stillman wrote in his latest column “that Wenger’s unwillingness to discuss tactics is quite deliberate. I think he discusses psychology so often as a means of avoiding tactical discussion. He is diametrically opposed to [Crystal Palace manager Sam] Allardyce, in that he wants his players to believe that all praise is due to them. To forensically discuss tactics is to play up his own role, while it is also true that he is not the most tactically rigorous manager in any case. Arsene was wedded to variations of 4-4-2 in the nineties, he adopted the 4-3-3 system well after Pep Guardiola perfected it with Barcelona and the recent back 3 again shows a man following tactical trends rather than setting them.”

Mikel Arteta succinctly explained Wenger’s approach when he said that “Arsène Wenger believes that with a little organisation, simple instruction and faith in playing the game his way, their talent will see them through.”

The manager places great faith in his players to find solutions on the pitch within a certain framework.

“Players aren’t weighed down with 40 different instructions: Wenger gives a player six or seven clear ideas and that’s it, in 20 minutes you know what you’re doing,” adds Arteta.

Modern management though, requires a more holistic approach. There’s a great article in the New York Times on Vitor Frade, a great tactical theoriser who has won many believers with his tactical periodization methodology who says, that “Football is not a linear process. It is not a sum of things: If you do this, plus that, you will achieve this.”

And, “the coach must consider every aspect, of the individual, of the team. Football is not two-dimensional. It is multidimensional.”

If Wenger leaves a lot to be desired on a tactical level, he’s also struggled to imbue a certain toughness that doesn’t see his team fall so easily by the wayside when things are not going their way, or when the pressure is cranked up. That was displayed perfectly in the Derby where after conceding, Arsenal let another one in only minutes after. However, the reaction afterwards was pitiful, with no coherent idea of how to go about with the comeback.

Indeed, that was the galling aspect at the end of it: in previous seasons, you would expect Arsenal to throw everything at it – even earlier this season, as shown by the comeback v Bournemouth they did it – but things have deteriorated horribly since then. The team are second worst in the league since January 2 for shots on target allowed per game.


It’s hard to believe that Arsenal are that bad. They are not, and it boils down to Wenger. For one thing, he says he is proud of the consistency of reaching the top four, year after year, and he’s correct that to not drop out is an achievement in itself – though at the same time it gives the illusion of a challenge. What it shows, is that he’s been at an arm’s length of the top coaches to not be considered truly outdated, but the team has the resources now – which have been used – to expect better and push on, especially after the two FA Cup wins. Wenger’s record, though, in the big games, leaves a lot to be desired, and in those encounters, shows the gulf in class between the top and Wenger.

Against Spurs, the same pattern that we saw against those big sides repeated itself; Arsenal collapsed in front of their own box in the first-half, and failed to get out. Inevitably, it was when they managed to string a few passes together at the start of the second-half and attack that they conceded. There’s no synchronicity between the defensive part of their game and their attack. Arsenal, in the first-half, might have been able to spring out and mount a quick break, but often they were far too deep so invariably, it’s harder to commit men to the counter-attack.


If there was a turning point in this season, it was the defeat to Everton in December. Arsenal took a first-half lead and dominated, however, in the second-half they failed to string even a few passes together and succumbed to a 2-1 loss. In the next game, three days later, Wenger resisted the idea of shaking things up too much and opted to stick with Alexis up front again. Once again, Arsenal took the lead early and once again after taking the lead, they collapsed in front of their own box and couldn’t get out. The final scoreline was a 2-1 loss. Sometime after that Wenger decided to switch to a pragmatic approach – Alexis didn’t start up front again until the 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in February.

It’s not as if the results up to then with Giroud up front were bad but Wenger maybe believed the fluid approach he adopted in the first-half of the season wasn’t sustainable anymore. At that time, his relationship with Alexis had also supposedly deteriorated. There were rumours of a bust-up and for the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool in March, Alexis was surprisingly dropped to the bench. The official reason Wenger gave was that the team, “with Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck upfront, would need to be a bit more direct and strong in the air.”

It was taken with a pinch of salt by some, but there was probably more than an element of truth in it. When Wenger said the team will play more “direct” he basically meant only from goal-kicks – the build up in open play would remain the same as it’s been all season – a rudimentary plan perhaps but it seemed too have in mind, the 2-1 defeats to Man City and Everton where the team struggled to get up the pitch.

He also mentioned that is was important for the team to remain “conscious” of a certain game-plan and perhaps, Alexis’ demanding personality might detract from that. Indeed, in many games it seems as if the high press is initiated by him and not necessarily done at the right time, so not starting Alexis might tempt the team less to push up.

Indeed, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided an interesting insight into Alexis’ character before the game, recalling how he confronted him after a late miss on the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, even though the game was practically sealed by then. He said: “The boys were all happy in the dressing room but Alexis came to me in the shower and he’s like ‘My friend are you going to score?! Oh no my friend… I passed you the ball, you have a cup of tea, you wait… and then you shoot!’.

“I was just laughing like ‘Yeah, sorry my friend…’ He always wants assists, he wants goals and that’s what makes him the player he is. He’s always hungry for that and he passes that onto us all. Alexis is probably one of the strongest ones that will voice his opinions at all times. He is one of those that keeps demanding and trying to bring the best out of you.”

It’s probably easy to conclude how that attitude had changed. Earlier in the season, Alex Iwobi gave an interview to the Guardian saying how every time he misses a chances in training, Alexis would tease him for not scoring. “They [Alexis and Ozil] will tell you what you need to work on but in a jokey kind of way,” he told Amy Lawrence. “They do advise me, saying I just need to compose myself, relax and the chances will come. They try to help in the best way they can.”

Whereas at the start of the season, Alexis’s advice might have followed this “jokey kind of way”, later on in the season, it would appear from the outside, to carry with it a matter of urgency. He became the talisman of the side, superseding Ozil in that role, impatient perhaps for this mishmash set of players to fulfil their potential. As such, he can be seen as somewhat of a Robin van Persie figure, somebody who provoked the team to improve with his determination, but at a pace that can also be inhibiting.


If there was an intriguing tactical battle in the 2-0 defeat to Spurs, it was how Pochettino’s side reacted to losing Moussa Dembele to injury. The manager resisted the urge to switch to the 3-4-3 he uses in the “big matches” thus match up with Arsenal, and stuck to the 4-2-3-1. In theory, Arsenal had the technical quality to dominate. Yet, with Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama in the centre, Spurs controlled the midfield.

This was more to do with than personnel. Dier sometimes dropped back into defence if Arsenal pressed high, and the full-backs then pushed up to open the pitch. After the game, Pochettino explained how Spurs’ adaptability allowed them to dominate: “I think today you can see our flexibility in our tactics during the game; how sometimes we had three at the back, four at the back, two at the back with three midfielders, we used the full-backs higher or close inside like a midfielder.”

Arsenal had no answer, and in the first-half, were suffocated for space as they were pinned back into their own half. In particular, Spurs targeted the right-side with Son Hueng Min stretching the pitch, and Ben Davies pushing up high. It started however, with Dier at the back, dropping into the defence and allowing Jan Vertonghen to move to the left-back position.

From here, they could match Arsenal on the flanks but often outnumbered them anyway with Gabriel tucking in, and Ozil taking “cheat” positions in the defensive phase, looking to pounce on the loose ball instead of covering for Oxlade-Chamberlain. Too often Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was exposed to the 2v1 but to his credit, defended very diligently. Indeed, Spurs never actually reaped the rewards of their dominance on that side so instead at the start of the second-half, switched emphasis to the other side.

It looked like Pochettino wanted to expose Alexis’ defensive acumen and it was from a quick throw in down the left that they took the lead. The second was added not soon after, from a penalty converted and “won” by who else but Kane. Not that Pochettino was in any doubt to begin with.

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