Jon Spurling looks ahead to tomorrow night’s Europa League final, and wonders if Unai Emery’s tactical approach will see him join Bertie Mee and George Graham as a European trophy winning Arsenal manager.
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Given the fact that Arsenal will only have a small army of 3,700 fans inside Baku’s Olympic Stadium on Wednesday night, they will struggle to replicate the spine tingling atmospheres which accompanied the club’s two previous victories in European Finals.
At Highbury in 1970, with the Gunners 3-1 down from the Fairs Cup Final first leg against Anderlecht, the 51,612 crowd acted, as goalkeeper Bob Wilson later described it: “…..as a twelfth man.” Bertie Mee’s men overturned their chastening defeat in Brussels to win 3-0, on what many Arsenal fans still regard as Highbury’s finest ever occasion.
In 1994, the swathes of Arsenal fans inside Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium produced several deafening renditions of ‘One Nil To The Arsenal,’ as Alan Smith’s goal ensured a 1-0 victory for the Gunners over Parma. Ian Selley explained how: “Arsenal fans roared us on to victory.”
It will be a far less partisan atmosphere in Baku, and the Gunners can do nothing to change that. But fortunately, Arsenal’s tactical fate remains absolutely in their own hands. And, just as Bertie Mee’s and George Graham’s teams got their tactics spot on against Anderlecht and Parma, so must Unai Emery’s Arsenal in the Europa League Final against Chelsea.
When Bertie Mee’s men reflected upon their disappointing first leg performance in Brussels, they decided that they’d simply afforded a talented Anderlecht team, containing great players including Jan Mulder and Paul van Himst, too much time and space on the ball. It was a mistake they wouldn’t make at Highbury. Famously, Frank McLintock emerged from the showers declaring that Arsenal would “…do them at Highbury. We’ll get at them. We’ll go for it.”
And that’s precisely what Arsenal (with an identical first X1 from the first leg) did 6 days later in N5 – they “got at” Anderlecht. Deploying the pressing style which had sunk an emerging Ajax team in the semi final at Highbury, Arsenal followed coach Don Howe and skipper McLintock’s instructions to “not give the Anderlecht players a minute on the ball.” Decades later, Paul van Himst told me: “They hit us with a whirlwind. Arsenal never got suckered in, thinking they could match us for skill, but their pressing game, their constant harrying and their sheer – well, British approach – of guts and determination beat us.”
Viewing the game almost half a century later, the urgency with which Arsenal played that night remains a sight to behold, as does the unselfish play of John Radford, who masterfully held the ball up on numerous occasions, in order to provide George Armstrong with time to run hard and fast at the Anderlecht defence.
Twenty four years later, as Arsenal prepared for the 1994 European Cup Winners Cup Final, George Graham, a key component of Arsenal’s 1970 Fairs Cup winning team, urged his side: “Don’t let Parma play. Don’t give them a minute.” Graham’s dossiers (“I felt like a Field Marshal making battle plans”) highlighted the liveliness and flexibility of Parma’s three man midfield – with Tomas Brolin as an attacking midfielder, Pin on the right and Crippa out left, and Zola and Asprilla in a dazzling forward line. Parma dominated the early stages, and skipper Tony Adams took centre stage. “He got around to everyone to remind them of their role,” recalled Paul Davis. “Steve Morrow needed to get tighter on Zola, and Ian Selley and I had to close down Crippa and Pin, who were a great double act down the middle. He told us to get at them.”
After Smith’s superb goal, Arsenal heeded Tony Adams’s instructions to the letter, and ensured that the supply line to Asprilla and Zola was cut, leaving Parma’s front two increasingly isolated. Another key element of Arsenal’s success, mirroring John Radford’s Herculean efforts in 1970, was lone striker Alan Smith’s ability to hold up the ball for his team mates, and defend from the front.
Fast forward to 2019, and there are no leaders in the Adams and McLintock mould, burly forwards like Radford or Smith, and the defensive acumen deployed by Mee’s and Graham’s Arsenal – when defence and midfield invariably dovetailed perfectly – is a thing of the past. And yet, Unai Emery clearly possesses the tactical nous and flexibility needed to win this competition. Prior to Sevilla’s 3 Europa League triumphs, his instructions to his teams came straight from the: “Don’t give them any space” school of thought, tapped into so well by Mee and Graham. On occasions during this campaign, Arsenal have shown the type of gusto and acumen required to triumph in Europe, and crucially, against Chelsea in the Premier League.
In January, despite only having 35% of possession at the Emirates, Arsenal harassed and harried Chelsea as they won 2-0, denying Eden Hazard vital time and space in the process. The relentless pace at which Arsenal played was reminiscent of the fighting approach they showed against Tottenham in the 4-2 home win before Christmas. Against Sarri’s men, Emery deployed a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Aaron Ramsey shuttling back and forth to supplement both defence and attack.
Ramsey will miss the final, but Emery is likely to stick to tried and tested European tactics which have served the Gunners well against Napoli and Valencia and play 3 centre backs, with both full backs pushing forwards, or tracking back when needed.
Tactically, Arsenal were far more confident and proficient in Europe than in the Premier League during the last two months of the 2018-2019 season. It was Jekyll and Hyde stuff.
The pace and tenacity that they displayed in both legs against Valencia showed that the art of game management isn’t an entirely alien concept to the team. And, against London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham, they demonstrated that the ability to hustle and suffocate the opposition isn’t beyond this Arsenal team either. And in Lacazette and Aubameyang, they also possess two top strikers who could wreak havoc in any opposition defence.
With Arsenal preparing to take on a team from 10 miles down the road in a stadium 2500 miles away – a London derby on the very fringes of Europe – it seems apt that in order to win, they’ll need a perfect fusion of the very best elements of their campaign in the Premier League and in Europe.
If Emery’s team wins in Baku, not only will he join a select band of Gunners managers who have triumphed in Europe, and at the same time steer his club back into the Champions League, he’ll also demonstrate that he has the tactical acumen to move Arsenal forwards in the future.
Given the fact that so few fans can travel to Azerbaijan from London, this European final is unlikely to be mentioned with the same reverence by the Arsenal masses as the 1970 or 1994 triumphs, which still resonate with supporters decades later, assuming the Gunners defeat Chelsea.
But an Arsenal victory would mean that, in years to come, we could at least view the highly controversial – and vitally important – Baku showpiece with a degree of retrospective pleasure.
Get at them, Arsenal.