We’ve had some good discussions over the last three days or so. One point that seems to be shared by some, including myself, is that Arsene isn’t tactically as good as the likes of Mourinho, Hiddink and even Fergie.
I have to say I don’t claim to be a tactical genius or have better footballing acumen than Le Boss. Having said that, I do feel all of us have a right to an opinion and to analyze the work of people who might be far superior to us in their chosen field. The following piece is just my take on the work of some of the top managers of this era.
First, let me focus on Arsene. How many times have we heard him talk of players creating magic on the football field? Isn’t that what attracts a lot of the neutrals to Arsenal? For what else is free flowing football with intricate passing and seamless movement if it isn’t magic!?
I think Wenger is from a rare breed of managers who give their players freedom on a football pitch, freedom to express themselves and impose their personalities on the game without compromising the team work ethos.
I feel this is the reason most of the players who have played under him hold the Frenchman in such high regard. It is also the reason we see such a unique footballing approach from Arsenal. When the team is in full flow, almost every goal is different and every creative move unpredictable.
Of course, this is based on a foundation of strict training, diet and so forth. I see that as an artists effort to ensure the materials used in the creation are flawless.
On the other hand, the flaw, if we can call it that, with this approach is that Wenger doesn’t like to spell it out for the players. He doesn’t mark any boundaries on the pitch. That’s the reason we see our DM’s or Center Backs marauding into the opposition territory. At times this freedom turns out to be fatal. Some of us call it tactical naivete, others accept this failure as a fundamental part of an artists work while the most prosaic amongst us would consider it stupid or incompetent.
Now let’s contrast this with Wenger’s contemporaries. With due respect to their achievements I consider managers like Mourinho, Benitez and Hiddink to be the Sith Lords of Anti-Football. In simpler terms they are the footballing engineers.
Mourinho, for instance, spent hundreds of millions to produce what can be considered the most boring champion team in the history of football (Yes, my knowledge of football history is very limited.) His teams always went out to make sure they never lost. Is it a surprise that the players who prospered in his regime were the likes of Terry, Makelele and Essien!?
Similarly, Benitez was another who sent out eleven men to defend. I don’t have the exact quotes but Ryan Babel, a short while after his transfer to Liverpool, said that he played 20 yards deeper under Benitez than he did at Ajax. Rafa is probably one of the few managers who can take a prolific center forward like Kuyt and convert him into a hard working right sided defensive midfielder. I am sure Robbie Keane will have a similar story to tell when he decides to open his mouth about his time at Anfield.
Don’t we all remember the scoreless draws their teams played out. Games that were decided by a freak goal on a set play. Two teams utterly devoid of creativity and canceling each other out all over the field.
This is not an attempt to criticize these managers. They have their own styles and those who can appreciate it support them. Those who value results more than anything else will never find a better messiah than Jose.
Hiddink is a similar manager. He put an eleven man wall against Barca and only an incompetent referee and a profligate Drogba prevented him from winning the Champions League semi-final. It would have been a great achievement in some eyes and a great shame in some others.
Most recently, Fergie engineered a victory at the Emirates with much the same tactics that Rafa has been using against his United. How predictable are these teams!? We know that every opportunity they will spread the ball wide and try to cross it in. They will always have players rushing into the box to get on the end of it and if they can do it often enough, eventually one or two will go in. Of course, there are some other tactics but just as easy to define.
What makes it somewhat easier for these engineers is that football is essentially a defenders game. That is the reason we don’t see a cricket score in a football match even when a Premier League team plays a third division team. If you put enough men behind the ball chances are you will keep most of the attacks out. If you collect top quality defenders chances are you will convert your home ground into a fortress.
Defending is something you can define. Players can be told exactly what is to be done. You do enough drills with top players and your team becomes impenetrable. It’s not rocket science exactly but it’s highly scientific and predictable.
Creativity on the other hand is beyond definition. You need vision and imagination to be creative. The only attacking moves that can be planned are set-plays. That is exactly the reason they are called set-pieces! (and perhaps the reason why we suck at set-plays 😛 )
The modern world of football is highly result oriented and the Engineers are the ones who are most likely to succeed. You put two highly clinical and skilled players like Rooney and Ronaldo in front of a tightly knit defensive unit and you get a Champion outfit. But it is also the reason why the Artists like Wenger and Guardiola are so important, they bring the game to life.
I, for one, am happy to live with the odd tactical mistake for the sake of that rare moment of magic.