Tags: Arsène Wenger, Arsenal, contract, Strategy, Total Football
Arsène Wenger feels keeping his talented groups of players will allow much future success as inspired by Ajax’s “Total Football” sides.
Arsène Wenger was keen to avoid any comparative superlatives with the late 60s and early 70s Ajax sides in 2004 but if his current side realise their fledgling potential, they should comfortably sit alongside the legendary Dutch team.
Emblazoned on the walls of Ajax’s academy are photographs of players who have painted a rich of history of the club; Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edwin van der Sar to name a few. The icing on the cake? All came through club’s fabled youth system and it is that which had kept them consistently challenging in Europe until the late 90′s. “If you have a good youth development system,” says Cruyff, now part-time Catalunya coach. “Then it is obvious first team will one day be good too. It’s not hard to get things right; all that is required is a lot of hard work.”
But as the game became increasingly globalised and money took over (the Bosman rule has also had a particularly adverse effect), they find themselves in a precarious position. Nevertheless it’s the culture, the shared heritage and philosophy that Ajax created which has been highly sought-after.
Growing up, Ajax were the pin-up side for Wenger and have certainly played a part in shaping the manager’s thinking. “Ajax were certainly the first team in relation to my generation because they had the perfect players everywhere,” he said. Rinus Michels, the then coach watched his side grow up almost organically during the ‘Gloria Ajax’ era; a group of supremely talented players from the academy led by Johan Cruyff would garner an almost telepathic understanding and on the pitch that would be allowed to be expressed through rapid passing, pressuring together and the interchangeing of positions. And it’s this philosophy that’s not far removed from the one at the Emirates.
“I want to have success by building a team with a style, a know-how, with a culture of play specific to the club and it’s fans and with young people,” said Arsène Wenger. “Our purpose is not to say are we a great team or not but to try to improve, try to get better. You don’t try to copy. I try every time to add good players to the team based on movement and technique. We know we are mobile, we know we are technically good.”
Wenger has given Arsenal a style to rival that Ajax side, an illustrious history (although with a lack of consistency) and a youth system renowned worldwide for educating the best. “We are able to attract the most promising prospects because we have a calling card stamped Arsène Wenger,” says Gilles Grimandi. (Incidentally, Arsenal are set to profit not only from the more densely populated London area but like the Dutch did from Suriname immigrants, the Gunners from African with promising youngsters such as Benik Afobe, Chuks Aneke, Zak Ansah and Emmanuel Frimpong coming through the ranks).
The recent contract signings, 15 in total since May 2009 and with the talisman of the side, Cesc Fabregas already tied down at Arsenal for four more years, this will allow the captain to carry the current nucleus of talent forward in the next few years. Much like the Ajax team, it is thought bringing a gifted group of players forward together with a shared sense of belonging and loyalty will allow success to be sustained and create a footballing culture which evokes the same sense of collective improvisation as the “Total Football” sides.
Research by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Why England Lose – And Other Curious Football Phenomena, show why there such an importance in keeping your best players because wages dictate 92% of success. Indeed, one of the reasons former chairman David Dein is so keen to bring in an outside investor into the club is because wage bills are rising however with the strategy in place now, total wages only account to around 50-60% of total revenue, compared to around 80% for both Chelsea and Manchester United. The Gunners were able to create a team ethos and mentality in achieving their unbeaten run in 2004 and the same has applied to the recent successful Premiership sides.
Indeed in Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal board have struck more than an just oil. In the Frenchman they have an economist, a forecaster which is every bit as important because of the financial stringent placed on the club since the move to the Emirates and with Ajax’s current plight serving as a caveat. Speaking in September 2009′s International Football Arena in Zurich, the Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis said of Arsenal’s objective of keeping their best players: “We believe transfer spending is the last resort. That’s a sensible view to have. Re-signing existing players is a far more efficient system.”
Wenger expands on the importance of contract renewals, citing new player contract rules which FIFA have recently introduced but could follow the same route as the Jean-Marc Bosman case. “At the moment, after 28 you need only two years. I see the next thing coming is people saying, ‘Why is it 28 and not 27? That’s age discrimination. Why do we have to wait two years after 28 and three years before? If it goes down to two as well, you go from one extreme to the other. It could mean the disappearance of transfer fees.”
Football is very much a psychological game and Arsenal’s recent good form has owed much to keeping the group’s spirits high in the fight for the title and hopefully new era domination. “I know is that within our team we have a great hunger for success,” said Wenger. “We have great solidarity and team spirit. We are a team who has grown up together and wants to achieve things. We have not won anything yet together and that makes us hungry for success.”
Tags: Analysis, Arsène Wenger, Arsenal, Psychology, Strategy
“In times of transformation, not only do new problems arise; old ways of looking at things become problems themselves.” That’s the thinking that has been presented to Arsène Wenger since the move to the Emirates affected his planning on the pitch. Indeed certain points have had to be exaggerated. What was so good about the ‘Invincibles’ was that youth, fluidity, pace, creativity was backed up by discipline, tactical understanding and ruthlessness, and Wenger is aware that this second part has become difficult to replicate to the same degree because of the youth policy route they’ve decided to go down.
“Exceptional talent” it is hoped will carry the side to the next level.
Wishful thinking or achievable through careful planning, it is Arsène Wenger’s job now, through all the groundwork he’s laid, is to somehow bridge that gap despite the obvious contradictions if the maxim “experience comes with age” is to be taken at face value.
Part of that solution has been the transition to the 4-3-3 this season, suiting not only the technical abilities of the players but also the mental side. “The total [of goals scored this season] so far shows our style of play suits the team,” said Wenger. “The way we play football, the way we are organised and go forward suits our players too.” Now there is not only theoretically more angles in the pass for Arsenal to play intricate triangles but also help stretch sides and become more dynamic. Robin van Persie was the fulcrum which play revolved around and his injury, and to those of others have seen a slight downturn in the impressiveness of their performance since the start of the season. Maybe the grueling schedule is also starting to catch up on them as the demands placed on such young bodies to play such an expansive style cannot always be consistently maintained. Indeed one of the key details of the system change has seen the players look to asphyxiate opponents through intense pressure, augmenting their developing tactical sense which naturally favours defend from the front. One of the key beneficiaries of this has been Alex Song, whose role is now of much importance to the way the team functions.
“I know that my position is crucial in the team,” the 22-year-old told The London Evening Standard. “When everyone is attacking, I want to hold, so that if we lose the ball I’m the first defender in the midfield to stop any counter-attacks and passes coming through. It’s a vital role – I just need to close quickly and give the ball forward when I receive it. This year we have done well, everyone’s contribution when we have lost the ball has been very good. We’ve turned quickly to defend just as we turn quickly to attack when we win it.”
Song’s rise highlights the freedom of psychological development Arsène Wenger gives his players and the importance of it. Pressed into the team at a young age and soon vilified for a disappointing performance in the defeat to Fulham, he went out on loan to regain some confidence. It took him a while to break through once he came back but gradually his game improved to become the rock he is now in the centre of midfield. At one moment it looked like the Cameroonian was set to become a central defender but never actually pushed, Wenger allowing his player to assimilate knowledge like a sponge so as to naturally develop his game.
Indeed training is rarely authoritative or bureaucratic. Players are expected to absorb the objective of drills (usually timed games to replicate moments of technique on the pitch) while feedback is given almost instantaneously on how to improve but never at any time meant to feel like your hand was being held or were being spoon-fed. It’s quite a contrast to the repetitious routines practiced by Rafa Benitez or Fabio Capello and while no method is definitive, it is Wenger’s trust in the spontaneity of his players which owes much to the style of football produced. In fact, back when Pep Guardiola was in charge of Barcelona’s ‘B’ side, he spent time studying Arsenal’s methods and was captivated by the way Wenger encouraged his players to express themselves on the pitch and with the pace and skill the ball was passed.
“We work a lot on the potential of combinations between players,” Wenger told French radio. “We plot it on the pitch and, once a player has the ball, there are red lights or green lights. The collective goal is to create the most possible green lights. That is to say to give passing solutions to the man with the ball and to leave the responsibility with that man to make the best choice possible, allowing the team to keep possession but at the same time – if possible – make the game progress towards the attack.
“So you must always offer the player solutions that allow him to utilise his intelligence around the game to the maximum.”
“For it to work, players must make themselves available and we work on that in training,” he told . “That’s where top-level sport becomes really interesting, in finding a way to have the team in a position of psychological comfort so that they can offer solutions. Because you know that, when doubt creeps in, the green lights become red lights. “Because each player takes fewer spontaneous initiatives and, all of a sudden, it’s absolutely unbelievable at what speed all those lights become red and the player with the ball finds himself in the shit.
“Doubt is the key enemy of our game but, eventually, we must at the same time give our team the sense of availability. And, on a psychological level, we must give them a taste for audacity and for developing connections between each other.” Indeed doubt also saw Aaron Ramsey withdrawn against Sunderland in the 1-0 defeat, the Wenger citing bad decision-making as the reason for his his bad performance. “A player who recieves the ball has to solve a millions problems within a fraction of a second; a great one is the one who chooses the right solution,” said manager in Phillipe Auclair’s Cantona: The Rebel who Would be King biography.
Fans may be beguiled by the club’s failure to land a trophy in four years but Arsène Wenger is adamant that the club will get through this tumultuous period. He has recently stated that the last four years have been his best due to the difficulties in battling against an unforgiving environment. The temporary (it is hoped) youth policy may be arguable but as researched by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Why England Lose – And Other Curious Football Phenomena, there is an importance of keeping your best players – wages dictate 92% of success. Indeed, one of the reasons former chairman David Dein is so keen to bring in an outside investor into the club is because wage bills are rising however with the strategy in place now, total wages only account to around 50% of total revenue, compared to around 80% for both Chelsea and Manchester United. The aim is to build around the current players, create a sense of belonging and loyalty thereby allowing success to be sustained.
There is more than trophies (although still a big part) the Frenchman is aiming to leave as his legacy to the club. There is a philosophy, an identity, a vision that Arsenal must strive towards, and in Arsène Wenger, a manager working his way to building an Arsenal that will last years to come.
Have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.
ARSÈNAL – The Making of a Modern Superclub by Alex Fynn and Kevin Whicher highlights the outstanding progress made by “Le Professeur” in more than a decade at the club. A fabulous insight to the strategies on and off the pitch put in place by Arsène Wenger during a tumultuous period of change, expectation, struggles and some disappointment. A must read book for all Arsenal fans and specifically relevant to the current period at this great club.