“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.