Anti-Arsenal Football

After Arsenal achieved immortality in the 2003-04 season, there was bound to be a change. For Arsenal, it proved to be the peak of that combination of players, something that may not have happened had Manchester United not been allowed to cynically foul our players and been awarded a penalty courtesy of a Wayne Rooney dive. For the rest of English football, they needed to figure out how to play against this behemoth of a team.

Claudio Ranieri’s disastrous managing of the Champions League semi-final match against Monaco proved to be his demise. Following his departure, Abramovich landed the hottest young manager in all of football, Jose Mourinho. His arrival would signal the introduction of tactical football amongst the elite clubs. Let me explain what I mean by that.

One of Jose Mourinho’s right hand men, Andre Villas Boas, was a scout who would compile mountains of data on opponents. An avid Championship Manager player as well, he would literally provide Mourinho the blueprints to each specific match, allowing Mourinho to delegate specific roles to players. Jose would provide certain instructions to his players, always maintaining a defensive shape and relying on that foundation to win titles. And win he did. The only time Arsenal beat Jose Mourinho in the Premier League was near the end of his reign, and in that match neither Didier Drogba nor Michael Essien started in the match.

Manchester United had to endure a three year stretch where they didn’t compete seriously for the Premier League title. They were near the leaders, but they weren’t anywhere near their dominant selves. Were it not for a Carling Cup victory, many people posed the question whether Sir Alex Ferguson was the right man for the job. Having had their asses handed to them by us in 03-04, he started cutting deadweight, one dimensional players like Ruud van Nistelrooy and rebuilt the side.

Meanwhile, Liverpool introduced a tactician themselves in Rafael Benitez. He probably goes the furthest in terms of specific directions to players. If he had his way, he would control the players himself. To be fair, his approach leads to a solid base that keeps them in games (mainly in Europe).

Why do I mention all of this? It’s to point out that Wenger does nothing of the sort.

It could be true that Wenger studies opposition teams and tells his team to be aware of certain danger men or tactics, but for the most part, Wenger trusts in his team to play their football and win. His philosophy is simple. Control the game through precision passing and possessing the ball. In other words, if we play our game, nobody can beat us. Barcelona approach the game in the same way. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Stoke City or Chelsea, this main idea does not change.

This is not to bash other managers at all. Everybody is free to have their own approach, and at the end of the day, 99% of the time, results are all that matter.

In the last two weeks, we’ve been subject to a lot of talk about how we’re predictable and that there is a clear game plan to beating us. They argue that if you hold your defensive shape and allow Arsenal to try to pass through you, you can break down their attack and fashion opportunities to score by playing counter attack football. This strategy only really works if they convert their opportunities. In the last two games, the opposition has been able to do that through completely faulty defending. Had that not happened, we would have continued to grind out chances and potentially win the game. That did not happen, so we’re labeled meek, one-dimensional, and plain not good enough.

Now, at the end of the year, we’ll see if the latter part of that assessment is true. I won’t lie, after the last two matches, it’s caused me to think long and hard about many players in this side. I question whether or not they have the hunger to win desperately for the man who meant the most to them in their professional careers. But, again, I’ll address that when this season ends.

Anyway, back to the original train of thought. In other words, when playing against Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea decide to play a form of football they usually do not play. Against almost every other opponent (except Barcelona, once again), they’d just play the way they normally play. Were they to play normally against us, the games would be far different. They know that, and we know that as well.

Tomorrow, Rafa Benitez will probably adopt a similar tactic against us. And it is up to our defense to help keep the game alive. Currently, we have conceded 30 goals in the league. With that type of defense, you cannot win the Premier League.

But like I said, teams are wary of getting into street fights against us. They do not want to exchange blow for blow, because that sort of game will allow Arsenal to eventually carve them open. I do not blame other teams for adopting the tactics of defending as a unit and playing counter attack against us. That’s their right, but it’s also on us to stifle those counter attacks and keep the pressure on their defense by providing real penetration instead of twiddling our thumbs.

This team is not far away, but until it shows more intelligence on the defensive end, we’re going to keep running into brick walls. It’s time to start breaking through some brick walls.

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