Is Arsene Wenger a tactical genius? No, I don’t think he is. But people might think he was if he adopted my revolutionary idea.
At least, it was revolutionary when I thought of it ten years ago, but amazingly still no one has adopted it. When I read my old stuff, I am often amazed at how little things change at Arsenal. Different personnel, but consistent methods leading to fairly consistent results. This was printed in The Gooner, issue 119, January 2002:
Many of us have come to believe recently that Arsène Wenger is not the tactical genius that we once thought he was. In fact, I’m hard pushed to discern any particular style of play at all most of the time, other than to get Wiltord and Grimandi on the pitch as often as possible. I’m struggling to think of anything new we’ve tried since George Graham experimented with a three-man central defence, and the last new idea before that was probably Herb’s brainwave of pumping the long ball up the wing to Alex James.
No, we are not really known for tactical innovation at Arsenal these days. Arsène seems content to merely select a mixture of workhorses and skilful show-offs and leave them to get on with it. If we lose a game, what do we do different for the following one? Nothing much, usually. Other clubs do actually change things round if they are in trouble. After we beat ManUre, Fergie dumped his defence and put Roy Keane at centre-back to shore things up. Losing to Chelsea in their next game proved what a poor idea this was, but at least it was a different poor idea.
Our dismal efforts at free-kicks and corners, not to mention regular defensive uncertainty, missed penalties and lost shoot-outs, make me wonder what they do in training all week. At least with George you always knew what the defence was going to do. And so did they, because he had them practising it in extra training three times a week: on the count of three, step forward, right arm in the air. Maybe the defence do still get drilled together, but I think there’s room for improvement judging by the number of sloppy goals conceded this season.
The regular feeling of “What the hell are we actually trying to do out there?” set me wondering whether pre-determined tactics and moves could play a much larger role. The ultimate tactical sport, you’ll probably agree, is American Football. The players line up opposite each other approximately every 30 seconds for several hours, then on a signal the attackers all run in different directions. With any luck the ball arrives at one of them and some points are scored.
In some ways this is not a million miles from set-piece moves in ‘soccer’. Remember a few seasons ago when we kept scoring from corners? Near post ball, Steve Bould darted forward to flick it on and Adams or someone else piled in at the back to nod it in. This worked for several weeks before other teams got wise to it. I seem to remember we won a match against Newcastle with both our goals arriving in exactly this way. Surely it would not be beyond the Arsenal coaching staff to come up with something similar occasionally? (They might even work something out for free-kicks while they’re at it, just as a change from Henry attempting the usual curler over the wall.)
However, in real football, as opposed to the American variety, we get to enjoy (or endure, when trying to break down 10-man Bolton) periods of perhaps several minutes of continuous open play with no set-piece action. So is there room for set plays without a stoppage of some sort first? Well, maybe.
When Freddie scored against Liverpool recently he did it by charging into the box in anticipation of a near post cross from Pires. Bob duly beat his man, the low cross arrived and was slotted home. It should be noted that the Swede was the only Arsenal man in the penalty area at the time, despite starting his run from 30 or so yards behind the play. If he got there, where were all the others? Suppose Pires knew that if he got past the defender and put a cross in, there would be four men arriving at pre-determined positions? He’d hardly even need to look up, just knock the ball over and a goal, or at least an attempt, would follow.
Given a bit of variety it would probably take opposing teams quite a while to work out what was going on if four or five players all set off at different angles simultaneously. Defences would be run ragged, while all the Arsenal players would know in advance which of them were decoys and who would receive the ball.
But, I hear you say, this would stifle creativity and turn the players into robots. Perhaps not – the likes of Kanu would still be required because if you try this sort of thing in open play you need someone to hold the ball up while the rest of the lads are haring around, confusing defenders and waiting for the telling pass. The advantage would be that they’d all know already exactly where the ball should end up.
Far fetched? Possibly. Worth a try? Personally I think it might be quite an exciting new concept, but then maybe I’m just fed up with embarrassing free-kick routines, soft goals being conceded, Wiltord’s poor ball control, half the team only trying when they feel like it and losing at home to the likes of Charlton!