I’ve recently been reading ‘Herbert Chapman on Football’, a collection of the great man’s newspaper columns from his time as Arsenal manager. I’m not even half way through yet, but the man’s genius shines through from almost every page. He introduced so many things that are taken for granted now, because we have all grown up with them, but someone had to be the originator, and usually it was Herb.
He had a diagram of the pitch painted onto his desk, so that he could easily explain to players what he wanted them to do, or get them to explain problems to him. Nowadays whiteboards with pitch markings are everywhere, but someone had to think of it.
He talks about the importance of getting players at every level of a club playing the same way, so that when they make a step up they slot in to the team quickly and easily – a method that was later perfected by the likes of Ajax and Barcelona.
He recounts how he started the practice of team meetings on the mornings of matches to discuss what had gone right and wrong in the previous match and how to improve. This seems basic now, but again someone had to do it first.
There are subjects where it’s clear to see that Arsène Wenger is a disciple of Herb: he says “A player’s value should be judged on his ability to fit in with the other members of the team. The best player who ever kicked a ball would be small use if he were as one apart. This is the danger of every transfer.” This is exactly the point overlooked by so many who think that spending money on the latest fashionable talent is the easy answer to all a team’s problems. Herb also values intelligence and good character as attributes for a footballer, as indeed does his modern-day successor at Arsenal.
Where he goes off at a tangent from Arsène is here, on the subject of preparation:
“I am convinced that much of the success achieved by the Arsenal has been through the team quickly sensing a weakness in the opposition. Indeed this has been a very remarkable feature of our displays, and I assure you that this is not an accident. We know our opponents before we take the field, or believe we do, and in our discussions on the match, in which every man speaks frankly, without a fear of hurting any one’s feelings, the last detail of the plan by which we hope to win is studied. We are prepared, and though the plan may go wrong, it does not follow that it has been ill-conceived. Moreover, it may be altered at half time. I freely confess that these match talks have been of inestimable value to me. I have learnt much from them. They have given me new ideas, which I have put into practice. I am always looking for new ideas. I would borrow one from a programme boy at Highbury, if it were a good one.”
Whenever I write anything that dares to presume what someone else thinks, I know I am going to attract some criticism. How can I possibly know the motives or feelings of anyone inside Arsenal? This is particularly so if I dare to criticise Arsène Wenger, so I’m sure there will be a few as usual. But does it strike you that Arsène prepares for the opposition in any way, shape or form? Does it strike you that he takes a blind bit of notice of who we’re playing against or what their tactics might be 90 per cent of the time? Oh yes, he might give an instruction or two if we’re playing Barca or Bayern – perhaps. But does he treat Wigan any differently to Stoke, or Aston Villa or Everton, even Chelsea or Man Utd?
I believe Arsène’s methods are all about playing your own game and being confident enough in your ability to succeed doing it. Ignore the opposition. The trouble is this has stopped working. It only really works for any time at all if you have players who are genuinely more talented than your rivals – you know, players like Henry, Bergkamp and Vieira.
You would think that a man of Arsène’s intelligence would have noticed this and tried to change things by now. Perhaps trying to prise back a bit of the advantage by specific tactics to counter what we can all see the opposition are going to do. Chapman would have.
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