Arsenal’s Tactical Evolution by TJ
Both Wenger and Guardiola are believers/disciples of the Rinus Michels school of total football. Both Wenger and Guardiola build teams which are distinguishable by 3 characteristics – skill, speed and intelligence.
Both managers crave creativity in all players – not just the attacking players. Both managers do not believe in specialists. Arrigo Saachi (another disciple of the Michels school) once remarked about the Makelele role “In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makélélé, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball.”
The pressing game was built on team cohesion, understanding and sacrifice. Each player had to buy in to their role and work for the team. Guardiola replicated this high pressing game for Barca, a tactic which was essential in their success. The possession based style, with speed in transition was the hallmark of all three of the sides. Skill, speed and intelligence ran through all coach’s beliefs.
Wenger’s attempts to build successful teams steeped in balance (between attack and defense), with creative players strewn through the team would be deemed a failure through the lack of trophies. Guardiola though made this philosophy a success.
While we could point to the difference in quality of players on the field, but the one area where Wenger differed from Guardiola and Saachi was in Team Preparation. Wenger once said “Football is not a chess game. It belongs to the players. We prepare the team to do well but don’t forget that the main heroes are on the pitch, not on the bench.” Guardiola though, plans every game to the tiniest detail – he is obsessed with the detail.
Wenger’s approach is (was?) about allowing the players to express themselves on the pitch, giving them the latitude & responsibility to make their own decisions. This is why he speaks a lot about belief, togetherness and confidence. The system works when players believe in each other, they make the right decisions and work hard for each other.
Wenger is/was about being a facilitator for the players whereas Guardiola is about being the general directing his troops. It’s been argued that Wenger gives his players far too much freedom on the pitch where a planned tactical approach would have better served them. Can Wenger change and adapt? I think there are positive signs that he can and has…
Arsenal’s performance in the 1st half of the season were in stark contrast to the 2nd half (better). Yes we got players back and a healthier/fitter squad, but there was a distinct change in tactics. Well, in fact, there appeared to be tactics! At times the team didn’t obsess with possession and were happy to sit deeper, at times we pressed high and quick, the counter attacking improved significantly and we recycled the ball far more decisively. Missed passes, missed tackles and missed shots on goal are not systematic issues – this is human error.
We got a whole lot better at transition. Transition is probably the most critical aspect of the game…as Mourinho so obviously put it “When you lose the ball, you are most vulnerable, when you win it, you have your best chance to score.” The tactic most teams used against Arsenal in the 1st half of the year was to sit deep and invite us to attack, then hit us on the counter-attack as we were unbalanced (too many men forward) and they had plenty of space to exploit. We couldn’t and didn’t “counter the counter” against the better teams.
Fast forward to the 2nd half of the year. What a difference when you look at the number of players around the ball and most importantly behind the ball (not behind the centre line but the ball!). When the ball was lost we had players ready to press and transition – to defend the counter. Pressing quickly doesn’t allow the opposition time to think or set up. Mourinho prefers 6 players behind the ball to defend any counters and Guardiola prefers 5. Wenger, from the 2nd half of the season appears to be swayed towards 5 but I think he changes this depending on the threat he perceives the opposition to pose from a counter-attacking perspective.
And this is where discipline, sharpness and intelligence comes into it. Players have to understand and carry out the instructions for their role. Breaking the rules puts the team in jeopardy – and the rules can be broken as a result of the player “switching off” for a moment, perhaps not being match sharp or just wasn’t disciplined enough.
There is no doubt the emergence of Coquelin has enabled this tactical change to become effective quite dramatically, but there were very clear changes in the disciplined performances of Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey, Monreal, Sanchez, etc.
Improvement is certainly required in terms of game-intelligence – when to be compact at the back and when to press high-up. More importantly it’s the team cohesion and synchronization in terms of the press – too often we saw the disconnect in the team. Wenger has said pressing isn’t about covering distances, it’s about doing it together. They are learning this.
The playbook had changed, it isn’t the polished article just yet but I expect Arsenal to improve in-game intelligence, to be more synchronized, and to be much better at countering and defending the counter next season.
This then segues into the transfers Wenger will look at – the type of player and the number of players. When you hear the rumours consider the tactics and system Arsenal plays, consider the attributes players need to have and you’ll soon be able to discern between the “possibles and never likely”. Speed, intelligence, skill, work ethic, selflessness rank very high. And also consider, that it will take time for the player to become match functional within the system.
Which of our transfer targets matches that description?