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the professor proves us wrong?

August 19, 2009

Arsene "the Professor" Wenger
It’s quite amazing, the difference a week can make. This time last week Arsenal were being almost universally written off, they wouldn’t make a title challenge, and they’d probably fail to retain their place in the top four, gazumped by the very team to whom they sold Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure. Arsene Wenger had once again failed to properly invest in strengthening his squad and having let go the aforementioned players, had weakened an already below par squad.

Then they won by five goals against a hugely lacklustre Everton side and beat Celtic by two goals to nil in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier and suddenly, they’re the form team in the Premier League. Suddenly the rest of the ‘big four’ all the way for the title and there might not be a ‘big five’ after all, because even moneybags Man City surely can’t compete with The Professor?

An interesting turnaround certainly, and I’ll admit that I was one of those who wrote off their chances this season in my Premier League Preview, forecasting a lowly sixth place finish come May. I felt then that they had a squad that was too thin. They certainly have quality, no one can deny that, and in Cesc Fabregas and Andrey Arshavin they have two of the finest players in the league. They also have a fantastic manager, who has revolutionised football management in the UK since he joined Arsenal.

Indeed, their performances on Saturday against Everton and on Tuesday against Celtic seem only to prove that all along Wenger knew what he was doing. On both occasions they played with the verve and style that has come to epitomise Arsenal in recent seasons, but there was more too. They seemed to have more determination than before, and added killer instinct and far more end product. Previously their beautiful football was all to often an exhibition, but in these two games, it looks to have a purpose.

That this comes as a surprise is in itself surprising. While we were busy jumping up and down pointing at the gaping holes left by Adebayor and Toure, Wenger remained his usual calm and reserved self. He wasn’t panicking, and when someone who knows the game as well as Wenger does isn’t panicking, then it’s probably wise to assume that they’ve got things under control. Of course though, when it comes to football, they always think the fans know best.

Credit to Wenger though. Looking at his Arsenal side so far this season, it’s hard to see where Adebayor or Toure would fit in. Tom Vermaelen has looked supremely comfortable next to Gallas at the back with Clichy and Sagna in their familiar roles, while an attacking unit of Fabregas, Van Persie, Arshavin and Bendtner has looked as complete an attacking force as you could wish for.

Indeed, I think it’s no surprise that Arsenal have found success with a newly tweaked system. Wenger is known as The Professor and he is a master of the game, but even professors can continue learning and no one is more of a student of the game than the Frenchman, who I recall saying in an interview once that at home he pays for satellite coverage of every league he can manage, and spends most of his ‘leisure’ time watching football.

Who better to learn from then, than the undisputed masters of world club football at the moment then? Barcelona’s emphatic Champions League victory only served to confirm what was already suspected and that was that they had found a way of playing that was as lethal and effective as it was entertaining and superlative-inducing. Their three-man front line of Henry, Eto’o and Messi fed by the magic of Xavi and Iniesta has been proclaimed far and wide as the perfect attacking unit.

So let’s look at Arsenal’s new system. Where I would call Barca’s formation a 4-1-2-3, Arsenal have started the season playing a slightly more conservative 4-2-3-1, but there are definite similarities. When in possession Arshavin and Bendtner are encouraged to push forward in support of Van Persie, while Denilson has the freedom to get forward and join Fabregas in his role as attacking midfield maestro, leaving Song to hold the fort. When that happens then, we see that Arsenal are employing a system that is essentially identical to Barca’s (see diagram below).

Barcelona/Arsenal Tactical Comparison
Of course, when looking at these diagrams most readers first thought will perhaps be that the players that Wenger has at his disposal are no match for Barca’s, and they’d be right. Arsenal don’t have Lionel Messi playing for them. But I’m not saying that Arsenal are better, or even as good as Barca. I’m simply saying that they seem to have taken a leaf out of Pep Guardiola’s book. As an English Lit student I’m 100% against ripping pages out of books, but in a metaphorical sense, that is the one book that you want to be grabbing handfuls of, if we’re honest.

Because the system works. That much was blindingly obvious last season when they romped to the Spanish domestic League and Cup double and picked up the Champions League for good measure. While Chelsea gave them a fair grilling (and were perhaps hard done by), no one else could really get near them. While the solidity of the defence may be questioned, that was more down to injury than over exposure and Arsenal’s back line is arguably stronger anyway – at least if Vermaelen carries on as he’s started.

So tactically, Wenger has adopted a proven strategy, and he has players with enough technical ability and tactical discipline to make it work because after all, Wenger’s sides are built on technical ability and tactical discipline.So the blueprints for success are in place. What’s more, they had the motivation to succeed handed to them on a plate too. Footballers have a pretty great life (understatement of the century) and I think they slip quite easily into a comfort zone.

Of course they’ll turn up for training and they’ll give 100% in matches, but when they know that their paycheque is in the post no matter what, it’s natural that some of their drive is going to evaporate eventually. But no one likes being written off, and no one likes being told they’re not good enough. That’s pretty much all Arsenal’s players have had all Summer though, and so it’s little surprise that come the big kick off they were chomping at the bit to prove the doubters wrong. Arsene’s critics have done the motivational aspect of his job for him.

So they’ve got the right system and the right mentality, and to be fair, that’s a brilliant recipe for success. Having witnessed both of their performances this season it’s clear that they’re a team in the groove and not to be taken lightly. However, despite the swift changing of tune in the wider media, I’m still not convinced about Arsenal. I think they’re a wonderful team and as I’ve said, I think they’re in great shape at the moment.

But as I said in my Season Preview, “they’ll struggle with not enough strength in depth”. The great thing about Barcelona last season was that they were able to keep a fairly settled side. They didn’t have any major injuries and so the consistency of the team played a large part in maintaining their momentum. When they picked up an injury or two, they had players who could step up. Less able players, but in such a well balanced system, that was OK. The superior talents of those around them could carry them for a few games.

With Arsenal, I’m not sure that’s the case. Sure, integrity of the attacking unit looks unlikely to be compromised. If any of the front four players in the diagram above picks up a knock then Walcott, Rosicky, Eduardo, Nasri, Ramsey, Vela or Wilshere could theoretically step up and fill the void admirable well. But that has always been Arsenal’s strongest point.

But what if Denilson or Song pick up a lengthy injury? Could Eboue or Diaby step in to fill the void? I’m not sure. Eboue is not very popular at the Emirates and while I’ve not seen much of him, that may be with good reason. Diaby is a player who I think will go far but it’s clear that he’s not ‘ready’ yet. Other than these two players though, I don’t think there’s anyone who would be a serious candidate to fill in. But this is a crucial position in such a system, needing to shield the back four but also provide a creative link.

The back four is itself a problem too. While Wenger seems to be an expert at producing world class left backs (Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy, Kieran Gibbs…) he has struggled so far to bring through an central defenders. The likes of Phillipe Senderos and Johan Djourou are players with plenty of promise but are not yet deemed good enough at the top level. The signing of Vermaelen should have added strength in depth, rather than being a straight swap for Toure.

What I’m saying then, is that people shouldn’t get too carried away with Arsenal. While I think we all got a bit carried away when writing them off before the season began, I think the pendulum has swung the other way. They’ve had two fantastic results but Everton were shite and Celtic are a class below. On paper as I think I’ve shown, Arsenal look brilliant, but paper is only two dimensional and will never tell the full story.

The simple fact is that if Arsene could put his best side on the pitch thirty eight times this season, then he would probably win the league. However, it is a given that they will suffer injuries. The Premier League is a very physical one and his young players have been shown in previous seasons to be quite brittle, as are all young players. Arsene Wenger has assembled a wonderful fantasy football team, but for the realities of the Premier League I don’t think Arsenal are up to scratch.

Of course, I’ve been wrong plenty of times before and indeed this week has made fools of most of us. Arsene Wenger has shown that even the best of us can still learn from those around us and I think we’ve all learnt not to be so hasty in writing him off. However, don’t be too hasty in rushing to the bookies to back them either (here’s looking at you Wllm), because if there’s one thing that we keep on learning, it’s that football is a funny old game and there’s no telling where it’s going to take us next.

Like this? There’s plenty more where that came from at They Think It’s All Over…

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2009 9:44 am

    Great minds think alike! haha.. You always take the words right out of my mouth! Agreed with everything other than being one of the few who thought Arsenal were better without Adebayor.

  2. August 19, 2009 10:14 am

    Arsenal have started well but to describe one prem victory as “form” is pre-mature. Lets see where they are in October first

  3. AmericanGunnerFan permalink
    August 19, 2009 10:37 am

    Astute observations, but, if AW is the voracious student of the game that you concede that he is, don’t you think that he is perceptive enough to know what his team’s weaknesses are? I’m sure he also sees the lack of depth at CDM and CB that you do.

    However, with Steve Bouldt saying that at least 2-3 of last year’s decorated ‘Young Gunners’ should be able to play for the senior team soon, why would AW want to spend a lot to bring in additional players this year if he doesn’t need them? There are enough weak teams in the Prem, FA & Carling Cup, and even Europa League for the present team, bolstered by a couple of the kids, to be able to deal with and still make a run at the EPL title-barring a slew of injuries simultaneously. If the club doesn’t qualify for the CL, any reinforcements needed to be competitive in these other competitions can be bought rather cheaply to fill in as the kids develop.

    If the club qualifies for the CL, as now seems likely, the need to bolster the squad and bring in better quality (and hence more expensive) players increases. But, qualification also brings with it more cash to be able to spend on acquiring these players, with there being time to do so before the transfer deadline.

    I would not be at all surprised to see AW move to bolster the positions that you have mentioned if the team is able to dispatch Celtic next week. Typically, as with the Vermaelen signing, however, I would not necessarily expect AW to bring in the biggest or most obvious names, but rather players who still have some mileage on them, that he feels will fit his system and be able to mesh with the players he already has in the squad.

  4. rayman permalink
    August 19, 2009 10:48 am

    As a gooner I agree with the main point of the article. I think Song’s improvement just highlights how important the DM type position is. If Song and Denilson are injured we effectively have no player who can play that role in the first team squad. We need one more signing to cover / compete with Song – preferably experienced and good in the air. I think you are wrong on the CB side, I thinkn we can get by because I rate Djourou highly but if Senderos leaves we need a repalcement for him too.

    Come on AW only one, maybe two signings from a team that can challenge for the major trophies this year – get your wallet out!

  5. footballicious permalink
    August 19, 2009 5:49 pm

    I don’t think the issue is a lack of cash – Arsenal haven’t spent big over the past 5 or 6 seasons, instead they’ve sold players and surely the new stadium must be close to being paid off. So there should be money, it’s just that Arsene isn’t an impulse buyer; he doesn’t think “I need a defender, who’s the best defender in the world? Let’s get him!” Arsene is a great student of the game and he has scouts who watch various players for lengthy periods and buys them in at the right time – he doesn’t buy establish players but looks for the young talent with the “foundation” that he requires to build the superstars that he does so often.

  6. Pete permalink
    August 21, 2009 12:31 pm

    In Arsene We Trust…I never doubted the man for a second :)

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