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Wenger Doesn't Do Tactics Or So He'd Have You Believe

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“A lie, repeated often enough, becomes the truth.” So said one time Nobel Peace prize nominee and all round cuddly guy Josef Stalin. Over the last 9 years or so, the most levied charge against Arsene Wenger is that he doesn’t “do” tactics. Arsène’s doctrine is one of faith in his players and his unshakeable belief that they can pass any team to death and need not concern themselves with such frivolities as “defending.”

Beneath the hyperbole (you may have guessed that it has been deployed here to service the central point of my article), there is some strain of truth here. Wenger, as everybody knows, likes for his players to be intuitive and figure out in game situations for themselves. He can rarely be seen striding the touchline, yelling instructions to his players via indecipherable hand gestures. His record tells you that it’s a successful strategy most of the time.

wenger pointing tactics a rare sight

Kolo Toure spins a nice yarn about Wenger’s first instruction to him upon making his full Arsenal debut. Arsenal trailed Chelsea by a goal to nil at Stamford Bridge when Edu took a whack to the ankle and had to be substituted. Toure was called for from the bench and instructed to remove his tracksuit. He looked to his benevolent leader for guidance. This was a big game, Arsenal were losing and Toure had never played a game approaching this magnitude. Wenger uttered just two guiding words to Kolo. “Enjoy yourself.”

The Ivorian scored the equaliser and the Gunners escaped with a point. It’s a wonderful illustration of Arsène’s tenet but of course, it doesn’t always serve Arsenal well. (No ‘philosophy’ serves any team well in absolute perpetuity). In 2013-14 Arsenal made something of a leap forward by leading the league table for much of the season, even if they could not harness that momentum through the spring. But their record against direct competitors left a great deal to be desired. Bruising annihilations at the hands of Chelsea, Liverpool and to a lesser extent Manchester City left people questioning the manager’s ‘faith based’ approach. In the new competitive landscape of the Premier League, a more scientific arrangement was required against bigger sides.

Of course, the idea that Wenger does not embrace the science of tactical rigour is untrue. Whilst nobody should try to paint the Frenchman as a clipboard wielding disciple of the Benitez / Mourinho college, there is a body of evidence that he is more than a mere romantic. Obvious examples such as his approach to the 2005 F.A. Cup Final and the 2006 Champions League run point to pragmatism. Though you could argue that both of those examples were foisted upon him by happenstance (playing Flamini at left back wasn’t a ‘tactic’ so much as a symptom of a burgeoning injury crisis). But there are other, more subtle examples that invite exploration.

In the middle of the 2008-09 season, Arsenal trailed Aston Villa in the steeple chase for 4th place and Cesc Fabregas tore his knee ligaments. Wenger responded with a cautious approach, with Denilson and Alex Song twinned ahead of the defence. It took some adjusting to as Arsenal drew 0-0 in four consecutive matches in January and February. In the first 19 games of that season, Arsenal shipped 23 goals, they conceded 14 after Fabregas’ injury. 8 of those 14 goals were conceded in consecutive matches against Liverpool at Anfield and Chelsea at the Emirates. Champions League and F.A. Cup semi-final exits hurt the team’s confidence and Villa’s challenge had died off. It was enough to comfortably secure 4th place.

wenger studying the game

Two seasons ago, we saw something similar. A chastening North London derby defeat in March 2013 saw Arsenal trail their neighbours by seven points with ten matches remaining. Wenger dropped Thomas Vermaelen, the captain, and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. He abandoned the high line that Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale had so gleefully cut to ribbons. With a more stand offish approach, Arsenal conceded only 5 goals in their remaining ten league games, which was once again, enough to secure a top 4 berth. Generally speaking, however, it is easier to reorganise a team defensively in emergency situations. Tony Pulis is something of a specialist in this regard.

This weekend, Wenger made an attacking tactical switch designed to prey on a weakness in the Liverpool defence. Aaron Ramsey was surprisingly selected on the right of the front 3, with Özil retained in a central position. Wenger knew that Liverpool like to play the ball out from the back and without Martin Skrtel, both of his likely replacements, Kolo Toure and Dejan Lovren, struggle in this regard. Mamadou Sakho is also not the most graceful of players on the ball. If your aim is to harry a back 3 in possession, Theo Walcott and Mesut Özil are not the best players to enact this approach.

Ramsey’s high energy style was much more suited, alongside Alexis and Giroud, to disrupt Liverpool’s centre halves (and their goalkeeper). Kolo Toure turned the ball over 8 times in total. Arsenal’s tactic worked. Yet, little has been said about this by mainstream media outlets. Crucially, the manager himself has not mentioned it either. Compare and contrast with Brendan Rodgers’ minute dissection of his tactical tinkering in their recent win over Swansea. This, I think, is important in terms of perception. Wenger does ‘do’ tactics. Maybe not to the extent that other top managers do, but he just does not talk about it.

I’ve spoken to journalists who suggest that to try to ask Wenger a tactical question in a press conference is akin to drawing blood from a stone. Earlier in the season, when asked by Jeremy Wilson what was behind the shift to a 4-1-4-1 formation, the Arsenal boss hinted that it was a direct response to last season’s hammerings at the hands of direct competitors. When pressed further, he clammed up. Results against the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool suggest his analysis of last season’s failings has been meticulous.

Back in January, I argued that Wenger adopted the same approach in away matches against Chelsea and Manchester City this season. At Chelsea, small details went against Arsenal and it proved unsuccessful, at City, the marginals worked in Arsenal’s favour and it bore fruit. Again, there has been very little discussion about this in mainstream outlets. I am left with the impression that tactical shifts made by managers such as Mourinho, Rodgers and Benitez are pored over at greater length.

I believe this to be a symptom of their image as ‘studious’ tactical managers and I also believe that all three of the aforementioned are a good deal keener to talk about their approach than Wenger. So why is Arsene so circumspect about discussing his own machinations? It could be grounded in plain humility and as an Arsenal fan and Arsene admirer, I would certainly like to believe that. But there are probably more practical reasons. He probably feels that the perception of him as tactical anarchist works in his favour. He probably just likes to keep his cards close to his chest.

wenger thinking

But I think the main reason reveals itself when one considers the reaction of the recent win at Manchester City. The Mirror and the Telegraph reported that the players were responsible for the more conservative setup at the Etihad. If you examine Wenger’s quotes, he doesn’t really say that at all and, as I argued earlier, Arsenal played in exactly the same manner three months earlier at Stamford Bridge. Tellingly, Wenger made no attempt to correct the reportage of those quotes. In fact, he probably encouraged them.

For this is the root of Wenger’s raison d’être. He wants the players to be the focal point for all positive attention. He likes his teams to be intuitive, but even when he takes a tighter rein, he likes for his players to believe that their intuition was at the root of the success. It’s a confidence trick of sorts. Managers such as Rodgers and Mourinho play confidence tricks, but in a slightly different way. They try to build an aura based on cult of personality. They want their players to believe totally in their genius, which is a reasonable approach that many managers and leaders have adopted with great success. Wenger, on the other hand, wants his players to believe totally in their own genius. So he’s probably quite happy for his tactical success stories to remain untold.

 Tell us what you think! If you agree, or have a different view, please leave a comment in the comments section or why not write a response or your own article on YouWrite?

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