Date: 26th June 2014 at 10:44am
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As I watched Wenger squatting among his team at the end of normal time in the FA Cup final, using water bottles to demonstrate what seemed to be tactical instructions to Giroud and Sanogo as to how they should play together to create the space needed for us to score in extra time, I thought briefly of the various claims over a few seasons that he doesn’t do tactics, or if he does then not very well. The commentary also made an observation that Wenger had apparently told Cazorla, and presumably any other potential free kick taker, that McGregor was weaker going to his left which rather belies the received wisdom that Wenger doesn’t study the opposition.

We sometimes convince ourselves that tactics only exist in the minds of those coaches who set out to nullify the opposition and hope to capitalise on their mistakes. A tactical master class is a conclusion almost invariably attributed to a coach who has managed to defy a team which has created more chances but not managed to score especially if he has also managed, perhaps from a set piece or penalty, to nick a goal from his team’s only attempt. More often than not in football tactical success is seen in essentially negative terms as in stopping your opponents from playing rather than in positive terms when outplaying them and creating more chances, yet the tactical demands in creating goal scoring opportunities are greater than preventing them. You’re more likely to hear a brilliant attacking performance described as and credited to a woeful display by the opposition than a tactical master class in creative football.

There’s often confusion between strategy and tactics. You can have an attacking strategy, designed to create more goal attempts and entertain the spectators or an essentially defensive one designed to limit opportunities for the other side to score but tactics are really the actions intended to deliver the strategy. From an attacking perspective tactics can vary enormously whether possession based or more direct or fast counter attacking but defensive strategies are usually simpler in denying space and are less reliant on, though not without individual technical abilities.

Wenger’s strategy has been clear since he took over the managerial role at Arsenal and it is that strategy that has changed dour perceptions of the club that had existed for some decades previously.

‘I believe it is always easier to correct the defensive side than getting your team to score goals,’ he said a couple of seasons back. ‘When you score goals you always have a chance.’

But within that attacking strategy there have been many tactical changes over the seasons whether formation in changing from the flexible form of 4-4-2 that Graham Taylor on the Uefa training website credits Wenger with introducing into the English league and the various incarnations of 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 that Arsene claims he had modified from other coaches, or in adapting the playing positions of individual players to suit strengths they didn’t always realise they had.

As a couple of examples, when discussing the formation that Barcelona had so much success with in recent times Wenger explained:

‘I played 4-3-3 before Barcelona. I played 4-3-3 at Monaco’ said Arsene ‘Barcelona has not created that system. That system is a Dutch system. Johan Cruyff exported it and played in that system. The Dutch used that system in 1974 in the World Cup in Germany.

‘I thought it was more suited to the quality of our players. It suits Fabregas, it allows Van Persie to play in a free role up front and because we have so many versatile players we are not made for a strict 4-4-2. It gives us more freedom to be creative.’

In recognising the possibilities of that system he was able to convince Robin van Persie to play the front role despite the players own doubts. The then 26 year old RvP had been with the club for 5 years before Wenger convinced him to make the tactical change.

‘I never really thought that I would end up as a main striker’ RvP told Arsenal.com at the time. ‘I actually never played there before – I did it a couple of times at youth level but it was nothing really special. We only tried it when Adebayor went. The boss didn’t buy someone else because he was convinced I could do it. I wasn’t even convinced about it. I wasn’t so sure, because I didn’t really play there so much. Then, in pre-season, we had a game against Inter Milan. I scored a good goal, played well and he told me after the game, ‘You see? It will work’.

Both are illustrations of Wenger’s tactical ability to innovate and adapt to suit the resources available in contrast to the often expressed view that he is too stubborn to change his approach. As a 25 year old Wenger was teaching other coaches to gain their coaching licenses and he has always rejected the accusation that he doesn’t take on board other tactics. ‘I’m ready to sit down with anybody who coaches, believe me.’ Wenger replied when questioned a few seasons back on his willingness to take advice from others. An objective appraisal of Wenger’s time at the club shows many such tactical adaptations.

As another illustration you could consider whether the task of coaching is made easier if you aren’t coaching players at different stages of development. Wenger has always, as a strategic decision, even if financial constraints pushed us in one direction more than another for a while, looked to build a squad comprising a mix of very young but precocious talents through more mature players to those at the latter part of their careers. It’s a much easier task to coach a squad comprised only of mature and developed players in an age range of say 24 – 30 or so if you don’t burden your coaching talents or tactical prowess with integrating younger players or those from lower leagues in Europe. Those clubs with unrestricted resources to buy ‘ready made’ players place fewer demands on coaching ability and the tactical nous needed to allow those younger players to learn ‘on the job’.

Arsene will trust players to understand the tactical drills and to adapt them to suit the circumstances in the game while expressing their individual talent and strengths but contrary to popular opinion, that those tactical drills take place in structured and organised sessions involving set piece drills is confirmed by both present and former players. Vermaelen recently spoke of the work they have done throughout the season on team shape and in his autobiography Pires speaks of regular set piece routines in training sessions.

Wenger has the highest win percentage of any manager in Arsenal’s history by some distance and even though this has dropped slightly at the Emirates from his tenure at Highbury from 70.6% to 68.2% , an arguably more competitive period, his is not the record of a tactically inept manager. Don’t expect Wenger to deliver a tactical master class in defending, that’s not the strategy though his 99-00 team conceded fewer league goals than any of George Graham’s Arsenal sides, but there’s plenty of tactical input that goes into trying to create teams we can enjoy watching.

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