Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The "Tippy-Tappy" Myth

People say that Arsenal winning the title would be good for the game on two grounds- the way the club is run, and the way they play their football. Arsenal's style is revered as a kind of high art in amongst the dirt of pragmatic football; it apparently occupies some elevated moral plane. This idea, propagated by desperate Arsenal fans with nothing else to cling to, is starting to grate.

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Arsenal play a passing game, an attacking game. But the notion that we do it in a somehow purer way than other attacking teams has always struck me as a myth. Wenger espouses the principle that fans are there to be entertained, and he's right. But Arsenal's style is far from consistent in that regard. On a bad day, and there have been a fair few of those in recent memory, particularly last season, this style consists of sideways passing in front of a wall of defenders. There are days when it comes off and looks spectacular, but they are relatively rare. Riddle me this: which team is more reliably attractive to watch- Arsenal or Man Utd? Bias aside, I say United. They always try to play with a high tempo, and I think that's the vital factor. It's something Arsenal progressively lost after the unbeaten season, regained briefly with Flamini's rise to prominence, and since his departure lost again. Arsenal too often come across as some kind of Barcelona tribute team, trotting out poor imitations; we are Oasis to their Beatles. When have we ever threatened to do to United what Barca did to them last May?

I don't know where the preferential treatment for Arsenal's style comes from. Perhaps it arises from the awe in which English pundits hold that great unattainable "continental technique". But Manchester United's mixture of technical ability and high pace is often thrilling. Direct play is something that Arsenal used to be rightly famous for. Wenger's title-winning sides were always more dangerous on the break. Vieira could win the ball anywhere, and seconds later it would be in the opposition net. Counter-attacking is a style that mixes entertainment and efficiency- no better time to open the opposition up than when their own attack has just ended. It seems to pass unnoticed that Arsenal are no longer the force they were in this regard. The team overall lacks searing pace, with the exception of Walcott- his problem being that he lacks everthing else. The absence of a threat in behind alllows teams to push up the pitch and further negate our passing game. Contrast that with the times when teams would drop deep, terrified of Henry's pace and Ljungberg's clever runs, thus allowing us space in which to play. Arsenal today are quite simply an easier proposition for good teams.

Sometimes it's like watching a genetically-engineered team of clones, and not in a good way. Everybody wants the ball to feet. Wenger seems to ignore the importance of having players willing to run beyond the opposition, without the ball. I always thought the single greatest factor in Cristiano Ronaldo's transformation from show pony to one of the world's best players was his apparent realisation that while it may be more satisfying to dribble past a defender and score, it is more efficient, and easier, to run beyond the defender, receive a pass and do the rest, with the ball having done most of the work. He's always been overrated in his ability to take on and beat defenders anyway. If you watch even his best goals, very few are the result of solo runs. But anyway, my point is that Arsenal have far too little variation in their play, and their collective passing game is often too slow and deliberate, to really be as consistently entertaining as some people think. Looking again at Wayne Rooney's great goal from the weekend- it was really quite a simple run that he made, and it was the desire to make up the ground, more than anything else, that was impressive. But simple as it essentially was for a player with those instincts, could you name an Arsenal player who could be relied upon to make the same run? Plenty could have made the pass that Nani made, but possibly only Fabregas could be expected to get in the position Rooney did [just how much do we rely on that kid?].

So in summation, I think that Wenger has in recent years made a conscious decision to play a more possession-based game, and since we are not as good at it as, say, Barcelona, this has been to the detriment of Arsenal both in the sense of entertainment and efficiency. Maybe the cruellest irony of all is that with Wenger having tailored his team's style for European football, English sides regained the ability to impose an English tempo in the Champions League. The likeliest obstacles to European success for Arsenal now are the teams that hold a hoodoo over them in domestic affairs.

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