For as long as I have been following football there has been tension between the artists who want to create beautiful football and the technocrats who want to install rigid systems on football. There have always been tensions between the football philosophers like Arsene Wenger and the technicians like Jose Mourinho – between the managers who want to turn a player loose and let them express themselves and the managers who want to turn a creative player into an excellent defender. It was this way for my entire football watching life, it was this way before I watched football, and it will be this way long after I’m gone.
There have been many books dedicated to the topic. Inverting the Pyramid, The Ball is Round, and my favorite Eduardo Galeano’s Football en sol y sombra (Soccer in sun and shadow). Galeano is clearly on the Wenger side of the sport and speaks eloquently against what he calls the “technocracy” of professional football. Galeano’s chapter called “The Manager” starts thus,
“In the old days there was the trainer and nobody paid him much heed. He died without a word when the game stopped being a game and professional soccer required a technocracy to keep people in line. Then the manager was born. His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom, and maximize the productivity of the players, who were now obliged to become disciplined athletes.”
The vast majority of football managers fit into this mould. They are there to “organize” the team, get the “shape right”, present the team with dossiers on the opposition, plan the course of attack and defense, and do that over and over again until they eventually win. But occasionally a unique manager slips through and, typically for just a brief few years, he shows us another way to play football.
Arsene Wenger was one of those unique managers. He was one who once famously went into the dressing room before a match, drew a wolf on the chalkboard and told his team “I want you to play like wolves today”. That Arsenal side won that day by hunting in packs and after the match they howled like wolves baying at the moon in celebration.
Wenger has even publicly stated that his ambition is to turn football into art, “I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art. When you read some books they are fantastic, the writer touches something in you that you know you would not have brought out of yourself. He makes you discover something interesting in your life. If you are living like an animal, what is the point of living? What makes daily life interesting is that we try to transform it to something that is close to art. And football is like that. When I watch Barcelona, it is art.”
But it’s not fair to only peg Arsene Wenger as a pure artist. Or worse, to paint him like a Harry Redknapp figure –
someone who simply says to his team “run around a bit.” He does want players to express themselves on the pitch and he sees it as his job to best prepare them so that they can be the fullest expression of their talents possible. His 2001-2005 version of Arsenal was just that: solid, organized defending, beautiful attacking, flowing football, the highest artistic expression of the game balanced on the backbone of a solid set up.
But like we learn in Inverting the Pyramid, all great teams eventually collapse and all innovative managers are eventually chewed up and spit out by the machinery of professional sports. The game progresses. When Wenger’s team swept aside all of England, he was known for bringing technological innovation to England. His training methods and attention to details were said to have extended the careers of players like Tony Adams, who had apparently won two league titles on a diet of Mars bars and Lager before Wenger arrived.
But now days, just changing diet and organizing a team to play solid counter-attacking football isn’t enough. It’s old-fashioned. Nowadays teams have cameras to track every player’s movements, they use satellites to track how far a player ran, how many sprints they did, and how much workload they put in. They watch film before the games, they watch film after the games, and they have interns who compile massive dossiers on the opposition, breaking down every opposition player and giving each team member reports tailored to their position in the game. And managers like Pep Guardiola even plan their entire season’s practice sessions in advance: to keep their players both at maximum physical preparation and so that they can introduce new tactical concepts throughout the season, staging them at key points for when they meet certain opponents.
Wenger has only recently given in to the modern technocrats. In the last few years we have heard that the team now use iPads, tailored for each player, which break down the opposition’s tendencies. Arsenal also hired StatsDNA to do some exciting metrics for recruitment – such as their work on line-breaking passes which showed that Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil are two of the very best at picking out a teammate with a pass in behind the defense.
Oddly, though he has adopted these methods, Wenger seems resistant to these changes and recently publicly decried the state of modern football saying: “I am sure that in ten or fifteen years, it will not necessarily be a football specialist who will be the manager of a club. He or her will be surrounded by scientists, who will tell him which team to play on Saturday. The boss will be a specialist in management, because the football decisions will be taken by technology and analysis.”
It’s in this context that I see Wojciech Szczesny’s quote about Arsene Wenger’s training methods and the differences between Arsenal and Roma/Juventus. Szczesny isn’t actually revealing anything that we don’t already know about Wenger: his training methods are outdated (or were), he didn’t do much in terms of preparing his teams for the opposition, and he tended toward wanting the players to solve the problems for themselves on the pitch.
Szczesny says without any hint of anger, “I think in general, the coaches in Italy are much more tactical, that’s just how the league works. Whether it was Spalletti at Roma or Max Allegri here, the preparation for the game is different to what I was used to in England. You work on the shape of the team for a particular match all week. At Arsenal you’d just prepare physically for it but here you watch film analysing a specific opponent before the game and afterwards we’ll watch again to see what worked and what didn’t.”
Wenger didn’t customize his game plan for the opponent and for years he didn’t need to. He had players like Henry and Vieira, Campbell and Lehmann, who were capable of sorting things out for themselves on the pitch. Later, when he built the team around Cesc Fabregas he tried to imitate the great possession-based teams of world football and for a while had Arsenal playing a version of Barcelona-lite. Wenger’s philosophy was “we play football the Arsenal way: it’s the opponent who have to figure out how to beat US.”
But that was a long time ago. Teams have figured out how to beat Arsenal. Teams have more resources at their disposal. The League is no longer just a duopoly between Arsenal and Man U. And so, the manager who has been with Arsenal for 20 years looks like he’s a bit of a bumbling fool. Or at the very least, he looks out of touch.
But I don’t agree with Galeano or with Arsene Wenger’s dystopian vision. I don’t think that there is a pure dualism in football between those who want to make art and those who want to negate football. I think that there are still a few football purists out there, like Pep Guardiola, who want to transform the game into art, who want to create something beautiful, but who also do that in an organized and modern way.
In his book Pep Confidential, Marti Perarnau gives us a peek into how Pep preps his players, “Pep’s tactical talk delays the start of training by half an hour. He usually gives three per match. The day before he tells his players how their opponents will attack. Then, on the morning of the match, he describes their offensive and defensive strategy and that evening, in the team hotel, he runs over his tactical plan for Bayern’s attack.
It’s Friday and his men have been scattered by international call-ups for 12 days. He wants to rally the troops and shake them out of relaxed mode. Players tend to come back from these training breaks in different states of mind. Those who have won with their national side will be feeling pretty high, whilst those on the losing side will be suffering.”
And Pep takes his role as educator, as teacher, seriously. His goal is to not only organize the team in order to maximize success but also to take young players and give them new skills: he worked tirelessly with Javi Martinez to develop the skills he needed to be converted from a midfielder to a defender.
The goal here isn’t just to teach players his system, Guardiola famously eschews systems. He prefers to teach the players about space, dividing the pitch up into 20 compartments and teaching the players about how to control space, the ball, the clock, and their opponent. But most importantly, this is all in the service of winning matches 7-2 and giving the players the ultimate joy of not just beating their opponents but beating their opponents while playing beautiful attacking football.
The technocracy is here to stay, forever. Rather than simply dismissing it, you need to incorporate it into your artistic vision. The way Man City play football is not just art. It’s a marriage of art and science, of technology and expression. It’s too simple to dismiss what Guardiola is doing as just technocracy or worse, as an expression of capitalism – he’s just buying the title. It’s all of that and more – anyone who watches them for more than 15 minutes can see that there are massive differences in style, beauty, and artistic vision between Man City and Chelsea. Chelsea are driven by a pure technocrat, Man City by a madman who wants to combine technology and art.
Wenger used to be like Pep. He was the manager between 1997 and 2010 who blended his artistic vision with his technological advances. But as happens with people sometimes, they get stuck in their ways. They forget to keep innovating. They think that the new science is junk and that the old way is the best way. When that happens it can take years to recover, and many of them never do.
Pep Confidential, Martí Perarnau – http://amzn.to/2gLMRtB
Wojciech Szczesny Opens up on why he left Arsenal, Smoking, Juventus and preparing to take Gigi Buffon’s gloves, The Independent – http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/european/wojciech-szczesny-exclusive-interview-arsenal-smoking-juventus-gianluigi-buffon-retirement-a8002836.html