Footballistically Speaking: Szczesny Szczavages Wenger

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 –
Wojciech Szczesny Opens up on why he left Arsenal, Smoking, Juventus and preparing to take Gigi Buffon’s gloves, The Independent –


      1. The trick is to criticize Wenger while respectfully paying homage to his past greatness in the correct proportion I guess. That would appeal to your readership. Really enjoyed reading this article.
        Hope that the last version of Wenger’s Arsenal gives us at-least one more Europa cup before he goes away.

  1. Great read. Even though he probably didn’t mean to, Szczney really exposed the szczhit out of our outdated training methods.

  2. OK mate, quality work, take a bow. But listen comparisons with Mr Guadiola and Mr Murinho are academic/imperfect because Wenger does not believe in “financial doping”. What type of Manager is Zidane (1 x Liga, Back to Back CL)? There are really two questions
    Q1. Which managers in the world, with our squad would play better football?
    A. None
    Q2. Which managers in the world with our squad would get better results?
    A. Not easy to answer, with an anti-football model/set up who knows?

    1. I don’t know if I understand Q1… which manager would get our current squad to play better football? Define “better”. More attractive, attacking football? I ask you – is there no “art” or attractiveness in defending well? I would argue there is; I consider a coordinated high pressing swarm like Barca in their prime to be art. A fortified two banks of 4 like Atletico can be admired too and has an aesthetic appeal.

      I can list a dozen managers who, if given the chance, might not only get this current squad to play “better football” but also produce “better results”. The two are more often linked than mutually exclusive. If I’m honest – it’s more exciting to watch Spurs win 1-0 these days than watch our team.

      1. Ok Jack I get your point. I was mainly talking about the quality of goals – when we score them. Even in some of the barren years we would get team goal of the season. I dont need to remind of the the Wilshere-Giroud axis against Norwich.

        1. We get those type of goals once or twice a season. These days we have a greater chance of Welbeck scoring with his shoulders.

    2. Maurizio Sarri
      Pep Guardiola
      Thomas Tuchel
      Unai Emery
      Max Allegri
      Diego Simeone
      Julian Nagelsmann
      Vincenzo Montella

      I mean… there are a lot of managers better than Wenger.

      1. Generally agree though not sure about Montella as Milan are struggling and his record, while good, is a bit up and down. I think I like Allegri the most in terms of balancing experience, style and record. For the most entertaining brand of football, I like Tuchel.

        1. They are struggling with a completely revamped and relatively young team though. And it’s not they bought readymade superstars.

      2. Agree completely. Can’t defend AW anymore, at all really. But Faith has a point that Pep and Mourinho have only ever known spending huge sums of money to create their squad (ok, not at Porto, but they were still the biggest club in Portugal then, by far; plus Jose is a cunt and his teams play ugly football). This is not a knock on Pep, who I admire as much as you, but just to say it would be fun to see what Pep could do with an Athletico, Dortmund, or Monaco (even Arsenal!). Managing at a financially dominant club with ridiculous talent depth must become a bit of a drag at some point. And while City are glorious to watch at times, in their matches against most teams in the league I can’t shake the feeling I’m watching a Harlem Globetrotters game.

        1. I agree.

          Let’s see you do it without a £100m pair of fullbacks. Or Riyjkaard’s Barcelona.

          Pep also underachieved with Bayern, after Jupp H (cant spell that name) made them Champions League winners. In fact, Pep was supposed to have improved on the team personnel wise, but their European form didn’t reflect that.

          Pep is very fine coach, undeniably. I want to see what he’s got, without the resources he’s had.

        2. Yes. Though I do not have the knowledge to tactically analyze Pep as Tim has done above, I do wnt to make one point.
          One of the trick that Pep usually follows is to overload one side and leave his best player out on the other side and get the ball to him so that his best player (usually Messi) can have an one one one with an opposition player.
          The difference now is that he is throwing around so much money that players that do not even make it into his match day squad would probably beat every opposition defender on a one on one.
          I admire Pep greatly too but he always managed financial behemoths. I would like to see how he would manage a team in its project youth phase just to understand how better / worse he is compared to AW.

      3. Vincenzo Montella is questionable. Not impressed much with him and also his last match against Inter is not giving him much credit either. I think Hassenhutl is a mini Simeone. Rather him, than Montella. Spaletti also done a good work at Inter and shows how much a manager can change the fortune of the team nowadays. Inter right now become a title contender and just last season they’re a way way off in the title race.

        On the Pep Guardiola as a check book manager, it is a massive bollocks. Pep goals is the type of players not the price of the players. His goals is acquiring the player, not spending the money for the sake of spending. Arsene Wenger in his glory years actually also has that kind of traits. He will try to buy that player that he need no matter the cost. Only an inflation and a more competitive scouting make the price sky rocket.

      4. Jardim should always be on these lists having done more to raise the transfer value of his players than anyone else in Europe of the last 4-5 years (a trait that Wenger used to excel at). But it’s good to see Vincenzo Montella there.

        Montella has a well-deserved reputation for coaching some of the most eye-pleasing football in Italy over the last few years. At Fiorentina he didn’t spend a lot (compared to the Milan clubs, Juve, Roma and Napoli) but they still finished 4th three years in a row under him. Brave decision by Milan to hire him.

        I’ve always thought Pep’s chequebook manager tag was unfair (it was more City who were the chequebook club) but the fact is he’s earned it this summer by accelerating what was an already ridiculous amount of spending to a level that’s just damaging for competition and the sport in general. And all after going trophy-less in his first season in England. He gets no sympathy from me and now anything less than a treble will be a disgrace.

      5. Yes to Nagelsmann. I know this sounds sacrilegious to Arsenal fans, but it would be like getting a young Mourinho – one who is immersed in the modern technocracy of stats, physical metrics etc. Given his age it would be a very out-of-the-box pick.

        To your list I’d add Pocchetino, Klopp, Marco Silva, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Conte, Bielsa, David Wagner…. basically, I would not put Wenger in even the top 25 managers currently in world football. And that’s the crime of it – when you’re a club in the Premier League and one of the 10 richest clubs in the world, you should have at a bare minimum one of the 10 best managers in the world.

        1. Nagelsmann is a shoo-in for Bayern Munich. They specifically installed Jupp Henyckes as placeholder to buy themselves time until Nagelsmann will be available in summer. They looked at Tuchel but their board couldn’t agree on him (don’t take it as a dig on Tuchel though – it has more to do with internal board room turmoil at Bayern than anything with Tuchel).

    3. “Financial doping” is a red herring Wenger self-righeously throws out as a talking point. What he doesn’t like to speak about how the changing landscape completely blindsided him and the club made several calls that put them at the disadvantage. Also, it’s all fine to talk about “values” and how you think things should be, but it quickly becomes tiresome if that becomes the leaflet which you hide behindwhen the world around you is changing and you fail to adapt to it and change your ways to deal with it. Then it’s just foolishly stubborn and, – which riles me the most with this “holier-than-thou-attitude” it’s also incredibly egocentric. It’s all about him and his views and values, how he feels he shouldn’t need to adapt or seek for fresh ideas i.e. people that can brng those in. In other words, it’s completely reactionary.

      1. I agree with most of this. I would say his comments are reactionary, but AW’s actions seem to me to be habits more than anything else. He’s not going to change, because this is how he’s always done things. It’s not as if, without Mourinho and Pep spending huge sums of money, AW would go out and buy the right players for whatever price and play them in the right positions.

  3. I must admit I don’t get this longing from some quarters for Pep to lower his standards and take on a vanity project Arsene Wenger style.

    Isn’t it what drives us absolutely crazy about Wenger , that he won’t spend to the fullest of Arsenal’s financial potential and refuses to upgrade on maybe substandard player or two?

    It’s like asking best movie directors to do an epic film on a budget, with an average crew and b-listers for actors in order to prove their greatness.

    Guardiola never bought a single player in his career Arsenal couldn’t afford to buy themselves and I respect that. Perhaps bar Ibra , who wasn’t even his choice and maybe that’s why the two never got along.

    City pay a premium for all their purchasers and that’s not Guardiola’s fault.

    How many Arsenal fans laughed when City payed £50m for Stones , or£45 for Walker?
    Some even said Holding was better than Stones , while most believe Bellerin is better than Walker, and virtually everyone believes a healthy Koscielny is better than Otamendi . So what does it matter what City payed for their “substandard” defenders then?

    Did anyone think Delph was better than our Nacho Monreal when City got him for£11m from Villa? Probably not.

    Today, City’s back line consisting of Stones, Walker ,Otamendi , and Delph plus the holding midfielder , Fernandinho , passed the ball around a very dangerous and SerieA leading Napoli side in their own penalty area as if this was a training session and not a high pressure CL tie. Compare that to our back line hoofing the ball up the pitch at any sign of a high press from the likes of Watford and then tell me Guardiola is overrated.

    When his defenders turned the ball over too often for everyone’s taste and cost City points last season, all the pundits said Pep needed to “respect ” the game( read: hoof the ball up the pitch) and adjust to the PL’s higher tempo and in your face relentless press.

    Guardiola said thank you but no thank you , got himself a better ball playing keeper and proceeded to do what he does and what his team’s have always done, which is to play out from the back.

    Sure I would’ve loved Pep at Arsenal but if I can’t have that , then I want him at a club like City where he and his players can entertain me every week.

    Some will never give Pep his due and I totally get that but if one can’t appreciate the style of football his team’s play, then maybe watchin
    Like Tim, I also believe Pep has some sort of ADHD which perhaps is one of the reasons why he can’t stay in one place for too long , on top of getting burnt out from the obvious intensity he brings with him

  4. Geez, sorry for my long and barely coherent ramblings.
    That’s what happens when you watch reruns of Liverpool CL game and type at the same time.

    Btw, I didn’t see Klopp on your list Tim.
    What gives?

    When was the last time Wenger beat someone 7:0 in Europe?

  5. Spuds drew at the Bernabeu and I’m extremely jealous.

    Granted, Spuds were outclassed, they scored on a flukey own goal and survived because of several heroic saves by their goalkeeper. Madrid looked the clearly superior team and probably had the game won on XG. But the Spuds acquitted themselves well. They threatened and they got a result. They are punching above their weight.

    We remain mired in crisis and dysfunction. I’m beginning to wonder if this is part of the plan; if Kroenke is hoping to drive Usmanov into losing hope and selling by allowing the club to stagnate and be overtaken by the Spuds. It’s actually a pretty good business move if you can pull it off in 2 or 3 years without long-term damage to the club.

    If I could have an ideal *realistic* outcome to this year it would be to win the FA cup again and win the Europa league to allow Wenger to ride off into the sunset and possibly go upstairs to Director of Football. Either way we bring in Jardim to rebuild. We lure him with the promise that he can jettison all the deadwood he wants and that he has three years to build around youth before we expect to get back in top four and five years before we expect to challenge for the title. Most importantly, once he develops his young players we won’t sell to anyone. He won’t have to go through having his team picked apart because we will insist on six year contracts that we will renew with the carrot of higher wages when players progress and sell and cut our losses if they stagnate.

    1. Hell no, Wenger as DoF would be a nightmare, not that I think he would be interested. You don’t keep the old boss around when you have to completely restructure your organization. He would fight tooth and nail to keep things as he always did them. Plus we would never be able to shift our failing backroom staff.
      That aside, besides not being any good at transfers, I don’t think Wenger particularly likes or understands transfers, valuations or schmoozing agents, basically the essential parts of doing them.

      1. Agree with Emob. Wenger’s presence would cast too long of a shadow. You can’t make wholesale changes by keeping the old boss around.

    2. Never, never keep the old boss around. It almost never works. Even if the new boss is hand picked by the old one, the new one will constantly be looking over his shoulder. I know this from experience. When it’s time for a change, make the change. Wenger out – completely. He has way too much history with the staff and players. The story about Sneezy is case in point – despite evidence to the contrary Wenger persists with his goalkeeping coaches out of loyalty.

  6. Outstanding article. Top blogging from the one of the best around. Galeano’s book is going on my Christmas shopping list.

  7. Tim … which one are you: the artist or the technocrat? The article sounds more of the artist but probably you are a mix of the two .. Pepish.

    Art at its highest is science and science at its peak is art. Two routes, one destination.

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