In November 2006 it was party-time for Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce. He was at the height of his “hoodoo” over Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and his team would soon have its best ever night against the Gunners. In the previous 6 matches, Arsenal had only won once (a 1-0 win in the FA Cup which they would go on to win) and had lost three times. It was a proud record for both Allardyce and Bolton, this was the Arsenal team who were recently “Invincibles” and during this run could still call on legends like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell, Jens Lehmann, Freddie Ljungberg, and Robert Pires. And yet despite that impressive lineup and pedigree, Bolton were one of the few teams anywhere in the world who were consistently getting results off Arsenal.
Bolton scored first on a header off a corner to some giant lump of a defender. Their part time center forward, and full time thug, Kevin Davies shoved over Arsenal’s fullback Emmanuel Eboue but somehow only got a yellow. Then former Arsenal forward Nicolas Anelka struck a wonder goal from outside the box when Eboue didn’t close him down. With the lead secured, Allardyce’s me sat back and defended their goal for all they were worth.
Arsenal clawed one back when Gilberto rose above the fray to meet Fabregas’ cross but it was Bolton with the last laugh: a perfectly placed ball from about 60 yards found the streaking Anelka who struck another super goal past Kolo Toure and Jens Lehmann.
That record over Arsenal was such a proud achievement in Sam Allardyce’s career that he dedicated a chapter to it in his autobiography, bragging how he kicked Arsenal off the pitch and had, each time, spent the previous week figuring out how to nullify Arsenal’s attack. The former tactic is simple but the latter no small feat and one which deserves praise – he managed to keep one of the most potent Arsenal attacks of all time scoreless.
Bolton’s main tactic was to invite Arsenal to attack, defend in the low block, and as soon as the ball crossed the half-way line, they would put pressure on the midfield. This forced Arsenal to attack wide, inviting Arsenal’s fullbacks into the final third, and thus freeing space for the counter attack. Counter attacks were performed with a minimum of players, usually one or two, and with just one or two passes, thus maintaining the team’s “discipline” and shape so that Arsenal couldn’t counter the counter.
It’s a tactic that wasn’t even remotely new when Allardyce revived it – the infamous Charles Reep once convinced all of England that attacking moves should take no more than two or three passes – and it’s a tactic that lives on to this very day. Broadly speaking, weaker teams will often sit deep in the low box and invite the opposition to attack. They will then hit the team on the counter or try to beat them with a set play. There are several hallmarks of such a game: low possession numbers, low passing percentage, a huge number of clearances, a lot of luck, and the most important part – they can’t concede first. If the counter-attacking team concedes first the opposition can then just return the favor and sit back.
I have no hatred for counter-attacking football. Mourinho’s Inter used counter-attacking to win the Champions League. Chelsea used it to win the Champions League. Atletico Madrid won La Liga as a countering team. Leicester used it to win the Premier League. And even Arsenal, who are portrayed as elitist, used the defense-first approach to win the FA Cup against Man U in 2005 and have since played a counter-attacking style of football against Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Man City, and a host of other teams domestically and in Europe. Counter-attacking is a basic tactic but it does require a specific skill-set and to be successful it requires a special set of players.
The players have to be fast – both in feet and mind – they have to be able to break quickly, find their teammate, and continue to make their run so that they can get the ball back. That sounds simple but it’s not. It takes practice to get this down pat.
Tottenham Hotspurs beat the current Champions of Europe 3-1 on Wednesday and they did so using exactly Bolton Wanderers formula: they were tough and even a little dirty, they invited Real Madrid to attack, they took the ball back, and they hit Real on the counter, exploiting acres of space with their scintillating speed and quick, decisive passing. And like Bolton they were also very lucky.
Those of us who watch the Premier League have seen this time and again from Tottenham. Whenever they face a team they think they can exploit, Spurs will counter them. And they are good at it. Dele Alli epitomizes everything about this Spurs side: he is wiry and fast, he’s much more technically gifted than people give credit, and he’s got grit – not only will he get under the skin of the opposition with snide challenges but he will also be the one who fights to get on the end of the cross to score his team’s first goal, which is exactly what he did against Real Madrid.
But there’s a wrinkle which separates the Boltons from the Tottenhams. A team like Bolton can only ever play one way. They just don’t have the personnel, nor the budget, to make a team that could hold on to possession and attack relentlessly. That’s why 2006 Bolton has to score first, if the opponents score, they are unable to change shape efficiently and get back into the game.
Tottenham have the ability to play possession football. They are currently third in the League in possession with 58% and when they face one of the “bottom 14” clubs in the Premier League, they dominate them with possession and an acute pressing game. But when they face a team that they think is better than them they play almost exactly Allardycian – they not only seek to nullify the opponent’s best players but the very game itself, killing the clock as much as the opponent’s attack.
But while everyone is praising Tottenham for beating Real Madrid – the back-to-back Champions of Europe – this was just one game and hardly represents “Spurs announcing themselves” as manager Mauricio Pochettino proclaimed. This same Spurs team was held to a 1-1 draw with Burnley this season – a Burnley side who played the exact same Allardycian tactics as Spurs played against Real. And this was a Spurs team beaten 1-0 by Man U – where they were given a lesson in countering football by the Greyhound Bus Driver himself, Jose Mourinho. And even in this match against Real Madrid they were lucky: their first goal was clearly offside, the second was a deflection, and Moussa Dembele should have seen a red card for an egregious kick.
I’ve now seen five articles in the Guardian – a paper not given over to bursts of emotion – proclaiming this Spurs side everything from the heirs of Bielsa to suggesting that this is the herald of some new Premier League era in Europe. Heady stuff from what looks to have been a bit of a lucky win. Perhaps it is the sign of something new – Spurs are not Bolton 2006, they can play football when they want and they have far more talent than Bolton ever dreamed of.
But there’s the small problem of Manchester City still at the top of the table, playing Guardiolaball at its finest. City aren’t relying on lucky offside calls or deflected shots to win games. They don’t sit back and allow the opponent 20 shots, clog the middle, shove people over, slap them in the face, or kick them into the sky. They don’t talk about “heart” and “pashun” to win matches. They apply themselves; slowly, methodically, like an apple press, squeezing every last drop out of the opponent and crushing them into a fine sauce.
Back in 2006 Sam Allardyce said after beating Arsenal that he had a simple blueprint: “They always get irate when you upset them and that is why other teams have copied what we do,” said Allardyce. “You know that they will lose their cool and composure and, when they do that, you know you have got a chance.” Allardyce had cribbed this tactic from his good buddy Alex Ferguson. Fergie had “invented” it years before when Arsenal were the dominant team in England, and used thuggery and counter-attacking to beat Arsenal in what should have been their 50th match undefeated.
So, despite Tottenham’s undeniable skill, that’s the real tactic on display. It was simply brutalist, Allardycian, football. And I say that without hatred. You can play football however you want, it’s up to the opposition to beat it. Arsenal fans got yet another lesson in that last night as Red Star Belgrade played exactly to Big Sam’s formula and held the Gunners scoreless.
In two-weeks time Arsenal will get a chance to see if they learned the lesson as they get to travel to the home of the world champion Tottenham Hotspur.