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A couple of moments from this weekend’s Premier league games summed up perfectly why two of England’s top clubs are struggling so badly at the moment…..

ARSENAL

Arsenal 1 v 2 Man Utd, Saturday 22nd November 2014

In the 85th minute of Saturday’s game, with the score at 0-1 Man Utd raced away on a counter-attack in a 2 on 1 situation (it was Di Maria & Rooney vs Monreal, so maybe better described as a Lions vs Christians situation).

When Rooney tucked it away to sew up the game, it was Man Utd’s first shot on target of the night. This game was a neat way to demonstrate everything that is right and wrong with Arsenal. What is right is that they have exceptional attacking players who control possession and generate lots of shots. What is wrong is that they are tactically naive. This all stems from one thing;

Arsene Wenger is a fantastic strategist, but a poor tactician.

Strategy is high level planning, looking at long term goals and development, like the evolution of a playing squad over 3 or 4 years. Tactics are short term plans, inside one season and particularly each individual match.

Through Wenger’s strategic brilliance in his time at the club, Arsenal has survived at the top of the game in an age of oligarch football owners spending billions on the squads of Champions League level clubs. For a comparatively tiny net spend Wenger has maintained a squad of terrific technical ability that has qualified for the Champions league for an incredible seventeen consecutive years, and the knockout stage for a mind-boggling fifteen straight years. He has put in place efficient scouting networks, talent pathways and training facilities. He has established an admirable ethos of style, quality and class. He ‘built’ the Emirates stadium.

But his tactics are naive at best, and non-existent at worst.

While the Arsenal squad has a plethora of quality attacking midfielders, a single injury (Koscielny) has meant Nacho Monreal has to play centre back. Monreal is a Championship level left-back. Playing him at centre-half is awful. Leaving him exposed vs Di Maria and Rooney is just suicide.

In the 85th minute of a match there is probably about nine minutes of actual playing time left. Arsenal had Giroud, Welbeck, Ox, Sanchez and Cazorla on the pitch. The efficient thing for a football team to do in that situation is to not panic and over-commit, but to build pressure and keep probing, while maintaining a solid base to guard against losing a second goal on the break that kills the game. Nine minutes is plenty of time to score at least once. What you don’t do is pile nine men forward, leaving Monreal and a sub keeper exposed against two of the league’s classiest attacking players.

The reason Arsenal commit tactical hari-karis with such regularity is that Arsene Wenger fundamentally doesn’t ‘believe’ in tactics. He believes in putting talented players onto the pitch and letting things evolve. This can reap spectacular dividends when you get a Bergkamp-Henry style partnership emerge. But it means your teams will regularly do daft, inefficient, naive things. Like lose a three goal lead to Anderlecht, a four goal lead at Newcastle, concede eight at Old Trafford…. Or gift a soft counter goal to Utd in the 85th minute. There are dozens more examples from Wenger’s time at Arsenal, far more than for the other ‘big’ sides.

The importance of ‘tactics’, as in the tactical formations that managers employ, is generally over-exaggerated. Pundits regularly talk about a manager ‘winning the tactical battle’ after a team wins, without having any idea of what those tactics actually were. But ‘game management’ does matter, because context always matters.

Game management means recognising the score, anticipating how that will impact on how your opponent will play, and adjusting to be efficient in the face of that scenario. It means not over-committing players forward leaving yourself vulnerable to counters when that’s what they want you to do. It means being smart when you’re leading. Being solid, eating up the clock, frustrating the other side. Time-wasting even, if that’s what it takes. Arsene Wenger doesn’t do game management, and that is why his teams will generally be less successful over the course of a season than Jose Mourinho’s.

And that is why Rooney scored on Saturday, and why Arsenal have no chance of winning the Premier League or Champions League this year.

The first goal is a not bad example of Arsenal naivety either. Because Arsenal’s defence is not drilled and organised, this kind of collision between Szczesny and Gibbs is more likely to happen to Arsenal than on other teams. ‘The keeper is the boss’ is a basic defensive coaching principle, a simple efficient tactic for defending crosses. By relying on talent not tactics this kinds of thing happens.

Against Man Utd on Saturday, Arsenal had 61% possession. They had 23 shots to 12. Had 9 shots on target to 2. They lost a game they should have won.

The fact that they had the talent to out-play Man Utd is down to Wenger’s strategic brilliance. The fact that they lost it is down to his tactical ineptitude. Therein lies the great Arsene Wenger enigma.

LIVERPOOL

Palace 3 v 1 Liverpool, Sunday 23rd November 2014

All really successful football teams in the history of the sport have had a strong central midfield player whose instinct is to ‘hold’ his position. Every single one. (There’s a challenge for you……see if you can name one that hasn’t!).

In playing without a ‘holder’ Liverpool are trying to defy footballing logic. And failing spectacularly.

Last season they almost did the impossible by winning the English Premier League without a holder. Steven Gerrard is not a holder. He’s an attacking midfielder, whose instinct is to create, a square peg being forced into a round hole because his legs are going but he still hits good long passes. Last season Liverpool conceded fifty goals in the league, which is only three fewer than Hull City who were nearly relegated. Liverpool rode their luck on the back of a ‘once-in-a-generation’ season of attacking production by their three S’s, Suarez in particular.

But such freak occurrences are, by their nature, unsustainable and unrepeatable. The sober, and un-romantic reality of football (indeed of most things in the world) is that long-term success ultimately comes down to efficiency. What is the most efficient thing to do, the most efficient way to play? If you have a galaxy of attacking stars who can regularly outscore the opposition then it’s conceivable to play reckless attacking football with a ‘we’ll score more than you’ attitude and be successful for a short period (e.g. Keegan’s Newcastle).

But it never lasts. Because the ‘laws’ of football dictate that success needs to be based on a solid foundation. And that solid foundation is largely to be found in the often unsung role of the Makelele, Matic, Dunga, Souness, Busquets, McGovern, Rijkaard, Keane, Gilberto, Bremner, Deschamps holder who gives the core strength that is the base for marrying the twin objectives of football; attack and defence.

Liverpool will never be an efficient football team while Steven Gerrard is asked the play at the base of the midfield. Their defence will regularly be exposed. Opposition attacking midfielders will exploit the space where a holder would be, but which Gerrard’s instincts make him neglect. It leaves them weak and vulnerable. They will get bullied.

Unbelievable though it would have seemed just six months ago, Brendan Rodgers looks to be in danger of losing his job at Anfield. Liverpool have just lost four games in a row, six in the league already. But he can fix it.

When in trouble a football team should go back to basics. That means a formation of 4-1-4-1. The key being the ‘1’ in front of the back four. It has to be a ‘holder’.

Rodgers has one sitting on his bench; Lucas Leiva. He should put Lucas back in as a holder, a screen to help the struggling Lovren-Skrtel centre back pairing, and let Gerrard play in the middle of the pitch to use his passing ability, free of the responsibility of holding.

The lessons of footballing history tell us that this will be more efficient, and that things will get better for Liverpool if they do it.

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