anti-football - who wants to play the wenger way ?

02.03.2010

Comments over the recent months (and even years) have seen Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger condemn with faint contempt the way that some Premier League teams play.

This paragon of footballing virtue sees it as his duty to name and shame those who try to drag football into the gutter in his eyes.  Strange as this is the man who hardly ever sees anything.

Let us tackle (if he allows us) his point about teams playing anti-football.  By this he means teams who put in lots of effort to try and stop Arsenal playing their game.  Chasing his players down, and daring to tackle them seems to affront the Arsenal boss.  His side like to play endless passes without any hindrance.  Now why he thinks that this only happens to his team, I am not sure.  I can't speak for other clubs, but Tottenham have faced this sort of display from Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers at home, as well as Hull City and Aston Villa.  It is not the sort of football I would want my team to play, but with limited resources and skills, it is the only way that some teams can hope to get points from games.  And while it is not the football I like to see played, it means that Tottenham need to develop strategies to combat it.  In some ways it is also a compliment that opposition teams do not think they can play you off the pitch.  However, having said that, I have respect for Owen Coyle, who, with Burnley, tried to play their own game away from home and attack sides, but they were regularly beaten by teams who were better at it.

But in my view, anti-football comes in many forms. 

The team that Wenger put out in the FA Cup at Stoke was one that contained players which even some Gooners did not recognise.  It is an insult to the competition and to the opposition to put out a team that is weakened in such a way and does nothing to back up his holier than thou attitude.  And frankly, as a fan of that club, I would be well cheesed off to travel up the M1 to see a reserve side represent the club against one of the hardest working teams in the league.  Maybe Wenger thought that his side would sustain too many injuries and this would hit their chances of winning more prestigious trophies.  Well, perhaps that is also anti-football in not wanting to play for silverware on all fronts.  His club always have the option of not entering if they feel that the competition is not worthy of their presence.

It brings me to the incident at the weekend where Aaron Ramsey unfortunately got his leg broken in a tackle with Ryan Shawcross of Stoke City.  While it is the sort of injury you do not like to see on a football pitch and that the midfielder makes a full recovery, Wenger's attack on the defender and everyone who is out to get his players was one which makes him look both foolish and made the sympathy head towards the Stoke man rather than his own stricken player. 

To say that this sort of tackle is "not acceptable" and that teams are out to hurt his players as three have had bad injuries in five years almost smacks of paranoia in my opinion.  Does he expect teams to stand off and be taken apart as they play their pass-pass-pass football around them.  And perhaps there is an element of the way they play which means that they get some of their injuries.  Examine the number of passes they play in a match and it will probably be a lot higher than many other teams.  It only takes a player to nick the ball away from an incoming tackler and suddenly, the bal is not there, but their foot or leg is.

It is all the more galling when there was the over-forceful Gallas tackle on Mark Davies in their game against Bolton, when the player was hurt and Arsenal continued playing on and scored a goal.  A potentially worse tackle in that Shawcross appeared to be going for the ball and caught Ramsey, while Gallas' challenge caught the player on the shin and was referred to as a leg-breaking tackle by some commentators on the game.  Also interesting that the stand-up row Wenger had with Jol at Highbury when Keane scored after two Arsenal players had injured each other revolved about the ball not being put into touch.

With minutes left in the Stoke match, Fabregas' tackle on Pugh in the same game was premeditated and vicious.  Denied a free-kick for what he thought was a foul on him, the Spaniard hacked the Stoke defender down from behind (along with Ballack's similar challenge on Tevez in the game at Stamford Bridge the same day) with what was both an unnecessary and unprofessional action.  Did Wenger bring this to the attention of the football watching public ?  Surprisingly not.

I am sure that there are many other instances both for and against Arsenal, but his rant on Shawcross imitated that on Martin Taylor, when Eduardo broke his leg.  The Croatian striker said that it was part of the game.  While this may have been a different set of circumstances, Wenger treats every imposter the same.

How would Wenger have been able to cope with the game 20-25 years ago when the dinosaurs of the likes of Vinny Jones and Gavin Maguire roamed the pitches of the top flight.  Oh, hold on, Wenger was around for some of that period and his team contained the likes of Vieira, Petit and Adams.  But back then they were winning things and doing well.  Funny the complaints only come after a lean period for the Frenchman's side.

Luka Modric broke his leg earlier this season (admittedly not in the same way as Ramsey), but it followed a tackle by Lee Bowyer, who is a player with a reputation for some of the naughtier aspects of the game.  However, I cannot recall any of the Spurs players, staff or management lambasting Bowyer for his part in the injury.  In fact, in a recent interview, Luka said that he apportioned no blame to Bowyer for the resulting broken leg, but accepted it as something that happens in the game.  It is a contact game and while I do not like Wolves/Hull/Stoke bringing players down, I am sure that they do not go out to deliberately injure players, the thought of the game without tackling is anathema to me.  There is nothing more pleasing than seeing a well-timed tackle.  Ledley King's tackle against Chelsea a couple of years back is one that springs to mind.  Many of Graham Roberts' tackles wee hard, but fair.

Sometimes, players go in half-hearted and end up getting injured.  Some photos of the Ramsey incident showed his standing leg buckling at the ankle before Shawcross got there and the force of any impact might shear rather than be resisted by the leg.  The wearing of blades instead of studs has also been raised as a contributory factor in injuries to players these days.

Wenger is also not shy of criticising referees if they do not play the game the way he wants it.  Whether it is not giving decisions his way or giving decisions against his side, or even not seeing things that he can (It's a miracle; he can see !).  The farcical goal conceded when Sol Campbell passed back to Fabianski (or didn't if you believe Wenger) and Porto took a quick free-kick to embarrass the Gooners to knock the ball into an empty net saw Wenger at his conspiratorial worst.  Saying that the referee was incompetent or dishonest and adding that he liked to think he was incompetent.  Let us not survey managers for their opinions on some of Wenger's tactical decisions over the years then.

Pressure shows in different ways.  We have seen Wenger regularly face up to other Premier League managers and his latest trick is the Basil Fawlty style squat he does when things are not going his way.  But the belittling of referees shows how small minded Wenger can be. While some regard him as the Professor, he is rapidly in danger of becoming the Mad Scientist with his short-sighted pronouncements that might be designed to protect his side against anti-football, but might just produce the opposite effect.

isaac gregory

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