The Mixer Project: Chapter 5

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This is the fifth installment of my chapter-by-chapter accompaniment to The Mixer, Michael Cox’s tactical history of the Premier League. Having explored the influx of foreign playmakers in the previous chapter, Cox moves to the revolution at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger. From one of the more traditional clubs in England–“boring, boring Arsenal”–Wenger transformed the club into a model of continental best practices that would eventually become standard operating procedure throughout the Premier League.

The transformation began, however, the year before Wenger’s arrival with the appointment of Bruce Rioch and the signing of Dennis Bergkamp. It’s difficult to know what sort of impact Rioch might have had with a longer stay, though Cox does note that Wenger rather than Rioch was the club’s first choice to replace the more traditional (though generally successful) George Graham following his dismissal for accepting bungs. At a minimum, Rioch was a supportive manager for Bergkamp in his first season in the Premier League, following an unfortunate two seasons of misuse as an isolated target man at Internazionale.

Not unlike Eric Cantona, Bergkamp is one of the most distinctive stars the Premier League has ever known. Because of his poetic use of space in attack, it is easy overlook some of Bergkamp’s more traditional assets; but as Cox notes, he was deceptively strong, amongst the fastest players at Arsenal, and set a new standard for professionalism in training upon his arrival (81-2). All of these contributed to his individual success and to the transformation of Arsenal, but it is the poetry that rightly lingers in the imagination.

All of the goals noted by Cox (82) appear in this compilation, the four versions of his “classic” strike from Sunderland (0:52), Leicester City (3:06), and Barnsley home (3:13) and away (2:15); as well as his two most iconic strikes for Arsenal, his third goal against Leicester away in ’97-’98 (1:17) and his unforgettable 2002 goal against Newcastle (8:02). It’s worth noting for those interested in Bergkamp’s and Arsenal’s development that the compilation is broadly chronological, with “Wonderwall” accompanying the mid-to-late 90s and “Champagne Supernova” the 00s.

Cox moves fairly quickly from Bergkamp to the widely recognized changes Wenger introduced to Arsenal and eventually the Premier League as a whole in terms of diet and flexibility training. He also notes that Wenger was helped by team captain Tony Adams confronting his alcoholism shortly before Wenger’s arrival. This meant that Arsenal’s drinking culture was confronted and reformed internally rather than by managerial directive, as had been the case with Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

Many of the available extended highlights from the ’96-’97 season predate Wenger’s arrival (such as this lively 3-3 draw at home with Chelsea), but Wenger’s first North London derby–a match Arsenal hadn’t won at Highbury since 1991–gives an early sense of the side. You may recognize the last goal of the game from the Bergkamp compilation above (2:23).

This game features Wenger’s favored line-up from ’96-’97, with the exception of injured goalkeeper David Seaman. They played in a 3-5-2, utilizing all three of the top-class center backs Wenger had inherited: Adams, Steve Bould, and Martin Keown. In midfield, new arrival Patrick Viera (who had come for the opportunity to play for Wenger even though he arrived before Rioch left) anchored a midfield three.

3-5-2 was in vogue at the time, especially amongst teams that liked to keep the ball on the ground, with Liverpool and Newcastle as its most successful proponents. As Cox explains, “as a general rule, utilizing a 3-5-2 worked effectively against opponents playing 4-4-2, which remained the dominant system, as it offered a spare man in defense against two centre-forwards, and an extra midfielder to overload the centre” (89-90). The trade-off was the  burden on the wing-backs to shoulder both offensive and defensive duties out wide, but in a league where most full backs were still primarily defenders this weakness was less frequently exposed.

The more relevant problem, in the Premier League, was like facing like.  “Contests between two sides playing 3-5-2 were often hopelessly dull, however–both teams had a spare man at the back, while the midfield was congested and the wing-backs simply chased one another up and down the touchlines” (90). Unsurprisingly, neither of the goalless draws from February mentioned by Cox have been preserved on YouTube, but this late-March encounter with Liverpool offers an example of two 3-5-2 sides facing off.

This late season conflict between two title rivals (Arsenal and Liverpool would both end up level on points with second-place Newcastle United at the season’s end) is definitely not dull. It does, however, demonstrate the midfield congestion of matching 3-5-2s, even with players of great individual quality. Once Liverpool takes the lead in the opening 20′ of the second half, you can also see how difficult it is to maintain defensive solidity while chasing a game in this formation. Though Arsenal does manage to pull one goal back, Liverpool clearly looks more threatening on the counter-attack than does Arsenal in possession throughout the latter stages.

It’s interesting to hear the commentators, at 15′, describing Liverpool–rather than Arsenal–as a side with a tendency to pass the ball to death. While Wenger would come to be closely associated with delicate technicians and their intricate midfield passing, Cox points out that “the 1997/98 double winners were more celebrated for their physical power, especially in the centre of the pitch. . . . Wenger overhauled the midfield almost completely, recruiting French defensive midfielders Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Viera, plus left-winger Marc Overmars from Ajax, while [Ray] Parlour improved and played on the right. . . . Strength, speed, and stamina” (88).

Beyond buttressing the physical power and fitness of his side, Wenger recruited in the summer of ’97 with an eye to playing 4-4-2. You can see this new formation in this classic match away at Leicester City. Only Adams–who struggled with injuries throughout the first part of the season–is missing. The game is an absolute classic for neutrals and Bergkamp enthusiasts, though somewhat bittersweet for Arsenal supporters (and, for different reasons, fans of American goalkeeper Kasey Keller).

The shift to 4-4-2 was surely motivated by Wenger’s desire to implement an aggressive press of the sort associated with Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan. Pressing is not an aspect of the game well preserved in match highlights, even relatively substantial ones like the video above. Nonetheless, you can see Arsenal’s pressing at 14:00, where Petit leaves the man he has been marking free on a run down the flank in order to help Nigel Winterburn press Robbie Savage; and again at 18:00, where Arsenal collectively press Leicester’s deepest playmakers. In both cases, the result is a real scoring opportunity for Arsenal.

On the other hand, the fact that this second example comes with less than 5′ left in a game where Arsenal led 2-0 from the hour mark but would end in a 3-3 tie underlines the difficulties this new approach posed for the team. Pressing created opportunities for Arsenal’s offense, but it also created opportunities for their opposition. An example of Arsenal’s difficulties can be seen at 11:00, where a clever pass through Viera and Petit’s high press left Neil Lennon with acres of space to run at Arsenal’s back four. Though this chance ended up coming to nothing, it pointedly illustrates the necessity of full-team coordination for a successful press.  Without an accompanying high defensive line, this aggressive midfield press creates space for the opponent to use.

Cox describes how the issue came to a head following a late November 1-0 loss to Liverpool; a game which happens to be available on YouTube. It’s difficult to do too much diagnosis of systemic problems in this game, given that both Viera and Parlour were missing; but it is notable that after a bright start to each half, Arsenal’s game seems to wither. That pattern suggests that the team was unable to maintain the energy levels required to effectively deploy Wenger’s desired pressing game.

The resolution of the issue is also interesting.  According to Cox, “the crucial tactical change came at the request of the players rather than the manager. . . . Wenger suggested that the problem was a lack of desire, with players not working hard enough. But Adams, Bould, and [David] Platt intervened with a more specific suggestion, saying that Petit and Viera needed to position themselves more deeply in order to shield the defense properly” (90). The change proved effective, but the story is suggestive of Wenger’s limits as a manager. Cox concludes this chapter with reflections on Wenger’s tactical limitations, and the inability to see how Sacchi’s model of pressing needed tweaking to fit Arsenal’s personnel echoes these concerns.

While the increased defensive solidity in the second half of ’97-’98 was critical to Arsenal’s success, the key attacking player in the run-in turned out to be Overmars. Cox especially focuses on his performance in a crucial late season match against the perennial contenders, Manchester United, which he places “among the greatest individual performances the Premier League has ever seen” (91). Overmars benefited from Ferguson’s deployment of an inexperienced right back, John Curtis, as part of a reorganization to cover for the absences of Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt in midfield; but Overmars’ performance is not merely the product of a tactical mismatch. More globally, it’s worth noting that Arsenal were missing Seaman and Wright, with backup keeper Alex Manninger sorely tested on the day.

This game was the second in a then-record ten-game winning streak for Arsenal. Overmars continued to contribute with a brace in the 4-0 win at Everton that sealed the title at the end of that run, as well as the opening goal in their FA Cup victory over Newcastle United. It was a marvelous run for an under-recognized contributor.
The second goal in that FA Cup final was scored by a young French striker stepping in for the injured Bergkamp: Nicolas Anelka. He–along with a similarly pacy English teenager–will be the focus of the next installment of the Mixer Project.  See you then.

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