BLOODY HELL, SCORE SOME GOALS!
As if it was easy…
As a 37 year-old man, I couldn’t fully appreciate the boring, boring Arsenal days; when I first met the Gunners, in 1994, the George Graham era was scarily close to its end – although none had a clue about it.
The Cup Winners’ Cup final was the very first time I watched the Arsenal play and was also a defining moment in my footballing existence, the year zero of my association with this Club.
As a foreign supporter, I had no historical connections with the Club, no parents, uncles, grand-parents to tell me how it was before… the Herbert Chapman legacy, the forgettable 50s and 60s or Bertie Mee… so I had to do my own research – not an easy task, back in the late 90s with little knowledge of the internet/English language.
I started from the nickname boring, boring Arsenal because it sounded funny and it seemed to me that fellow Gooners were taking quite some pride in being branded the most boring team in the league, for some reasons.
I started from 1993/94 seasons and went backwards: it was impossible not to see how little that team was scoring but the defensive record was just astonishing, with only 28 goals conceded in 42 league games that season and 38 in 42 the season before, despite a mid-table finish.
I continued looking back and saw how the trend was changing: the defensive record was still excellent but the goals scored were increasing: 81 goals scored in 1991/92, 74 in the title-winning 1990/91 season, 73 in the other title-winning season, the legendary 1988/89 campaign.
How was that squad boring? The meagre 53 goals scored in 1989/90 seemed to be an accident more than anything else.
Over the years, those teams included Rocastle, Smith, Merson, Hayes, Marwood, Limpar, Wright, Campbell and many others but the focus, the collective imagination, was captured by the famous back-four and the discipline enforced by George Graham.
In 1990/91, that team won the league with a ridiculous +56 goal difference, scoring 74 and conceding only 18, while losing only one game, away at Chelsea.
George Graham’s success was built on solidarity and discipline at the back, a common trait to many winning sides, which doesn’t mean that the whole team was set up defensively.
I had a chance to sneak a peek at Marco van Basten’s autobiography and I immediately went to the part where he talks about his days in Italy: as a kid, I grew-up in a family that almost entirely supported AC Milan and I idolised the Dutch forward – for me the best striker of all time.
I was watching AC Milan at their best, with football-maniac Arrigo Sacchi in the dugout, and I was witnessing opponents gasping for air and time on the ball against the most intense pressing I’d ever seen: incredibly high-line, collective pressure on the ball, team shaped to push the opponents toward the bylines and relentless, merciless hunting down of each ball, at any time during the game.
AC Milan were unplayable for anyone and had a few years of pure dominance, especially in Europe, where the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich didn’t stand a chance.
That team was a pure joy to watch, also because they had some of the finest talents in Europe and were playing sharp, harmonious and deadly counter-attack football, with the likes of Ruud Gullit, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni and Marco van Basten expressing their best football under Arrigo Sacchi.
I was surprised to read how much Marco van Basten, a double European Cup winner and double Ballon d’Or winner under the Italian, hated working with Arrigo Sacchi, a coach he considered too defensive-minded and obsessed with endless, fatally-boring defensive drills.
Marco can Basten
Arrigo Sacchi, the man who put to bed the catenaccio in Italy and abolished the tradition of the sweeper, a defensive coach?
With all due respect to the Dutch legend, Arrigo Sacchi was anything but a defensive coach – but he knew, like George Graham at the Arsenal and many other successful coaches, that there can’t be a winning team without a solid defense: even the most offensive coaches, like Arsène Wenger or Pep Guardiola, knew they had to fix the defensive line before unleashing their attacking players or any goal scored would be meaningless.
When Arrigo Sacchi arrived at AC Milan, the team wasn’t necessarily leaking goals (21 in 30 games) but his first mission was to improve that and his team managed to concede only 14 goals in his debut season; when George Graham replaced Don Howe, he inherited a team that shipped 47 goals in the league and immediately improved the output, limiting the goals against to 35 in his first season; others, from Mourinho at Chelsea and Guardiola at Barcelona, saw the respective team’s records improve.
They didn’t need big investments to achieve that, (except José Mourinho), and it didn’t take long to make the whole ship steadier; through different styles, each of them managed to restrict the opponents to fewer or less-dangerous shots, either by increasing their team’s possession or adjusting the distances between the players and the different units, on the pitch.
It was never a single player to transform the team, it was a better organisation and a better tactical awareness.
Around that time, many coaches drastically improved the attacking records of their teams: AC Milan went from 32 to 43 goals scored during Arrigo Sacchi first season in charge, Barcelona went from 76 to 105 (!) when Pep Guardiola took over from Frank Rijkaard, and the Arsenal went from 49 to 58 when George Graham was appointed.
Interestingly enough, though, all of the coaches mentioned above had to rely on one single player to carry the team, sometimes two; AC Milan went big and signed both Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten during Arrigo Sacchi’s first season; José Mourinho welcomed Didier Drogba from Marseille, Pep Guardiola witnessed Lionel Messi’s true explosion and George Graham was rewarded for putting his faith into youth product Martin Hayes, who went from 3 to 24 goals from one season to the next.
Would AC Milan have scored as many without the Dutch duo? Who would have scored the 16 goals netted by Didier Drogba during his debut season at Chelsea? Where would Barcelona have been if Pep Guardiola kept Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho ahead of 19 year-old Lionel Messi?
Most importantly, what kind of success would George Graham have had, at the Arsenal?
The answer can be found in the team’s collective and individual statistics for the next season, 1987/88: during the summer, George Graham signed three members of our famous back-four (Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn) yet the defensive record worsened, while he also signed Alan Smith from Leicester and the striker immediately became the Club’s top-scorer and gave a whole new impetus to the attacking line, with George Graham moving away from a fading Charlie Nicholas and not entirely satisfied with the performances of Perry Groves and Niall Quinn.
What would have happened the season after that, if Alan Smith wasn’t at the Club?
During my 30+ years of watching football, I learned that defending is a collective art and often the individual pieces of the jigsaw aren’t so important; a good team can carry on defending well even without their top players, as proved by AC Milan 4-0 annihilation of Barcelona in their 1995 Champions League final: the Rossoneri played that game without their captain and arguably the best defender of all time, Franco Baresi, and his defensive partner Alessandro Costacurta; in spite of that and with a makeshift defensive line, they offered the usual solid performance at the back, moving in unison to make Romário, Begiristain and Stoichkov literally disappear from the pitch.
Contrarily, attacking is something that requires players with superior quality and intelligence: AC Milan needed the flair, skills and vision of of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Roberto Donadoni because there is no drill, no training, no video analysis that can teach how to produce the moment of attacking magic when it matters the most.
Coaches can design movements and combinations on their boards but none of them will come off if the players executing don’t have the technical and instinctual levels required.
Like those coaches, Mikel Arteta has started to make us steadier, more difficult to break down and defensively sound but will need better players to improve our attacking performances; barring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang we don’t have one single top-class attacking player at the Club: we have some great talents like Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli, a declining striker in Alexandre Lacazette, an inconsistent juggler in Nicolas Pépé and a plethora of average midfielders unable to ignite the spark.
I’m not excusing Mikel Arteta because he can do much better than he’s doing with the current players… but we won’t go anywhere unless we get the right players: we could start by playing our only élite striker in his natural position but we surely need to give him help, in the form of better partners.
We’re on the right path but we’re miles away from our final destination.
Thirty-something Italian, currently in Switzerland. Gooner since mid-ninties, when the Gunners defeated my hometown team, in Copenhagen. Twelve years ago I started my own blog (www.clockenditalia.com) after after some experiences with Italian websites and football magazines. Debate, don’t insult or you’re out.