What happened to the beautiful game?

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today. — Henry Ford

I came to love the Arsenal at arguably an inopportune time. Chance put me at a place where I was angry with the cable company for making me pay a monthly charge on my cable modem and the federal and local government put all of my city in a place where we could buy internet and cable television services from them instead of the big cable company. In a moment of anger,  I ditched Comcast, signed up with my city’s cable company and sat back to watch television.

Of course, the television didn’t get any better, but what I did get was all the “digital cable” channels for the same price as basic cable. It was a pleasant surprise, the icing on the cake as the idiom goes. Hidden in those digital cable channels was a small, relatively new channel called Fox Soccer Channel and little did I know the profound effect that channel would have on my life.

Like I said, I came to love Arsenal at an inopportune time. If I had been some kid who grew up in Watford or Wycombe or Slough who’s dad just happened to take me to a game when I was a child, I think it would have been better for me, for my soul, because when I was a child, Arsenal sucked. They sucked ass, and with the exception of an FA cup and an FA cup 2nd place finish in 79 and 80 (when I was 10) Arsenal were a middle of the table team.

Instead, I had to fall in love with a team that had Denis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, and Tony Adams on it, which is simply unfair. For most teams, players like Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira are once in a lifetime players, so to have both on a team at the same time was a coup of epic proportions — and to add in Bergkamp and Adams is just, well, unfair. I picked up Arsenal when they would,  in just a few years time, become invincible and would play the most beautiful football I have ever seen.

How does that become someone’s introduction to football? “Here’s a team who will become the best team you will see in a generation, enjoy a life time of wishing that every team from then on is half as good as the one you’re watching! Oh yeah, and you have no context in which to put this whole experience so you don’t even get to enjoy it while it’s happening!”

That’s not fair. That’s not a standard that anyone should ever have to live up to. It’s like being handed a video game console and playing an entire season on the “easy” setting, against the computer. When your friend inevitably comes over and plays you, it shatters your perception of reality.

I think something similar has happened to the Arsenal team that we see on the pitch right now. I complained the other day, in my Good-Bad-Ugly, that Arsenal had become boring and I have to admit in retrospect, that’s not fair. I’m judging this team based on my experience with The Invincibles which is unfair because both the team has changed and, as Wenger pointed out, the league has changed.

I actually noticed the change in the league when I was watching the Man U/Chelsea match on Sunday. As I was sitting there, picking up the pieces of my lost morning, I saw something very familiar in the way that Chelsea were playing: they were moving the ball quite well, maintaining possession pretty well, but when they got in the Man U final third, United picked up the ball pressure, forced Chelsea to the center of the park, dispossessed whoever had the ball, and started a beautiful, flowing counter. This happened a lot and if it didn’t happen and Chelsea were able to get off a shot, it was either lacking teeth or it fell prey to the old “over elaborate play” problem — then it dawned on me…


I knew that Roman has always fancied his club as the new Arsenal, from the transformation of Arsenal from small club to world classs in the 1990s down to the players that Arsenal had on our squad: if Arsenal was interested in a player, Chelsea simply read about it in the papers and bid double. Chelsea even went so far as to tap up Ashley Cole. I mean, this is a club that wanted to be Arsenal so bad, they fired the most sucessful coach in their history, not because he wasn’t winning, but because the team wasn’t playing beautiful football! That’s insane.

Emulating Arsenal seems like a goood idea, but the problem is that Roman didn’t expect that the entire world would unlock the secret to beating Arsenal: solid defense in a 4-5-1 formation.

And of course the world figured it out, all they needed to do was look at a history book. That’s exactly what happened in the 1930s when teams used to play a 2-3-5 and it was Arsenal who innovated the change! Arsenal started playing a solid back line under Herbert Chapman and won titles with it. So it should be no surprise that teams would see Arsenal playing effectively a 2-4-4*  and say, “ok, let’s play a 4-5-1 to counter that.” They have 9 players defending, we have 8 players attacking. You do the math.

That’s how Fulham ground out a win, that’s how Stoke ground out a win, that’s how Aston Villa ground out a win, etc. Teams like Arsenal have become entirely predictable and their opponent’s response to us has become entirely predictable as well. As Wenger points out, this is only natural, after all, the difference between relegation and staying up is millions of pounds in revenue so teams do whatever it takes to stay up; beautiful game be damned.

Ocassionally, a team playing the 2-4-4 will get an early goal and that throws the whole plan into disarray; because then the 4-5-1 team starts attacking, which opens space in behind them and allows the more offensive minded team freedom to create. But that’s not happening as much for us as it once did, which we can blame on injury, transfers, lack of creativity, lack of a wide player, *ahem* not shifting our tactics when faced with all of the above, and so on.

But yes, the league has become predictable, and yes, the beautiful game is essentially dead; at least when teams come knocking at Arsenal and Chelsea’s door. The only thing that is unpredictable right now is how teams like Villa and Fulham will play each other and, normally, how the top four will play each other. This explains the topsy-turvy season that we’ve had this year up and down the table.

If we want the beautiful game back, Wenger is going to have to inject some fresh tactics, fresh bodies, and a fresh approach to the game. It’s what every great Arsenal manager before him did. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Arsenal will never get the beautiful game back. It’s possible that Arsenal’s beautiful game was just a once in a lifetime thing; a combination of great scouting, lucky buying, a change in diet, good team balance, and having the older players around to Shepard the younger ones.  Moreover, it’s entirely possible that it’s just my spoiled inner child who wants another Invincibles, who wants to switch the Playstation on easy mode and play against the computer one more time — so that I can relive a tradition that never really existed instead of living in the moment and enjoying what we have.


*We can argue this ad nauseum but basically I see Clichy and Sagna as the only two players providing any width to the team — which is similar to Chelsea with Bosingwa and ACole — making them the midfielders and Nasri and Eboue actually strikers. Just look at how centrally Eboue and Nasri play and how often Clichy and Sagna are wide and deep.

17 Responses to “What happened to the beautiful game?”

  1. January 13, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Timothy. How about a “fellow arsenal bloggers” listing to the arsenalist.com? He’s our video archiver.

  2. January 13, 2009 at 8:15 am

    mate u are totally wrong.chelsea is not playing arsenal betiful game,i watched man u v cheski and that was the very bad game i have watched this seasen.cheski was the bad team to watch in maurinjo’s time and now with scolari they are trying to copy us but u see what happend.
    and about formation 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 i think arsenal just start with that formation and than during the match they always atack and atack with all their midfilder specialy whwen they play against teams like bolton at saturday.i have seen many times nasry atacking,i have seen thio doing that,rosicky,cesc sometimes so i do not belive formation is important to arsenal.the oponents that have beaten us thi seasen,like fulham,hull,stoke,aston villa,have learned how to play against us.i was watching game against aston villa,and i was very nervoz why wenger insisted to play by moving ball around their goal,zone when they were 8 or 9 players there,and i just knew that they will score with counter atack.i think arsen should have told players to keep the ball in their zone for some min.just to take them from their defencive way of playing and than to atack as fast as we usualy do it.this is the problem with arsenal or with arsenal.they must try to atack not in only one way,but in many way,it is depending how the oponents are playing agains u.and this must be trying earlier not only after 80′

  3. 4 WC
    January 13, 2009 at 9:20 am

    I disagree with your Chelsea analysis Tim because Chelsea were poor in alot of respects. They were never over elaborate – Man Utd just locked them down so much to the point that they had no opportunity to really have a good chance on goal. Their tactics were poor. Anelka and Drogba are not good strike partners the same way Keane and Torres are not good partners. They force one another into unfamiliar roles because they cannot occupy the same role. Both players excel at leading the line but when both are on, one has to drop wide and for alot of the match that was Drogba. Chelsea would have had much better luck having Drogba use his power to take on the Manc defense, instead he had to play patsy to a very uninspired Anelka. Ballack seemed to have lost his keys on the pitch since he was constantly on the ground looking for them and the Manc full backs did a very good job of keeping the likes of Bosingwa from launching an attack from the flanks. Simply put, Fergie just knew how to contain an already inconsistent and declining Chelsea side. This is very different from Arsenal who create chances but consciously don’t take them. I was screaming half the time at the TV for someone to take a shot from outside the box when they had acres of space, but instead opted to pass and hold up the play even more. We clearly out played Bolton and had 2/4 of the possession but there were alot of time where we refused to shoot. I was glad to see Kolo take a chance from about 30 yards out since he did test Jussi from it. We need more of that because alot of those chances won us games last season. Probably half of Cesc’s goal tally last season was from shots outside the 18 and who could forget RVPs flying shin volley from the top of the arc, over 2 players early in the season? Nasri looks the only player consistently willing to try his luck from long range.

  4. January 13, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Thanks Timothy. You know, I’m in NY. Maybe I should write a 10amkickoff blog. :)

  5. January 13, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Nicely written, Tim. I came to know this side at much the same time, and it’s difficult to reconcile what we’ve got now to what we had then.

  6. 7 T-town Alex
    January 13, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Obama will fix this. We will go undefeated again sometime over the next 4 years.

  7. 8 caribkid
    January 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Like Timothy and Connolly, I too came to know Arsenal at their peak through FSC and as said before, its very difficult to accept what we have now.

    Above all, I was attracted to Arsenal because of their free flowing style of play which reminded me of the 70’s “le Orange” and it’s very difficult to see us playing dull, uninspired, horizontal football.

  8. January 13, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Now I’m a lifelong Gooner and I also agree!

    The key is, as you suggest, scoring early and forcing the opposition to chase the game. That involves a great team effort from minute 1, not minute 60, and I would argue that we have seemed lacklustre in every first half this season. Perhaps we run out and see the opposition line up in their 4-5-1 formation and inwardly die a little.

    The return of Fabregas, Walcott and Eduardo can only give us more attacking options but that is looking like March – too late for a run on the title (surely?) but we can still win two cups this year. No, we really can. And we must.

  9. 10 caribkid
    January 13, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    If we were to get Arshaven it would be interesting to see if we could get some balance with a 4-1-3-1-1 lineup as shown below:

    Fabianski (at least he tries to command the penalty area)

    Sagna, Gallas/Toure, Djourou, Clichy


    Eboue/Denilson, Nasri, Arshavin



    We surely would have the offensive creativity but still might be lacking a little defensively, but it would be fun to watch.

  10. January 13, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    @caribkid: Don’t you think Ade is just a little bit lazy at the moment? His first touch is like watching someone trying to kick mud off their shoe. I’d get Vela in, defences hate him already, like a little mosquito buzzing round the box.

  11. January 14, 2009 at 6:19 am

    @fourstar: Don’t forget Ade’s aerial threat. That is invaluable.

  12. January 14, 2009 at 6:23 am

    @Patrick: It would be if he could drag his sorry @ss into the box once in a while. Sorry, but I think he’s resting on last season’s laurels at the moment.

  13. January 14, 2009 at 6:42 am

    The guy in the picture at the top of this page was hitting his stride about this time last year, eh? I believe he’ll be in the Premier League squad certainly in February. We’re looking at a strong squad to finish out the year which might augur well for a cup run. I’m an eternal optimist. :)

  14. 15 caribkid
    January 14, 2009 at 7:07 am

    Ade is a momentum type of player and if he gets the service and becomes involved early he will do well. Also, Vela could be used as an impact sub for greater offense around the 60-65 minute mark.

    The question is whether RVP can play as the target man? If he can, Arshavin in the slot and Vela on the left would inspire some fear in defenses.

  15. January 14, 2009 at 7:24 am

    I currently have a 2 monitor setup. Today on one I have this blog and on the other everything else, alt-tab, etc. I just noticed after reading a little on this blog that when I return my eyes to the black text on white that I normally have on everything else, I get a little dizzy. :(

    Kind of reminds me of arsenal.com before they seriously toned down the red.

    Timothy, any chance of a stylesheet tweak?

  16. January 14, 2009 at 8:02 am

    Alex… tut tut… The truth is Obama will be too busy bailing out Man U Sponsor AIG and Gilette and Hick’s companies.

    What Arsenal need is for one of our owners to be a huge American bank.

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