The heated debate between Martin O’Neill and Arsene Wenger in recent weeks raises a wider issue of tactics in football. Should teams be criticised for how they choose to play if they are successful, and even if they are not?
Aston Villa made a practical decision to be solid against Arsenal. The talent in the Arsenal side, if it is allowed to flourish will cut any team in the world to shreds. If Aston Villa had not been solid then Brad Friedel would have hurt his back picking the ball up regularly from his net. Instead Aston Villa played a compact, sensible brand of football which earned them a good point away to a top 4 team. Pragmatism can be mistaken for negative play, by fans and opposition alike. Of course Villa fans would like to see a 3-4 thriller with Villa attacking with pace and numbers. The only real winner if Villa did this however would be Wenger, with his charges able to pick off their opposition with ease. To beat Arsenal, as has since been shown by Manchester United and Chelsea, it is vital to be compact and counter-attack.
Such tactics are now well known against Arsenal, and in fact all of the top 4, and it is the prerogative of the big clubs to break down the opposition. Arsenal can not dictate to O’Neill how his team plays, instead they have to find a way to defeat his tactics. In fact the tactical decisions of O’Neill raise as many questions about Arsenal’s own tactical options or lack of them.
Wenger’s frustration is totally understandable, seeing his side struggle to break down a solid defence. To criticise his opponents as a ‘long ball team’ is however somewhat childish. Regardless of the merits of the critique it is ill-advised to be rude to a team that is becoming a bogey side for the Gunners. Some critics may even say that Wenger is a bad loser.
As for the comments themselves they portray a lack of awareness from the Frenchman. By comparison to Arsenal only Barcelona can be described as a passing team! Aston Villa have big centre halves and two big strikers, and they use these players accordingly at set pieces. The rest of the side is in fact based on pace and skill, much the same as the Arsenal side. Players like Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stewart Downing and James Milner are very talented footballers. The likes of Steve Sidwell and Stiliyan Petrov do the hard work behind them but their own footballing skill should not be underestimated. Does Wenger really believe that Alexandre Song, who is emerging as a good defensive midfielder, does not foul opposition players? The contact area in midfield is a key aspect of any football game, with sides needing to earn the right to play their football.
Many critics of the Arsenal side point to the lack of physicality and experience that the likes of Richard Dunne, Petrov and John Carew give to Villa. The threat they provide at set pieces is integral to the modern game. Defences are now so well organised and structured that in many games the best opportunities come from set pieces. Aston Villa this season have carried little goal threat so set plays have become ever more important to their tactics. It is up to Arsenal to defend these situations appropriately as a bundled in corner counts just the same as a flowing Arsenal passing goal.
It would be fantastic to see two teams play glorious passing football. As a British football fan however (and a centre half) I like to see strong tackle, and a battle for possession. It may not be as pretty to watch but it is part of the game. The referee has a duty to protect players from excessive aggression, and he decides what to allow in a game. Villa players, and players at any other so called ‘negative’ side, play within the rules of the game and are fully entitled to play as they see fit.
Aston Villa play the football that is appropriate for the game. They are able to revert to a solid five-man midfield or play an offensive 4-3-3. They have some real talent in the squad and of course O’Neill would love to see his star players score some flair goals. O’Neill is a very pragmatic manager however and he sees the merit in both set piece goals and more importantly of a point away at a rival. They are a very well organised team with the likes of Dunne having a strong season, but to discount them as negative is poor from Wenger. As a manager facing plenty of flak himself this week he may think twice before criticising his opponents in the heat of battle again.
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