I’m not sure who this may aggravate more; the Arsenal fans that’ll presume I’m trying to disrepute their most famous team in recent years, or my fellow Tottenham fans, who could accuse me of blasphemy, and consider me guilty by association. In reality my intentions are to achieve neither, if possible. However, through analysis of both teams, the similarities that can be identified seem largely undeniable. The team ethics, personnel, formations, management and playing style marry all together too well to go ignored. My hypothesis, though, does not evolve beyond the realms of sheer coincidence. I am neither accusing Andre Villas-Boas of plagiarism, nor am I concluding that Tottenham will go a season unbeaten anytime soon. In truth, the basis for the comparison began to form in my minds eye when I was pondering why Arsene Wenger’s constant strive to somehow recreate that successful unbeaten formula has severely stuttered of late, eventually leading me to the realisation that Tottenham may have stumbled across what their rivals so desperately craved without ever really meaning to.
Fans overriding memories of Jens Lehmann are his more eccentric moments; he was a keeper as likely to cause controversy through his behavior off the ball as he was to make headlines through his game-winning performances.
Not only charged with the task of being the man to become Germany’s long-term number one after the legendary Oliver Kahn, he also had David Seaman’s shoes to fill at Highbury; but in time Lehmann became a more than distinguished keeper at both national and club level in his own right.
Remarkably, Hugo Lloris has a very similar story to Lehmann; having built a glowing reputation domestically in France, he was given the national captaincy after succeeding the likes of Barthez and Coupet, before claiming the metaphorical ‘number one’ shirt at Tottenham from the previously immovable veteran Brad Friedel. In a relatively short period since his arrival at the club, Lloris has proven himself a match-winning player on more than one occasion; his foresight and pro-active nature becoming standout attributes.
All great teams possess great goalkeepers at their base, the distinguishing feature being that the defensive units begin to be referred to as “back fives” rather than the rather more uninclusive back-four. Both Lloris and Lehmann share the ability to not only be exceptional shot-stopper’s, but progressive ‘sweeper’ keepers; allowing their defences to hold a higher, more attacking line.
The purpose of both teams defences is rather more dynamic than in the average side; the intention being that allowing a riskier higher-lined approach containing two ball playing centre halves bookended by flying wing-backs would capitilise on the theory that attack is the best form of defence. By including defensive players as comfortable on the ball as many midfielders, the team can easily promote and execute a more possession based offensive; or “olé football” as it’s known on the terraces.
The full-backs, one young Englishman and Cameroonian each, have the task of not on providing sound defensive cover, but also becoming auxiliary wingers in attack. With the traditionally wider players often operating as insideforwards in support of the lone striker, the full-backs must have the initiative to push forward and provide much needed width and outlet to combat the narrower focus of the play in the final third. The attacking element of a fullbacks play is often deemed a bonus inside most other formations and teams, however the wings functioning to their full effect are imperative to the teams attacking form of possession based football working to it’s best. The relationship and understanding each player has with his corresponding wing-forward can underpin the extent to which the game-plan can implemented; should one or the other be missing, the drop in cohesion is often plain enough for all to see.
The higher-lined centre backs also have a dual role to play. With the license to bring the ball forward out of defence and make marauding runs forward fully encouraged, every player in the squad has the freedom to influence the attacking play and attempt to score; often overwhelming weaker opposition both on the floor and airily from set plays. Defensively, the central defenders can not only rely on having a good partnership between themselves to succeed, but an equally good understanding with their goalkeepers and defensive midfielders. With the higher attacking line being susceptible to counter attacks, the spine of the defence has to adopt an almost diamondesque formation, spearheaded by the defensive midfielder and covered at the back by the sweeping keeper.
As both sides deploy a fluid 4-2-3-1, the midfield sections are trained to provide the most dynamism in both attack and defence. The aforementioned fluidity comes from the movement of the midfielders given whether their team is in possession or not; when attacking the formation can shift drastically, the wingers advancing in to inside forwards, with the central attacking midfielder being partnered by one of the deeper holding players in order to create a better tempo and faster rate of recycled possession. The entire side takes a few paces higher up the field than they previously held, created a siege effect on the opposition’s goal, while also maintaining the ability to defend against the break.
Defensively, the midfield becomes a more traditional flat bank of four, with the defensive midfielder operating in the hole between the defence and midfield. The success of both formations is entirely dependent on the work rate of the players involved, meaning attitude is an imperative factor in victory. In the same manner that the full-backs have the added task of getting forward and aiding the attacks, the wingers have to have the presence in mind to know when to fall back and help defend the flanks.
The midfield can be easily separated in to two sections, as the formation suggests, in to a duo sitting deeper and unit of three further forward in support of the lone striker. Concentrating on the deeper two, the combination of both sides is to have a combative Brazilian defensive midfielder and a more creative deeper lying playmaker that’s not scared to stick a foot in either. Much like most footballing partnerships, the two players tend to work best when they complement one another, and both of these partnerships share that quality. Both Brazilians go as largely unsung heroes for both sides, their importance only highlighted in their absence. The more creative element of the deeper midfielders has the onus on him to not only help defensively and stifle oppositions attacking play, but to start the team’s attacks and distribute the ball between the front-four as effectively as possible.
While the make-up behind the attacking element of both sides is similar; the potency of them is inarguably very different. While the team as a whole was an unrivaled success, the front-four at Arsenal’s disposal were, for a time, the standard bearers in European football. However; goal scoring exploits aside, what links these two sides in this department is the way in which they utilised each players ability to maximise the amount of positional fluidity available.
Essentially, by allowing the front four to not only exchange possession when attacking, but entire positions too, they could then out-fox unprepared defences and change the focus of their attacks at the drop of a hat without having to make a substitution.
A defence can, in theory, spend their training time preparing to limit the impact of a Thierry Henry or Gareth Bale from a particular position; but preparing for the possibility of one of four players to be attacking you from any given angle is a completely different kettle of fish. If you look at a ‘traditional’ flat 4-4-2 and compare them to the formation deployed by both North-London sides, you can map the improbability and unpredictability of each players position in comparison. When playing a formation that relies on structured banks of four players to be disciplined positionally for the entire game in order to maximise efficiency in both attack and defence (see: any team managed by Roy Hodgson) the license for flair and expression when in position is limited, making everything the team can try and do frustratingly predictable.
Having already touched upon the defensive merits of the wider players; their role in attack is also vitally important. In theory; finding a centrally minded player who can do a job on the wing isn’t as hard as converting a winger in to being able to perform more centrally. With the positional rotation a key feature, it is the wingers judgement that is tested the most when deciding whether to make a movement inside or beyond the centre forward rather than staying on his wing. When coming inside, they force either one of the attacking midfielder or striker to drift wider and cover their position, which can be a measured gamble depending on their reliability as a goal scorer.
The formation does, however, demand an awful amount from its striker. As odd as it may sound, scoring goals are a secondary objective for the player; his role is mainly to keep the forward movement and play ticking over in conjunction with the attacking midfielder just behind him. Without an inherently intelligent footballer occupying both positions, the entire system and formation grinds to a halt. As mentioned, both players must possess the ability to be effective from the flanks when needed, and the knowledge to drift across without having been told to. They have to be able to do one-another’s roles too, allowing the prerogative to attack the defensive line and run in-behind them to be shared on an almost subconscious level. The footballing cliché dictates the front-four must possess a ‘physic link’ but in reality it’s something that can only be learnt to an effective level after hours of playing and training time, heavily influenced by the management.
While the extent to which the theory behind the attacking section of the team is effective differs, the route causes of the successes don’t. The expressive nature of the play, focus on possession and confidence in their ability to score is something both sides share.
However, without a winning mentality and having the system properly coached to them, both sides may as well have been rendered useless. Both Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas revolutionised not only the way their sides play the game, but their attitudes towards it too. By clearly forming strong lasting relationships with the players, creating a winning mentality within the squad and promoting mutual respect, the managers provide the players with the tactics
and belief to go out and win.
Their ethos towards the game is clearly outlined, attacking footballing is obviously strongly encouraged, but the sides they manage share an inner grit and determination that was lacking from Tottenham before, and Arsenal ever since.
The bottle, belief, spirit and never say die attitude can only be directly attributed to the teams management and coaching staff; it’s well known that some managers prefer to employ a siege mentality amongst the players, creating an ‘us against the world’ inner monologue, which then spurs them on to not only fight for themselves but to play for one-another too (no pun intended).
They both prefer committing strong sides to all cup-competitions, whilst also encouraging the development of the clubs youth systems, displaying their ability to think in the long-term, which is a dying foresight in modern football. As Wenger approaches his 17th year as Arsenal manager, Andre Villas-Boas is showing similar signs of being able to build something just as remarkable at Tottenham.
As we look forward to the latest North-London derby, a Tottenham win could finally see the much fabled ‘shift in power’ in North-London take place – the irony being that it may finally occur with Tottenham operating from a blueprint adored and executed by some of Arsenal’s favorite sons.