Arseblog News is delighted to introduce a new columnist to the site. Graham Dougan, was a youth prospect at Arsenal in the 1970s but never quite made the grade, making his career in the upper echelons of the old division two. He was also a Scottish U25 international. He is a regular pundit on TV in Malta and Luxembourg, and an after-dinner speaker of some repute.
He’ll write a column exclusively for the site and we hope you’ll enjoy his keen insight. This week he looks at the ever pressing issue of tactics.
Back in my day tactics didn’t mean a thing. Well, unless you were a tactician whose job it was to invent tactics, but as a footballer we didn’t pay much attention to those kind of things.
The manager would come into the dressing room at 2.45, straight from the bookies, and tell us what was what. We all knew our jobs.
If the opponent tried to go past you, flatten him. If he tried to go through you, stick a reducer on him. And when you got the ball, give it to one of the lads who could actually play. Once we put out our cigarettes and went out onto that pitch, we were like a finely tuned machine, and we didn’t need chalkboards and the like.
Nowadays though, tactics and so-called preparation are everywhere. Pep Guardiola is renowned for them, sitting up late at night to work out a system to prevent the opposition playing as well as they can. Maybe he should spend more time get the lab boys to create him another Lionel Messi instead of drawing in his notebooks like some kind of footballing Leonardo da Vinci.
Jose Mourinho knows how to park his bus – a Chelsea insider once told me that he had been inspired by Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck. All the same it must be difficult for Manchester United fans see their team play the way they do, with no attacking ambition and top young talents like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Marshall sidelined for the big Dane Zoltan Imbrahimovic.
Even Arsene Wenger is at it these days. Normally a manager who sends his team out with minimal instructions – “Get out there lads and perform your football ballet” is the usual refrain – he’s been playing around with a new formation in the last few games.
It’s a brave move to go with three at the back, especially when you say you’re doing it to make your team more solid defensively. How does that work exactly?
You have a back four, you take one away, that means you have 25% fewer defenders when you think about it properly. It’s like saying you want to score more goals before changing from two up front to just one. Except with defenders, and there’s more of them.
On the udder-hand, we all know that centre-halves are actual defenders and full-backs are basically just failed wingers, so you could argue that it also gives you 33.33333333% more defenders. Which is the beauty of his plan, because opposition managers don’t know which one it is.
Is it one more, or one less? And where is the space if it’s the latter? It’s something Wenger used brilliantly in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Man City.
Man City were toothless in action. Sure they scored a first half goal which should have been allowed, and scored another goal which was allowed, and hit the post and then hit the bar in normal time, but apart from that they didn’t trouble Arsenal at all.
Was it tactics, or was it simply that the Gunners players, who have been off the boil in recent weeks, finally found some spunk? For me, given the choice, I’d take a tablespoon of spunk over a cauldron of tactics any day of the week.
I remember in my playing days we signed an Italian from Italy, and you know how they are about tactics there. The old cat nacho, as they like to call it, and while he was a good player technically, he drove everybody mad with his hand signals and gestures.
“No, you-a go-a here-a,” he’d shout, foolishly asking a teammate to cover the space he left behind when he went running with the ball. As I said, we were a finely tuned machine, and we didn’t need any Italian coming over here telling us where were should be on the pitch.
Eventually it all came to a head during a cup game against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. His tactical bleating was even driving the opposition mad, and when Larry Lloyd chopped him down in midfield he suffered a knee injury that put him out for the season.
It was typically weak. Back then we didn’t even know what a cruciate ligament was, so if it went you were none the wiser, but this lad insisted on getting treatment back in his home country and that summer he was moved on quietly – that’s how things happened back then.
It also showed us that tactics are best left to generals and chess addicts, not football managers. When that whistle goes it’s all about the players on the pitch putting in the effort, fighting for the cause, and giving 110,000%.
You can have the greatest system in the world, inventing a never-before-tried 3-3-1-2-1-2, for example, but if the players don’t give you the hard yards, it doesn’t matter one bit.
As Bill Shankly once said, “Who’s favourite for 4.30 at Sandown?”, and that’s as much as any manager needs to know about tactics.