Arsenal: pretty, but no good in a fight

If Wenger’s men play football the ‘right way’, to cite all those footie pundits, then how come they keep losing big matches?

Duleep Allirajah

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You’ll often hear it said – though not in this column – that Arsenal play football ‘the right way’; the way football ought to be played. ‘I think people feel proud to say they have spent £40 to come and watch us play’, said club captain Cesc Fabregas in a recent interview.

By contrast, football pundits rarely drool over Chelsea’s style of play. Carlo Ancelotti’s side are strong and ruthless, but never described as beautiful. On Sunday, Arsenal were overpowered by Chelsea. ‘Men against boys’, as some commentators put it. Wenger insists that Arsenal are still title contenders, but how many people share his opinion? Gooners apart, not many I would guess.

What then is the ‘right way’ to play football? To play pretty football, but fail to win trophies, or to win at all costs? This is the great philosophical debate that divides the football world. On one side stand the disciples of beautiful football, the aesthetes. Brazil, Barcelona, Cruyff’s Holland, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. In a recent interview with Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel, Wenger said: ‘What makes daily life interesting is that we try to transform it to something that is close to art. And football is like that. When I watch Barcelona, it is art.’ (1) On the other side are the pragmatists, the exponents of winning ugly. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan, George Graham’s Arsenal. Their philosophy is best expressed by former Stoke manager Alan Durban when he said: ‘If you want entertainment, go and watch some clowns.’

In his interview with Martin Samuel, Wenger denied that he lacks pragmatism: ‘If I asked you who was the best team in the world you would say Brazil. And do they play good football? Yes. Which club won everything last year? Barcelona. Good football. I am not against being pragmatic, because it is pragmatic to make a good pass, not a bad one.’ Wenger is playing with words, but he is right about Brazil – they are probably the best team in the world. They are everyone’s second-favourite international team; the living incarnation of jogo bonito (beautiful football). Their reputation for pretty football rests largely on Mario Zagallo’s iconic World Cup winning team of 1970.

But the truth is that Brazil’s strength today has extremely pragmatic foundations. Sure, they have their fantasy players, like Kaka and Robinho. But when Brazil beat England 1-0 in the recent friendly in Doha, it wasn’t the silky samba football that impressed Fabio Capello. ‘When you get the ball, they move quickly and always get eight players behind the ball’, said the England coach. Capello also paid tribute to Brazil’s physical power. ‘It is the first time we have played against a team who are so physically strong, fast and good technically. Spain are really good technically and they play a lot of passes, but they are not as strong. Brazil defend very well.’

A Brazilian team that is bigger and stronger than the English? Surely some mistake? Well actually, no. Brazilians are getting bigger according to their coach Dunga. ‘It’s about the Brazilian population because the height is increasing and this brought a good stature and physical agility’, he said. Moreover, Brazil have been playing a much more pragmatic, European style of football in recent years. Felipe Scolari’s team, which won the World Cup in 2002, will be remembered for the attacking flair of the three R’s – Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. But Scolari was an arch-pragmatist who had built a reputation for winning ugly at unfashionable Gremio. The unsung heroes of Scolari’s World Cup team were Gilberto Silva and Kleberson, the two holding midfielders who shielded the back four and provided cover for the rampaging runs of full-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos.

Brazil’s current coach Dunga is also a pragmatist who, like Scolari, employs two holding midfielders. He has derided the 1982 Brazilian team as ‘specialists in losing’ and instilled a work ethic in his team. ‘Ever since we took over we’ve been trying to make our players, who are all stars with their club sides, become workers out on the pitch’, he said earlier this year.

A team that is physically powerful, defensively strong, but also skilful in attack: it’s a frightening combination. It also makes the old debate of beauty versus pragmatism somewhat redundant. What if you combine both? Win stylishly, ideally, but grind out results if necessary. And herein lies Arsenal’s problem. They can play the pretty stuff alright, but they are not as tough as Brazil. They are too easily outmuscled.

There are also question marks about their self-belief. After his side’s recent 1-0 defeat to Sunderland, Wenger complained that his players ‘lacked the desire to go behind defenders’ and ‘choked a little bit’. Arsenal forward Andre Arshavin doesn’t appear to believe that Arsenal have what it takes to win the title. ‘What I feel bitter about is that we lose in all the big matches’, said Arshavin. ‘That is disturbing and also lets certain doubts creep into my mind.’

Unless they want to be stuck with the beautiful losers tag, Arsenal need to toughen up. They need to add a touch of pragmatism to their pretty passing game. They need, in other words, to become a bit more like the modern Brazil.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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