Ten days off from League worries this week with next Sunday’s visit to my native Wales to play the Bluebirds in the FA Cup. I love the old trophy with a passion. I’m still smarting at our supine surrender at Old Trafford last season. I know many Gooners don’t give a monkey’s about the venerable old competition. Not me. I’m concerned about the game at Ninian Park. Some of the City fans have a fearsome reputation. I know a lot of Bluebirds both through work and following the Wales national team. There are some really top people amongst them. They’re loud and proud and will create a great atmosphere. The increased allocation we get due to Cup rules should help us. Despite our reputation for silence at home our away support always does the business in my experience.
So, to the subject of today’s blog, does Arsčne need help? Let’s break this down into two areas. Firstly transfers and player contracts. A lot of Gooners think that Arsčne misses the contacts and friendship of David Dein. Time will tell but I think we now have the right man in Ivan Gazidis. I can see why many would think Dein has been a loss. I’ve no doubt the man is Arsenal through and through. I just happen to think he ended up putting himself first and the club second.
I’m more interested in looking at Arsčne on the coaching side When he arrived at Arsenal be bought Boro Primorac with him from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan. Boro, a Bosnian, was a former skipper of the Yugoslav national team, gaining fourteen caps in the 1970s and early 1980s as a tough centre-half. He played for Velež Mostar and Hadjuk Split before moving to France to play for Lille then Cannes. He then went into management with Cannes then Valenciennnes, where he met and established a friendship with Wenger.
Arsčne also retained the services of Pat Rice, a great Arsenal servant as both a player and coach over five decades now, as assistant manager. This was very shrewd. It gave him a link and an insight into the club’s culture and its players, still predominantly British and Irish when he Le Boss arrived in late 1996. It’s not entirely clear who exactly does what in the Arsenal technical hierarchy under Arsčne, but it’s known that Le Boss is very hands on in training, very much a track-suit manager. He’s revolutionised the training, physical preparation and diet of the players and overseen huge investments in the club’s new training ground at Shenley in Hertfordshire. He’s also beefed up the club’s staff of qualified physios and masseurs.
All stuff that was long overdue in this country where we were living in the football Stone Age in these fields. Football as a game, even in its most enlightened circles, is super-conservative however. Unlike other sports which look to learn wherever they can from other sports and disciplines, football tends to paddle in its own pool and can be deeply suspicious of new ideas and concepts.
One of the reasons that Australian rugby league has pulled so far away in the depth and level of its players and team play is not just to do with it being more popular than rugby union Down Under in its two heartland states of Queensland and New South Wales. Visionary coaches like Jack Gibson went to the USA and studied American football training and coaching techniques. Whilst the two games are very different they share a certain similarity in some aspects.
One of the ideas imported into Australian rugby league from gridiron was specialist coaching. All top rugby league teams now have a defensive co-ordinator. Some have positional coaches for the forwards, half backs and backs. They also brought in the idea of at least one coach high up in the stands in constant headset radio communication with the touchline. I spent a fascinating afternoon last summer watching Harlequins play Leeds Rhinos at the Twickenham Stoop. I happened to be sat immediately in front of the Leeds coach in the stand. He was constantly relaying information from his high position to the head coach on the touchline.
Australian rugby league also bought in specialist kicking coaches from Aussie Rules to improve their players’ punting techniques and accuracy and high fielding of the ball in the air, two features of Aussie Rules with relevance to rugby league. The cross fertilisation has seen a number of Aussie Rules players appear in both the NFL and CFL (Canadian Football League, Canadian football is a close cousin of the American game) as punters.
Australia also has the advantage of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), which facilitates the development of elite players and coaches in all sports and allows cross-fertilisation of ideas from different sports and disciplines amongst coaches. The AIS and its state-based affiliates is one of the reasons driving the raising of standards amongst Australian footballers. Of the four football codes played Down Under (rugby union, rugby league, Aussie Rules and football), football is now the biggest in terms of participation. The rise and rise (until very recently) of Australian cricket also has a lot to do with the AIS system.
So what the bloody hell, you might ask, has any of this got to do with football, never mind Arsenal? Well, I think, potentially, quite a lot. Could a top sprinting coach help Arsenal’s already generally quick players (Arsčne does so love players who can really motor) get that extra little inch that might make all the difference?
There is a British example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. A bloke called Dave Aldred isn’t known to many but he’s generally considered to be one the world’s leading experts in how to kick an inflated ball, oval or round. He played both top level rugby league and rugby union and in the NFL as a kicker. As a coach he’s worked with the England rugby union squad, the British & Irish Lions, the Football Association and a number of top goalkeepers, and Armagh and Dublin’s Gaelic footballers. These days the kicking game of a goalkeeper is critical, both with the ball at his feet and out of hand. The ability to land a ball on a pound coin is invaluable in keeping possession from a clearance. A great goalkeeper can start an attacking movement as well as keep the ball out of the net.
One of the attractions of football is of course that it’s a very fluid game. It doesn’t lend itself to easy divi sion into attacking and defensive “phases” of the game. There are however things we can adapt from other sports that would give as an edge. I understand that how you defend conditions how you’re able to attack in football. Defensive set pieces, corners, free-kicks out wide and so on, do though, lend themselves to specialist coaching I think. Likewise attacking set pieces where the ball is too far out for a direct attempt on goal.
Arsčne has always said he likes to watch the game from the technical area. Why not be linked by a head-set to a coach up in the stand who can relay his overview of the play though? That way you can have your cake and eat it. It’s been done for decades in other sports. The coach watching the game does of course need to be of the same philosophy tactically as the manager. There can only be one boss. As long as the coaching staff works as a team with a clear leader, the manager, I can’t see why bringing in specialist expertise wouldn’t work in football.
Anybody who’s seen the Oliver Stone film about professional American football Any Given Sunday will remember the dressing room scene where the head coach, played by Al Pacino, gives an inspirational speech to a team riddled with factions and suffering from bad form. “Life is a game of inches. So is football. In either game the margin of error is small. One half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. But the inches we need are everywhere around us. In every minute of our lives. We have to go for every inch. Because we know that when we add up those inches, that will make the difference between winning and losing. And I know if I’m gonna have any life anymore, it’s because I’m willing to go for that inch. And that’s what living is. The six inches in front of your face.
That’s all it is. Now what are you gonna do?”
Couldn’t have put it better myself! We don’t want to go overboard on this. It’s all too easy to get so tied up with the minutiae that the bigger picture gets lost. The great Dutch coach Rinus Michaels once famously said football is a simple game. It looks that way when it’s played well by gifted players. If it was that simple great players would be ten a penny, as would great managers and coaches, they aren’t. Should Arsčne see if he can get himself a little edge here and there? I think so.
Keep the faith my fellow Gooners!
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