I found myself pondering Arsene Wenger’s accusations of Sir Alex and United employing “Anti-Football”. I’ve always been bemused by that term. Here are my (somewhat wandering) thoughts on the matter.
What is this “Anti-Football”? Is it the opposite of the legendary Dutch concept of Total Football? Can we establish a spectrum where Anti-Football is at one end and Total Football is at the other? With Barely Football, Somewhat Football and Mostly Football filling out the middle?
Arsene Wenger accused Sir Alex’s United of playing Anti-Football in their match against Arsenal last weekend. Usually Anti-Football refers to defensive football. The ten men who stay behind the ball hoping for a draw or to catch an attacking team out with a counterattack spurred by one or two players. The absorption of time as the Anti-Football side hopes that their defensive, regressive play can eat up enough of the clock that the other side doesn’t have enough time to mount a win.
But when Wenger said it, he was citing roughness and perpetual fouling. He was accusing United of battering Arsenal and not allowing them to play their game.
He might have meant United were playing Anti-Arsenal Football.
The truth is the English league is a rough league. That is not to say fouls should be allowed left and right. It is up to the officials to come down on bad tackles as best they can. But ultimately, Total Football cannot exist in today’s English Premier League in the purest, Cruyffian form. Total Football would crash against the walls of English defenses far too often for any side to use it convinvingly each and every week.
Wenger would love to play Total Football all the time – or some fascimile thereof. He loves football that flows. Football that bursts forward. Football that knocks on your door again and again. Arsenal’s forward-flowing football is going to work well against certain sides. And, I admit, it can be thrilling to watch. The goal-fests against Everton and Portsmouth were exciting and a great start to the Gunners’ campaign. But for me Arsenal have not solved the big problem of last season: they still need more rigidity in the middle. They need a strong defensive midfielder to anchor their attacks if they want to beat United, Chelsea and Liverpool. It will be hit or miss whether or not they can get by without such a player – like they had in Vieira – against other teams who gave them problems. They may be able to throw enough forward in attack to keep the likes of Spurs, Villa, City on the back foot that there is no chance for reprisal. But they also may get beaten back by counter-attacks once all their weight is thrown forward. Such an approach straddles a hairline. Arsenal’s season depends on which side of that line they fall.
The English sides who take the most out of a season are usually the ones who win the midfield battles. I’m not convinced Arsenal are any more equiped this season to do that then last season.
There’s no shortage of Anti-Football to be played in the campaign ahead. Whether it be the regressive, defensive style or the hard, tackle-ridden approach. It is there and Wenger will have to deal with it. The sides that prevail over so-called Anti-Football will be the ones who learn how to get around it.
Mr Wenger can take solace in the face Barcelona were able to climb that wall when they faced a hard United in the Champions League final. They didn’t let “Anti-Football” derail them. They found the angles and created the in-roads despite United’s rigid, unyeilding play.
I suppose Mr Wenger can be comforted by that. It was only one match, but flowing, forward-minded football got through the wall. Maybe he can pull it off too.
I still think he should have gone for a defensive midfielder before the window closed today, but he’s got plenty of season left to prove me wrong.