Benitez & Wenger – Poles apart

The most entertaining sports are usually those that allow many and varied approaches to result in success. Competitions where victory is not solely guaranteed by either the physical, technical, or tactical elements of the game, but where different combinations of all three can yield rewards have a greater appeal for one reason or another. If the weak can sometimes defeat the strong through technique or speed of thought and if the technically inferior can overcome the gifted through hard graft, we find ourselves instinctively drawn to the sport.

Take tennis, for example and in particular Wimbledon. Towards the end of the last decade, what was once the greatest tennis tournament in the world became a rather unappealing spectacle, nothing more than an event to establish who on the planet had the fastest and most destructive serve. Now that guile (Federer) and guts (Nadal) can overcome even the most ferocious of opening shots, we once again have a competition that captivates us sports fanatics.

Perhaps it’s the narrative quality of these games that engage our imaginations in ways that pure tribal loyalty simply couldn’t.

Now football is one of those sports that simply refuses to have any particular style or approach imposed upon it. It is never simply a case of having the best athletes, the most technically gifted players or the most tactically astute manager. And nowhere is this more evident than in the annually contested entertainment banquet of the Champions’ League. This week, Barcelona’s superior technical ability was undone by Liverpool’s shrewd tactical approach, whilst Arsenal‘s free-flowing, fast moving, two-touch possession game succumbed to a resilient and pragmatic PSV. It was, of course, very different last year when the rampaging, attacking instincts of both Arsenal and Barcelona swept all aside on their way to the final with the latter eventually emerging triumphant.

With so many different approaches to the game in evidence, it stands to reason that sides should be prepared to alter their tactical approach in order to best challenge whoever they are facing. Horses for courses as they say. But this is not a universally held opinion and in Rafa Benitez and Arsene Wenger we have two managers who ‘“ on this issue ‘“ would appear to stand at opposite ends of the tactical spectrum. They are, if you like, chalk and cheese, although art and science would be a more appropriate analogy.

Like all Wenger’s previous teams, the present Arsenal side is indeed a work of art, and we, the spectators, are allowed to feast upon her beauty. Touched by her simplicity and graceful elegance, even rival fans are compelled to admire her from afar.

In turn, the artist, Monsieur Wenger – in awe of his creation – refuses to entertain any alteration to his work that may detract from her stunning grace. No compromise will be considered. His work shall remain intact and how it was intended.

If his creation is deemed unsatisfactory by the rules of competition then so be it. Not as long as the artist is allowed to preside over his chef d’oeuvres will any thought be entertained of ‘˜winning ugly’. It just wouldn’t be right. This is, after all, the beautiful game.

The only downside with this is that Arsenal, like Barcelona, are almost metronomic in their predictability. They only know one way to play and they play it very well. Many teams are simply blown away by the fluency of their movement. But every so often they come up against a side that has set out specifically to nullify their attacking instincts, a team that is prepared to cede much of their own offensive ambition in order to frustrate their opponent’s efforts. And all too often in Europe ‘“ it’s usually once a year –Arsenal are beaten by a side that they are expected to overcome.

Now let’s contrast this with Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool. The scientist on Merseyside has created a machine with many settings. And no matter who the opposition, the machine has an appropriate instruction.

His side can sit deep, keep their opponents in front of them and try to hit them hard and fast on the break, whilst being equally capable of playing an attacking, high-tempo possession game, pressing opponents in their own half.

They can play with the solidity of Sissoko and Alonso in the middle with Gerrard on the right or – when Benitez decides to go for the throat – they let their captain loose in the centre of midfield. Depending on the opposition, they sometimes look to dominate possession using Peter Crouch’s hold up play and sometimes look to stretch teams with Bellamy’s pace.

Not even the most partisan Liverpool supporter could ever describe Benitez’s team as beautiful, but they can be ruthlessly efficient. And all too often in Europe, they overcome sides to whom they are expected to fall. Barcelona can now be added to a list that includes Juventus, Chelsea and AC Milan.

The point of this article, however, is not to laud Benitez’s tactical plurality over Wenger’s decorative monism. For a start, the Spaniard’s constant tactical and personnel changes have not been an unreserved success. For every swing, there is a roundabout, and for every cup final triumph there is Liverpool’s less than impressive league form, which has led to accusations of tinkering in extremis on the part of their Spanish manager. Then there’s Arsene Wenger’s three league titles and season-long unbeaten run to consider. Although he habitually falls short in Europe, he has enjoyed almost unparalleled domestic success.

Perhaps the answer to both managers’ difficulties, therefore, lies in some form of compromise between the two polarities. Maybe Benitez should put a little more trust in the quality of a settled eleven rather than taking it upon himself to create a tactical master plan for every game. And, Wenger could perhaps add a little variety to his rather predictable, though certainly not pedestrian side.

But then again, maybe not. Football management is a delicate balancing act and success often comes down to the chance discovery of a winning formula. Who’s to say that Arsenal‘s attacking instincts could be successfully curtailed or that Liverpool could thrive without Benitez’s constant tweaks?

If this has come across as an almighty cop-out, then so be it. I don’t believe there is necessarily any concrete or universal approach that either boss could swiftly adopt in order for their teams to become the complete package. And, herein lies part of the attraction to the game. The vagaries and nuances of the sport are what give it the all important narrative quality and this is why we love it.

Submission by: Toby Davis

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