By ‘#ABW Chief Blogger’ The Other Geoff (@Hollefreund)
I bet a lot of you didn’t know that trying to buy mass quantities of rubber in the 1920’s was a vastly expensive prospect – especially if the entire world knew you needed it. The problem was that the majority of the world’s rubber supply in those days was controlled by a very small group of people – acting like a monopoly. In essence, if you needed rubber, you had to go through this rubbery cartel. Now that’s not a problem if you just need a few elastics or a rubber duck to accompany you in the bath, but if you’re the foremost automobile tycoon of the day, tire costs could get a little… erm, inflated.
Enter Henry Ford – a name synonymous with American industrialization and the motor car. This was precisely the problem he faced and he set about in the late 1920’s to lower his costs for rubber and break the gooey monopoly established by the world’s rubber suppliers.
Seems like a pretty straightforward problem doesn’t it? Ford, worth millions at the time, had the motivation and the means to solve it too. The answer to his problem back then is likely the same answer one would come to today – produce your own rubber, remove the dependency on the external rubber market, and lower supply costs at the same time.
Ford failed spectacularly.
Wait hang on, what?
Well, despite his sound strategy to develop his own rubber supply, and his massively deep pockets, he ignored some small, yet important details; and in business, not unlike football, well that can have some undesired effects. Think about it like this, you could have the best football team playing the best tactics, with all of the media falling in love with you and proclaiming the Title is yours – but if all the players are wearing astroturfs on a muddy pitch, well they might slip at the wrong moment and let Demba Ba score at an “inopportune” moment.
It started off well enough – buy some cheap land in the Brazilian Amazon basin (where the rubber tree was native), establish a self-contained city, plant some rubber trees, and let the good times roll. Welcome to Fordlândia, a little slice of ‘Murica in the land of Pelé. Ford built houses and roads; there were shops, a hotel, even a golf course – all the comforts of home. He hired locals at double their average wage to come and live and work in Fordlândia and enjoy the “American Dream.”
So it all sounds good on paper, right? In reality though, Fordlândia produced absolutely no rubber at all over the course of the 3 years it remained in existence and this was down to three major contributing factors.
Firstly, Ford hired a Brazilian land surveyor to find the best spot to create Fordlândia and on this surveyor’s advice, he bought a very large piece of land. What the surveyor neglected to mention to Ford, was A) the land was basically infertile and completely unsuitable for growing rubber trees; and B) that the surveyor himself, was the seller of the land – making a tidy profit via the business.
Secondly, Ford didn’t hire any experts on rubber trees, instead relying on the savvy of his own engineers. Well that was also a big problem because they planted the rubber trees far too close to each other, leaving them open to all manner of fungi and other arboreal diseases and plagues.
And finally, and most importantly to this blog, Ford completely ignored the cultural background and lifestyle of his native workforce – enforcing prohibition (even in workers’ homes), scheduling 9-5 days (not common to work through the hottest part of the day), and generally expecting an American style culture to take over. This inevitably led to all kinds of problems including brothels and bars being established downriver and ultimately a worker revolt which needed the Brazilian Army’s involvement in order to regain control.
“So what does this have to do with Arsenal,” I can hear you asking through your monitor after reading through that preposterous preamble.
Before I continue, yes, Fordlândia is an analogy but all I will say for now is that it is not an analogy for Arsenal exactly – and Henry Ford is not akin to Arsène Wenger. Stay with me here for a bit longer.
I recall, and you’ll have to forgive my research but I was unable to find the exact quote, a question that was asked of Rafael Benítez in one of his early press conferences in Napoli. It went something like this (but likely in Italian) – “Are tactics part of the system or a part of the players?”
Ah those Italians like a good tactical discussion, don’t they? I’m not sure why but that question has stuck with me. I found it fascinating in a nerdy, football, obsessive way. I’m not a master tactician by any stretch (something this very blog is quite likely of exposing), but this notion of either/or when talking tactics was an interesting proposal.
Let’s back up the bus for a second and level-set this discussion. If strategy is in broad terms what you intend to do based on an outcome (win the league, lower manufacturing costs), then tactics are how you carry that strategy out. In football, tactics generally reference the marriage of style (possession based/pressing/counter-attacking) and system (4-4-2/4-1-4-1/4-3-3). Note the use of the word “marriage.” In football, as in life, the “marriage” between style and system can sometimes be an uneasy one (it might be hard to play possession based football out of the back while playing a 3-5-2 for example).
If I haven’t completely embarrassed myself yet, let’s carry on.
Getting back to the question posed to Rafa, players factor into this equation because they carry out the tactics in order to achieve the strategic goals of the team. So given that, where do tactics actually “live?” Is it the tactic to work 9-5 through the hottest hours of the day in the Amazon basin the problem, or the workers’ cultural upbringing and knowledge of local farming custom the problem?
Before you jump to a conclusion, the answer to that question, like the question posed to Benítez, is likely “both” depending on how you look at it.
That is, if you have a style or system, for all its anticipated benefits, can’t be carried out by the players on the pitch, then you might have flawed tactics. You could also look at it the opposite way and say that if you have a style and system designed to produce the desired results in a given competition, and the players can’t carry that out, then you might have the wrong players.
My brain hurts.
Let’s use a practical football example to make this more relatable. You are a football manager in the Premier League and you have two options when you start at your club – build a team around a system or build a team around a player or set of players.
Now most managers will do the latter, they’ll analyze the squad and the type of league they play in and build the system and style around the players available to them – with some tweaks to individual areas. I happen to believe this is Wenger’s strength. He tends to build entire formations and styles around players or sets of players. There’s well documented research on the use of the 4-3-3, for example, developed to suit Cesc. This maximizes the output he gets from the players in his squad because he plays to their strengths. This is a sort of “bottom up” way of building the squad and there are certain times where the situation dictates this type of tactical view – if you cannot buy new players for example.
The alternate “top down” way would be to decide which system and style you were going to play, and then find the players to play this system. This method is easier to spot in the Premier League as you typically need very deep pockets to purchase an entire team of players to match the desired tactics. If you’re screaming Louis van Gaal into the monitor while you’re reading this – you’re barking up the right tree. Mourinho, Redknapp, and Henry Ford like(d) this method as well. There are a lot of drawbacks to doing it this way – including the oft cited “money doesn’t guarantee success” maxim. If you can get it to work though, the team will achieve results much better than you might believe them to be capable of.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that if the players and the system are not compatible, regardless of whether the players or the system are wrong, you’re not going to achieve success.
I admire that Arsène Wenger builds his teams and his tactics the way that he does. In fact, I’d much prefer this approach to the totalitarian approach of a van Gaal for example. I think it’s the best way to get the most out of modern footballers, who’s egos often trump all else. It’s also a great way to allow for creativity and problem solving on the pitch. I also think that sometimes he does this to a fault, incorporating Jack into the midfield and moving Mesut out wide for example; or when we fell into a tactical limbo when our key player went to the Grand Prix and didn’t come back.
Sometimes, it should be noted, Wenger switches to a more top down approach tactically. There are interviews and stories on the way he was impressed with Pep’s pressing and possession based style at Barcelona for example. I think this is a natural by-product of the amount of football he watches and the influences he chooses to incorporate. I also think that this is really more of a blended approach since he tends to rely on the adaptability and intelligence of his players rather than going to the market to make these changes.
Sometimes too, there can be problems when you use a top-down approach to solve a bottom-up problem. The example of Jack comes to mind again as we moved to a 4-1-4-1 to incorporate both him and Ramsey into the line-up. Moving to this formation introduced new problems like creating single points of failure, exposing players’ weaknesses, and removing some of the natural synergies from playing players in their most comfortable positions. In many ways, we over engineered the attacking side of our game while creating or exposing weaknesses in our defensive side.
I think Arsène needs to get back to what he does best and build his team around a core of 2-3 players because in the short term we don’t have the ability to go to market to get that ball playing centre defensive mid that should occupy the space in front of Per and Kos. More than that though, I think it’s the right way to win things over the long term.
For me the natural building blocks are Özil and Ramsey. Given their age and ability, it should only be natural to build our next great team around them; and in doing so, let them build the sort of partnership that have characterized the greatest Wenger-era Arsenal teams (Viera and Petit/Henry and Dennis).
Perhaps the most encouraging part is that this team doesn’t need a total rebuild; it isn’t the Fordlândia of Old Trafford if you will. When the rubber meets the road, we just need a little tactical refocus, a tweak to get the best out of the genuinely World Class players we have at our disposal. If we can do that, well I think we have the ability to be devastating on the field this season.
You know it!
By ‘#ABW Chief Blogger’ The Other Geoff (@Hollefreund)
Note – I am not a master tactician nor do I profess to know more than Arsène. I’ve shared here to promote thought and discussion and nothing more. I hope you enjoyed!