Since the days when one would see Pires, Vieira, Henry and Bergkamp playing together with such skill and grace, Arsenals players have been referred to by many commentators as “The Musketeers”. One could be forgiven for thinking it is just the French connection which warrants that comparison but the reality is that there is much more too it than that.
One such aspect is the characters; Athos the strong, determined leader, Aramis, the intelligent, inquisitive, deep thinker, Porthos, the flamboyant character capable of doing the unexpected. I am sure all arsenal fans can put those characteristics to faces within the arsenal camp, not to mention Dartagnian the young, confident, talented apprentice who wants to impress and prove his worth; well we can put many a face to that can’t we. However the key comparison lies beyond both these aspects and rests on the true aura which surrounds them and that is their style.
The musketeers were an intelligent, valiant and swift offensive force who aimed to do what is right for their king and for their people whilst fighting the forces of the evil cardinal who wore red. They were fashionable, daring and dependable. On the battle field where they put their swordsmanship to use they fought with great technique and grace, often letting their enemy come at them and pouncing on any mistakes that are made. Their fighting style and skill was like no others at their time and each member was capable of pulling pieces of individual brilliance when needed and when pulling together as a team, they could face down the mightiest foe.
Arsenals style of play on the pitch is championed and considered by many to be the best style of football out there at the moment. When I was in Morocco recently, the conversation in the taxi’s often turned to football and everyone I met considered arsenal either as their team or the best team to watch. My friend who travelled to Thailand recently experienced the same thing. A universal agreement over arsenals style, which has bought great success and pleasure to many, shows that they stand out among the rest. One reason the gunners stand out so much is due to the nature of their surroundings.
The premier league has always been one of the top leagues but the characteristics which define Arsenal are not typical of the characteristics of the premier league. The English game is traditionally fast, physical (often brutal), direct and fuelled by the virtues of heart, bravery and determination. Giving it all to get the ball in the back of the net was worth more than how it was done for that is where the passion lied, in how badly you wanted it and bearing your soul on the pitch.
National symbols for countries soccer tradition reflect this too, Brazil have the famous Pele celebrating still and that goal against Italy. Argentina has the maradonna goal and the Batigol celebration, whilst Holland has that famous picture of the Cryff turn and that Van Basten goal. The most famous pictures representing England (other than the Moore world cup celebration) are the blood soaked heads of Butcher and Ince and one of Psycho screaming. The spirit and guts of the English game is the paramount aspect, rather than the quality of what was being achieved on the pitch.
Not implying that the English team or league lacks skill or quality (far from it) but I am sure the reader can see what I am getting at.
Arsenal Wenger came into English football as an unknown quantity and turned that passion on its head. He wanted to see strength, guts and determination as much as the former wanted to see great moves and pieces of fantastic skill but what was most important to him was how it was all done, how the players achieved what they achieved on the pitch.
He created a style of football which has two key aspects, the passing possession play and the counter attack. Both formidable on their own but when combined form a lethal style of football which even pure heart and soul cannot stop.
Arsenal passing game involves a quick short passing game across the whole of the pitch, focusing on swift movement and great positioning; the long ball is pretty much an auxiliary move.
This quick passing game is played with the intention of finding a killer ball; a ball perfected by Bergkamp and now Fabregas, although anyone is capable on the day. The killer ball is a ball which puts a player into a position with a great chance of scoring, usually a through ball or a sideways pass.
This ball may come after 4 passes or 44 passes but with the gunners it does not matter, patience, as well as intensity is one of their virtues. Due to the high standard of defending in the premiership the killer ball cannot always be found in the first dozen passes and so it gives the opposition time to regroup defensively and set their lines. This may spell doom for most other teams who will either resort to a long shot or inevitably lose it when they are out of ideas but not for Arsenal, they are happy to pass it around.
Teams often look to defend well against arsenal and stay tight and get right into their players to prevent their passing game but the gunner’s movement is often so immaculate that a pass is always on. One could be forgiven for thinking that the gunners have more than 11 players on the pitch because someone is always there. Players such as Rosicky, Van Persie or Fabregas may work a position to shoot from outside the box but a key hole through ball to a forward is a favourite and often causes havoc in the opposition defence.
This play may not lead to a goal but if the opposition clears or wins it back Arsenal’s defensive players are usually in a great position and just win it back to start the process again. This style means that arsenal have a lot of possession and due to this, as well as the intense concentration it demands of the opposition team, they usually succumb sooner or later.
Arsenals other aspect to their game is the counter attack. This demands no patient but rather a lightening fast reaction to an opposition attack after winning back the ball. When the opposition bears down on their goal Arsenals attacking players get into positions to be passed to in space when the ball is back in their possession. This is usually one on each wing, one in the middle and the forwards waiting to burst the offside trap and draw defenders.
Arsenals defence is quick and confident and when the opposition is committed to the attack a defender will swoop in take the ball and initiate the counter attack. Arsenal’s attackers are equally quick and opposition teams with their players committed to the attack are left handicapped against the onslaught. The player with the ball will burst forward with pace at goal and a situation is often faced where he has acres of space to himself or there will be more fellow players in attack than opposition defenders meaning that a player will almost certainly be available for a killer ball, unless the player wants to go all the way himself.
This simple but effective tactic is not as complex as the first but it is equally if not more effective. All Wenger’s teams during his reign so far, have been masters of it.
When you combine these two tactics together it can be seen why arsenals style is superior to all other styles out there. The passing game demands patience and possession with great use of expression and creativity. The intensity and discipline of constant waves of attacks are usually too much for the opposition and the goals come flowing. Defensively this tactic is perfect because if the opposition does not have the ball they cannot score.
If the opposition consequently does get the ball then they will be set up for the counter attack. They either hold players back to prevent it thus weakening the attack, leaving the world class arsenal defence with an easy job or they commit and hope to score or keep the ball. When Arsenal get the ball back they will charge on in their counter attack in the manner mentioned or if the opposition has enough defenders or the quality to stop it then they will just revert back to the passing game and start again.
This leaves a conundrum for opposing teams as to how to play them. It is so difficult that teams such as Blackburn have actually claimed foul play as a valid way of stopping them claiming “how else can you stop them, they are better than us”. Arsenal often receives a physical game because only the very best teams can actually try and win through tactical play. This physical game tries to rattle the players and keep them from flowing by fouling and giving away free kicks. The fact that teams do this is a testimony to how feared and effective the arsenal style is.
Over the last 10 years Arsenal have been one of the top scorers in the whole of Europe with the quality of the goals being of the highest order. The style is unique, incomparable, often unstoppable and superior to virtually all other styles. The musketeer virtues of speed, guile, grace, technique, gallantry, determination, intelligence, confidence and courage shine throughout the team and throughout the club as a whole. The players are heroes to their fans and are highly esteemed by lovers of great football. They stand out from the rest and though they do not always achieve what they wish it is not through want of trying, and they always stick to their unique philosophy and will never lean to ugly play to get what they want. This is the honour of musketeers.
So next time you hear the gunners referred to as the musketeers don’t just dismiss it, give it a second thought because who would have thought that a 21st century team could embody the personality and characteristics of four 17th century courtly gentleman.
written by Reverend Gooner
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