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  1. Bergkamp the Improver Book Review: Stillness and Speed – Dennis Bergkamp Ah, Dennis Bergkamp. In my opinion the greatest player Arsenal has ever had. And why? Because he could do things I have never seen anyone else do. I could watch a highlights video of him forever. Newcastle anyone? Bergkamp's control was magical Of course, Henry is regarded as our GOAT and probably rightly so, but it is illuminating that he rates Bergkamp as the best he has ever played with and that is because Dennis was the fulcrum of our attack and midfield. Ian Wright (probably regarded as our second GOAT) credits him with upping his game and wishes he could have played with him a lot sooner. Dennis could have been alongside Wolverine Bergkamp trained hard but smart, always watching what the ball does, how it moves, bounces, and how to control its movement. I would challenge anyone to demonstrate another player who could take a moving ball at any height and control it with, it seems, any part of his body. The ball stuck to him like glue. He was like a mutant and maybe we were lucky Professor X never snapped him up for the Xavier Institute. Better, better, better This book emphasizes one area above all else – Dennis Bergkamp improved Arsenal and Dutch football by being there, by showing his intelligence, by extraordinary diligence, and his never-ending striving for perfection. The Japanese concept of Kaizen could have been written by him, in which you must always push to do better, and is regarded as the manual of how Japanese became the world leaders in manufacturing. Cruyff always had the right ideas about football So what is this book? Well it is totally different from other soccer books in that it is less about his life and more about his football philosophy. But first I should explain that it is really two books, there is a huge Dutch version by Jaap Visser which basically includes both elements of this football book, it includes all the chronology of his life and covers what a normal football work does, photographs, upbringing, club records, etc., and the English version by David Winner which is a collection of interviews with Dennis and all the critical people in his life. Johan Cruyff, Arsene Wenger, Thierry Henry, Ian Wright and many others are interviewed and the ideas are bounced back and forth between them as Dennis comments on what they are saying and sometimes he sees things a bit different. Toy with the keeper If you read nothing else, read the extraordinary piece on freezing the goalkeeper, which Henry says was the biggest improvement he ever made to his game. When you are in on goal, you keep your eyes on the keeper, you do not look at the ball, and the keeper gets discommoded. You must always be calm but watch as the keeper panics. Henry became almost unstoppable when in on goal, we always knew he would score as we would with Bergkamp. I suspect that the two of them combined scored way more beautiful goals than any other pairing. Henry could put a keeper in the North Pole And hey, we could do with Bergkamp back and improving our goalscorers. Too many panic in front of goal, and our two icemen never did. Bring back Bergkamp and Pep would do poo poo in his trousers. Cruyff – the Dutch Master of all Johan Cruyff pops up all the time in this book and he has had an extraordinary influence on Bergkamp but also vice versa. I know some of my readers are young and I will give a brief resume of Cruyff here. He is regarded as one of the greatest players ever but I will nominate him as the greatest influence for good on the modern game. He pushed for total football, a strong press, an emphasis on creativity and attack, and that players must have the intelligence to decide what is best on the pitch. This he shared with Arsene Wenger. Players were not robots, and constantly telling them what they must do, a failing in the modern game, means that parking the bus can often work in the weaker team’s favour. Arteta, unfortunately, has this failing. He micromanages the team constantly which means the creative players can be stifled. Space – the football frontier Bergkamp believes that space is the most important element of football and you must have a clear vision in order to achieve that. Your opponent must never be able to predict what you will do and if he is confused, then you have space. It is why he put so much effort into controlling the ball, it creates space. Defenders could never predict Mesut Ozil Here he is on Mesut Ozil: “First touch in football is so important. If you talk about Mesut people say he is not marked properly, he always has a lot of space but he has got that space because he can create space by his vision and his first touch. With that you create your own time.” Dennis was multi-faceted This is a book for the football fan, certainly not just Arsenal ones. It shows a complicated person, a guy regarded as a gentleman yet hard as nails according to Martin Keown, and well able to handle the beasts of defenders prevalent in English soccer. He could not be pushed off the ball and I guess all the training with Adams, Keown and Bould helped a lot with that. Did I mention beast defenders? The book shows the unhappy time in Serie A. Still, Bergkamp learned a lot from them about diet, alcohol, and looking after yourself which slotted in perfectly to the next phase with Arsene Wenger who obliterated the English fast food and ten pints regime still prevalent at the time. Bergkamp gives great credit to how the English players could still perform strongly on the pitch and praises his Arsenal teammates for so doing. He did see them embrace the Wenger method though and add years to their game. To win all by improving Bergkamp, Cruyff and Wenger are shown as three different sides of the same coin. They didn’t always agree but perfection was what they all aimed for. Bergkamp was Invincible, thanks to Wenger, although I am sure they regard perfection as winning all matches. Cruyff was the genius who brought Barcelona to its peak. His flaw was that he had a penchant for argument, as the Dutch team are still famous for. Dennis preferred debate and not confrontation. But that dominant belief that you can always do better is the link that binds all three as they were conscious of it. I would say most great players were not. Rather they just loved being with a ball and doing amazing things with it. Everything must be improved I say read this book for a different perspective on what football has been for the past fifty years. It is a rare glimpse into what really goes on in the minds of the greatest names in world football. It is a cerebral tome about thinking about what you can do with a ball, what it does in certain circumstances and how you can train your body to use that to your advantage. Again I repeat that Dennis Bergkamp is the greatest footballer Arsenal ever had and the main playing reason, outside Wenger, that we won so many trophies. He made all the guys around him better. And I know, like me, you can watch those video clips forever.
  2. Are Tactics nonsense? “Players lose you games, not tactics. There's so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.“ Brian Clough Brian Clough - probably the greatest manager ever at a small club The problem with tactics is that in soccer, everything happens simultaneously. In chess, you can have tactics because it is one move at a time. In soccer, there are 22 players all moving at the same time, or at least thinking about moving. 22 minds all with what is going on in their own head. You cannot get 11 players to have the same tactics because they often interpret instructions differently or they decide to do their own thing. "I always threw the ball in, because then if I got the ball back, I was the only player unmarked" Great strategy by Johan Cruyff I believe that many of the tropes of tactics are illusory. What exactly is 4 4 2? Or 4 3 3? Or a high press or a long ball game? Let’s take 4 4 2 – it ostensibly means 4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 attackers. But in the modern game players are attacking and defending and winning the ball in midfield. Plus for a set-piece, all players from both sides are in or around the box rendering 4 4 2 or any other a farce. Watch any game from the stands and you will see that generally, all players are in one half or the other, with the exception of goalkeepers. The ball gets forward normally in 2 ways, a fast break often heralded by a long ball, or a patient slow build-up. I feel that formations are rarely adhered to, and if they are rigid, are easily exploited by the opposition. A patient build-up allows players to get into position to defend and a long ball game can be countered by keeping some players back to attack the long ball. 11 minds and one formula? This is the crux of what I am saying, trying to make tactics work across 11 minds is close to impossible. Even if you manage it by a miracle, then all the opposition has to do is figure out your tactic and counter it. A high press is vulnerable to a long ball and the vagaries of offside. As a defender, you may take risks with offside by very fine margins by having the press as high as possible only to find that you got that margin wrong. You must have both fast players and ones with clever antennae to make a high press work. And of course, you need to have players willing to run very hard for a whole match. This can only happen when your adrenaline is high, and the match important. This cannot be replicated in friendlies as there is nothing at stake. The same with training. But I wish to get back to this later as it is essential. Bottlers? Prove them wrong next season If I was to criticize Mikel Arteta’s tactics, it is the rigidity which makes it easy to counter. He likes a slow patient build-up in which all players move into the opponents half with the aim of keeping it until a goal chance occurs. Normally the ball is moved out to the wing to Saka or Martinelli with the main intention being a pullback to an attacker coming from deep. The obvious counter to this is a park the bus approach with 2 banks of 4 and 5 with only one lone attacker. This allows a levelling up of inferior teams who hope for a win but are content with a draw. If we don’t get an early goal, it becomes a hard slog of a match with both sides cancelling each other out like tic-tac-toe. Strategies are the key to greatness I believe that instead of tactics, you are better to have strategies depending on the opposition and what is actually happening in the match. Ten Hag did that with his Manchester United team at Old Trafford this season, relying on a long ball to counter the Arsenal high press. They won 3-1. He knew a bit about soccer, this guy But the biggest example was Arteta’s mentor, Mr Pep himself. For the recent Arsenal game he resorted to a long ball game with one objective, get the ball to Haaland. The Arsenal players didn’t know what hit them. City allowed Arsenal to press forward then hit them with the startling speed of De Bruyne and Haaland. City could have had 10. Arsenal needed to park the bus, crowd the attackers and rely on a fast break themselves. They needed to accept that a goalless draw was the target. Frustrate City and they had a chance. Guardiola knew how Arsenal would play but Arteta assumed wrongly he knew how City would play. City had the perfect strategy for a team that will come at them. Teams learned how to deal with us Brighton did very similar, allowing Arsenal to come at them but turning their high press against them by not allowing Arsenal’s wingers to cause mayhem. Nullify Arsenal’s wingers and you nullify Arsenal. Always Saka, Martinelli and then Trossard had a fullback devoted to reining them in. Arsenal weren’t allowed to play their normal game and couldn’t adapt. Jesus ran around like a headless chicken, frustrated at not getting the ball. "I find it terrible when talents are rejected based on computer stats. Based on the criteria at Ajax now I would have been rejected. When I was 15, I couldn’t kick a ball 15 meters with my left and maybe 20 with my right. My qualities technique and vision, are not detectable by a computer." Johan Cruyff again on the modern day obsession with making football complicated So this is my main point, teaching players strategies should be the main focus of training. Players need to be able to change tack when needed. Arsenal were too predictable and teams were, at the end, able to turn it against them. You need to mix everything up, sometimes play a long ball, sometimes play through the middle, sometimes through the wings. Sometimes a patient build-up, sometimes allow the opposition to come at you, and frustrate them by not giving them room. All strategies are good, if used in moderation. Simplicity is best In one sense, football is a simple game. Pass the ball to your own player and things will always go well for you. And that is what you can work at in training, and in friendlies, finding each other. Arsene Wenger was famous for insisting on this, short one twos, knowing where your colleague was and being able to find him. He didn’t care so much for tactics.. It is far better to train players to do different things depending on what is happening on the pitch. A strategy for this scenario, a strategy for another scenario. It has to be better than trying to get 11 players to keep to a tactic when the opposition is not doing what they expect. And it makes it more like chess, you take into account what your opponent is doing and act accordingly. I started with a quote from Brian Clough and he was one of the most successful managers ever, and probably the best ever at a small club. He believed in getting the best player for every position, that a defender must defend above all, that a midfielder must win the ball and distribute it wisely above all, and attackers must score above all. He didn’t do too badly. He had 2 more European cups (Champions league) than Arsenal. A simple truth The opposition must never know how you are going to play. Train strategies, always based on players finding each other, and keep mixing it up throughout matches. Leave the rigid tactics to the park the bus merchants whose objective is to hope for a win, but play for a draw. That can work for them because they know they can never be contenders. True champions can mix it up. We must also.
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