One of the biggest criticisms directed at Arsène Wenger is that he monopolises control, surrounding himself with ‘yes men’ who will not challenge his instructions. The very few who are privileged enough to spend time with Wenger seem to think there is some truth to this – Alex Fynn, writer of Arsènal, knew the Frenchman to a degree and seems to convey this opinion in his book. It is slightly disrespectful to suggest that this was all Pat Rice brought to the table, but when it really mattered, Wenger trusted only himself.
Apparently, Steve Bould was offered the opportunity to replace Rice 12 months ago but turned it down as he wanted to continue coaching the youth team, fearful that he would simply become another nodding head in Wenger’s backroom team. This year, however, he was convinced to make the step up and I suspect that a big part of the discussion focused around subsiding these fears.
Having the right people around you is one of the biggest tricks of management. Being successful not only depends on knowing your strengths and utilising them, but being aware of your weaknesses and having people around you with the skills you lack. It is what has allowed Sir Alex Ferguson to remain at the top of the game for such a long time span. He has built team after team, evolving as the game changes around him, by appointing the correct right-hand man. Whether it was Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren or Carlos Queiroz, they have all offered something that Ferguson needed at that particular time.
The decision over who to appoint as the new number two was one which took a long time, indicating that Wenger finally recognised the importance of differing views. And even though we are only a short way into Bould’s spell, it certainly seems as though his input goes beyond the basic limitations that he initially feared.
Against Stoke at the weekend, Arsenal produced their best defensive display at the Brittania since the Staffordshire side won promotion in 2008, including their 2-1 victory on the day that Aaron Ramsey suffered a broken leg. That victory was a result of their collective will in adversity, something that they are often accused of lacking but was in abundance that afternoon.
For the first time, the Gunners had clear and specific defensive plans to deal with Stoke’s unique threats. Abou Diaby dropped deeper when facing long balls, doubling up on Crouch to make it as difficult as possible for the giant striker to win and direct his headers. There was a clear emphasis on chasing the second ball, with the players bunching closer towards the likely drop zone from Asmir Begović’s long clearances. And there was an obvious ploy to deny the Stoke keeper with any time to distribute, with Olivier Giroud getting as close to him as possible at all times.
You might argue these are relatively simple principles to adopt when facing Tony Pulis’ side, but they smack of Bould’s influence. Never before has Arsenal paid so much attention to the opposition, with Wenger believing that maximising his own team’s strength is the best chance for victory. Although they only left with a point, they completely nullified the Potters and would have come away with more if their attacking fluidity was up to scratch.
Additionally, players have often talked about a lack of preparation with regards to set pieces, both offensively and defensively, yet improvements appear to have been made. Whilst Stoke did not win any corners, Wojciech Szczęsny has openly discussed a more focused approach in training for dealing with defensive situations. And there are now clearly defined attacking routines, with Per Mertesacker often stationed on the front post looking for a flick-on towards Thomas Vermaelen at the back, reminiscent of the Bould-Adams combination that was so dangerous in the past.
Whilst fans have been frustrated by the lack of goals in the first two games, there are promising signs of improvement for a team who conceded far too many goals last year. It seems as though the new assistant is far more than another man willing to agree with whatever the boss says.