Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday March 06 2008

English soccer club results in European ties last night were very poor.  London Spurs lost at home, Bolton drew at home, and Everton got beaten 2-0 in Italy.  But earlier in the week it was a different story, the general opinion being that London Arsenal’s expert slicing apart of Milan, in Milan, was the highpoint.  Liverpool and London Chelsea also won.  The Premiership rules, they all cried.  The top few clubs in the Premiership rule, more like.

The best insight into the Arsenal achievement I recently encountered was in the Times the day before it happened, in the form of a piece about Professor Wenger:

His analysis is far more detailed than which player has run the most miles or who has completed 75 per cent of passes, although those numbers form part of the picture. What counts to Wenger is knowing where they passed (was it forward or sideways), how long it took them and - down to a decimal point - at what speed.

“If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games - 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.

“It works well with your tactical observations, too. You see that a guy never loses the ball, so you look at the number of times he passes the ball forward. You can get to the point where you can say, ‘I prefer the one who loses the ball a bit more but tries to play it forward.’ It is a concrete observation.”

image

James Hamilton wonders from time to time why the English never seem to produce people like Wenger, but instead have to bring them in from abroad.  It’s not that the English are incapable of intelligent creativity.  So, why can’t we apply it to football?  Why can’t we apply it, for goodness sakes, to sport of any kind?  An amazing proportion of world class English sports coaches seem to be non-English, the only big exception I personally can think of being Clive Woodward, who won the rugby World Cup with England in 2003, by doing exactly the sort of stuff that Wenger does.  In cricket, my other sporting enthusiasm, England’s recent moment of glory, the 2005 Ashes win, was presided over by a Zimbabwean, aided by an Australian who coached the bowlers.  Both have now moved on, the Australian to Australia.  The England team, despite its unchanged captain, is a shadow of its former glory.  It is now coached by an Englishman.

What gives?  Well, I’m English, and to me there is something more than somewhat ridiculous about being that clever about a mere game.  Wenger could clearly have got to the top of whatever tree he fancied climbing, as could Woodward.  So why on earth pour the one life you have into a game.  If you’re Wayne Rooney and you are supremely good at soccer and crap at everything else, fine.  Makes perfect sense.  But Wenger?  The man could be splitting atoms by now, commanding the fates of nations, moving and shaking any way and anywhere he chose.  Yet, he chooses football.

Please understand that this is not a reasoned argument I am offering.  It’s a gut reaction.  A feeling.  I haven’t analysed whether it makes sense, it’s just the way it seems to me, before any analysis begins.  All I’ve really done is restate the question.  The English don’t do world class sporting coaches.  But why not?  Because we think that being a world class sporting coach is silly.  But again: why?  Why do I, and I suspect a lot of other English people, feel this way?

I’ve read books by Woodward and by that Zimbabwean who coached the cricket team.  Now I’m in the market for a book by or about Wenger.  Part of the clue to Woodward’s oddity, his separateness from English life, I am convinced, is to be found in this story.