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Arsene Wenger Talks 'Danger' of Pressing and Football Taking the 'NBA Route'

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2020

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 18:  Arsene Wenger looks on prior to the FIFA Club World Cup Qatar Semi-final match between Monterrey and Liverpool FC at Khalifa International  Stadium on December 18, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)
Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Arsene Wenger is worried modern football's obsession with pressing will eventually turn the sport into a version of the NBA. 

The former Arsenal manager, who now works as Head of Development for FIFA, spoke among a collection of football minds who offered their thoughts on why pressing has become such a popular tactic. Wenger was joined by Lille boss Christophe Galtier and Hector Cuper, who guided Valencia to a pair of UEFA Champions League finals back in 2000 and 2001.

Galtier, Cuper, Ralf Rangnick and Saint-Etienne chief Claude Puel talked up pressing during an interview with So Foot magazine, but Wenger was the dissenting voice (h/t Get French Football News):

"We have progressively taken the NBA route, that of a very 'athleticised' sport, but personally, American basketball, it doesn't excite me. You only have one-vs-ones, shots for three points. ... Today, like basketball, certain creative players are being eliminated, under the simple pretext that they are not athletic enough. In time, the danger, for me, is that football develops into a sport where players run like crazy people to win the ball back as quickly as possible, but who don't know what to do when they actually have it in their possession. We have to keep a balance."

Wenger's note of caution goes against the grain of the current preference for pressing among many of the top clubs in Europe. Pressing's popularity has made words like "transition" an essential part of the sport's lexicon.

Get French Football News @GFFN

Ralf Rangnick: "By transition I mean a classic counter, the moment after winning the ball when the opponent is disorientated. The majority of goals are scored 12 secs after winning the ball back. Ideally, you'd win the ball back 8 secs after losing it." https://t.co/V9BZJ5loNv

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It's particularly obvious in the Premier League, where Jurgen Klopp has used intense pressing to make Liverpool a powerhouse both domestically and on the continent. The Reds lifted last season's UEFA Champions League trophy and are the runaway leaders in England's top flight.

Their progress is largely thanks to the high-energy approach Klopp helped refine during a successful spell with Borussia Dortmund before he moved to Anfield in 2015. It's a system based on high starting positions throughout the team, relentless pressure on the ball and defending from the front.

While manager of Dortmund, Klopp once described his methods as "heavy metal" football, while comparing Wenger's steadier style to an "orchestra."

Wenger became known for valuing creative players. His teams were dominated by calm playmakers such as Dennis Bergkamp, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil.

By contrast, Klopp once said "no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation."

Those words explain why Liverpool were able to sell elegant schemer Philippe Coutinho in 2018 and resist the urge to replace him. Klopp's squad still doesn't have a natural creator, despite role players Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Xherdan Shaqiri offering similar attributes.

Instead, Klopp has looked for creativity from different positions. In particular, full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have become Liverpool's chief suppliers of chances:

Squawka Football @Squawka

Andrew Robertson has now provided 17 Premier league assists since the start of last season. The only player with more? Trent Alexander-Arnold (20). 👬 https://t.co/4BKP4a1zf4

While Robertson and Alexander-Arnold pull the strings, Liverpool's central midfield options can best be described as rugged and industrious. Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner, Fabinho and Naby Keita usually shoulder the load in the engine room.

It's a workmanlike group, but one with the ideal application to chase and harry opponents in support of hustling forwards Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.

Yet despite Liverpool's success, Wenger isn't wrong to wonder how the increase in press-heavy tactics may impact the more artful aspects of the game. In fact, the Reds' achievements are only likely to ensure Klopp's style is copied on a wider scale.

As Galtier pointed out, pressing has been reaping the highest rewards for a while. He referenced Real Madrid's trouncing of Bayern Munich in the last four of the Champions League almost six years ago:

It's an interesting example because Bayern were managed by Pep Guardiola. The Manchester City boss is one person who has sought to strike the all-important balance between pressing and possession Wenger spoke of.

Guardiola has done it by consistently getting patient pass-masters such as David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to combine endeavour off the ball with technique on it. Wenger often failed to do the same thing despite working with forward-thinking talents like Samir Nasri, Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin.

Guardiola's dual approach has seen City's work-willing technicians rewarded with the last two league titles. Interestingly, Guardiola's former assistant Mikel Arteta is now in charge at Arsenal.

Arteta played in midfield for Wenger from 2011-16 offered an intriguing case study into both sides of the argument. In Ozil and Granit Xhaka, Arteta has inherited players who know what to do with the ball.

His challenge is to get them to do more out of possession. So far, Arteta is encouraging Ozil to meet the challenge, evidenced by the 31-year-old's commendable shift during Wednesday's 2-0 win over Manchester United:

Sam Dean @SamJDean

Mesut Ozil regained possession 10 times tonight, more than any other #AFC player.

Arteta's Ozil experiment is bearing early fruit, but there is still a danger players of his style will become viewed as mere luxuries in a game dominated by pressing.

Back in October, ESPN FC's Ryan O'Hanlon wrote how No. 10s like Ozil were dying out in today's game. It's Wenger's fear and a well-founded one given how the demands have changed on those who call the final third home.

Goals and assists are no longer enough. What a striker or creator does to disrupt the opposition's passing is just as important, as Puel explained: "Before, we banned attackers from pressing, it went against the natural instinct. Now, it is the opposite, without pressing, today, the No. 9 does not exist. It is even he who is in charge of instigating the pressing."

Attackers must now be as invested in the defensive side of a game as they are in enlivening it with skill.

There is good reason to share and protect Wenger's fidelity to craft and flair. Individual talent can elevate the sport to a spectacle, something any fan should welcome.

Yet football is ultimately a team game, and pressing encourages a more collective effort from players, perhaps ensuring it has more long-term benefits to the game than Wenger believes.

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