Thierry Henry sat down with Arsene Wenger to talk tactics, three at the back, playing with freedom, and Arsenal v Manchester United.
Henry asked his former manager why he decided to change formation, whether the Gunners are lacking confidence, and if the Nissan Super Sunday clash with United is one of the biggest in his time in charge.
Here’s how the interview unfolded…
Boss, thanks for having me again…Don’t worry we are not going to talk about your contract, the fans, that sort of stuff. I agree with you that sometimes people focus too much on that and we should talk more about the game. Of course if you have something to share then you can share it and we can have it first…
“My answer is my smile.”
Okay…So, you have done something you haven’t done for a very long time; you went to a back three. I heard you talk about giving your team some more reassurance at the back. Is that the only reason?
“I believe if you look overall at our season we have conceded a respectable number of goals, but recently we conceded too many away from home when teams went directly at us. That’s one of the reasons; to give a bit more security through the middle.
“The second one is that I have players who suit it. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, for example, has the qualities to play at wing-back with the freedom to go forward and get better use of the width of the pitch.
“It allows you to play with two players further forward and change sides when you are under pressure. Overall the system is no more than the way you spread your forces on the football pitch.
“Then when you go into a system like we do it depends on the individual characteristics of the player. You understand having played up front that if you played three defenders like Sol Campbell you would be fantastic defensively. But if you played three Thierry Henry’s as centre-backs you might be better offensively but not as good defensively.
“There has to be a balance. It has worked in some games until now. Sometimes when the team has a drop in belief it helps them to focus on something else to give them hope to be more efficient.”
In some games there is more resilience in the team at the back as a unit, but where I am a bit worried at times – and I know it’s a new system and will take time to adapt – is on the ball, especially when the team gets the ball back in transition.
When you played against Manchester City and Tottenham you were very direct at times, almost bypassing the midfield and playing long to Olivier Giroud. How much was that you asking that and how much was it the players doing it in the game?
“You know me well enough to know I am not asking that. Against Man City in the first half, we were a bit cautious in the system and in the second half we had a bit more freedom and more possession. In the first half, it was 70-30 and the second half was more balanced, maybe 45-55.
“I had that when I had Mark Hateley in Monaco. Sometimes when you have a tall, strong guy up front it becomes the easy way out, you know you have a guy up there and you just kick it up for him and say do something for us and you don’t take enough risks to play.”
I remember that team very well with George Weah and Glenn Hoddle. But if we go back into the game and you say some players weren’t showing enough on the ball and maybe the confidence is down. Tottenham play a back three at times and they can switch in games. Chelsea play a rigid back three. When I see Arsenal in possession there is a certain freedom to it and it’s not as rigid as the two teams I mentioned before…
“I don’t like too many rigid positions in a team. I feel that when the offensive players want to encourage initiative you have to give some freedom to players, especially when they are gifted and are not just capable of doing one thing. But I think we occupy the flanks well and in the middle it depends on characteristics.
“If you look at Chelsea then N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic give security defensively, they are not adventurous going forward, but we play with players like Aaron Ramsey. One of his strengths is to go forward and get into the box, to not allow him there is to take something out of him. So we have to find the balance.”
It’s not easy and as you know when I went to Barcelona staying on the line wasn’t my forte, but because the structure was a certain way and there was a certain belief that when you are in that position you do it. But if you take Ramsey and say he likes to go, when he is a holding midfielder he needs to sacrifice a little at times and stay…
“He does, but when you play with three at the back it gives more freedom to the guys in midfield. One of the reasons I did it was because I know players like Ramsey can go forward and he can be a bit more adventurous because he has somebody behind. The system is for players like him.”
Hearing freedom is music to my ears because I used to love that. But if you look at the Tottenham game with five minutes to go and Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are right in front of the centre-backs giving the ball to each other. I saw it and thought ‘why they are going there to get the ball?’
Is it because it just happened on the day? I don’t want to compare, but you never see Eden Hazard and Pedro going to get the ball off the feet of David Luiz. Do you see what I mean?
“Yes, but we finished in a completely different system. Alexis [Sanchez] likes to come to the ball, he is a creator on the ball more than with his runs behind. You have different kinds of striker. For some their strength is the quality of reception, that means the quality of their runs behind, for some they like to come to the ball and make a difference.
“Sometimes Alexis goes too deep because of that and with Ozil he has security because he knows he can give him the ball. In this occasion, they should have played higher but you cannot control every moment of the players during the game.”
I know and I was almost the same. Alexis Sanchez is brilliant and some people don’t see what he does off and on the ball, not only scoring goals. I was a bit of a loose cannon at times, going where I wanted because I wanted to get the ball, and I remember Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva getting mad if I was in their zone getting the ball. They used to tell me get up the pitch. Don’t you think sometimes the players need to do that more?
“Yes certainly. There is always a balance to find between a certain freedom on the pitch and doing your job. But on the day you have gone through that where a player lacks some confidence and doesn’t get the ball always where he wants it. In this occasion, I think frustration came in and Alexis went very deep.
“But overall I think the role is to do your job, sometimes players forget, because they are human beings like everybody else. Our main problem has been the goals we have conceded. We were leading 1-0 at Everton and at Man City, and we have conceded too many goals.”
I know you love the game and what I am going to say you might not like, because I know you like the game played a certain way. I remember you saying teams don’t want to play Arsenal because they fear if they open themselves up they will be exposed.
We know nobody used to play the passing game like Arsenal before and you wished you could play against teams who would come and play and you’d see who is the best.
But recently I have seen an Arsenal team waiting, trying to get the balance right at the back and then trying to counter, especially against teams who want to play like City and Tottenham or in Europe. Is it because there is a lack of confidence in the team? Or is it because a team is playing better and you have to defend?
“It’s a bit of both. When we played against Bayern Munich [in the Champions League] they were better in possession and even if we wanted to play they had more of the ball. Second, psychologically if you compare a team who has not lost a game all season with a team who is struggling for confidence…I remember when we lost the first game after 49 unbeaten [in 2004] we couldn’t win for five games because we were on the floor.
“It depends on the impeccable quality of the players. I always come back to that because when I watch games, like Real Madrid against Atletico in the Champions League, if you compare individually the positions of the two teams you ask yourself how many players from Atletico would play for Real Madrid. That explains the superiority most of the time in possession.
“You have a combination of things. The recent history is always a big influence on how a team plays. I am sure teams like Sunderland, if they didn’t have the fear to go down, they would play much better. You can come back the other way around as well and say if you are in trouble maybe your performances are not good enough, but that’s always difficult.”
Final question, about the game at the weekend. I can’t remember the last time there was a game between Arsenal and Manchester United and both sides were out of the top four…
“I can’t remember because we were never out of the top four. It was never the case since I have been here. It shows maybe we have to come back to a better level and Man Utd are trying as well.”
It’s a massive game because of where the teams are in the league. Is it one of the biggest games in your time here?
“Yes, but I feel no matter how big the game is you want to make sure players are in a good mental and physical state on the day. The most important thing is to give your best and focus to be together at that top level.
“No matter how big the game, you can win, lose or draw, but you have to make sure you are absolutely focused, professional and perform to your best. You have to prepare like that.”