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Wenger: forwards have become less "street"

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In a long interview with the mothership, Arsene talks about the evolution of the game.

Smart
Smart
Gareth Copley/Getty Images

I hope I don't have to tell anyone who is reading this how intelligent of a human being, not just a sports person, Arsene Wenger is. He has a degree in economics, which he earned after he started studying medicine, he speaks more languages than any 10 of us put together, and generally speaking he's a very refreshing change from the usual sports personality.

One of the things that Wenger has always done, more so than a lot of managers (at least publicly), is think about things in a very big-picture way. He's definitely concerned with running his team and winning the next match/tournament/trophy, but he also occasionally takes a few steps back and tries to see how things got to where they are, mostly in order to maximize his chances of winning that next match/tournament/trophy.

In a long interview published on the mothership today, Wenger talked in some detail about the evolving nature of the forward in the game, and of the forward in general. Wenger is unique in that he has perspective on both how the game is now and how it was when he arrived at Arsenal 19 years ago, and when asked how the game and the forward positions have changed in that time, he started down a very interesting path:

"When I arrived in England you could see in every club a forward who could head the ball, who was dangerous on the crosses and who was highly committed physically. But when you look around now, you see that less. It makes you think 'what's going on there?' Then when you look to Europe and see who scores most of the goals, you realise a lot of them are South American."

Which is an interesting thing to notice, and it definitely tracks with the way the game has changed over the years since the Premier League invented the game in 1993 - teams at all professional levels are much more technical now, and much less willing to just hoick it up the pitch and hope the big guy gets his head on it in a dangerous area.

But Wenger, as is his wont, goes a step deeper:

"It raises the question 'what can we change in the education?' "

His premise is, if the game is changing so much and the position is changing with it, should we not educate those who wish to play in that position at a very high level? He talks about establishing schools for forwards, much like there are goalkeeper schools, as the position has become more specialized. But then he turns a bit and starts talking about the reasons why the position has changed as much as it has, and he thinks that the current method of banding kids together by age might be a factor:

"When you play in the street you might be 10 years old, playing against someone who is 15 years old, so you have to be more shrewd. But today the academies are more categorized, so you develop less of these kind of qualities."

Which is an excellent point. When I was a kid playing baseball in the street with my friends, when I was about 11 or 12 or so, there was a kid who was a sophomore in high school who lived on our block. His brother was our age, so he always played in our games even though he was bigger and stronger than we were - and he always pitched.

So not only did we have to figure out a way to get on base despite a massive disadvantage in skill and speed, we also had to figure out how to stop him from getting on base. I can't say that I became an elite athlete because of my experience, but my point is, what Wenger is saying makes sense - if you're 15 and playing against the best 15 year olds, that only takes you so far, as opposed to being 15 and playing against the best in the academy, regardless of age.

This is not a new thing for Wenger, either - he made similar points last year after the signing of Alexis Sanchez:

"Sanchez, and Suarez, they played street football, park football. If you go 30, 40 years back in England, life was tougher. Society has changed. We are much more protected than we were 30 years ago. We have all changed. We have all become a bit softer."

Interestingly, he also sees in this evolution a change in other positions as well:

"What's terrible as well, and where the alert comes from, is that because we have fewer strikers, you also find there are fewer central defenders. It looks like the rarity of the strikers is linked to the rarity of the central defenders. The less you give them problems, the less they develop their game as well."

Wenger also talks a bit about the game as a whole, not just the forward and CB positions - specifically, with all the evolution at those positions, if a 4-4-2 would ever come back into favor:

You can never rule it out, because the 4-4-2 formation is basically the best way to occupy the field from a mathematical perspective, on length and width. In 4-4-2 you have 60 per cent of the players covering 60 per cent of the surface. And you have 40 per cent on the flanks, which is 40 per cent of the pitch. So rationally it makes sense as the best mathematical solution. The only difference is how high up or how deep the second striker plays. That is also linked to the quality of the player.

He also touches on how the modern game has relied on technical midfielders to an almost absurd degree, citing Cesc Fabregas' Spain as the prime example. In his way, though, he doesn't see this as a bad thing, just as an imbalance that will eventually correct itself.

I don't really have any grand conclusion to draw from this article - I already knew of Wenger's brilliance and depth, but if you didn't, or if  you just need a refresher, go check out the piece. It's well worth reading.