Heart Of Football

Real teamwork must be based on a passing interest

Arsenal's goalkeeper Petr Cech (left) and defender Per Mertesacker celebrate their win against Crystal Palace on Aug 16, 2015.
Arsenal's goalkeeper Petr Cech (left) and defender Per Mertesacker celebrate their win against Crystal Palace on Aug 16, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

"All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender."

- Mahatma Gandhi

I am not going to go all philosophical on you. Not totally, anyway.

But Gandhi's words come into play when we consider Arsenal against Liverpool in London tomorrow night. Here are two clubs who follow the belief that passing and movement are the real beauty of football.

Arsene Wenger has espoused it for 20 years at Arsenal. Brendan Rodgers came into Liverpool three years ago as if he was ready to conduct the possession game even beyond Wenger, to Barcelona proportions.

At Arsenal, there are signs that Wenger is willing to compromise, or rather become slightly less stubborn than his detractors regard him.


Arsene Wenger's choice of Mesut Oezil as the best player last week was no surprise, because his strength revolves around the basic skill of passing. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

He is using Francis Coquelin as a holding player, a rough (by Arsenal standards) and biting ball winner who survived a red card at Crystal Palace last week only because the referee was lenient and Wenger took the hint and withdrew him.

Add that to a tighter back four, and occasional long balls aimed for Alexis Sanchez to run down or Olivier Giroud to head, and, yes, there are reasons to think that Wenger's Arsenal are slightly less puritanical these days.

The real experiment of this second rebuilding of Rodgers' squad is whether Christian Benteke, the powerful Belgian, can sustain his promising start.

Just as physical as Balotelli, but with far fewer temperamental issues, Benteke has shown he can be more of a heading battering ram.

Rodgers, like Everton's Roberto Martinez, came up through smaller clubs - notably Swansea - preaching the essence of passing.

Last week, Everton's win at Southampton mixed things up with plenty of direct balls hit long out of defence. Everton won 3-0, and the pressure on Martinez eased considerably.

We should not tune in to the Arsenal v Liverpool game expecting both sides to hit high and make it a game of blood and thunder. Neither manager is ready for surrender, but both are edging towards compromise.

Rodgers knows he needs a far, far better season if his American bosses are going to keep faith in him. But Liverpool go to Arsenal after only one win there in 15 visits, and were hammered 4-1 by Arsenal in April.

Since then, for the second summer in a row, John W. Henry's Boston group of owners have backed huge, almost revolutionary, changes at Liverpool.

The previous season turnover was forced by Luis Suarez demanding a move to Barcelona. This time, Raheem Sterling gave Liverpool no choice but to trade him to Manchester City.

The £75 million (S$165 million) for Suarez and almost £50 million for Sterling was recycled in wholesale changes. Some, like Mario Balotelli, represented money down the drain because either the Liverpool board's expectation that they were buying a superstar, or Rodgers' unfounded confidence that he could coach him, proved baseless.

Balotelli is still at Anfield, but dressed up to his dangling earrings as a massively overpaid spectator in the stands. Liverpool would take buttons rather than expect to recoup the£16 million (and the huge salary) gambled on the Italian.

Other purchases have proved more solid. Rodgers spotted the potential in Philippe Coutinho, and is proving that even a comparatively small and slight Brazilian can flourish in the Premier League.

Coutinho's creativity, and his spectacular goals, are the pure stuff all right. So now, the manager has gone for a Brazilian again, paying a huge slice of the Sterling money for Roberto Firmino.

However, the real experiment of this second rebuilding of Rodgers' squad is whether Christian Benteke, the powerful Belgian, can sustain his promising start.

Just as physical as Balotelli, but with far fewer temperamental issues, Benteke has shown he can be more of a heading battering ram - which is just as well since Liverpool does not provide much from the flanks into the box.

Rodgers last week praised Benteke's "hold up play", meaning that the striker was willing to spend much of the game with his back to goal, shielding the ball and bringing midfield colleagues into play.

That element, the cautious way of using such a striking athlete as Benteke, hints at the pressure that Rodgers admits he feels to hold onto his job.

The Americans will not tolerate another season of finishing seventh, or any finish outside the top four and consequent Champions League qualification.

This time, they might be right to judge their manager, or head coach as Americans see it, on how the newly re-financed team shapes up.

And whenever a manager is pressurised at Anfield, the legacy of Bill Shankly is raised.

Shanks died in 1981. He last managed Liverpool over 40 years ago. Yet because he achieved such cult status, the scribes evoke his memory whenever a manager struggles against the headwinds of Man City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal atop the table.

Living in Shankly's shadow was not a problem for Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, the two men who directly succeeded him.

That was because they were Liverpool to their boots. They, particularly Paisley, were the common sense behind some of Bill Shankly's stirring rhetoric.

Shanks, to be sure, breathed the defiant spirit into Anfield. But Bob and Joe were in the back room, or the "boot room" (literally a cupboard beneath the stairs where boots were kept and the coaches had tea).

When Paisley came up for air, he not only succeeded Shankly, but he also transcended his achievements. From 1974-1983, Paisley's Reds won the league six times, won the European Cup three times, and in all collected 19 pieces of silverware.

Before Bob stepped down, I spent my most enlightened day in the company of any football figure talking to him, or rather listening, about the Liverpool way. And when Fagan took his turn, he too saw the Reds through to a league title.

So the mystique of Shankly was not totally around one man.

Arsenal, in fact, are far more of a singular club given the two decades, and counting, under Wenger's philosophy.

Yes, it is changing before our eyes. But maybe not his because while all around were talking about greater teamwork and more direct style last week, Wenger picked out Mesut Oezil as the outstanding player on the pitch.

He would, wouldn't he. Oezil's game is built on passing, and Wenger, like Gandhi, is not inclined to sacrifice the fundamentals.

ARSENAL v LIVERPOOL
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Real teamwork must be based on a passing interest'. Print Edition | Subscribe