The value of knowing your enemy; a cautionary tale from North Rhein-Westphalia and other locations

Are any of us all that surprised about the events that took place at the Westfalenstadion on Tuesday night?  I for one am not, and maybe that is part of the overall problem surrounding Arsenal Football Club these days.  This will not be a piece reviewing the match, but more so my personal reactions, which I can only hope cause some discussions and debate to be generated amongst ourselves.

To put the matter bluntly, we were not prepared to face Dortmund.  Despite their list of injuries to first-team personnel being far longer than ours, we were still played off the park from the first minute.  Apart from the odd chance or two (quite a few chances fell to Danny Welbeck actually, who has proven that he will not morph into the second coming of Thierry Henry, despite many hoping for such an occurrence), we had nothing on the night that ever caused Dortmund more than a slight moment of pause.

Yes , we were awful, but what so many people are failing to mention in the aftermath, is that our performance on the night (and perhaps the result itself) was completely avoidable.  Have we not run into Dortmund time and time again in the last three or four seasons? And each time, was Jurgen Klopp not the man at the helm, deploying in similar if not exact fashion on each occasion?  Yes he was without Marco Reus, Jakub Blaszczekowski, Ilkay Gundogan and a few other first-team regulars, but Dortmund were always going to deploy in the same fashion - I knew it, you knew it, Jurgen Klopp knew it, and worst of all, Wenger knew it, but did nothing about it.

Clap it up Klopp, you never had a care in the world did you...(image courtesy of Borussia Dortmund's official Facebook page)

Hannibal Barca and his Carthaginian army slaughtered nearly 70,000 Romans at Cannae because he knew exactly how to defeat them on the battlefield each time he faced them - Roman pragmatism and tactical systems were too engrained in their commanders, none of whom were willing to change their ways and it resulted in disaster.  Arsenal, yet again, were played off the park by equal or superior opposition, because everyone knows how to deploy against us and how to target the weaknesses in our tactics that are the same week in end and week out regardless of who the opposition is.

They key to tactical success on the pitch is not always trying to fix your system, it's about finding out the best way to counter your enemy.  Klopp was never going to deploy in any other way than he did on Tuesday, but he was confident in his own system because he knew we would not counter him, and in turn, the fate of the match was sealed before it began.

While I do not want this piece to divulge into a rant about tactics, the nature of this piece is about gaining intelligence on your opponent, but more importantly, what you do with it once you have it.

Again, think back to the fact that we have come up against Dortmund plenty in our recent Champions League future - would it not be sensible to think that, knowing how much pace they have, how direct they play, and how they often times target the center of the defense via diagonal runs from wider and deeper areas, why did we deploy the way we did?

Ask yourselves the two following questions, bearing in mind the knowledge of how Dortmund play

  • Why were our fullbacks instructed to not sit back and defend more rather than always maraud forward?
  • Why did we play a high line with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, even though every German knows just how exposed BFG is given his blatant lack of pace?

A prime example of how Klopp addressed our weaknesses was not by changing the way Dortmund play (which obviously did not happen), it was by a simple change in formation.  Dortmund usually play with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, but on Tuesday, Klopp fielded a 4-3-1-2, and he did this for two reasons; First, to clog the midfield with Sven Bender (why we have not pushed harder to get him, I don't know), Sebastian Kehl and Kevin Grosskreutz - hard working midfielders who could (and did) shut down Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere, while at the same time offering added support to their fullbacks in dealing with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.

Speed demons Ciro Immobile and Pierre-Emerick Aubmeyang found space to their hearts content all evening, a testament that Klopp did his homework (image courtesy of Borussia Dortmund's official Facebook page)

Second, and more important, was the change of the attacking players.  Up till now, new striker Adrian Ramos has been one of their best performers, but being that he is a target man and lacks a bit of pace, he would not be able to effectively expose BFG the way Klopp needed, so he opted for Italian international and fellow new kid on the block Ciro Immobile instead.  Immobile would parter Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up top, and if you failed to realize just how much of a speed demon the the Gabonese striker is, you were reminded all evening.  Henrikh Mkhitaryan slotted behind the forward pair and ahead of the midfield trio, and hey would be key.  While the Armenian international would spend most of his time threatening central areas and trying to draw out one of our center-backs or exposing Arteta, Immobile and PEA routinely found space in behind Kieran Gibbs and youngster Hector Bellerin.  Once space was found, they were left with the freedom of choice to continue their runs out wide, or make a diagonal run; 90% of the time they opted for the diagonal run, and who can blame them.

The average person may blame Gibbs and Bellerin, but is that wise?  They did not go about their business because they wanted to, they did so because they were instructed to by Wenger.  Why were they instructed to?  Because these are the same instructions given each and every week, against each side we play, regardless if we are at the Emirates or away.  All that this means, is that far too many managers know how to play against us to exploit our weaknesses, while we make zero efforts to counter our opponents weaknesses in similar fashion - we're just far too busy playing the same football week in and week out, and somehow people are still shocked that we get trounced by any side that has a quality manager and good talent on the pitch.

The hardest truth to take away from Tuesday was not that we got obliterated, it's that it has happened so many times before, and that it will certainly happen again.  If you think back to last season when we were thrashed by City, Chelsea and Liverpool, you'll remember that they all killed us in the same way, and targeted the same exposed areas.  This is nothing knew, and what grinds my gears about it all is that it is one-hundred percent avoidable.

Many will always claim that Arsene Wenger is a genius, an innovator and one of the best managers in the world, but it is neither genius nor innovative to continuously make the same mistakes.  This it not a Wenger hate blog, it must be said that such pragmatism in a manager is unacceptable.

So yes Arsene, there is value in knowing your enemy.  And while it can be seen as commendable that you continuously put faith in the way you do things, go back in time and ask the Romans how that worked out for them near a little unknown village in the south east of Italy.