Why Doesn’t Jonathan Wilson Coach Arsenal?

Jonathan Wilson's serious face.

It’s a question I’m sure you’ve all asked yourself (OK, some of you). There are a ton of tactical geniuses out there on Twitter, populating the blogosphere, bloviating on player selection, formations, and all the little nuts and bolts type stuff we all love. Some of them are very, very good at it. Reading Zonal Marking and Jonathan Wilson’s The Question had the dual effect of deepening my understanding of the game and elevating my passion for it. Sure, there are only a few distinct possible teamsheets the average major club can put out for any given match; but reading post after post during the World Cup where Michael Cox begins it “X started out as we thought” was pretty impressive. These tactical philosophers suggest tactical switches mid-game, and those switches (when they happen) seem to bear fruit. They diagnose squad problems, break down matches like chess games, and are diversely able to evaluate young talent, obscure talent, obscure teams, and the sort of intense hodgepodge that’s made them famous. For me, it begs the question: why doesn’t a major team begin paying them money for consulting purposes?

Sure, perhaps the question is a bit sophomoric. In all likelihood, every single major club has multiple salaried staff members I don’t know about who read the game as intelligently (if not more intelligently) than all the bloggers I admire. Former players, coaches, friends, friends of friends, you name it. But if you’re a team like, say Real Madrid, who have gobs of talent and is on a four-game losing streak, what are all these salaried tacticians doing? The head coach gets the blame, but surely he doesn’t make every single tactical decision on his own (well, I’m sure Mourinho does actually).
Imagine the meta brou-ha-ha that would ensue if you woke up one morning to a tweet that read: “Arsenal looking to @Zonal_Marking to solve unbeaten run, apparently.” Journalists would go nuts at the idea they could be pursued like players; they’d make punny funs on transfer fees, fitness levels, attitude adjustments until they broke the damn thing. It would be fun, but would it work?

Good job, Jonathan. Good job.

It’s an open, rhetorical question that I’m not positive I’d be able to answer without seeing it in action (although, faithful O87 reader, please let me know if this has happened and I’m too green to be aware of it). But imagine this: in his own grandiose way, Sven-Goran Eriksson decides that in addition to bringing amazing physical talent like John Paintsil, Paul Konchesky, and David Nugent (as well as hinting at signing Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Dunga), he is going to hire Jonathan Wilson on a one-month trial controlling the team’s tactics. The reactions would be diverse: from the non-intellectual non-Twitter sphere cries of disgust, incredulity, and general indifference erupt; from the intellectual Twitter (those two really shouldn’t be lumped together) community, interest mixes with fascination mixes with disbelief mixes with wait-and-see withholding; from the player coach world a mild insider-who-is-this-guy-this-isn’t-right-give-me-’Arry-or-Big-Sam-any-day discomfort accompanies general ignorance. Despite the intense scrutiny, Wilson goes anyway. And you know what, Leicester start the season on a five match unbeaten run playing a classic 4-4-2.

What happens then? Does Leicester gain promotion and steadily build towards a consistent Europa League team? Do teams everywhere begin looking to journalists and bloggers for outside consulting? Does Wilson’s success inaugurate the rise of a purely tactics driven approach to soccer, squeezing out the old denizens of the “put the best XI players out on the pitch” ethos? Probably not. Ostensibly, this approach has been considered by several major European clubs, and ostensibly it hasn’t been adopted for several good reasons. The fact that there’s more to soccer (and sport in general) than the interplay of formations and mid-game coaching directives is in part what makes it so fascinating and inspiring. Take the 2005 Champions League Final, for instance: after going down 3-0 before the half to AC Milan, Liverpool came back out and played three defenders at the back in an attempt to completely go for broke. Whatever pep talk Rafa Benitez gave in the dressing room must have done something (or perhaps he just gave them a bottle of “Michael’s Secret Stuff), because Pool came out and almost immediately scored three goals to tie the game (and eventually win it on penalties). Whereas some of comeback can surely be credited to the tactical switch, another indefinitely large pie slice should go to the halftime talk Benitez gave, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher’s leadership abilities, or the general team unity which is crucial to seeing those kind of comebacks happen.

You earned it, buddy.

Bringing the question back round to the beginning, why doesn’t a struggling Premier League side hire one of the tactical geniuses in our midst? That’s a question I’ll be unable to answer (although if you feel you do have an answer, don’t be afraid to Tweet us and/or comment). The closest I can get is to say that there is too much money involved in the running of the average team to take the financial and social risk of hiring an unproven commenter on the game. It would be like if Manchester United were driving around some part of the world, saw a couple of small sided games for a couple of obscure teams, and one player (who was formerly homeless) seriously impressed one scout who then called up Fergie and said you have to sign this guy (I’m making a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the Bebe signing, if that analogy was too opaque or badly written for you). Too much risk, too much of a divide between a role as professional commentator and professional coach, too much at stake. That said, it would be freaking awesome if it happened.

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