The footballing fraternity may well be surprised at Arsenal’s recent transformation from perennial underachievers to plausible title contenders, and while many perhaps seem at a loss as to where to attribute the progression, for me it’s clearly down to Assistant Manager, Steve Bould.
Bould was linked with the role of Assistant Manager at Arsenal in early 2011 when rumours began to circulate that Pat Rice (fingers crossed he is successful in overcoming his recent cancer diagnosis) was ready to step down from the role. Indeed, Arsene Wenger was forced to comment on the subject in January that year, stressing that he “200 per cent” wanted Rice to continue, before revealing that Rice’s contract was due to expire at the end of that season.
The speculation evidently had some basis in reality, as Rice did want to retire at the end of the 2010/2011 season, upon which Steve Bould was offered the position. However, Bould - in charge of the youth team at the time - turned down the role due to concerns over whether he would be allowed full access to first team coaching, and the fact that should Wenger have been relieved of his duties, he too would likely find himself out of a job.
Rice was therefore convinced to stay for one further season while Wenger extended his search for a replacement. At one point, existing first team coach Neil Banfield was touted as the favourite to take the role, yet when this did not materialise, and with Wenger loathe to look towards an outsider that might question his philosophies, he returned to Bould having obviously made concessions that went beyond him simply being the guy that hands out the bibs at training.
After a good start to the 2011/2012 season in defensive terms; with three clean sheets in the first three games, Wenger claimed Bould had ”taken over from Pat Rice for the defensive job where he is doing very well.”, however, before the New Year Arsenal’s collective defending had once again fallen into the usual bad habits. In the first 13 games of the season, Arsenal conceded 11 goals, in the next 13 they conceded double that amount. Something had clearly gone backwards in training.
Tensions rose after a 2-0 home defeat to Swansea on the 1st December 2012, with reports of Bould tearing into the players amidst a growing rift with Wenger due to Bould’s increasing frustration at his lack of input on the training ground. It appears Wenger was renegading on his promise.
Yes, Bould had been allowed to work separately with the defence earlier in the season, but these sessions had stopped and it is understood that Wenger was unable to take training the day before the 2-0 defeat to Swansea, yet the session was not led by Bould.
Perhaps Wenger did not like Bould taking the credit for the defensive improvement in the team, in the same way he had disliked the recognition given to Martin Keown who occupied a temporary role of specialist defence coach in 2006; guiding Arsenal to a Champions League final where the club set a new competition record for minutes played without conceding a goal.
Certain players were also understood to want more defensive-based training sessions, notably Bacary Sagna, whose form had noticeably nosedived since joining the club; he subsequently refused to sign a new contract.
On the pitch, there was worse to come, including an embarrassing defeat away to Bradford in the Carling Cup and later Championship side Blackburn in the FA Cup, with Arsenal conceding a further 29 goals from January 1 up until the 2-1 away defeat at Spurs in early March.
You could clearly see the friction on the touchline during games, with Bould and Wenger hardly communicating with each other; the former often mouthing barely concealed words of contempt as the ball kept hitting the back of Arsenal’s net.
Clearly, something had to change. With antagonism towards Wenger from Arsenal supporters at an all-time high, CEO Ivan Gazidis made a rare criticism of Wenger after the Bradford debacle, stating. “I think I am frankly tired of getting up here and delivering the same message… Last night was not good enough and it made us all upset and angry. I would like to apologise to all of you, especially the fans who travelled up there. You deserved better.”
With Arsenal set for another battle for fourth place against an emerging Spurs side, and Wenger clearly fearing for his job, it appears he now had little choice but to grant Bould the access he craved - the rest, as they say, is history. With Bould back working with the squad on defensive shape, both individually and collectively, Arsenal conceded just 5 goals in the remaining 11 games, securing fourth place on the last day of the season.
Just as Sir Alex Ferguson did not know how to put on a training session and so appointed coaches to do the job he couldn’t, Wenger had no choice but to make a decision: risk losing his job and the humiliation that goes with it, or make some concessions and allow the role of his number two to extend beyond being a ‘yes’ man, even if it meant somebody other than him taking the credit for the team’s performance.
Moving into this season, new signings have helped further the enormous progress Bould has overseen as Assistant Manager since the tail end of last season. The acquisition of Flamini on a free transfer and the board’s early Christmas present to Wenger of Mesut Ozil has helped transform the psyche of the players from doubt and timidity to conceivable Premier League challengers – albeit the biggest psychological tests still to come.
Although Bould should not take all the credit, history has proved that, on his own terms, Wenger would not have been capable of instilling the defensive discipline that has been the backbone of Arsenal’s form over the past 10 months. Without Bould, Arsenal would still be defending like showroom dummies, and Wenger might well have been given the shove last summer. Wenger clearly has a lot a lot to thank Bould for, as do the Arsenal supporters.
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