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UNC Basketball: Distant Cousins

How UNC basketball is just like Arsenal Football Club.

Arsenal v Chelsea - Premier League - Emirates Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Last Thursday, SB Nation’s Arsenal site The Short Fuse tweeted about overlap between their beloved football club and UNC:

This is a link that I noticed when I lived in England from 2012-16. It was during this time that I fell in love with Arsenal. To clarify for the uninitiated, the Arsenal links are borne from Arsène Wenger’s period in charge of the club to the Roy Williams era of UNC basketball.

Wenger’s Arsenal squads and Roy Williams’ teams both shared characteristics that endeared themselves to fans, attracted the eyes of neutrals, and had fatal flaws that hindered team performance. Let’s examine them a little more closely.

Attacking Philosophies

Carolina fans know that Roy Williams liked to put the pedal to the metal on offense. Roy’s overall philosophy was that his talent advantage over other teams would be best applied with more possessions. Therefore, he prioritized pace and rebounding. In his 18 seasons in Chapel Hill, Roy’s teams averaged 81.1 ppg, and only in the disastrous 2019-20 season did Carolina’s points per game fall below their opponents’ season average.

Roy was one of the last proponents of two-big basketball, with two traditional posts that would dominate rebounding, but clog interior space and subsequent driving lanes. He was only able to peak out of his cave on occasion, notably when he had a stretch-four like Luke Maye who could shoot from distance, but still rebound.

Arsène Wenger was a proponent of fluid, attacking football, inspired by Ajax (Amsterdam club) and Dutch “Total Football.” Like Roy, Arsène wanted his players to be proactive and force their game on opponents, saying, “Overall our policy is to try to play our game because it’s the qualities of our players. I think the system of the team is to adapt to the quality of the players because we have so many offensive players. We just play to our strengths.”

Wenger did not become pragmatic until the end of his tenure. He loathed packing his lines to defend and cede possession. He only began to make his teams more compact after several heavy defeats from superior sides, and as he saw that football was evolving to become more counter-attacking.

Even if success was guaranteed, UNC fans would loathe watching a Virginia-style of offense, just as Arsenal fans would hate to see a Jose Mourinho-inspired “park the bus” strategy implemented. It goes against their DNA in both instances. Roy and Wenger would agree.

Beauty in Athletic Endeavor

Both Arsenal and UNC basketball made their sports beautiful by doing simple things really well. The secondary break really just amounts to getting a rebound, and then immediately pushing the ball downcourt, with big men who can run to the rim behind their defenders. When done correctly, it leads to easy baskets, and with the right athletes, highlight-worthy dunks.

In their heyday, Arsenal were the masters of one-touch football, with creative midfielders all over the pitch moving in concert, pinging passes (some easy, some audacious) through the midfield, up to an opponent’s 18-yard box, and more often than not, into the back of the net with a simple tap-in. Wenger has been accused of trying to walk the ball into the net rather than heaving crosses into the box for behemoth center forwards to head in. When Wenger’s players were all on-song, they were capable of this type of football:

Building New Homes

When Roy Williams arrived in Chapel Hill as head coach in 2003, UNC was already firmly entrenched in the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center, affectionately known as the Dean Dome. But when he was a student and then assistant coach, he worked at the Tar Heels’ previous home, Carmichael Auditorium.

The Dean Dome is famous for its enormous rafters, filled with the jerseys of Carolina greats and punctuated by the program’s seven national championship banners. It has been said that the Dean Dome, for all its increased seating capacity brings, lacks a bit of the intimidation that Carmichael had. The new building isn’t quite as loud and the crowd is too “wine and cheese.”

Arsenal faced similar criticisms when they moved from their ancestral home at Highbury to the newer, bigger, more modern Emirates Stadium. Highbury was a traditional English four-stand stadium (there is no concourse where you can walk around the entire stadium). The seating was limited and there were no luxury boxes.

Emirates Stadium, financed and built by the club with no government aid, seats over 20,000 more fans and has three tiers of seating, with the middle tier holding 7,139 club-level seats and 2,222 luxury box seats. This middle tier is derisively described as “prawn sandwich seats” and the wealthy London residents who occupy those seats are looked at skeptically in a similar fashion to the “blue-hairs” that roost on the floor seats at the Dean Dome.

Both UNC and Arsenal had excellent reasons for moving to more spacious digs, and the money generated by their bigger stadiums in large part permits them to compete at the highest level of their respective sports. Most die-hards from both programs will agree that a piece of their souls were lost at their previous homes, and that no matter how much money the new facilities bring, team spirit will never be as good as it was at the old place.

Substitutes

Roy was blamed for playing too many subs early in the season. Wenger was blamed for not bringing subs on early enough to change games when Plan A wasn’t going well. If you loved complaining about subs, these two men were the coaches for you.

Teams at a Crossroads

European football is not a place where coaches build longevity. Most coaches either leave or get sacked within three years of taking a job, especially at the top-tier clubs. Arsène Wenger was at Arsenal for 23 years. Roy Williams was at North Carolina for 18. These men became institutions. For many fans, especially young ones, these coaches were all they ever knew.

As a Tar Heel fan, I’m very nervous about what the future of the program will look like now that Roy has retired. I saw the turmoil that overcame Arsenal ever since he left, with Unai Emery fired after 1.5 seasons, and Mikel Arteta on shaky ground in the very beginning of his second full season. Cracks were already in the foundation before Wenger left, but they are showing cascading effects as the months move ahead.

Roy Williams had similar issues prior to his departure. His recruiting had picked up after the end of the AFAM investigation, but years of missing out on targeted recruits had taken a toll. Fortunately, with Hubert Davis taking over, there is a level of continuity that didn’t exist for Arsenal with Emery’s appointment. The Spanish terrorist never worked with Wenger and had an almost diametrically opposite view on how to play football. Hopefully Coach Davis will keep most of Roy’s philosophy while making necessary tweaks to align the team closer to the modern game.

Ol’ Roy and Le Professeur are both legendary coaches. Both constructed all-time great teams that were offensively-minded. They were terrific to watch and terrifying to play against. Arsenal fans have seen tremendous amounts of success, but often feel tortured by inexplicable losses. Does that sound familiar to any UNC fans?

For any Premier League neutrals out there, there’s really only one club you can support if you’re a Tar Heel. North London is red.

Kentucky v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Arsenal v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images