Speed of passing remains key for Arsène Wenger’s side

June 6, 2010 at 10:00 am | Posted in Arsenal | 31 Comments
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Despite seeing his side outclassed at Camp Nou last season, technical efficiency and movement remains Arsenal’s forte.
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Theo Walcott apparently personifies the stereotypical anatomy of English football; that of “kick and rush.”  All running and no brain he is, according to Chris Waddle. His exclusion from the England squad indicates that Fabio Capello is looking for a more methodical approach which, in all likelihood, may see the Three Lions revert back to the rigidness and “organised muscularity” that has been both the bane and brilliance of England during the years.

Theo Walcott does have his fans however with Brazil’s World Cup winning captain in 1970, Carlos Alberto* picking out the winger-come-striker as the type of player who can offer his team a direct outlet to break from the compactness and short passing likely to be displayed by many teams in the World Cup.

Speed will not beat brains – but it is increasingly about teams having the balance of the two. Speaking of Zinedine Zidane, director of Real Madrid Jorge Valdano said the Frenchman’s “advances are slow but his decisions are agile.” What Valdano means is that, in a rapidly moving game, what set him apart  was his speed of thought and execution. Indeed analysts at the German Sport University Cologne found that the essence of European football nowadays is speed: players are running more (an average of 10 kilometres, 6.2 miles per game) and the ball is circulating quicker therefore decisions need to be made in a snap (the deepest midfielder is typically in possession of the ball for an average of less than one second per contact). At particular moments of Hiddink’s reign and in the second half of this season, Micheal Ballack has been preferred to the more cumbersome Jon Obi Mikel and indeed, German coach Joachim Löw will need to find a solution to his captain’s efficient distribution following his injury. (The finding from the university helped shape Löw’s Euro 2008 tactics and one such ploy was to force opposing wingers inside to the compact block – a tactic which is increasingly prevalent in Europe).

Ruud Gullit waxed lyrical about Wesley Sneijder’s technical efficiency during the Champions League final, effusively highlighting  that Sneijder rarely touches the ball twice in attacking movements and always finds the opportunity to make quick first-time passes to stretch opposition defences. Paul Simpson, editor of Champions magazine, in contrast analysed opponents Bayern Munich’s sloth-like decision-making – this coming from the side who’s rapid interchange of the ball from left to right – with ten men – brutally tired Lyon into submission in the semi-finals. “The only way to beat Inter was to attack them at speed – by that I don’t just mean physical pace but the speed with which the ball travels – and Bayern’s players sometimes took seven touches before passing,” wrote Paul Simpson.

Speed of passing is not lost on Arsène Wenger also who has always modelled his sides on being mobile and technically above the rest. However, despite seeing his side outclassed in that respect by Barcelona’s magicians, Wenger still remains committed to sticking with his philosophies. “Both sides like to play a quick passing game,” he said when discussing the scant positives of the 6-3 aggregate defeat.

The changes in season 2009/10 had sought to make his side more dynamic which, while on the whole have worked, the degree of its effectiveness has been severely affected by injuries and inexperience hindering decision-making and tactical awareness so crucial to the system. In particular, the attacking momentum seemed to suffer with the loss of key forwards – chiefly Robin van Persie (although you can also put a big case forward for Nicklas Bendtner too).

Wenger sees van Persie in the Marco van Basten type mould, having seemingly revised his Dennis Bergkamp type comparisons only the season before. The statistics indicating to him was that van Persie was more suited to making quick decisions higher up the pitch rather than in the hole where he would occasionally take that split second longer, anticipating for the movement he essentially should be at the end of. “Technical superiority can be measured,” said Wenger in Total Youth Football Magazine in 2008. “If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games – 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.” Former Arsenal midfielder, Stewart Robson is in agreement also: “The key to Arsenal playing well, being penetrative and dynamic, is when players turn on the ball,” says former Arsenal midfielder Stewart Robson. “When they’ve got their back to goal, suddenly they turn and look to play the next ball forward. Van Persie is brilliant is that, he can turn and run with the ball. He makes goals, he scores goals and with that left foot he is a constant threat.”

In midfield, Alex Song carries the same get-and-give efficiency that convinced Wenger to splash out on Gilberto Silva after the 2002 World Cup while love him or hate him, Abou Diaby’s transition from defence to attack will be a key weapon in years to come. But much still depends on captain Cesc Fabregas’ influence and whose tug of war with his heart-strings Arsenal must win. The notion that he will not get into the Barcelona side is wrong as there is not a more penetrative central midfielder in world football as Cesc Fabregas (although he is at the moment not Pep Guardiola’s first choice recruit).

Certainly with the uncertainty surrounding Fabregas’ future and Marouane Chamakh’s arrival, much anticipation surrounds the way Arsenal will line-up next season. Chamakh could certainly slot into the right side of the three-pronged attack although it is not his best position while a popular move would be to push Andrey Arshavin behind the main forward to boost penetration should Fabregas not remain. “You see that a guy never loses the ball, so you look at the number of times he passes the ball forward,” says Arsène Wenger. “You can get to the point where you can say, ‘I prefer the one who loses the ball a bit more but tries to play it forward.’” Wenger is adamant, however, that the Russian’s one-on-one skills aid the team better on the flanks.

Nevertheless, just as Carlos Alberto saw key earlier on, how Arsène Wenger sets out his side next season will just as much be about a team which produces his love for endless triangular passing as the ability to break away from such intricate patterns.

*Correction: The initial draft highlighted Carlos Alberto Parreira as commenting on Theo Walcott’s usefulness. That indeed was actually Carlos Alberto, former Brazil captain.

**NB: With the World Cup approaching, the blog will be switching its attention to matters regarding the tournament, providing analysis and features, and where relevant, an Arsenal focus. Stay tuned!

Tweaked Arsenal aim to capitalise on Cesc Fábregas’ craft

February 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 34 Comments
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Arsene Wenger has made three slight adjustments to his side following key defeats in the league, one of them pushing Cesc Fábregas higher up.
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Oscar Wilde once wrote, “experience is simply the name we give our mistakes” but following the defeat to FC Porto in the Champions League where two errors gifted the tie, Cesc Fábregas has had enough of experience. Defeats to Chelsea and Manchester United where avoidable goals had put Arsenal out of the contest had already irked the captain enough, his body language in those matches displaying an air of resignation and Arsène Wenger has seemingly caught Fábregas’ drift – and responded by playing him higher up the pitch.

The need for slight adjustments had been somewhat displayed before those crucial matches, with Everton, Aston Villa and Bolton not just stifling Arsenal’s fluency to certain extent but also creating their fair share of dangerous opportunities. Wenger could not use the excuse, conceding chances is the “consequence of our philosophy a bit” which at the start of the season was compensated by the effectiveness in which Arsenal tore apart teams, as those sides had already took the game to Arsenal. Cesc Fábregas had already shown his importance to the side by coming off the bench to inspire the Gunners to a 3-0 win over Aston Villa at home although Arsenal had already put in a good team performance but lacking bite and has been the main benefactor of tackling high up the pitch. However, with much of Arsenal’s best success this season based on a holistic culture, could alleviating someone’s role disrupt the balance of the team?

In the past three matches, Wenger has sent his side out in an asymmetric 4-3-3 formation which could almost be described as a 4-2-Fábregas-3 given the amount of freedom the Spaniard has been granted and entrusted to do that higher up the pitch. Unlike last season in which Fábregas looked lost at times in the role, this season he has added greater penetration to his game, scoring 12 goals in 23 games and making 13 assists to boot. “He has become a complete midfielder because he can defend now, he has kept his vision and I believe he has added some physical power to his game,” said Wenger. “If you compare Fabregas two years ago and today, physically they are completely different. He has got that injection of power to his body and that makes him a different player.”

Playing asymmetrically is much to do with granting an euphoric mind-set and defensively is all about chain reactions. The two midfielders behind Fábregas do not play as a double shield but one slightly slanted to the left and pushing on a bit. In recent games, that role has been engaged by Diaby and Ramsey and tellingly they have been instructed to be more disciplined. This is so the flanks are less exposed in the defensive phase and Arsenal are not under-manned in the centre. Alex Song though remains the glue in an attempt to keep the side compact and his intensity, interceptions and anticipation help stem the oppositions raids. He has also against Liverpool and Sunderland allowed Emmanuel Eboue to flourish and as Slaven Bilic so expertly analysed, when playing with two covering midfielders the side must allow the full backs to bomb forward. The Ivorian’s urgency has been a plus in defensive transitions as Wenger looks to instruct his full-backs to get more tighter to the winger while curiously, unlike most defenders who profit from being initially unmarked by attacking on the outside, he has benefited from Arsenal’s stretching of play to cause havoc by foraging inside. One would wonder how even more devastating Maicon of Inter Milan would be if a similar ploy could be replicated at his club.

The tweak however is not just a reactionary fix; it is hoped it will rekindle the early season mentality where it was all about collectivism and will give Fábregas the chance to play more naturally, where eventually he starts deep and pushes on ‘between the lines’ as offered by the re-discovered balance. “Cesc likes to be at the start of things and then get on the end of things,” said Wenger early on in the season, explaining his desired intentions. “And he can push forward more this season because he has two players around him who can defend.”

Arsène Wenger planning to keep it in the family

January 7, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 7 Comments
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Arsène Wenger feels keeping his talented groups of players will allow much future success as inspired by Ajax’s “Total Football” sides.
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Arsène Wenger was keen to avoid any comparative superlatives with the late 60s and early 70s Ajax sides in 2004 but if his current side realise their fledgling potential, they should comfortably sit alongside the legendary Dutch team.

Emblazoned on the walls of Ajax’s academy are photographs of players who have painted a rich of history of the club; Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edwin van der Sar to name a few. The icing on the cake? All came through club’s fabled youth system and it is that which had kept them consistently challenging in Europe until the late 90′s. “If you have a good youth development system,” says Cruyff, now part-time Catalunya coach. “Then it is obvious first team will one day be good too. It’s not hard to get things right; all that is required is a lot of hard work.”

But as the game became increasingly globalised and money took over (the Bosman rule has also had a particularly adverse effect), they find themselves in a precarious position. Nevertheless it’s the culture, the shared heritage and philosophy that Ajax created which has been highly sought-after.

Growing up, Ajax were the pin-up side for Wenger and have certainly played a part in shaping the manager’s thinking. “Ajax were certainly the first team in relation to my generation because they had the perfect players everywhere,” he said. Rinus Michels, the then coach watched his side grow up almost organically during the ‘Gloria Ajax’ era; a group of supremely talented players from the academy led by Johan Cruyff would garner an almost telepathic understanding and on the pitch that would be allowed to be expressed through rapid passing, pressuring together and the interchangeing of positions. And it’s this philosophy that’s not far removed from the one at the Emirates.

“I want to have success by building a team with a style, a know-how, with a culture of play specific to the club and it’s fans and with young people,” said Arsène Wenger. “Our purpose is not to say are we a great team or not but to try to improve, try to get better. You don’t try to copy. I try every time to add good players to the team based on movement and technique. We know we are mobile, we know we are technically good.”

Wenger has given Arsenal a style to rival that Ajax side, an illustrious history (although with a lack of consistency) and a youth system renowned worldwide for educating the best. “We are able to attract the most promising prospects because we have a calling card stamped Arsène Wenger,” says Gilles Grimandi. (Incidentally, Arsenal are set to profit not only from the more densely populated London area but like the Dutch did from Suriname immigrants, the Gunners from African with promising youngsters such as Benik Afobe, Chuks Aneke, Zak Ansah and Emmanuel Frimpong coming through the ranks).

The recent contract signings, 15 in total since May 2009 and with the talisman of the side, Cesc Fabregas already tied down at Arsenal for four more years, this will allow the captain to carry the current nucleus of talent forward in the next few years. Much like the Ajax team, it is thought bringing a gifted group of players forward together with a shared sense of belonging and loyalty will allow success to be sustained and create a footballing culture which evokes the same sense of collective improvisation as the “Total Football” sides.

Research by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Why England Lose – And Other Curious Football Phenomena, show why there such an importance in keeping your best players because wages dictate 92% of success. Indeed, one of the reasons former chairman David Dein is so keen to bring in an outside investor into the club is because wage bills are rising however with the strategy in place now, total wages only account to around 50-60% of total revenue, compared to around 80% for both Chelsea and Manchester United. The Gunners were able to create a team ethos and mentality in achieving their unbeaten run in 2004 and the same has applied to the recent successful Premiership sides.

Indeed in Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal board have struck more than an just oil. In the Frenchman they have an economist, a forecaster which is every bit as important because of the financial stringent placed on the club since the move to the Emirates and with Ajax’s current plight serving as a caveat. Speaking in September 2009′s International Football Arena in Zurich, the Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis said of Arsenal’s objective of keeping their best players: “We believe transfer spending is the last resort. That’s a sensible view to have. Re-signing existing players is a far more efficient system.”

Wenger expands on the importance of contract renewals, citing new player contract rules which FIFA have recently introduced but could follow the same route as the Jean-Marc Bosman case. “At the moment, after 28 you need only two years. I see the next thing coming is people saying, ‘Why is it 28 and not 27? That’s age discrimination. Why do we have to wait two years after 28 and three years before? If it goes down to two as well, you go from one extreme to the other. It could mean the disappearance of transfer fees.”

Football is very much a psychological game and Arsenal’s recent good form has owed much to keeping the group’s spirits high in the fight for the title and hopefully new era domination. “I know is that within our team we have a great hunger for success,” said Wenger. “We have great solidarity and team spirit. We are a team who has grown up together and wants to achieve things. We have not won anything yet together and that makes us hungry for success.”

Arsénal – The making of a modern of attacking super club

December 24, 2009 at 5:27 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 13 Comments
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Arséne Wenger’s trust in the spontaneity of his players owes much to Arsenal’s exciting brand of attacking football.
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“In times of transformation, not only do new problems arise; old ways of looking at things become problems themselves.” That’s the thinking that has been presented to Arsène Wenger since the move to the Emirates affected his planning on the pitch. Indeed certain points have had to be exaggerated. What was so good about the ‘Invincibles’ was that youth, fluidity, pace, creativity was backed up by discipline, tactical understanding and ruthlessness, and Wenger is aware that this second part has become difficult to replicate to the same degree because of the youth policy route they’ve decided to go down.

“Exceptional talent” it is hoped will carry the side to the next level.

Wishful thinking or achievable through careful planning, it is Arsène Wenger’s job now, through all the groundwork he’s laid, is to somehow bridge that gap despite the obvious contradictions if the maxim “experience comes with age” is to be taken at face value.

Part of that solution has been the transition to the 4-3-3 this season, suiting not only the technical abilities of the players but also the mental side. “The total [of goals scored this season] so far shows our style of play suits the team,” said Wenger. “The way we play football, the way we are organised and go forward suits our players too.” Now there is not only theoretically more angles in the pass for Arsenal to play intricate triangles but also help stretch sides and become more dynamic. Robin van Persie was the fulcrum which play revolved around and his injury, and to those of others have seen a slight downturn in the impressiveness of their performance since the start of the season. Maybe the grueling schedule is also starting to catch up on them as the demands placed on such young bodies to play such an expansive style cannot always be consistently maintained. Indeed one of the key details of the system change has seen the players look to asphyxiate opponents through intense pressure, augmenting their developing tactical sense which naturally favours defend from the front. One of the key beneficiaries of this has been Alex Song, whose role is now of much importance to the way the team functions.

“I know that my position is crucial in the team,” the 22-year-old told The London Evening Standard. “When everyone is attacking, I want to hold, so that if we lose the ball I’m the first defender in the midfield to stop any counter-attacks and passes coming through. It’s a vital role – I just need to close quickly and give the ball forward when I receive it. This year we have done well, everyone’s contribution when we have lost the ball has been very good. We’ve turned quickly to defend just as we turn quickly to attack when we win it.”

Song’s rise highlights the freedom of psychological development Arsène Wenger gives his players and the importance of it. Pressed into the team at a young age and soon vilified for a disappointing performance in the defeat to Fulham, he went out on loan to regain some confidence. It took him a while to break through once he came back but gradually his game improved to become the rock he is now in the centre of midfield. At one moment it looked like the Cameroonian was set to become a central defender but never actually pushed, Wenger allowing his player to assimilate knowledge like a sponge so as to naturally develop his game.

Indeed training is rarely authoritative or bureaucratic. Players are expected to absorb the objective of drills (usually timed games to replicate moments of technique on the pitch) while feedback is given almost instantaneously on how to improve but never at any time meant to feel like your hand was being held or were being spoon-fed. It’s quite a contrast to the repetitious routines practiced by Rafa Benitez or Fabio Capello and while no method is definitive, it is Wenger’s trust in the spontaneity of his players which owes much to the style of football produced. In fact, back when Pep Guardiola was in charge of Barcelona’s ‘B’ side, he spent time studying Arsenal’s methods and was captivated by the way Wenger encouraged his players to express themselves on the pitch and with the pace and skill the ball was passed.

“We work a lot on the potential of combinations between players,” Wenger told French radio. “We plot it on the pitch and, once a player has the ball, there are red lights or green lights. The collective goal is to create the most possible green lights. That is to say to give passing solutions to the man with the ball and to leave the responsibility with that man to make the best choice possible, allowing the team to keep possession but at the same time – if possible – make the game progress towards the attack.

“So you must always offer the player solutions that allow him to utilise his intelligence around the game to the maximum.”

“For it to work, players must make themselves available and we work on that in training,” he told . “That’s where top-level sport becomes really interesting, in finding a way to have the team in a position of psychological comfort so that they can offer solutions. Because you know that, when doubt creeps in, the green lights become red lights. “Because each player takes fewer spontaneous initiatives and, all of a sudden, it’s absolutely unbelievable at what speed all those lights become red and the player with the ball finds himself in the shit.

“Doubt is the key enemy of our game but, eventually, we must at the same time give our team the sense of availability. And, on a psychological level, we must give them a taste for audacity and for developing connections between each other.” Indeed doubt also saw Aaron Ramsey withdrawn against Sunderland in the 1-0 defeat, the Wenger citing bad decision-making as the reason for his his bad performance. “A player who recieves the ball has to solve a millions problems within a fraction of a second; a great one is the one who chooses the right solution,” said manager in Phillipe Auclair’s Cantona: The Rebel who Would be King biography.

Fans may be beguiled by the club’s failure to land a trophy in four years but Arsène Wenger is adamant that the club will get through this tumultuous period. He has recently stated that the last four years have been his best due to the difficulties in battling against an unforgiving environment. The temporary (it is hoped) youth policy may be arguable but as researched by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Why England Lose – And Other Curious Football Phenomena, there is an importance of keeping your best players – wages dictate 92% of success. Indeed, one of the reasons former chairman David Dein is so keen to bring in an outside investor into the club is because wage bills are rising however with the strategy in place now, total wages only account to around 50% of total revenue, compared to around 80% for both Chelsea and Manchester United. The aim is to build around the current players, create a sense of belonging and loyalty thereby allowing success to be sustained.

There is more than trophies (although still a big part) the Frenchman is aiming to leave as his legacy to the club. There is a philosophy, an identity, a vision that Arsenal must strive towards, and in Arsène Wenger, a manager working his way to building an Arsenal that will last years to come.

Have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

ARSÈNAL – The Making of a Modern Superclub by Alex Fynn and Kevin Whicher highlights the outstanding progress made by “Le Professeur” in more than a decade at the club. A fabulous insight to the strategies on and off the pitch put in place by Arsène Wenger during a tumultuous period of change, expectation, struggles and some disappointment. A must read book for all Arsenal fans and specifically relevant to the current period at this great club.

Age old problem of balance has proven difficult for Arsene Wenger

May 12, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 2 Comments
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Arsene Wenger’s tactical experiments in trying to secure a balance between attack and defence from his young side, has not gone all to plan this season.
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With that defeat, Arsenal’s 21 game unbeaten league run came to an emphatic halt. And perhaps fittingly, that run which started at Chelsea and ended against the same club, reveals how much the two clubs have come since then.

On the face of it, a great deal hasn’t changed from the Chelsea under Luis Felipe Scolari and the one currently managed by Guus Hiddink. However the Dutchman has made the Blues hard to beat again, instilling a more cautious and efficient approach to their play which in reality is just like the Chelsea of old. Against Arsenal they were counter-attacking, letting their opponents to do most of the running before hitting them with a sucker-punch. The return of Essien has been most important and the Ghanaian allows the team to be more dominant in the centre and control space better.

Scolari on the other hand wanted to make Chelsea the expansive, ball-hogging side that they were not suited to, especially without the injured pair Joe Cole and Deco. Tactically they fell short, as the Brazilian coach never look to deviate from the same style of football even when the game was being chased. Nevertheless even with these adjustments Hiddink has made, it is easy to see this side is running it’s course and look more likely to struggle than Arsenal next season if much of the team remains the same.

And indeed, Arsene Wenger has admitted signings are to be made next season, who more importantly are to be players of experience because the club is overflown with stars of the future. But for some, that reinforcement should have come before the start of the season when it was apparent in the previous campaign that a lack of depth was the reason for the derailment of Arsenal’s title charge. A lot then was placed on young Denilson’s shoulders to carry the fight after a slow start but while Arsenal were decent in attack, they were not great, even Fabregas’ return couldn’t bring back the flowing football.

Five defeats and the Brazilian was at the forefront of fans’ fury, some stating he was playing in Cesc Fabregas’s areas. The truth was, that the Spaniard was playing even higher up in order to repeat the previous season’s heroics thereby exposing the young(er) midfielder.  Pressuring was a team game but the stats actually showed Denilson was mostly (and quietly) leading the charge. The handing of the captain armband to Fabregas was part of the turning point; the playmaker became a bit more disciplined and started dictating proceedings all the while adding balance to the line-up. And with the club leaking goals, Wenegr urged the full backs to be more cautious.

“At one stage we had conceded too many goals, so we encouraged our defenders to be a bit more cautious,” said Wenger. The affect of the change has been fourfold: Early in the season (though not just limited to) Arsenal were being attacked in the space vacated by Clichy and Sagna (1) while at the same time putting too much strain on Denilson (2) and the centre backs (3), who had to push up to make up the space and contribute in creating the pressure in the other end. And they are also stopping crosses coming in to the box (4), long thought to be the defences Achilles heel.

A first half barrage at the hands of the Chelsea wingers and the Arsenal defence survived with only one goal conceded. The second half saw a Van Persie double inspire the Gunners to an important win but little did he know his role would become even more crucial in the coming months. Fabregas exited injured as Arsenal lost their main creative force. “When he’s there, everything goes through him but when he’s not it can take a while to adapt because the game goes through different ways – it’s plural,” said Wenger. “When it’s Fabregas it is more one-way traffic at the start of the build-up.”

Indeed it took a while and required some tinkering, no less helped by Arshavin’s arrival. Wenger responded to a barren run in front of goal by focusing the play on getting the ball wide and up the pitch quicker. The opponents were being pressured higher up the pitch due to assurances given by the cautious full backs and the midfield shield. Nasri moved to the centre in a 4-2-3-1 and mixing the above factors together, Arsenal produced their best senior performance of the season against Roma.

Fabregas’s return saw the skipper take up the Frenchman’s role but to mixed success; while Cesc was the more incisive passer, Nasri added better balance by supporting play better. Another good performance at home to Villarreal seemed to suggest the 4-4-1-1 to be Arsenal’s best system. However with the 2-1 FA Cup defeat to Chelsea, the hard work was becoming undone and the defensive shield proving irrelevant; good against the smaller clubs but against the bigger sides it meant it invited the opponents forward. Of course Arsenal were pressing higher up the pitch but if that failed (and a simple long ball could easily undo it) meant exposing the midfield cover.

Which invariably led to the Chelsea game. The high pressure exposed Song and the back four were left with too much to cope with in front of them. It required a bit more discipline from Fabregas or Nasri (at times it was difficult to fathom who was the deeper midfielder) who without that player operating as a number 10 were all too eager to move there. Arsenal produced their best attacking display without the finishing against the best defence in the league but the balance was wrong. “I believe we have quality defenders and it’s more a case of balancing the team defensively than the quality of our defender,” Wenger explained. “I still feel I was more worried in February when we were drawing 0-0 without creating a chance. It’s always easier to correct what doesn’t work defensively; if you don’t create chances you are always more worried.”

With players like Hleb, Rosicky and Eduardo last season Arsenal were able to share creative duties while the mobility and tireless work of Flamini was priceless. The Chelsea defeat, although large shows that while the attacking part of the game was less complete the defensive side, as a team required a bit more fine-tuning. Injuries have meant the constant changing of the line-up to find the right balance and with everything the team has learned over the season, can surely be displayed with a complete performance away to United on Saturday.

Denilson can rekindle the lost art of midfield tackling

March 7, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 10 Comments
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Arsene Wenger may have bemoaned the lack of good tacklers these days but what are the reasons for the demise and does he have one right under his nose?
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“I see very few good tacklers nowadays,” said Arsene Wenger most probably reminiscing of the horrendous moment that ended Eduardo’ season and also Arsenal’s title aspirations at the same time last season. Tackling has been the talk of the Premier League in recent games with cards being dished out like confetti  for challenges where one must side with the Frenchman. Indeed a player Wenger identified as one of the lost breed of clever tacklers was involved in what was probably the worst tackle ever and one which even had his own team mate Michel Platini proclaim that he thought he was dead, because “he had no pulse and looked pale”.

Along with Patrick Battiston, Wenger bracketed Frenchmen André Chorda and Christian Lopez in the same category. “A good tackle is beautiful to watch because in the tackle the player is already making a pass, not just clearing the ball. Most of the tackles nowadays they go in blindly. When you do a good tackle you are relaxed because you master every movement.”

His description may seem fanciful and indeed looking at the profile of some  defenders, can fit quite a few in. Rio Ferdinand, Carvalho, Cannavaro (in the 2006 World Cup) and Pepe; in fact the trend nowadays is for central defenders to be mobile and technically secure. Even the arguably less aesthetically pleasing defenders such as Vidic and Terry are very adept at passing the ball. It is maybe not enough from these defenders that Wenger sees as they are not sweepers; the position the manager himself played but one which has since disappeared.

However the bulk of these rash tackles have featured midfielders with Wenger suggesting improved pitches are the reason for the lack of good tacklers. Players are able to control and turn more freely while it allows for better passing and movement. The greater technical emphasis has probably made having a specialised tackler more difficult because while they may be stronger at winning the ball back, hinder the teams passing momentum. Currently most teams play with deep lying playmakers in defensive midfield, able to initiate attacks and break down play just as the sweeper used to and with second strikers or playmakers.

Players in between channels are seen as the key to unlocking defences and one of the reasons for the demise of the box-to-box midfielder. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.”

“Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists,” says former AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi.  ”The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

“For example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend,” he said when talking about his stint as Real Madrid’s director of football . “But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”

But such defensive midfielder’s can’t have everything. They must be able to pass, be tactically aware and strong in the tackle a difficult equilibrium to find. Sacchi believed in players being able to play a number of positions and hence do more and his AC Milan team played a high pressure game with the team defending in a organised defensive unit. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Defending is such a way allows for greater balance especially as deep playmakers are converted attacking midfielders in some cases (Pirlo, S. Petrov, Murphy, Scholes, Denilson) and while there is more utilisation of the dual defensive midfield shield that allows organisation.

For Arsenal the departure of Matthieu Flamini has had a great effect;  hardworking and strong positionally and in the tackle as well. The only weakness was his limited technical ability but in his replacement, Denilson can offer more. Like all great defenders, at most times they are not required to even make a tackle to win the ball as his interception stats shows; the Brazilian is second only to Clichy in the league (109 to Clichy’s 118). Playing with much simplicity, Denilson is not the type of player one notices but the work he puts in is tremendous and is also able to initiate attacks. The boy from the favelas in São Paulo can be better and more expansive, but that will come with games and with quality players around him.

As Wenger says, there may not be too many intelligent tacklers but the player described as “a little bit in between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto” can be the one to rekindle the lost art of tackling in the midfield.

Robin Van Persie represents new breed of ‘hybrid’ strikers

February 27, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 4 Comments
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Robin Van Persie showed that he is more than a support striker by leading the line against Roma, a sign that the requirement and ability of strikers is changing.
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“Van Persie is Dennis Bergkamp – with goals,” enthused Arsene Wenger before the game at Tottenham. And while the Dutchman failed to inspire Arsenal to a win against their North London rivals and the two goalless draws in between, Van Persie has been involved in all goals the Gunners have scored this year when he has been on the pitch. But against Roma he did what the Arsenal legend failed to convincingly do; lead the line by himself.

Of course Bergkamp was from a different era and ultimately of a different style, one of the best ever in his position but with his frame one may feel the Dutchman could have fulfilled that role. Indeed the closest players to his style now may be Dimitar Berbatov of Man United and Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow who is a wonderfully fleet footed second striker, both all about touch and movement.

The fact that Robin Van Persie can play in this higher role signals an evolution in the requirement of strikers. “Robin’s always had the vision and the talent, but what really stands out for me is how he’s developed into a team player,” continued Wenger. “It’s a remarkable transformation. And the fact he is 25, you know he’s going to get better. His best years are in front of him.” His heading ability must not be underestimated and has great touch and balance but more crucially he is making the correct decisions, which is the difference in top level football.

Strikers have evolved and are now expected to do more; to use their intelligence to drop off into space and play in team mates while also being able to make runs to stretch opposition. Goalscoring need not be a forwards principle purpose; an increased mobility and interchangeability in strikers has lessened the need for the traditional ‘goal-poachers ‘ while there is a greater expectation on midfielders to contribute goalscoring-wise. “For me, a striker is not just a striker,” says Jose Mourinho. “He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.”

Tactically the game has changed with greater cautiousness especially of transitions in play. Defensively teams are stronger and the game could now be argued as one of many little battles where a goal poacher won’t have enough in his armoury to win and will require more work from team-mates.

As a result the traditional 4-4-2 is seen as harder to play. “I think 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases. In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space,” Wenger says but even he has had to utilise Van Persie as the fifth midfielder by detailing him to track back. “If I have a triangle in midfield, Makelele behind and two others just in front, I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things. That’s why I think the popularity of 4-4-2 will come to an end in England. It has to. It does not work against teams like us.” All of Arsenal’s forwards can lead the line, play behind and out wide bar perhaps Adebayor. This allows the Gunners more flexibility and poses greater problems to opponents both tactically and individually, as essentially Arsenal could switch to a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 as displayed at Roma.

World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira even predicts that strikers may be a thing of the past. Wishful thinking it may sound but his notion is not unrealistic; it makes for harder marking, dragging defenders out with the movement to disrupt the tactical, compact block teams tend to defend in. “Systems are dying,” says Slaven Billic. “When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now.” When successful it is hard to mark as displayed by Man Utd last season as Ronaldo scored 42 goals while the other strikers still manager 15+ themselves. However effective utilization of movement requires great stamina which is one of the reason why the great Total Football sides had found it hard to continue.

With Arsenal’s five ‘hybrid’ strikers who can perform both roles of the forward in a 4-4-2 and more Arsenal can more easily than others achieve the balance of attacking fluidity and defensive solidity. Of course such strikers are not a new thing but the idea of them are as it was once thought teams should have a little and small partnership; one to run behind and one to link up and allow more variety. Fans who are not yet convinced of Bendtner usually feel the Dane should play as a natural target man but which is an old-fashioned notion. Yes maybe at the end of the game when the team should go gung-ho to save the match it is the best option but when you have two strikers who can do both, it can be more dynamic and less predictable.

While a Peter Crouch and a Micheal Owen have their merits as specialists, especially if things are not going well, it would be better if a team could have a player that can do both their jobs to get things right the first time.

Arsenal must be praised for sticking to the fundamentals of total football

January 21, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 7 Comments
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As systems are now created with individuals in mind and ‘between-the-line’ players it is refreshing to see Arsenal stick to their philosophy of ‘Total Football.’
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Would the signing of Andrey Arshavin change the Arsenal style? That’s the question that has been going through my head as this saga unfolds and one that has become cannon-fodder to the media.

Often seen trudging back to the halfway line when detailed to do his defensive duties for Zenit and Russia, could the attacking midfielder fit in to a set-up where it is about the performance of the individual within in the system. For his club and country, the system is accommodated to suit him. It is easy to see why; blessed with great technique, balance and dribbling, he is one of the most effective players in the final third. “Arshavin is a footballer who can make something out of nothing,” says Russia coach Gus Hiddink.

Zenit and Russia are not the only teams who look to exploit key individuals abilities by creating a system which accommodates their strengths and weaknesses. Kaka has little to no defensive duties playing in between attack and midfield. Ronaldo is given the freedom of the left touchline while on the other side Park runs up and down tirelessly. Barcelona have created a quite brilliant system to take advantage of the magician Lionel Messi.

“Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists,” says former AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi.  “The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan team played a fluid and compact 4-4-2, winning the European cup twice and his footballing philosophy influencing a whole host of coaches. His thinking was more systematic but derived from the core of ‘Total Football.’ It was an almost harmonious set-up where there was great fluidity, interchangeability and compactness. It was about the performance of the individual within the system and together with the system, given their ability they could beat anyone.

“There was no project; it was about exploiting qualities,” he said. “So, for example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend. But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”

This has shifted the emphasis to between-the-line players. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.”

Arsenal play a fluid 4-4-2 but there is no detailed between-the-line player when attacking while defending it is more about covering and marking the space. The movement and passing allows players like Fabregas, Van Persie and Nasri to utilise these channels. The total footballing sides of Dynamo Kyiv and Ajax played also a high back line, pressed the opposition in possession, passed quickly and had the fluidity to interchange positions. Of course on a defensive side this may course some strain; more mobility in defence and in the cover in midfield but it is working.

“We need to stick to it – because this is how Arsenal is. The Arsenal way is in our system now, it grows into you, and I don’t think it’s clever to change your philosophy,” Arsene Wenger says. “Things take time, and you often see clubs sacking managers for fun, and they don’t get anywhere. You need a long-term strategy. At Arsenal, the players have time to grow into the system, and if we stick to our principles we will get silverware.”

Arshavin is a great player and there’s every possibility he will fit in and maybe enhance the football being played. Total Football was possible in an era where such play was new; the ability to play the offside trap whereas now hardly any team does. The Gunners are getting close as close as possible in the modern game and as the next batch of kids have displayed against Wigan in the Carling Cup, it can be very destructive. Not many clubs are doing it their own way and it is refreshing to see so and even more when the players get better.

Arsenal model too unrealistic for clubs to follow?

January 8, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 5 Comments
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Arsenal are the envy of most clubs; a strong emphasis in youth development, an extensive scouting network creating world class players while being sensible financially an example to follow but is it too unrealistic a vision for some clubs to adopt?
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Two examples come in the case of Lyon and Necastle United. The French Champions are admirers of the Arsenal model, taking good care of the financial side while investing in youth through their academy and by worldwide scouting. They have identified that they may not be able to hang on to such products of their academy therefore look to make money by selling them for high prices. But while Lyon are in a weaker league with less financial power and are regular Champions League participants Newcastle are in the opposite.

The Premier League has more financially powerful clubs and with this extra wealth makes it more difficult to compete. Owner Mike Ashley is also placing emphasis on his academy, decreasing debt and buying youth however that last point is where they may be going wrong. The competition is high in this area with clubs such as Sevilla (700 scouts), Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea to name a few and although Ashley is putting his money into it it may be too unrealistic a dream.

Newcastle has therefore set up an extensive scouting system. We look for young players, for players in foreign leagues who everyone does not know about. We try and stay ahead of the competition. We search high and low looking for value, for potential that we can bring on and for players who will allow Newcastle to compete at the very highest level but who don’t cost the earth.

I am prepared to back large signings for millions of pounds but for a player who is young and has their career in front of them and not for established players at the other end of their careers. There is no other workable way forward for Newcastle. It is in this regard that Dennis and his team have done a first class job in scouting for talent to secure the future of the club. Mike Ashley Statement

The advantage they may have over big clubs is that they have more margin of error as such clubs have to specifically find potential world beaters. But at this age it is harder to determine talent not to mention their lower bargaining power. If a signing doesn’t reach the potential however then will find it hard to offload for a profit. Newcastle admit this will be a long term project but the competition may be too large to make them stand out.

The São Paulo model may be a more realistic option; they develop youth through the academy and have a more than sound financial base but whereas they can’t attract the best youngsters into their league or big transfers they look to sell their current prospects at high price. Some $2.5 millions annually is spent on youth development and club aims to make around $9 million in selling the products of their work.

But with the extra money they look to sign more established players who have not quite made the best impression at their clubs. In São Paulo’s case, workmanlike Brazilians who have made their journey to Europe but not made a big success.

Andriy Voronin failed at Liverpool out after being out with injury and is loaned  but is a very good player. Great movement and tested at a high level. Even Matteo Brighi who was loaned out to Chievo for three years before finally finding his way into the Roma first team at 27 and now fully established after a failing to make an impact at Juventus.

Stability and sustainability is very important while the Arsenal model can be replicated and/or achieved to a lesser or bigger degree but taking care of finance and academy and buying a team of Voronin’s and Brighi’s is surely the more pragmatic option in bringing success.

Arsene Wenger’s Coaching Methods

November 18, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 18 Comments
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Arsene Wenger has become arguably the most influential manager in the English Premier League and has provided a similar impact in the wider football world. Clubs such as Lyon to Newcastle look to follow Arsene’s and the clubs methods which includes financialy to youth policies. Arsenal Column looks at the great manager’s coaching methods and footballing philosophies.

If you want to see a taster of Arsene’s coaching, here’s a video promoting Nike Five.

First of all if one wants to understand why Wenger implements such a coaching style we must understand his thoughts and philosophies on football. Arsene usually plays a 4-4-2 but this formation can be easily reverted to a 4-5-1 if required. (One thing to note Arsene constantly looks to refine his system in some way, big or small). This is because he prefers to play one behind the main striker (Van Persie behind Adebayor, or Diaby behind) and on the flanks two wingers who are creative too. The following quote from Wenger can maybe go some way in understanding Cesc Fabregas’ lack of influence this season and the lack of impact of the wingers this season especially against defensive teams.

“I like to have one behind the striker, and one or two on the flanks who come inside. I always feel that if you have players who can deliver the decisive ball in all areas of the pitch, you have many more chances of being creative. If it’s only focused on one central part, where it’s usually more concentrated, you have more space on the flanks to create.”

” You always build a team to adapt the position that suit players best. For example I don’t see Kaka, who has a tall frame, operating on the flank. When you have a creative player who is shorter, then I’m more ready to move him out wide. Because usually they are quick on the turn. Somebody like Dennis Bergkamp or Kaka though, they have to be central.”

The team is required to press high up the pitch hence at times you can see and hear Pat Rice shouting at Adebayor and co. to pressure during matches. The defence must be able to pass the ball and look to build from the back, keeping the ball one way of denying pressure on the Arsenal backline. He stresses quick short passing and rates movement from his players. When they get close to the goal, players are encouraged to take risks and go for the goal with confidence and determination. If this is not a viable option, keeping the ball to a better opportunity arrives is recommended. Players must take advantage of of the whole pitch, almost practicing walking the ball in during training with quick, short passes, cut back and score with all members demanding the ball in what can be described as triangles. This tactic is meant to be very explosive and can destroy teams when implemented to the maximum.

Communication has always been emphasised on and off the pitch, giving encouragement, being aware of the danger around and helping provide options etc.

When Mr. Wenger first arrived at Arsenal he didn’t believe players would be able to perform at optimum level at 30 but was convinced by Arsenal’s old guard. This stubborness still is evident these days to some extent but when one believes in a philosophy it is hard to fully change their mind.

Adams, who was pushing 30, recalls: “He would say things like, ‘Physically a professional footballer is finished when they are over 30. It is not possible to play at that age.’ He believed that players over 30 were dead. Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn proved him wrong. They proved that with desire, commitment, and by looking after themselves, they could play well into their 30s at the top level. He acknowledged that and let them do it instead of getting rid of them. If you are in a beautiful house you don’t go moving to a terrace. That’s what he realised.”

Diet consists of pasta, boiled chicken, steamed fish, raw vegetables and water.

Read more to find out Wenger’s methods on the training ground. Continue Reading Arsene Wenger’s Coaching Methods…

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