Tags: Full Backs, Tactics
With the use of wing backs decreasing in the modern game, Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa has set his side up to play in an intriguing 3-3-1-3 formation but he must be wary of it’s weaknesses.
Three years ago, during England’s ill-fated 2008 European Championship Qualifiers, then manager Steve Mclaren made a bold move which shocked and surprised everyone; he was to play a 3-5-2. It was either going to be a stroke of genius or a monumental cock up. And as it proved, it was the latter.
The England team had been preparing the system for a while but bearing in mind not many teams had played with wing backs for some time, the Three Lions would always find it troublesome. Curiously Slaven Bilic, upon getting the job as Croatia manager, made sure the first thing he was to do as coach is to ditch the 3-5-2 and then hoping England would deploy the formation for the exact reason abandoned it. “I hoped they’d play 3-5-2 as it would give us more room to attack on the wings,” said Bilic. “I knew if we could switch the play quickly we’d be two-on-one. I expected England to come out and pressurise us but it was more a question of whether we’d get a third.”
It was tactical naivety from McLaren’s part and also assistant Terry Venables who was said to be heavily involved. The press derided them after the 2-0 defeat but rather hypocritically, a number of them championed the cause for the system in years previously. The idea was to be “adaptable and flexible” something which Venables’ England side of ’96 had in abundance (they played a fluid system which started as a 4-4-2 but could become a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3) but having been out of the game during the rapid evolution of the Premier League, gone were the days where superior players could fit into a 3-5-2 and overwhelm opponents.
Quite how the wing back has dramatically fallen from grace can be neatly summed up by one word: inefficiency. Playing with wing backs require securities in order for them to bomb forward therefore the need to deploy three centre backs. However many sides are increasingly turning to the lone striker leaving three central defenders marking one and meaning at least one of them unemployed from the initial danger. It makes more sense in this instance to push one defender out and play a defensive midfielder and dropping wing backs back to full backs.
Johan Cruyff has blasted the use of full backs because he feels they function more like athletes than players of skill. They need to be quicker and fitter to cover more ground and reorganize themselves for the team. Just mapping a wing back system with other more established ones draw on the same weaknesses Slaven Bilic touched upon and those of controlling and pressuring “zones”. And because of Fabio Capello’s Arrigo Sacchi-like thinking, it is unlikely to see his ever-improving England side deploy the same system as Mclaren even if having more players suited to the formation than the now FC Twente coach.
Having said that, two teams have used wing backs to a degree of success recently with Napoli playing a 3-5-2 and Udinese 3-4-3. The former however is a club who would rather sit back and let their opponents take the initiative, looking to break on the counter while Udinese are more the opposite.
The problem with using wing backs is finding balance; it suited Napoli’s counter attacking style last season but anyone who is intent on dominating may find it more difficult. It almost seems wing backs are either best suited to the ultra-defensive or the ultra-attacking. And it is the latter Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa is trying to implement in the South American World Cup qualifiers, his side playing an adventurous 3-3-1-3.
The thinking here is to play in the oppositions half, pressuring opponents high up and using the wide areas to great devastation. The two-v-one weakness Billic alluded to is meant to be their strength attacking wise although defensively it can still be a problem especially down the channels. And still it requires high intensity and fitness levels but on the plus side, they are playing with great fluidity with the front four. Chile have moved up to second in the race for the World Cup Finals and the real test will be how they cope with Brazil’s expertise on the counter. Argentine Basile will not have forgotten his country’s failure in the 2002 finals where they disastrously crashed out in the group stages, tiredness after a long season blamed for the failure of the wing back system.
Which begs the question, could wing back formations be deployed in more one-off situations? Shakhtar Donestk had a modicum of possession against Barcelona in the Super Cup and could not get the support they desired to lone striker Luiz Adriano. Could they have looked to force the game to Barcelona especially in extra time? Or maybe, Burnley who for all their industry and willingness were cut open by Chelsea. Maybe using three defenders to counter Drogba and Anelka would have been the way forward while using wide forwards to deny Ashley Cole and Bosingwa the opportunity to get up the pitch.
The use of wing backs is certainly not dead but for a team looking to take the initiative it may be too big an ask to play it. Indeed Rinus Michels said of Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 formation for Barcelona as “spectacular but risky” as much responsibility to dominate was entrusted to the central midfielders. Cruyff knew he would have close to 60% of control each game therefore minimizing some of the risk on the defenders that would have been far greater to other sides. It seems nowadays with the increased importance of zones and transitions you either have to be the best or a cautious side.
Or maybe, as Steve Mclaren intended, it may be best used in one-off games but if you do be prepared for the same weaknesses that Mclaren and England found out about one night in Zagreb.
Tags: Arsenal, Full Backs, Tactics
The defensive shield may have been getting most of the plaudits but the cautious nature of Sagna and Clichy has been the real reason for Arsenal’s recent defensive stability.
For two players supposedly having below-par seasons, their contribution to Arsenal’s success in the second half of the season could not be more greater. Gael Clichy and Bakary Sagna have yet to hit the heights of last season offensively at least, but at the back the pair have been solid as ever though maybe not as spectacular because their roles have changed.
It is fair to say Arsenal are still fairly infant in their beginnings as a team and this season has mostly been one of rebuilding and getting the side back to genuine and consistent contenders for the league title once again. Last season, attack was the main form of defence; keeping the ball denied pressure on the back line while highly mobile players such as Flamini and the centre backs allowed for such an elaborate play. (Mobility and tactical awareness is the main difference between Denilson and Flamini, something which is hard to quantify).
This season key men have departed and indeed some have never left the treatment room therefore the same attacking verve was not there. The marauding full backs of Arsenal was one of the successes of the season as both were selected in the team of the year. But Wenger, after seeing his side lose five games before the halfway point and his team not quite as gelling as he would have liked, decided it was a liability to have his full backs bombing forward. “At one stage we had conceded too many goals, so we encouraged our defenders to be a bit more cautious,” said Arsene Wenger.
The affect of the change has been threefold: 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) who was still maturing and the centre backs (3), who had to push up to make up the space hence playing with a line higher than Arjen Robben’s. And they are also stopping crosses coming in to the box, long thought to be the defences Achilles heel; that’s four then.
Full backs can be a great weapon and at the same time a great vulnerability. The shield has been also been a reason for the greater defensive performance but remember Fabregas also played there against Chelsea, in which the Gunners won 2-1. In that same match Bosingwa was the Blues’ chief architect in the first half but once the system was changed could not get involved.
Defender or Attacker?
The question is, is the full back primarily a defender or an attacker? It may seem obvious because of the term ‘back’ but recent times have seen such players signed for their greater offensive abilities. Traditionally most teams played the ‘WM’ formation but with the increased skill of forwards another defender was added hence pushing the full backs wider who were then used to counter the threat of wingers. The Brazilians with two their full backs both named Santos on either side made great use of this extra space and caused havoc to opposition defences. In the 1960′s Helenio Herrera deployed Giacinto Facchetti as a means of launching faster counter-attacks (incidentally the same coach also was the brains behind the rethinking of the sweeper role). Andrea Tallarita of Football Italiano said of the full back: ‘If fullbacks today are more than just central defenders playing on the sides, we owe it partly to this man’s revolutionary interpretation of the role.’
Key method of attack
Cafu and Roberto Carlos displayed how destructive full-backs can be combining great stamina with high levels of technical ability to cause all kinds of mess to defenders organisation and possibly their shorts as well. Their endurance and physical power allowed them to take advantage of the fact that they were unmarked. “Brazil have two great wing-backs in Cafu and Roberto Carlos but they are only able to get up so often because no-one is attacking them,” said Johan Cruyff.
Off the ball movement is crucial. Getting 1 v 1 situations as often as possible can win games but rather than the dribbling ability of players, it is the doubling up and providing movement causing uncertainty and unpredictability on the defender which can change a game. The search for space and making best advantage, whether defending or attacking is the first thing on every managers’ mind.
In Euro 2008 attacking full-backs was a major tactic used and one of the main exponents of that strategy, Russia benefited greatly from the late arrival and support from Anyukov and Zhirkov who were often unmarked. Spain went into the semi-final with Russia with a more orthodox set-up denying the two players space and as a result Russia were all at sea attacking-wise (not to mention the complete negation of Arshavin). But manager Hiddink’s recent excursions with Chelsea show that he is also wary of the drawbacks. “We have to stay back a bit more now and defend as a unit, and maybe that could be the change that could change our season,” said Jose Bosingwa of the Dutchman’s changes.
The space left behind is ripe for counter attacks, something Inter manager Jose Mourinho is prepared for. “Transitions have become crucial,” he says. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”
Teams defend in compact blocks and therefore it seems the greatest trait for a full back to have defensively is to be positioned well rather than the ability to tackle the ball of the winger. When Arsenal went a man down against Tottenham, Wenger played a 4-3-2 formation which at the time seemed suicidal given Aaron Lennon was on the right hand side but Clichy and when replaced by Gibbs, in conjunction with the three midfielders gave the winger space and but were organised enough not to allow him to make great use of it.
Former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues the physical development of the game and the packing of central midfield means that more emphasis should be placed on the wings. Around a quarter of goals from open play come from a cross and teams are quick to stop that happening. Clichy and Sagna are more cautious allowing in the other end for a more quicker approach while teams like Liverpool and Manchester United, especially in big games look to double up their midfielders in these areas to stop the threat (Kuyt and Riera, Rooney and Park, Eboue for Arsenal).
Full backs are not on their own the most major position in winning and losing matches but can be the key. Why Arsenal haven’t been as potent from this position can go down to the defensive nature of oppositions and the fact that the crossing and the options in the box have been poor. The question for Wenger is whether to reinstate the expansive style next season by which the team should have got to know each other better.
Great teams can make greatest use of full backs as an attacking option hence the hefty price tags for the best in recent seasons; Bosingwa, Alves, Evra, Sagna and Ramos to name a few. Still Arsenal reversed that trend slightly by signing the defensively more secure Sagna to replace Emmanuel Eboue and have not looked back.
Tags: Analysis, Arsenal, Formation, Full Backs
With Arsenal failing to mount a serious title challenge this season, Arsenal Column analyse what exactly has gone wrong, what has improved and why we should look optimistically to the future.
Last season, after a quite blistering start, Arsenal’s title challenge ground to an anti-climatic halt after a series of draws and injuries took it’s toll on the squad. This season the same two points apply however there was no blistering start; if defeat to Fulham in the second game was a sign of things to come, no-one would have expected five before December. However the Gunners are now unbeaten in eleven games in the league since the 3-0 defeat to Manchester City.
What’s different between the Arsenal of now and the Arsenal that started the season and how much have things actually improved?
Balance is key
‘Balance is number one’ claims World Cup winning manager Marcello Lippi therefore it seems Arsenal had shot themselves in the foot by making attack their main priority. With Denilson taking over Flamini in central midfield that balance was likely to take time though the Milan midfielder himself fit into the system with ease.
The myth at the start of the season was that Denilson was playing in the same areas as Cesc Fabregas therefore forcing the Spaniard to play lower down the pitch. In truth this was half correct; Denilson was attacking slightly more than Flamini did but Fabregas himself never played any deeper than he had before. In fact the stats seem to show he was passing the ball higher up the pitch which for the inexperienced Denilson, was giving him too much defensive work to do in terms of pressuring and tracking back opponents.
Balance seemed better restored but this was after five defeats. Song had come in to the centre with Denilson moving to the right as Arsenal reacted to back to back defeats to Villa and Man City by beating Chelsea. Injury to Fabregas has seen the midfield partnership rotated but the balance has still been there if not the creativity. Diaby’s ability to win the ball back being crucial, the Frenchman making 45 successful tackles in just five matches (starting from Portsmouth and ending with West Ham). Denilson on the other hand has been steadily improving and while he is yet to fully win over the fans, less has he become the target of their displeasure. It seems the stint out wide had improved the Brazilian’s tactical awareness and positioning, especially when tracking his runner.
As Man Utd have shown defending is a team collective therefore Van Persie’s role must not be underestimated. By dropping back when Arsenal are defending to make a 4-4-1-1 the Dutchman denies the ball from being played out from the back. The trend in football is to defend as a ‘compact defensive block’ and then to aggressively press the ball.
Newly found defensive stability
In the 14 starts Mikael Silvestre has made in all competitions this season, Arsenal have let in 22 goals but rather than pin the blame on the Frenchman, there has been a number of reasons for the improvement in defense.
Johan Djourou has been brought in to add speed and height at the back, creating a complementary partnership with whoever he plays with. However recent games at West Ham and Tottenham have seen Wenger revert to the shorter pairing of Toure and Gallas, where together they have kept two clean sheets. Height is still an issue if the two play but denying crosses and being first to knock downs minimizes the exploitation area of weakness.
The high line required great mobility from the defenders and while that was there, there was simply too much work to do.
“At one stage we had conceded too many goals, so we encouraged our defenders to be a bit more cautious,” says Arsene Wenger. The full back area, when they push forward exposes the channel for counter attacks. With teams sitting deep this was especially a problem in the early part of the season. Against Tottenham the full backs denied the wingers the opportunity to attack down the flanks as Arsenal played a 4-3-2 and although the lack of adventure was forced nevertheless shows their quality. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho who tries to keep a minimum of five behind the ball. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”
The clearest signs coming from Arsenal’s first defeat to Fulham was how the Gunners would cope without Fabregas. At the time the performance was merely seen as one-off as it was still early in the season therefore improvements will be made. However while there have been improvements, the eleven game unbeaten run has included only five wins while in eight of those games Arsenal have scored once. One can put it down to the defense minded nature of the opposition as United have also found it difficult, winning 1-0 eight times in their last eleven games nevertheless the evidence is there that greater creativity is required to break them down.
Fabregas’s influence is massive. He has created 50 chances this season, the most of the Arsenal side while behind him Van Persie has been involved in all goals this year either scoring or assisting them directly. Below shows why the Spaniard has been missed; playing at West Ham earlier this season he made more passes in the final third and generally took more risks. Compare with Denilson and Diaby against the Hammers at the Emirates, where their passes inside and around the box is almost non-existent.
Fabregas also contributed with ten goals lasts season by arriving late in the box whereas his replacements decide to stay back. Maybe there is an opportunity for Nasri to play in the centre after being utilised in the centre against Tottenham. If there was doubts about his work rate and positional play they will surely have been eased by his performance. The return from injury of key players may yet see a surplus of creative talent but at the moment there is no real back up to Fabregas thought there are great talents in Ramsey and Merida coming through.
According to former Holland coach (Total Football) Rinus Michels top teams can be distinguished in the way they ‘circulate’ the ball. “To carry the play on the opponents half of the field places high demands of the build-up. There is not much time and space to work in and you have to deal with high defensive pressure. Fast combinations and excellent positional play are a must.”
While this could easily have been attributed to last season’s Arsenal side the same cannot be said about this season. In Flamini, his tireless nature ensured he could deal with the high demand in positional play while in attack the combinations and fluidity was better. Denilson has the attributes to be a similar success and with the trend moving towards deploying deep-lying playmakers all he needs is more confidence.
Matches against Aston Villa and Everton this season have seen the Gunners not retain possession as well as they have done in the past as such opposition take the game to the Arsenal midfield.
And confidence seems missing from the whole team. Diaby and Song, although not known as creative players are capable of passing the ball but it is up those in front to ensure that it is used more effectively in providing support and movement. Adebayor’s impact seems lessened this season as he roams around looking for the ball while Eboue, the brunt of fans frustrations has been seen coming inside to provide support but the link up play has been lacking. Getting a highly mobile and interchangeable system will take time especially with the integral cog in Hleb having departed in the summer but with the signing of Arshavin and Rosicky to return, the dynamism and fluidity may return too.
One can argue perhaps it is natural that Arsenal have concentrated more on their defence because of the lessening of creativity and attacking play.
Reason to look forward?
There is no doubt that this has been a disappointing season so far but the Gunners can realistically still get second place. Arsene Wenger has spent over £20million on transfers yet has been criticised for not spending more. With the debts the club has, Champions League football is the bear minimum required each year and while Wenger has provided that thus far, he also needs to add trophies. The Frenchman is trying to address that but any team will feel the effects of injuries to key players; take out Gerrard from Liverpool just like Fabregas from Arsenal and they will struggle. When everyone is fit, the Gunners actually have a very good squad of quality players.
But Arsenal’s model of sustainability will surely mean the Gunners will still be competing for years to come will others are in a cloud of financial insecurity. The youngsters displayed possibly the best performance by a Premier League side this season in their quite breathtaking demolition of Wigan in the Carling Cup and it seems the senior team is not very far off.
Things can only get better but it is disheartening to hear the same words, bar last season, being said for the last four or five years. But this time, with Champions League qualification ensured the fundamentals may yet be greater.