Tags: Analysis, Fitness, Midfielders, Passing, Playmaker
The increased conditioning and speed of the game means the technical level of players will be forced to improve thereby exposing the specialists.
Juventus’ problems started with their over-reliance on Diego and Felipe Melo. That, some would argue, is justified given that they were big money summer signings but the Old Lady’s woes should not be entirely blamed on the Brazilian pair. Diego, in particular, is not a traditional ‘trequartista’ as he likes to drop deep but Juventus were expecting him to play as one. Felipe Melo on the other hand has won many fans - including Arsene Wenger - since his stellar début against Italy at the Emirates Stadium but even then he was playing Robin to Gilberto Silva. Now he was expected to anchor the midfield with Momo Sissokho – a pairing instantly striking because of both players’ unwillingness to pass the ball short confidently and which will invariably lead to incompatibility with Diego.
Two defensive midfielders are not just regressive in a creative sense; it can be a double-edged sword defensively too. Because of the Italian game’s predilection with finding solutions through the middle, two ‘volantes’ seems a reasonable tactic to stop the playmaker from influencing. However, it can also put undue pressure on the back as it would mean play not circulating as fluently and the ball coming back more. Liverpool in particular, following the absence of Xabi Alonso have found this out the painful way.
Former AC Milan defender Franco Baresi feels Melo could have offered a solution to Real Madrid’s neo-Galacticos before his transfer to Juventus – in that he could play in a different line to their current central midfielders - going by the thinking that modern football is one of between-the-lines players. “One thing does not fit,” says Baresi. “Why have they [Real Madrid] hired Xabi Alonso? Xabi Alonso is a good player but he serves the same profile as Gago, Granero and Mahmadou Diarra. They had to sign Felipe Melo. He is technically and physically superior (EDITOR: that’s highly arguable!) and is able to give a new dimension to the midfield. Lass, Xabi and Granero play on the same plane. It is a mistake to put them together. The only one who breaks the line is Guti.”
That Sissokho and Melo were playing in the same line as each other (similar players) meant there was no unpredictability about Juventus and it slowed down their fluidity of play. Even in Brazilian football, with their penchant for playing two ‘volantes’, one would still have a slightly different function; here there seemed little distinction. “I don’t like to play the 4-4-2 in two lines,” says Jose Mourinho. “I like the match in between lines and players with dynamic creativity to do that. What are you a midfield player or an attacker? Nobody knows.” So in theoretical terms, a standard 4-4-2 stands to lose against a 4-4-2 which transforms into a 4-2-3-1 as Mourinho effectively implies, as a triangle will always beat a line (you can further split the central midfield to two accounting for the innate specialities of the midfielder). Volker Finke (now coach of Urawa Red Diamonds) also feels a flat central midfield template is inefficient in the modern game as positions are nowadays separated into bands/lines in order to allow the team to control space better.
Some would argue the interpretation on the offside law made the splitting of players’ roles necessary as suddenly the larger pitch meant there was more space to play in. The game became faster and more physical, and that gave the rise to the popularity of the defensive midfielder because their superior physical ability allowed them to dominate the centre and allow the side to play with more creative individuals. Pep Guardiola, just before he retired, commented on the situation saying: “…football now is different. It’s played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. The tactics are different, too. To play just in front of the back four now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that’s a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfield players are concerned, is all on defensive work.”
If improved fitness killed off the ball-playing defensive midfielder between the mid-nineties and the mid-to-late noughties, it seems improved fitness has now given them the kiss-of-life. Advancements in fitness is universal now with players running on average a lofty matter of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) a match. That puts a greater emphasis on speed as the ball is travelling much more and at a higher pace. Der Spiegel journalist, Christoph Biermann, following the findings of sport analysts at the German Sport University Cologne writes; “At Manchester United, the winner of the Champions League, the players whose job it is to stop the opposing team’s attacks are in possession of the ball for an average of less than one second per contact. The faster the ball circulates, the better, goes the thinking.”
The sequence between getting the ball and passing the ball has become shorter and that exposes any technical shortcomings of a player. The Premiership has seen the effect of this as many clubs have bow abandoned the idea of playing destroyers in the middle for ball-playing midfielders. Even Tottenham, who had early success in converting Wilson Palacios from a box-to-box midfielder at Wigan to a defensive midfielder, have chosen to pair the technically more superior Tom Huddlestone and Luka Modric in the centre lately. The physicality and defensive steel possibly conceded by this method is sought to be compensated by managers making sure their sides are organised and compact in the defensive phase. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham side, en route to the Europa League Final have perfected this art.
The increased fitness also means there is more pressing higher up the pitch, further exposing the destroyer and the need to pass quickly. Jaroslav Hrebik, the Czech Republic under-19 coach sums up the trend perfectly. “Defensive midfielders and centre-backs will have to be more creative,” he says. “Defences will try to adapt so there will be a lot of pressing to slow down the counter. Defensive positions will be tight, flexible blocks – tightest around their own area. This means the flanks and wigers will beomce more important.”
The compact nature and defending in front of the area, as Hrebik describes, has effectively ushered the natural playmaker into a stealth position. Playmakers now come in a number of forms and have essentially become players of “between-the-lines.” “The word Enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,” says former Argentina midfielder Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.” Kaka was thought by AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi as an attacking midfielder and so wanted new signing Ronaldinho to play as a forward – Carlo Ancelotti, however, was adamant that Kaka was already a striker. The example of Luka Modric is perhaps the most pertinent as in his homeland of Croatia, he is known as a natural number 10 but was converted to central midfield by Slaven Bilic and has also often played in a roaming role on the left, using his movement off the flank to create havoc. Increased conditioning of players today is also another factor as it means that there’s precious little time to shape a game.
The above trends seem to therefore highlight a shift to one of universality and football in a holistic nature. Technicality should become more important than ever, giving for the moment, less distinction to players of a high physical ability. That is not to say it should be skimped on; Arsene Wenger feels players such as Alex Song and Robin van Persie, who mix a degree of physique and technique are sought to be the future and as the game gets faster, has put more emphasis on passing the ball quickly in his current Arsenal side. ”Players will become bigger, faster and stronger, but the ones with talent will succeed,” says Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta “Someone like Ronaldo is physically superior to most. In the future there might be less difference between this type of player and the rest, but with someone like Xavi, the physical side of the game is less important. Barcelona have shown that.”
Tags: Arsenal, Formation, Midfielders, Movement, Playmaker, Pressing, Tactics
Improvements in technical ability and fitness means the likely trend in football could see the proliferation of all-rounded players.
This summer, we may get the earliest indication of where the next phase in the cycle tactics may be heading. Brazil have swept everything in their path thus far and are justifiably the favourites for the World Cup in South Africa. But they’ve done it in a way quite removed from the free-flowing exhibition of attacking football married into a team collective that won them three Jules Rimet trophies between 1958 and 1970. The problem as Dunga sees it as coach of Selecao, is that opponents now make it harder for such teams to pass their way through the middle and indeed in a sense that was proved as Brazil played some of the best football before 1994 but it wasn’t until players like him (a destroyer) that the nation became world champions again.
His thinking therefore sees greater opportunity lying in transitions and set-pieces, relying on the dynamism and individual brilliance of a select few (namely Kaka and Maicon) to take advantage from outside play and their expert organisation to stop others from playing. When it was pointed out to Dunga in the 1-0 defeat to England in Doha that his team often had eight men behind the ball, his answer was pretty stark. “That’s the way we play,” he said. “England had 11 men behind the ball. They need to learn how to dribble [through us]. That’s what you have to do. Teams are more compact these days.”
But can we learn anything from a tournament lasting only a month, especially as international managers have less time to work with their players? It is true that recent trends seen in club level such as pressuring high up the pitch (Chile one exception but on to that later) or the use of hybrid strikers or ‘false nines’ have been less prevalent in the international game, possibly because the selection pool is much more limited while Fabio Capello feels it’s because there is a dearth of top quality strikers at international sides.
However, the more underlying trends seen in club level were all on show during the early parts of the decade. Brazil shifted towards catering for the individual in even greater disregard for the collective game in 2006, France’s performances in the same year took a positive upturn when Zidane became the focus while Greece’s compact, counter-attacking side in Euro 2004 typified zonal marking in Europe. But more positively, recent winners (Brazil being the only exception in Copa America) have shown a greater emphasis on technical and creativity, with Slaven Bilic stating Italy’s win in 2006 as being about the “movement of 10 players.” And Spain’s win in Euro 2008 owed much credit to a culture of technical excellence, movement and ingenuity backed up by beaten semi-finalists Russia’s speed of passing and dynamism out wide. Somewhat strangely however, Egypt have not translated their recent African Cup of Nations form, defeating arguably more physically imposing teams, into World Cup qualification.
So it is with this more technique-orientated shift, it is curious to see how well Brazil will fare in the next World Cup. Because the danger is, beneath the defensive resilience, if a team can pressure the two holding midfielders/destroyers of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo, you can stop the team from playing by exposing the pairs’ technical shortcomings. If that happens, you are likely to see Brazil put the emphasis back on producing deep-lying playmakers as opposed to pure destroyers. Indeed you don’t even have to look far at the English Premier League to see the upshots of recovery of the deep-playmaker with teams such as Aston Villa, Birmingham, Everton (before Arteta’s injury) and Fulham having great success with them.
However it seems more apt to attributed its revival to the increasing fitness demands on players rather than technique. The fast pace of the Premier League has led to managers opting for players who can distribute the ball quickly and in turn not be easily closed down, and the conceded physicality compensated by making sure their sides are more organised and compact. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Teams are pressuring more aggressively and higher up the pitch, which should lead to more universal or all-rounded players such as like former Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Redondo, who played as the deep-lying playmaker but his energy levels allowed him to dominate far greater areas of the pitch than his position implied.
Arrigo Sacchi is adamant not much has changed in football since his AC Milan side triumphed in the European Cup in 1989 and 1990, except the proliferation of specialists. Inspired by Rinus Michel’s Holland side, the key idea was that every player must play an equal part in a highly systematized layout. That meant having players in all areas of the pitch who can deliver key passes (for him, everyone was the playmaker) and then able to press and defend to the manager’s ideologies (i.e. compact, organised and moving as a unit – a difference of twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward was a must to be maintained). “With [Sacchi] it was all about movement off the ball,” said Paulo Maldini. “And that’s where we won our matches. Each player was as important defensively as in attack.” And as fitness improves, technique will almost become a prerequisite therefore universality seems the obvious trend. Indeed teams playing with strikers on the wings have indicated this may be the case.
Strikers and defenders have also seen transformations, as forwards are required to be hybrids – to be able to score goals and create chances as well. Defenders represent a precarious case; some see the return of the sweeper (libero) as the lone forward becomes the preferred choice thus leaving one centre back spare. However, disregarding the fact that the libero requires extraordinary mental talent, tactical evolution in modern football is all about controlling space – when one space opens, it’s attempt to exploit it becomes closed which invariably opens up another one. It’s difficult to see the libero in a free roaming incarnation in this decade again because the space will be much more limited and harder to exploit. More likely, is three or two advancing centre-backs each alternating moments to get forward when the time is right so as to spring greater surprise and effectiveness.
The back three is likely to see some sort of revival although probably not as wide spread in its use as in the ’80′s. Chile have played a 3-3-1-3 in qualifying for the World Cup without any wing backs and pressuring high up the pitch. Could we see more customised formations in the near future such as a 3-6-1, looking to take advantage of the underlying trends in recent times? Also in pressuring high up the pitch, could we see players like Alex Song or Wilson Palacios pushed higher up the pitch to stop teams from distributing the ball forward? Maybe a mixed attacking midfielder in the hole marking the deep-lying playmaker is a possible advancement.
David Dein secretly says Arsene Wenger feels the future lies in Africa and South America and with a mix of physique and technical ability, it makes perfect sense. Players such as Alex Song, Michael Essien and Yaya Toure who can distribute the ball well combined with cosmic energy levels will be desired in every team. Indeed as competition intensifies, the best African youngsters are making the way to the top clubs earlier which can only serve to better their technique and creativity. England may also find themselves in a good position as the fruits of a ten-year cycle in improving youth infrastructure nears its conclusion which should see graduates mixing old-style English ruggedness with continental flair.
Football is only ever likely to see subtle changes, unless their is a change to the standard dynamics of the game, with advancements such as fitness creating small evolutions such as how the different players interpret their roles and their movement. For example Cristiano Ronaldo played on the left of a fluid 4-4-2 in Man United’s 2007/08 triumph but was expected to carry the same goalscoring duties of a striker while on the other side, Park Ji Sung despite playing in the same position per se, was more defensive, tracking back and pressuring but also expected to get in the box. We can see in the centre of midfield, Diaby’s importance as defensively he covers for the left forward and makes tackles for the team while his strong, late running is considered one of the best by Wenger.
The next decade seems set to follow a holistic nature but as fitness peaks, football is likely go full circle again and as soon as someone finds success with a destroyer, a stopper or a goal-poacher, others will follow suit. Nevertheless with universality looking the near future, the twentytens looks set to become an exciting one.
Next up: Analysing Arsenal’s defensive game
Tags: Brazil, Denilson, Match Analysis, Midfielders
Denilson and Diaby were key complementers to Arsenal’s defensive and attacking side of the game, helping the Gunners to a 3-0 win.
In his playing days (and even now as the boss of Selecao), Brazil midfielder Dunga always seemed to be playing with the metaphorical middle finger up at his critics. Sneered despite his success, eventually leading the national side to World Cup glory in ’94, he just wasn’t Brazilian enough – European even, meaning helping achieve the end result was more important than how it preceded.
He was the ultimate volante – the destroyer – a hard tackler, constantly harrying the opponents and crucially, holding the team together so as to let them flourish. “I know there are things I can’t do on the pitch,” Dunga once said. “But there are other things which I think I do very well. And they are the things which help us get results. And that is what matters.”
Ironically, however, his style of play rather divides opinion like no other. The late Zizinho and star attacking midfielder in the 1950 World Cup, like much of his contemporaries, was rather critical of Dunga. In his autobiography in 1985, he wrote “the cabeca-de-area [midfielder who sits in front of the centre backs], a man who can control 70% of his team’s possession, has now been given the specific function of destroying, when it should be to set up the play” (quote referenced from Tim Vickery).
Arrigo Sacchi, the former AC Milan manager and revolutionary tactician, whose ideas rather unintentionally contributed, similarly agrees. “Many believe that football is about the players expressing themselves,’ he said. ‘But that’s not the case. Or, rather, it’s not the case in and of itself. The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager.” And speaking in Jonathan Wilson’s book, Inverting the Pyramid about his brief tenure as Real Madrid’s director during the first Galactico era, he also added: “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?”
The two questions Sacchi posed, can also be applied, albeit loosely, to Arsenal’s football. It was the Denilson’s goal right before the stroke of half-time which ultimately decided the remaining tone of the match against Hull City but he, Diaby and Song were also crucial in their roles as Arsenal assumed control of the game.
Denilson’s role in particularly is very intriguing. Playing in this game as the auxiliary midfielder, this season he has acted as the balancer alongside the now de facto holding player Alex Song. “Denilson gives us stability,” said Wenger. “Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”
For a team like Arsenal to work, the side needs players like Denilson and Song, the latter coming on leaps and bounds in his technical game. The Brazilian also representing a similar shift in his native country. Now many teams are playing with two volante, one purely holding and the other as a functionary midfielder, covering for gaps and giving stability in transitions and when the full back attacks. But it’d be harsh on Denilson to state he is a functionary player. An all-round midfielder is a more apt description and being able to perform many roles in one allows the team to flourish.
Back to the game against Hull and the side found it difficult to cut open a resilient and focused Tigers defence. Many would have chewed over what was a largely negative report of the first half from the mainstream press but in truth the away side made it difficult to play. It wasn’t until Denilson decided to take free-kick matters into his own hands when Arsenal could step up a gear as the midfielder’s free kick dipped into the bottom corner. Eduardo finished off a great move after a one-two between Diaby and Song before the former capped up a good win with a powerful move and finish after linking up with Andrey Arshavin.
Arsenal: Almunia, Eboué, Vermaelen, Gallas, Silvestre, Song, Denilson, Nasri (Ramsey), Diaby*, Eduardo (Walcott), Arshavin (Vela).
Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Sagna, Wilshere, Emmanuel-Thomas.
Hull: Myhill, McShane, Zayatte, Gardner, Dawson, Boateng, Garcia, Geovanni, Barmby, Hunt, Fagan.
Subs: Duke, Mendy, Kilbane, Ghilas, Cousin, Vennegoor of Hesselink, Olofinjana.
Referee: Steve Bennett (Kent).
|Arsenal||Team Statistics||Hull City|
|1||1st Half Goals||0|
|4||Shots on Target||3|
|11||Shots off Target||4|