Tags: Analysis, Barcelona, Movement, Strikers, Tactics
Barcelona’s clever use of short, tricky forwards have made them an unpredictable force against defensive-minded teams and particularly have allowed Lionel Messi to revel. By Karthik (KV)
At Camp Nou, Barcelona fielded a forward line of Messi, Bojan and Pedro to battle it out against the determined defense of Arsenal. One similarity between these players that springs to our mind is their height – all three are 170cm or less. How then did these players, with their slight build and a hardly awe-inspiring physique wreak havoc to Arsenal’s backline?
Movement is to Barcelona what oil is to a machine. Barcelona, arguably the most attacking team in the world, encounters teams week in and week out which just park the bus in front of their goal to stop Barcelona from scoring and playing freely. They are a side who rely heavily on movement to breakdown defenses and score goals. They require a well drilled, fast and a quick thinking frontline for their team to function properly. Bojan, who is an out-and-out striker by trade, possesses all these qualities. He is technically brilliant, intelligent, blessed with great ball control, balance, vision and devastating acceleration. “There are only a few players who have a magical touch,” the Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola said, “and Bojan is one of them.” As the spearhead of the attack, his movement along with Messi’s is vital to opening up space elsewhere for other players to make the most of. This cannot be more critical as the relentless machine that is Barcelona function superlatively only if there is no one restricting the flow. They need to keep getting better and find better ways to disintegrate defenses.
The unorthodox forward
In the olden times of England, the centre-forward tended traditionally to be a big target-man figure – what Brian Glanville intelligently labels as “the brainless bull at the gate”. His job was, essentially, to meet crosses and hold up the ball with his imposing form. Elsewhere, though, where skill was prioritized over physicality, he soon became something rather more subtle, and there is evidence to suggest that by the 1920s it was not uncommon for centre-forwards in central Europe and in Latin America to drop deep and roam around the ground freely. Over time, we have seen hybrid strikers who can hold the ball up and also play as a false nine leading the attack for most of the big clubs. But Bojan is a different type of striker. He may not quite offer the flexibility of style but he moves about the pitch without restraint in search of open spaces. This enhances the fluency of movement which the likes of Xavi and Iniesta crave for. “People think we had these big strong players, but we had guys like Evani and Donadoni who were slight. No they became big strong players because of their positioning and movement. That’s what made them seem big” said Arrigo Sacchi. Similarly, the likes of Messi, Bojan and Pedro compensate for their slight physique with intelligent movement and by dropping between the lines. Bojan is capable of playing on the wings too, which adds to his versatility.
Basketball is a game which is all about movement the movement of players on court. Teams plan beforehand and devise intricate plays to attract double teams and isolate a player. As play is generally compressed into one half, it is extremely interesting how much impact a simple movement from the center to the wing makes enough space for the man on the ball to drive inside. The man off the ball is as important as the man with it. The same comparison can be made on attacking teams like Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United which rely heavily on movement of players to score goals. Lionel Messi, most certainly the best player in the world, is used as a decoy by Pep Guardiola. The goals in the first leg of the quarterfinal match against Arsenal, demonstrate this. Defenders are attracted to him and neglect the presence of other players, who are just as capable of inflicting damage. In the average position graph above, we can clearly see the amount of space available for Xavi (6) to thread in his passes. Messi (10) has the ability to attract the direction of play towards him. With their movement, they will be able to outwit bigger and brawny defenders, which may be why Silvestre was drafted in place of Sol Campbell.
The Arshavin experiment
Arsene Wenger’s love for short players with meteoric acceleration led to his brief experiment with Andrey Arshavin, a shrewd player, up top as a Center Forward was largely a failure. Arshavin, who is 172 cm high, relied on swift movement to create space for others. But, due to the injury crisis at that time, the right personnel weren’t there to take advantage of his movements. Lack of penetration and dynamism on the wings were major reasons for the failure. But pushing Fabregas higher up the pitch seemed to be the right solution but the return of Bendtner, a hybrid striker himself, ended the short-lived experiment.
Will we see more of the Bojans and the Messis leading the line? May be not on a regular basis as things may get one-dimensional and easy to defend against. What the hybrid striker offers is flexibility of styles and options for the manager when things are not going as per plan. Ibrahimovic is certainly not the ‘brainless bull in front of the gate’ type of player. They may present an alternative such as the long ball, but not quite the fluency of movement that the players like Bojan and Messi offer. But they too are versatile in their own way, which may see more being deployed up front in the near future.
Next up: Analysing Arsenal’s Pressing Game.
Tags: Analysis, Arsenal, Bendtner, Strikers, Tactics
Karthik (KV) explains how Nicklas Bendtner can bring back a much-needed presence to the Arsenal attack following the injury to Robin van Persie.
“I want to be top scorer in the Premier League, top scorer at the World Cup and, within five years, I want to be among the best strikers in the world” were the lofty aims set by a giant striker at the beginning of the season. Nicklas Bendtner was on course to maturing into a top class hybrid striker before injury stopped his progress. Now with Robin van Persie injured, Arshavin has taken the ‘false 9’ role that the Dutchman made his very own, with mixed results. In this article, I will try to explore how Arsenal’s style of play can be impacted with the return of Nicklas Bendtner.
The return of the deadly Dane will add a new dimension to the team. It will influence everyone, even the goal keeper. Almunia will have an added option of “hoofing” the ball high up to either hold the ball or take it and attack. It allows the defenders and of course the midfielders to think differently.
In my previous article, I highlighted the use of our ‘strikerless’ system, where van Persie was the focal point. Due to the movement and the interchangeability provided by the 4-3-3 formation, we were able to thump most of the teams which came in our way. This is how our 4-3-3 strikerless formation works with van Persie as the false 9, against other teams who mostly line up in a 4-2-3-1.
The main purpose of this formation is to outnumber the two defensive midfielders by letting van Persie drop deep. He takes position with the deeper lying Central Midfieler as reference, i.e. he positions himself in between the CBs and the Defensive midfielder. This allows exchange of passes with pass master Cesc and puts the wingers, primarily Arshavin in goalscoring positions. All of a sudden the two double pivots are in an island surrounded by Arsenal players. They can pass around the double pivots without trouble.
Note that in the diagram, the wingers are positioned as decoys to keep the full-backs involved. In the absence of van Persie, Arshavin has taken the main forward position and has added his own tricks to the role.
What does Nicklas Bendtner bring to this role?
Before I begin, I would like you all to rewind a bit to the first goal we scored at the Merseyside few months back. At the heart of the move was Nicklas Bendtner who emphatically took out Leyton Baines and then passed it in. Later in the 6-2 mauling of Blackburn, he finished the rout by scoring a long ranger. Against Dynamo Kiev, he finished of a long over the top through ball from Fabregas. These goals highlight his versatility, adaptability and flexibility.
He has the technical ability, vision, passing and above all a sizeable frame to improve upon the job done by van Persie and Arshavin. The advantage with Bendtner is that, he can play as a ‘false 9’ or as an out and out striker. He is sure to win headers and he can also hold the ball up. In the graphic before, I explained how van Persie moves deeper to create confusion. But Bendtner can also move the opposite way without any trouble. He was employed in the wings to add dynamism in the first few matches of this season and to pose smaller full backs with an altogether different proposition because of his height. His dribbling skills and close control will help him succeed in the forward role while Sagna and Clichy (the left back in general) can also put in accurate crosses in the box for Nicklas to head in.
On the whole, Nicklas Bendtner presents a new dimension to the team and we will have more chances of scoring goals. In the coming decade, hybrid strikers like Bendtner, Ibrahimovic and Berbatov will often be called upon to spearhead the attack as they possess something of all the qualities required to lead the line. Their introduction will spell the end for specialist roles. The young Nicklas may not exactly be as good as Ibrahimovic, but he can certainly be even better with more games in that role.
“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.” The hybrid Dane certainly fits the description.
Tuesday: Analysing Arsenal’s defensive game (I know I promised it two weeks ago but…boo hoo).
Tags: 4-3-3, Analysis, Strikers, Tactics, Van Persie
Robin van Persie’s new role at the tip of the Arsenal front three is sought to bring more variety to the side’s attacking play.
Few would have had Thomas Vermaelen as Arsenal’s top scorer in the early stages of the season, not least because he is a defender but the Belgian had also yet to kick a ball in the Premier League before his £10million move from Ajax and who others decided against signing because of his height. And while it would have been surprising to him also, Arsène Wenger will argue it was all part of his master plan all along.
Wenger had been preparing for this current campaign towards the end of last season by switching the formation to a 4-2-3-1, one born out of necessity after the Gunners faltering title challenge but also allowing him to experiment from within. Games against Chelsea and Villarreal at home saw his side pressuring up the pitch at a high tempo; Alex Song and Samir Nasri dropped deeper while he was preparing for life after Emmanuel Adebayor by opting not to go with the Togolese striker for the final two games of the season.
But rather than go like-for-like with Nicklas Bendtner or “fox-in-the-box” Eduardo, his replacement was to be Robin Van Persie, the forward who had found his best work to be as the second striker. But in that the Dutchman had also found what was his most productive season, (largely because of staying injury free of course) making 10 Premier League assists and scoring 20 goals in all competitions. However it wasn’t a case of exaggerating his star performer’s skills but rather an attempt to make his fluid, attacking side more effective.
Arsenal had just gone through a frustrating season with teams like Stoke and Bolton knowing that men behind the ball could seriously disrupt their play. They were fully aware that Arsenal would only play one way and that was to play through them therefore all they had to do was to sit deep and stay focused for the full ninety in the hope of getting at least a result.
In anticipation of a potential repeat, Arsène Wenger has looked to alter the way his team works but still retaining the one-touch, pass and move style of build up. The switch to a 4-3-3 is more than just a means to accommodate the plethora of central midfielders in the side. It allows his team to pressure high up the pitch, bring the game early to opposition and allows more angles in the pass to keep the ball moving.
Robin Van Persie’s role as the central forward is key to this style. Fabio Capello says that “in the modern game, the only formation is 9-1,” which means teams must defend and attack as a team but also acknowledging the importance of the forward as a base which to build play around.
In this position the Dutchman is not necessarily inhibited by playing a role that he is not used but rather allowing him to do the things he is best at. He can drop deep, drag defenders out and make space for others to run into. There is so much space a team can deny behind you which invariably means conceding greater space in front. And with players like Fabregas who thrive on having the ball in such areas and the chance for others to interchange the potential danger becomes unexpectedly larger.
Pep Guardiola talks about the ‘llegada’ (arrival), a late arriver into the box who can progress beyond the forward unmarked, causing much surprise to the opposition defence and such a tactic is now a vital part in Arsenal’s game. “It can get a little bit lonely for him (van Persie),” says Wenger. “But that depends how quick and how massive the support is we give him. I believe that we work on that, you know? That he gets quick support and he needs people around him because he’s a combination player, more than a physical player. That’s why the distances within our side are important, that he’s not isolated.”
The unpredictability gives greater depth to attacks and makes it hard to mark players. In more than a couple of instances against Wigan, van Persie dropped into the centre circle and instantly Eduardo and Eboue darted in from the flanks and sought to take advantage of the space left behind. Late arriving midfielders is still a ploy which many teams find hard to deal, giving an element of surprise to attacks and more goals.
And as fitness improves, so do the demands of players therefore the next evolution in football is likely to be how the different players interpret their roles (maybe the return of the sweeper is on the cards?). 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, while still a diamond in the rough, 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.
Other subtle changes to the Arsenal set-up can sometimes see Alex Song drop back almost as the third centre back. The application and desire has improved among the ranks and the Cameroon ace has certainly shown the necessary advances to become a vital part of the team, stopping counter attacks by reading the game well. The full backs look to be more aware of transitions and are expected to squeeze the space against wingers and pin them back. And after having been criticised at the start of the season for lacking size, the Gunners have notched seven goals from free-kicks and corners as Wenger has realised the value of set-pieces and has fielded some of his tallest sides in recent seasons.
The French manager has also talked about the importance of distances and Arsenal need to make sure they are not being too stretched defensively. That means pressuring high and squeezing the space by pushing up. This is the area where Arshavin may be key as although his fitness levels are not the highest, the Russian puts in a hardworking shift closing down early on while his dynamism adds balance. “When you play with Arshavin you are never on your own, when you play with Theo Walcott you are never on your own,” Wenger told The Daily Telegraph. “Playing with strikers depends on the support you will get from the rest of the team. I wanted to see how it works because we have many offensive players and maybe we have to tighten up a bit in midfield to keep balance between offence and defence and I wanted to see how it works. I am quite happy with it.”
There is still much work to be done for the tactic to be a success in the long run with van Persie acknowledging there is still room for improvements in his all round game. And there will be days when things fail to click therefore Bendtner’s and Eduardo’s more orthodox manner will be called upon more centrally. But with 25 goals scored in eight matches (not including Carling Cup) and a hat full chances that could have gone either way in Manchester there’s every chance that Arsène Wenger has this time found the right formula.
Tags: Arsène Wenger, Movement, Strikers, Van Persie
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.
“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.
Tags: Formation, Strikers
The Premier League transfer window has seen some curious signings, no less than at Tottenham but the window has also signaled an evolution of the striker and one where a greater requirement is expected of them.
In the January transfer window Aston Villa had signed Emile Heskey from Wigan for £3.5m. This was a player who had scored 109 goals in 409 league appearances at a ratio of 0.27 goals a game and had been flogged by his previous teams for ultimately not scoring enough goals.
He had produced a promising partnership for both England and Liverpool with Micheal Owen but in the case his partnered didn’t score the pressure was on the bulky target man to deliver. A couple of mainly goal-shy seasons later and accusations of falling over more than scoring, he joined Birmingham. However he didn’t do enough to dispel such an image and was later resigned by Steve Bruce, now at Wigan. Here the striker had reinvented himself as a team player; linking up play and making space for others with his strength. His unselfish performances leading the line under Fabio Capello’s ‘fluid’ England side finally brought appreciation at the age of 30.
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. 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.
The Premiership is still a curious anomaly. European clubs usually play with one central striker similar to someone like Torres (can run, link up, pace, movement) and a creative striker/playmaker behind. However in the Premier League, clubs still mainly play a traditional 4-4-2 but whereas before they wanted a little-and-large partnership the transfer window has seen the trend shift to two tall, highly mobile strikers. Wigan had signed Rodallega and Mido, Hull Manucho and even Middlesbrough you can argue with Marlon King.
Micheal Owen is one the only few old style goal poachers around but even he has had to evolve, playing as a link striker last season under Keegan. 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. Ruud Van Nistelrooy brings more than just goals with his hold up play while Inzaghi has great movement to go with his limited ability. “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.”
Of course the Premiership is a different league, less technical and more cautious but the evolution of strikers had been evident at the top clubs such as Arsenal and Manchester United even before this window. Berbatov, Drogba and Adebayor offer more than a traditional target man or striker would have previously offered. Which makes it even more baffling the signings of Tottenham Hotspur who have now got three strikers in a more traditional ‘goal-poacher’ role (Bent, Defoe and Keane) and one all round player in Pavlyuchenko.
The fitness of players have increased ten-fold and the demands greater on defenders, to win the battle centre forwards have had to evolve and offer more.