Tags: Arsenal, Dribbling, Wingers
The benching of Arsenal’s too most gifted dribblers due to slight knocks did not help the Gunners’ cause in the 1-1 draw to Birmingham.
Two goals. One had a bit of luck; the other was dizzyingly graceful. Yet both were just rewards for the almost impudent desire of both players – although paved with good intentions – to get as close to the goal as possible. Samir Nasri’s jinxing and hypnotic run and finish against FC Porto may last longer in the memory than Andrey Arshavin’s flick between two Hull defenders but the goals evoked memories of the golden age of the dribbler. And while the one man masterclass that is Lionel Messi shows week-in-week-out in La Liga that the art of the dribble is far from dead, modern tactics set out to make sure it’s becoming a marginalised trade. At best, however, the dribbler is a game-breaking trait to have and Arsenal’s movement increased ten-fold with the introduction of Nasri and Arshavin in the 1-1 draw against Birmingham.
The two ends of the spectrum were in some sorts displayed in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Hull City as the home side looked to remain compact and overcrowd the space in the centre for Arsenal’s more technically proficient players to play. As a result, Samir Nasri – the Gunner’s highest central midfielder – found his best work to be when linking up with the players out wide. At it was it was Andrey Arshavin who did find the early goal but even that, expectedly was hard work as he was instantly surrounded by three Hull defenders before firing in. As displayed by these examples, if the wide areas are the positions with the most space, then it is far better off taking advantage of them with your most gifted dribblers. Indeed, that represents part of Arsene Wenger’s thinking when deploying such players as the Marseilles man on the flanks – his ingenuity allowing Arsenal to retain a passing style but still possessing the option to be more dynamic. “What is important is to keep the balance between giving the ball in the final third and scoring goals,” said Wenger after Nasri’s goal against Porto. “On this occasion he made the right decision and has the talent to do it.” And he also added: “He is a very intelligent boy, a quiet boy. He analyses what is happening on the pitch very quickly. He has good technical potential…I believe with the pace he has he can play on the flanks.”
Following Wenger’s ideology early this season of having two different types of wingers on each flank, usually one dynamic and one more technical (although that has recently been challenged by deploying Rosicky and Nasri on opposite flanks to control play better), Nasri’s best chances of starting is on the right, with the left side most likely to be occupied by Arshavin. The Russian can sometimes feel like an incorrigible maverick but Wenger is in no illusions as to his explosiveness. “He is always marked very tight and people do not give him a lot of room,” said the manager. “Everybody who plays against Arshavin says ‘make sure you mark him tight’. But even when he is marked tight in some of the so-called less big games, when you look at the tape afterwards, you always think ‘this movement was good’, or ‘this pass was great’. He always turns up with something special. He can be quiet for 20 minutes, and then suddenly turn up with something decisive. That is what you want from the big players – the big players make you win the big games.” Indeed, at Porto it was arguably his dynamic play, creating three of the goals which helped turn Arsenal’s fortune around.
Dribblers can feel a chancy luxury to have and that is perhaps why managers are more reluctant to play them out wide as it requires quick acceleration made all the more difficult as there is less room to run at the full-back on his outside foot and can lead to moves breaking down. Nevertheless it’s the variation and dynamism that they provide which can turn matches as shown by Arjen Robben’s tantalising displays against Fiorentina, scoring the all-decisive third goal to send Bayern Munich through.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson has so expertly analysed the increasing use of wingers on the opposite sides to their preferred feet but while that makes dribbling easier (allows the winger to attack the full-back’s weaker side) that is not specifically the main advantage that is to be exploited. In Fulham’s recent 3-1 defeat to Tottenham, Damien Duff starting on the right, hardly spent much of the game attacking his man directly as he found cutting in would only lead to more congestion so he realised if he was to succeed in dribbling, it was to in dribbling with movement. The goal he created for Bobby Zamora was created by doubling up in the centre, leaving the left-back Assou-Ekotto with no-one to mark and forcing the central defender, Sebastien Bassong to push up to deal with the extra man he became. In tandem with Arjem Robben at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, the dribblers found a new dimension starting on the ‘wrong’ flank so as to say and which complemented the team’s style.
It seems like the game is taking a holistic route and if it is true as former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues, that taking advantage of wide areas is the key to opening up teams, that can only be exploited best by what’s happening around you. Antonio Valencia has particularly profited for Manchester United by the way his side build up play, allowing him to stretch play on the right as the opposing full-back is forced to tuck inside because of United’s moving of the ball from left to right. And in moments, the defender got too tight he found space to exploit in the centre, winning the penalty against Liverpool by running on the inside of Insua and causing the foul by Mascherano.
And so returning to the 1-1 draw at Birmingham, the starting line-up featuring a front three of Theo Walcott, Nicklas Bendtner and Tomas Rosicky instantly looked worrying at St. Andrews – even more so than the pitch. No real unpredictability and not enough complementation, Walcott was always going to struggle with a lack of creativity in the line up not helped by his style. Switching to the left flank may have been another option yet you couldn’t help think the versatility and explosiveness of Nasri and Arshavin were huge losses in opening up the Blues defence.
Tags: Analysis, Tactics, Wingers
Managers Rafa Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson have recently deployed players in the wide positions for more than just the capability to take people on.
Before Liverpool’s recent goalscoring run, the sight of Dirk Kuyt on the team sheet on the right of midfield would usually have been proceeded by more than a groan or two. Thought not to be quite dynamic enough to be a winger and, if you ask the wrong people, not quite good enough to be a striker. But Liverpool’s goalscoring run has owed itself much to Benitez finding the balance between defence and attack, which Kuyt is an integral part of.
“I do not think people realise how important it is to keep the balance [between defence and attack],” says Rafa Benitez. “Because we are organised some people say we are not an attacking team. It’s so clear we are an attacking team and a very good attacking team. It means the team have a very good offensive mentality and we still keep the balance and defend well. That is important for winning.”
Benitez’s Liverpool is all about controlling space with the ball, that means having all players who are capable of creating chances and off the ball, in the form of systemised pressing. Kuyt’s willingness to run allows them to do that.
For Manchester United, Wayne Rooney has played on the left to nullify opponents attacks and give greater protection to the full back. When Lennon was coming out on top in his battle with Evra, Ferguson put Rooney back into midfield and his work-rate pinned the Tottenham winger back. Park Ji Sung has played out wide all season obviously less for his dynamism and more for his industry which in theory should bring more rewards.
Maybe none of these players are defensive wingers as such but increasingly both managers have stuck someone out wide for more than just their attacking threat. A less attack minded winger could be deployed to cater for specialists and individuals therefore allowing others to play with greater freedom (i.e. Ronaldo), a means for balancing the side or to give more protection.
A dynamic winger would be best to control the space in the wide areas but that may not be easy said as done. Ronaldo’s unwillingness to drop back with much urgency meant Ferguson had to find another way. While Liverpool tried to sign Quaresma but the Portuguese star opted not to join as Benitez wanted to instill a greater focus on his defensive game.
Former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues the physical development of the game and the packing of central midfield means that effective wing play could be the key. But the greater search for controlling space means that even his go-to place is becoming just a slight more complicated.
Tags: Analysis, Tactics, Wingers
Theo Walcott’s anonymity in the first leg against Manchester United showed why there is a lack of natural wingers nowadays and as the game has evolved, so has their skill set.
Arsenal Wenger has normally never played with traditional wingers. Overmars was probably the first and ultimately the last until Walcott came about. Pires and Ljungberg were both converted attacking midfielders while Hleb and Rosicky have always shown their creative roots. But even with their differences, all including Overmars, had more to them than just being able to run past defenders; all thought with their head rather than their feet.
“I like to have one behind the striker, and one or two on the flanks who come inside,” said Wenger. ”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.”
Arshavin and Nasri both fall into the category of ‘Wenger style’ wingers but with Walcott’s increasing integration to the starting line up perhaps there is a slight change of philosophy. Against Chelsea, the manager started with Van Persie on the left and Walcott on the right as he wanted to play with ‘wingers,’ as he put it but in the end were too orthodox. Only at the beginning when Van Persie interchanged with Diaby were Chelsea most threatened and incidentally when the goal came about. At Manchester United, the Red Devils packed the midfield, Rooney then forced Walcott back with United’s early attacking impetus and after the goal, vigorously closed down the winger.
Most of today’s game is about space; pressing to deny space and to make best advantage when you get the space. 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.
If that happens wingers are effectively phased out unless they have more in the locker to get themselves out. Hence the decrease of the natural winger; someone who will come back to the dressing room with chalk on their boots but will actually have one good game in five. Unpredictability is the key weapon in today’s game and it is better to have those that can maximise the spaces. Rinus Michels speaks of ‘operational space’ and that is where the big sides excel in (think Manchester United’s front four last season).
There are many good wide men but in an utilitarian game coaches prefer to have those players that can not only stick to the touchline but can come off the flanks to exploit the space that is potentially on offer.
Tags: Pressing, Tactics, Total Football, Wingers
The greater athleticism and prizes at stake, has seen the ‘Big Four’ increase the intensity up front recently but in doing so, are aware it may leave them open at the back.
Arguably the three greatest tactical influences in the modern game are Rinus Michels’ ‘Total Football’ side, Arrigo Sacchi and the liberalisation of the offside law. In fact in South America, it is a widely held opinion between coaches that Holland’s demolition of Argentina and then Brazil in the 1974 World Cup was the last, greatest tactical innovation.
Even though Michels’ always allowed his sides to play with freedom rather than govern them with restrictions that plough the modern game, it was his tactics and style of play that lasts long in many people’s memories. His teams played a high offside line, pressed the opposition in possession (the South American playmakers to great effect too), and were about quick passing and the interchangeing of positions. His main man, Johan Cruyff was very much influenced by the coach and his Dutch influence was felt by Barcelona when he became their manager (and eventually most successful too).
Barca played in what is now their synonymous 4-3-3 but was adaptable, allowing for triangle passes (i.e. more options in the pass). This type of football is less sustainable in the modern game and Van Gaal tried to account for this by updating the system in order to accommodate it’s pace, skill and athleticism. Hence the now direct Dutch 4-3-3 with more emphasis on counter-attacks and slightly more orthodox.
Still, Pep Guardiola, a former player under Cruyff has looked to bring back some of his philosophies. The three pronged attacked of Messi, Henry and Eto’o could may well get 100 goals between them by the time the season’s done. Guardiola’s forwards are no longer protracted by unnecessary tacking back, which invites the opposition to come at them and at the same time, tiring their own players. Instead they look to force the issue and press the full back’s and the defenders as high as possible, looking to force a mistake and maybe nick the ball. “Barcelona make the pitch look bigger than it really is,” says the former Barcelona midfielder and current Getafe coach Víctor Muñoz. “Barcelona play very high up the pitch and if they get the ball off you there, they’re lethal.”
However it is not a very much used strategy by much other teams and indeed in the Premier League, as Roy Hodgson explains; “There is less high-intensity pressing from the front in advance areas (in top-level European football). This is partly because concern of the interpretation of the offside law has led to teams to play deeper. Sides are sill compact, but this is mainly in their own half of the pitch.”
Indeed playing such a tactic requires organisation at the back and highly mobile players. Nevertheless recent games have shown an increase in it’s use by the ‘big four’. Against Villarreal at home, Arsenal never gave the Spanish side an inch and similarly against Roma. The side’s more quicker and wider style of play this season has seen higher pressure and denying of defences in playing the ball out. It helps that the full backs have been more cautious and indeed this is the same for Chelsea too. Gus Hiddink, a student of Dutch philosophies recognised his side were allowing Arsenal time and space in the FA Cup semi-final and in reaction, deployed the energy of both Essien and Lampard higher, the latter playing just behind Drogba. The result saw a more withdrawn Arsenal and they were unable to get the ball out as Chelsea were snapping on their heels.
Liverpoo’s big matches have seen them having to pressure high up the pitch in order to force the issue but as a result were left more open at the back, and the susceptibility of the full back’s were punished. United are relentless pressure machines and although they have recently been a bit more disciplined up front (Rooney out wide), when they have the ball are almost playing a 4-2-4, suffocating the opposition.
With the traditional 4-4-2 hard to play, pressuring the opposition high up has also decreased in it’s deployment but when implemented, can be particularly effective. The question is, is it really a viable tactic to be used regularly like Barcelona do or is too risky?