Arsenal Column is moving!

August 16, 2010 at 10:28 am | Posted in Arsenal | 4 Comments

The Arsenal Column  is now moving to it’s new home of Redirect your bookmarks to the new address for the latest Arsenal analysis starting with the 1-1 draw at Liverpool. Happy reading!

[UPDATE]: There has been some technical issues on the new site but we can assure you that is all but sorted so you can now enjoy reading all the new Arsenal Column posts on the new blog.

Analysing Cesc Fàbregas’ impact at Arsenal

December 22, 2010 at 10:26 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment

Keeping Cesc Fabregas in the summer was a symbolic one, if not already indicated by his position as captain of this side. Fabregas is the talisman; the highest profile player and a leader of his generation. If he ceased to believe in Arsenal Wenger’s project then what hope does a youth development policy have?

Little – according to Manchester United left-back Patrice Evra.

Ahead of the clash at Old Trafford (which United won 1-0), Evra’s words that Arsenal is a club in “crisis” will have irked Wenger and indeed Fabregas. The Spaniard has only one trophy to his name – an FA Cup won in 2005 – and if trophies are a measure of a club’s success, Arsenal has failed him. Wenger, however, will argue different although he is in to no illusions as to the importance of silverware. Staying competitive is really what modern sport is about. Marat Safin’s contempt at his career, despite many critics arguing he should have added more to the two tennis Grand Slams he has to his name, lies in the fact he had remained a key challenger despite being sandwiched in between two great generations – Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – and injuries.

The youth development policy is designed to achieve just that  – remain competitive – following the move to the Emirates Stadium. It’s a strategy – not the manager’s fetish – which every organisation builds in times of change and that is the way Arsenal have gone to keep themselves at the top or thereabouts in the future. Wenger feels that by 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. Holding on to Cesc Fabregas means Arsenal can compete even stronger for honours this season and crucially, those players he has come through with have matured an extra year.

Fabregas embodies the Arsenal spirit emotionally; Guillem Balague writes of a Spanish embassy event which Fabregas was invited to, taking along with him a shy Arsenal apprentice named Fran Merida, who among the stars and football dignitaries was unsure of where to sit. Fabregas, though, ensured seats were shuffled and space was made so that Merida could sit alongside him. The side’s competitive streak is reflected in his manner – Fabregas’ on-going duel with Frank Lampard is tinged with edge and passion which makes for a fascinating watch – although at times it can go overboard. The pizza throwing incident in 2005 illustrates an almost combustible temperament among the team’s young charges and was continued this season with Samir Nasri’s non-handshake of William Gallas.

On the pitch and he is the sort of skilful and spontaneous specimen that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – combined with a fragility that can occasionally frustrate.

When Fabregas made his first start in what would be considered to be the first team – a Community Shield tie against Manchester United in 2004 (he made his début in the League Cup the season previously but Wenger had already began toying with the idea of blooding his youngsters and giving his fringe players a chance in the competition) – the club had just reached the pantheon of what makes a great team. They had won the Premiership without losing a game and would subsequently go 9 more matches without defeat and Fabregas represented a new generation ready to prolong the period of success. Featuring the likes of Ashley Cole, Jose Antonio Reyes, Robin van Persie, Jermaine Pennant and Gael Clichy alongside legendary first-teamers, Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners at the Millennium Stadium in great swashbuckling style. Cesc Fabregas was magnificent, showing maturity beyond his years in a defensive midfield position, hassling and harrying his older opponents with much tenacity. Indeed the only thing giving away his tender years was his overgrown mullet.

In truth, Fabregas had not been intentionally deployed in the defensive midfield role; a role that he had played during his time at La Masia, Barcelona’s academy. Alongside Gilberto Silva, the Spaniard was detailed to undertake a shared role, as a double pivot, but his youthful modesty ensured he took the back seat in his first high-profile game. Soon enough, however, he was starting regularly in the first-team and naturally began getting more involved with play. His contribution to Arsenal’s free-scoring start to the season didn’t go unnoticed but there were question marks about putting someone so young into the heart action. ”If he plays better than the other players he will be in the team,” said Wenger. “But ideally he will wait one more year. He is an exceptional player and there is more to come from him.” However, it had become necessary.

Edu and Patrick Vieira’s injury problems meant Fabregas had to be elevated into the starting line-up while it had started to become obvious that the former was unlikely to stay beyond the final year of his contract. Edu was the type of player who would easily slot into the creative side of the game while offering the stability that Fabregas was relied upon.

There was another issue and that was, despite scoring a hat full of goals, that the Gunners had become more vulnerable at the other end. The game that forced Wenger’s hand and required him to reassess things was the 5-4 win over Tottenham although it would be until the following season that the changes would take place. Spurs had total control of the first-half, dominating Arsenal in terms of possession and territory and the Gunners midfield were unable to match their rival’s intensity. As it was, Fabregas rose to the occasion in the second-half and inspired Arsenal to the famous victory, producing a delightful assist to set up Fredrik Ljungberg but the partnership between he and Arsenal’s captain, Vieira, was not working.

Arsenal, under Wenger, would normally play a double pivot; two disciplined midfielders in front of the back four although with Fabregas you had a box-to-box midfielder who’s creative tendencies would see him getting involved further up the pitch and thus disrupting some of the balance. For Vieira, the securities Emmanuel Petit, Gilberto or Edu provided, allowed him to venture up-field but with Fabregas, he was forced to assume a more defence-minded role. It just didn’t work. “When Cesc Fabregas was 18, 19, I would play him in a 4-4-2 with Patrick Vieira and I saw it did not work,” said Wenger. “Then I had the decision to make about letting Patrick go, because Gilberto Silva and Vieira worked, Fabregas and Silva worked, but I could not play Fabregas and Vieira.”

Wenger was able to maintain his version of the 4-4-2 in the next season after both Edu and Vieira had departed but unlike in the past where it was a shared role, Gilberto acted as the sole fetching midfielder for Arsenal’s ball players. However, the intensity it required was becoming evident in the side’s failure to add to their trophy cabinet and somewhat displayed in a 4-0 FA Cup defeat to Manchester United in 2008 whereby Gilberto was given the run around by United’s dynamic attack. Matthieu Flamini, though, was superb in the same role in that very season as Arsenal’s “water carrier,” as his astronomic fitness levels and tactical acumen helped the Gunners retain an organised structure. His departure may have happened in slightly acrimonious fashion but there was no doubt he was essential to the team and off the pitch, forged a strong friendship with Fabregas. The energy exerted in the season looked like it had taken its toll on the Frenchman and he, along with another one of Fabregas’ close friends, Alex Hleb packed up their bags and jetted off to pastures supposedly greener.

There were tactical ramifications too that mustn’t be overlooked in examining Cesc Fabregas impact in his earlier years. The emergence of Chelsea as a superpower, and specifically under the guidance of Jose Mourinho ignited a tactical shift in the Premier League. The 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 became the vogue as opponents packed the midfield, making it more difficult for Arsenal to break them down as opposed to their approach in the “Invincibles” era where, even Leicester City would come to Highbury and play a high line. Jose Mourinho said:

“Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude 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. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.”

Bearing that in mind, it was perhaps no surprise to see Arsenal string their most successful run in the 2005/06 Champions League playing a compact 4-5-1 with Gilberto acting as the holding midfielder. The Gunners were able to assume their shape more easily and with a playmaker functioning behind Theirry Henry, had control of zones which they didn’t in the past. Dennis Bergkamp’s no-show at away matches due to a fear of flying was a huge loss to the structure as his operational mastery meant he dropped back to stop the holding midfielder from passing the ball out. In later seasons, Robin van Persie attempted to ensure Arsenal didn’t have a man disadvantage by dropping back to become a spare midfielder.

That is not to say, however, that Cesc Fabregas is unable to play in a 4-4-2 or an adapted version of the system. In 2005/06, in a 1-0 win over Manchester United (they are becoming a common theme now), Fabregas ran the show from a deeper position while in 2007/08, he was arguably the player of the season. Fans would love to see him assume the second midfielder role in the double pivot in the current side but therein lies another problem. In the past, one would argue the quality in creativity was there to allow Fabregas to play deeper; now his deployment further up is a must. Jogging your mind back to the Community Shield encounter with United and some of the players which Wenger would have hoped form a backbone for Arsenal for years to come, are no longer with the side. It becomes difficult then, for a manager to build a side when the best players leave after failing to offer their services for more than two years. Economic circumstances have contributed to the reason but surely one of Wenger’s regrets would be seeing the bond between Flamini, Hleb and Fabregas become dismantled after a season and to lose Tomas Rosicky for effectively two seasons. The mess that was 2008/09 was proof of Arsenal’s attempts to recreate an understanding and what must go down as Wenger’s least attractive years despite relative success on the field.

At face value, the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United in 2006/07 seems inconspicuous. On the one hand it is surprising because Arsenal has generally been good against newly promoted sides but as a defining game, it’s not expected. But as it stands, the loss forced Arsenal to reassess their approach to defence-minded teams eventually culminating to the structure as it is today. Sheffield United took a one-nil lead before half-time and would hold out for over half-an-hour without a natural goalkeeper; defender Phil Jagielka acted as an emergency goalkeeper when Paddy Keeny had to be taken off injured. ”After that game we realised that if we didn’t change our mentality we would always struggle in those kind of games,” said Fabregas. “From then on we’ve been showing great character, great attitude and doing really well. We had a talk between ourselves and decided that we had to change, become more competitive.”

Fabregas became the focal point of the team through the natural ascension of letting him exert his sheer influence on the game.  Though physically robust, Fabregas’ impact on the game has usually been more through stealth and subtlety, through precision passes and the keen awareness of the ebb and flow of the action. As Henry said after the 2-0 Champions League win over Juventus in the year Arsenal went all the way to the final, “if you let Fabregas play he can kill a team.” And he usually does and that’s why he has added steel and dynamism to his game that has made him one of the best midfielders in the world.

Some would argue, however, that it is unhealthy for a team to rely on one individual as the Arsenal side does currently on Cesc Fabregas. That the team is built around him shouldn’t be a sign of Fabregas’ weakness but a sign of his strengths. That one individual is able to elevate the results of a team with such effectiveness shows the sign of a truly world class player. His 15 goals and 13 assists took him to new heights last season but it is the way he goes about contributing to the final result. Fàbregas often makes 10 or 15 passes out of 60 unsuccessful because he knows that for a team to score, they must take risks and who better to take them than a purveyor of the through pass.

His performances against big teams in recent seasons leave little to write home about but again, that perhaps says more about the unit as a whole than of Fàbregas. Which remains part of the challenge of Wenger’s team this season; how to drag out of the shadows of Cesc Fàbregas, a winning Arsenal side. And one that is led by their iconic captain and not, they hope, their prodigal son.

Are target men ever successful?

November 18, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 3 Comments

England’s love-affair with the “big man” or target man perhaps transcends practicality. As a position, they are hoisted up proudly in the air like a totem, therefore, when one emerges, like Andy Carroll of Newcastle United, it is no surprise that they dangled over the balcony like one of Michael Jackson’s babies.

The giddiness, it seems Carroll’s form has created, that the calls for international recognition (which has now been granted) forget that the reliance of the target man was one of the reasons for England’s failure in the last World Cup. So predictable in fact, Franz Beckenbaur says they were, that he described England’s tactics in the tournament as old fashioned, resembling the “the bad old times of kick and rush.” Indeed, in a recent article for the Guardian, David Lacey concurs saying England have “rarely prosper with a traditional target man,” which is a bold statement perhaps but one which begs the question – are target men ever successful?

The target man in English football is an iconic position – archetypal almost and they are generally easy for fans to relate to. Normal men making the most of their limited ability which in the envy culture we are in now, hard to begrudge. As Simon Kuper writes, “there are two types of British footballers; ugly ones…and pretty ones. The British public usually prefers the ugly ones.”

Tactically, the target man’s brief can range from the simple; simply being someone for the team to aim at or more complex such as Christian Vieri or Alan Shearer who were mobile and technically as good on the ground as they were in the air. But in regards to the former, such explains why the target man has found its home in Britain because – as popularised by Charles Reep and Graham Taylor – if it’s not forward, it’s not progression. Overseas and the development of football since Britain delivered the game outside of these shores sees the target man as a freak of nature almost; an unattractive way of playing and an interloper in their adapted style of football. That was certainly the case for Brazilian forward Serginho in the 1982 World Cup.

The striker was tall and looked uncomfortable in his movement but his touch on the ball was often magnificent. Shame about his finishing however. And that was a huge part of why Serginho was derided as Brazil were defeated in the second round by Italy in a 3-2 thriller. Brazil needed a scapegoat and Serginho was the antithesis of the colourful football played by the team. He simply looked out of place. (He was ultimately third choice but injuries ruled out Brazil’s best strikers but despite his skill on the ball questions can be asked why he was picked. With Brazil’s emphasis on fitness conditioning and fixation of Europe’s increasing physicality, could it be they felt Serginho fitted those criteria).

Perhaps the most successful use of the target man at the top level was France’s deployment of Stephen Guivarch during the 1998 World Cup. The striker scored no goals but in front of a carousel of creators, was the ideal pivot for the midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 to play around. Bearing this in mind, Jonathan Wilson argues and Rob Smyth argue that Serginho may have been misunderstood – his role perhaps too early in the development of the game as Brazil had eight different scorers but at the same time, a fast mobile striker may have made them more voracious and ultimately, of greater balance.

Mobility is also a key factor in today’s game. Guivarch was technically weak but worked hard for the team but as a long-term value, may have been more suited to a six game tournament rather than the rigours of the league. For top teams, a target man may not suit their level of technicality however for a weaker team the use of a big striker may tip the scale somewhat. To be fair on Andy Carroll he is as a modern day striker should be; good on the ball, mobile and realises his role off the ball by pressing the opponents hard. Against France in the 2-1 defeat he was the Three Lion’s best player in the first-half but England’s predictable tendencies kicked in. Long ball were continually knocked to him but the all the work was outside the box.

One of the advantages of the target man, providing you get good service, is the goal threat in the air however England were unable to get any wing-play going either from Theo Walcott and James Milner. People will point to the use of Geoff Hurst, a Plan B which helped England win the World Cup in 1966. That is true however that was without wingers. Alf Ramsey did away with wide players, saying they can leave the users with a disadvantage as wingers hugging the touchline may be too far away from the action. Hard-work and creativity was key in a 4-1-3-2 formation and should the situation require it, could call on Hurst. We all know what happened next.

Peter Crouch, the ultimate Plan B, scored England’s consolation last night although his mobility impedes from starting the matches his goal record demands. It may be someone as good as Barcelona could score more goals with a more direct approach – we may never know – and indeed, Spain have found Fernando Llorente as the reliable option off the bench. Good form going two years back have yielded calls for more starts and certainly it makes sense. With much of Spain’s threat coming in front of the defence, as opponents play so deep, there is no space to get behind. As a result, Torres’ main strength is neutralised and Llorente’s presence to mix it up without a compromise to his ability, in some ways, make him a better option.

In the end, what it all boils down to is balance. Arsenal regularly has targets such as Marouanne Chamakh or Nicklas Bendtner to aim at but their style goes against playing high balls in the box. As a pivot they work better and Arsenal is also lucky that both strikers can operate in a more technical style. Target men, unsurprisingly, work best in a direct style and that is the reason why they are so prevalent in Britain but history is not littered with exerts of target men at the top level. It just doesn’t suit their primary style.

Ultimately, England’s tournament record – a win ratio of 0.46 – shows that England is just that: consistently inconsistent. Target man or not, it’s not conclusive if England are for better or the worse. More attachment lies on the culture of football. For the target man to prosper, England needs to have the right balance and less predictability. And that may mean runners in support of the striker, good wing-play and accurate passes. Until then, they can find solace in the presence of the target men to cover up their deficiencies.

Braga fail to cope with Arsenal’s rapid interchange as inspired by Cesc Fabregas

September 16, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 5 Comments

Cesc Fabregas was in talismanic form as he helped dismantle Sporting Braga 6-0 in Champions League Matchday 1.

On the face of it this was another quintessential Arsenal victory against Sporting Braga but this 6-0 demolishing of the Champions League débutantes was built on clinical attacking play and a solid defensive foundation. Arsenal didn’t allow the ball to get anywhere near Manuel Almunia and that to some, was a victory in itself. Question marks will be raised at the integrity of Braga and certainly they were found out to be the novices they actually are; freshmen given a pummeling on their first day but on such scintillating form, many of European football’s finest would have had trouble facing Arsenal on such form at the Emirates. The Gunners were quick, incisive, accurate and obdurate and all inspired by the talismanic Cesc Fabregas.

Arsenal fans were ecstatic after this summer’s longest running transfer went their way as they managed to hold onto their captain. Still only 23, he is the complete central midfielder combining eye of the needle assists with lung-power, awareness and now goals. Fabregas was imperious here against Sporting Braga, his selfless team play exemplified as he passed up the opportunity to secure his hat-trick by playing in Carlos Vela for Arsenal’s six. His pre-match interview was the object of determination and seriousness as he chastised his team-mates for losing their concentration for a period of ten minutes at 3-0. If this is to be Fabregas’ last season in red and white, it will damn well be a good one seemed his apparent message.

Arsenal’s passing too quick for Braga

On the pitch, it was Arsenal’s rapid interchange that tore Braga apart. Their opponent’s game plan was simple – defend with nine at the back and break quickly. Except they couldn’t and what followed was that they allowed too big a gap between midfield and defence – and this was with the two ubiquitous holding midfielders in front of their back four. “Against teams that are going to sit back and let you have the ball you’ve got to move it quickly and get them moving around,” said Arsenal reserve coach Neil Banfield and indeed, the level of ambiguity confused Braga’s marking. Marouanne Chamakh revelled in the roaming  striker role and the advantage of playing the “false nine” style striker is that their movement forces back lines to push up. Bolton found that out in the 4-1 defeat in the weekend and here Arsenal were constantly able to get behind in the channels. There is also a left-sided slant of play with Wilshere passing from deep, Chamakh drifting to the left and Fabregas linking with Arshavin and the Moroccan that it was no coincidence most of the goals came from that side or as a result of change of emphasis of one side to the other.

Midfield positioning baffles the Arsenalistas.

The starting position of Alex Song and most particularly Jack Wilshere, who had a wonderful game, meant Braga’s two central midfielders were posed with a dilemma. Get tight and run the risk of allowing Arsenal space in between or drop deep and get shunted around by Arsenal passing speed. As a result, they could do neither and with Cesc Fabregas playing a “free role”, the Spaniard was too difficult to pick up. The formation, an inverted 4-3-3 in the centre whereby there would normally be two central midfielders either side of the deepest midfield now resembles more a 4-2-1-3 with Fabregas playing the highest. The reason why you would be hesitant to call it other than a 4-3-3 because Fabregas is not exactly playing in “between-the-lines” as a playmaker would in a 4-2-3-1. He has a vaguely defined role of dropping back to help the central two but first help the forward press the defenders. So in a sense, it becomes difficult for opponents at different stages of the match to define whether he is a midfielder or a striker. Blackburn marked him well in the 2-1 defeat to the Gunners at Ewood Park as first Vince Grella marked Fabregas if he dropped deep and Phil Jones did likewise higher up the pitch. At the Emirates, he was everywhere and Braga could find no answer.

Defensively, Arsenal were also very comfortable. Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci’s tight marking style means it was difficult for the Portguese side to counter attack and it helped of course that Wenger’s instructions were to drop deeper and counter that threat on the break. It looked like a routine victory at times with the way Arsenal soaked up Braga’s feeble attacks but the quality on show bordered on footballing Nirvana. A style that should make the whole of Europe stand up and notice. “We won the game but I believe as well we played the game we wanted to play, at a high pace, with top technical quality and with a lot of creative attitude and a good concentration and collective spirit,” gleamed Arsene Wenger. “Our game is based on that.

<Figure 1> Fabregas played much higher against Braga, wreaking havoc in front of the box and got his reward by scoring two goals and finding openings in the opponents defence. Image courtesy of ESPN Soccernet.

<Figure 2> Arsenal’s tight midfield positioning is displayed here by the pass position of Cesc Fabregas. Playing more closer to Song and Wilshere, partly because of Bolton’s stubbornness around the box, he was able to pick up the ball from deep and then break forward to make three assists. Image courtesy of Guardian Chalkboards.

Arsenal 6 – 0 Sporting Braga: Fabregas (pen) 9, Arshavin 30, Chamakh 34, Fabregas 53, Vela 69, Vela 84

ARSENAL 4-3-3: Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Squillaci, Clichy; Fabregas, Song (Denilson, 63), Wilshere; Nasri, Chamakh (Vela, 63), Arshavin (Eboué, 69).
Subs not used Fabianski, Rosicky, Djourou, Gibbs.

BRAGA (4-4-2): Felipe; Garcia, Rodriguez, Moises, Silvio; Alan, Vandinho, Viana (Mossoro, 53), Cesar (Barbosa, 69); Aguiar, Matheus (Lima, 59).
Subs not used Artur, Paulao, Madrid, Elton.

Arsenal Braga
6 Goals scored 0
8 Attempts on target 4
3 Attempts wide 2
1 Yellow cards 2
0 Red cards 0
19 Fouls committed 12
2 Corners 0
5 Offside 4
36′ 13” Possession (time) 25′ 55”
58 Possession (%) 42

Arshavin looks left-field in search of his old mojo

September 14, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 2 Comments

To most people, Andrey Arshavin would have registered on their consciousness in the summer of 2008. He was boyish in his looks; his plum cheeks and fluffy hair were never going to hide his impish charm but it wasn’t before long he displayed all his cunning trickery. Suspended for the first two games of the European Championships with Russia – one of which included a 4-0 defeat to Spain – Arshavin made an instant impression. He was instrumental in seeing his side progress out of the group stages in the final game before producing a performance which made everyone stand up and notice. Arshavin was devastating in a 3-1 win over Holland, scoring a fantastic counter-attacking goal to see off the Dutch and was so effective every time he got the ball that ITV pundit Andy Townsend claimed it would be the best £20million a club could spend in the transfer window.

Some of Europe’s top clubs had been alerted to Arshavin’s genius before the tournament had started as Zenit St. Petersburg claimed the UEFA Cup, most impressively thrashing on their way, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munchen. A move to a more establish club failed to materialise earlier, despite his obvious talents, as coaches were sceptical of his fitness levels, his attitude and perhaps most crucially his ability to fit into a team.

Arshavin was a maverick – the Morrissey to The Smiths; flamboyant but lacking the durability to perform in a collective endeavour. Arsenal took a relative gamble and Arshavin’s impact was immediate. His x goals and x assists single handedly qualified Arsenal for the Champions League of which included scoring all four goals in a 4-4 draw with Liverpool. Nowadays he cuts a more peripheral figure. His failure to match those heights in his first season (albeit only half a season) is made apparent by his wife, who jokingly commented – when Arshavin was asked of his best games of last season and his husband could muster two (Porto 5-0 and Liverpool 2-1) – “yeah Liverpool – in the last season!”

“My style has also altered – it is more effective, but less sparkling,” told Andrey Arshavin to Russian newspaper Sport-Express. “I don’t remember when was the last time I scored a really beautiful goal. It is frustrating. I tried to analyse this, but can find no answers.”

Former Manchester United and Everton winger Andrei Kanchelskis is more scathing of Arshavin in his analysis of his fellow Russian.“To start with, Arshavin seldom plays for 90 minutes and is usually substituted in the second half,” said Kanchelskis. “When he plays each match from start to finish, then we will see. In the first match [of the season] against Liverpool, you didn’t see him in the box. A week later Blackpool conceded six goals; Arshavin took a penalty and scored. But you need to understand the level of the opponent. And then Blackburn, who he scored the winning goal against, is far from a top club.

“In my opinion, Arshavin is overrated. He has been praised too much. He hasn’t shown brilliance for a very long time. The main thing is consistency, which Arshavin doesn’t have.”

Indeed if you were to deeply analyse Arshavin’s performances in those sacrosanct x games in the second half of 2008/09 season, one would likely come to the conclusion that the attacking midfielder was on the periphery of most matches. Even against Liverpool the game largely flew by him as Rafa Benitez’s side battered the Arsenal goal for ninety minutes; that until the ball fell to Arshavin four times. He was effective and still remains so and his supporters would say that’s how he should be judged.

Arshavin apologists would also say he is used in his unfavoured position of outside left. For Zenit, he played in an undefined role, drifting to and from the left touchline but mainly looking to link up with Pavel Pogrebnyak upfront. For Russia it was a more orthodox role behind the lone striker. Still an utilisation on the left of a three shouldn’t be restrictive as it offers Arshavin the opportunity to move on to his stronger foot while the flanks give him space to start. Indeed the trend in modern football is that of wingers on the opposite side of their preferred foot.

Russia and Zenit looked to build a system to cater to Andrey Arshavin’s strengths – and compromise for his weaknesses too. Arrigo Sacchi was scathing of the modern game’s pandering of the individual’s saying it was reactive football but there is no doubt that the past decade or so has been one of the most exciting and attacking. Seeing Arjen Robben given the freedom of the touchline for Bayern Munich last season, the wizardry of Ronaldinho or the Galactico’s – the side he reigned over as Director of Football for a brief stint – with Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo proviced pure unadultared joy. The 2010 World Cup may have been titillation for Sacchi but the conservatism and the control coaches had made it a stale tournament.

There is one position that Sacchi would probably be most scornful of and that is the position Arshavin plays right now for Arsenal. There is no real term – “un wing” may sometimes be used in Argentina while there is a real hotbed of exponents in Brazilian domestic football. Think when Manchester City signed Robinho – or indeed AC Milan signing Robinho. Where was Mark Hughes to play a mercurial forward when he side was fully stocked up on strikers? The answer was to shunt him out to the left and allowing Robinho to get involved in central play by cutting onto his stronger foot and at the same time give him no real defensive responsibility. Roberticus of Santapelota feels it is “undoubtedly the most selfish of roles in modern football.” He writes, in his overview of Brazilian football “Where have all the wingers gone?: “Selfish, I say, not as a character judgement, but rather in the sense that such a style of play carries with it so many potential rewards and comparatively little concomitant responsibility.” If, he says a team lacks play out wide you blame the winger(s). If the team fails to make enough decent scoring opportunities you blame the playmaker(s). The 9 and a half is granted greater “liberty of movement yet fails to get tagged with the artistic burden of the playmaker.”

Nevertheless not all players are granted such freedom and one would justifiably argue that Arshavin undertakes his fair share of defensive duties but what has become clear, is that such players have become very crucial in unlocking sides. “When forwards attack from wide to inside, they are far more dangerous,” says Sir Alex Ferguson. “When [Thierry] Henry played as a striker, and sometimes when Wayne [Rooney] does, they try to escape and create space by drifting from the centre to wide positions, when that actually makes them less dangerous.” David Villa may get less time centrally this season and instead will probably play a lot on the left where he has more time and space to run at defenders. Adam Johnson has been particularly good at this for Manchester City while while Mirko Vucinic is more menacing as a dynamic force from wide. Its role that should suit Arshavin perfectly, allowing to do what he does best, which in his own words, is to take on the defender one-on-one. “He knows how to dribble at defenders so that they can run with him but can’t attack him,” exclaims his former national boss Guus Hiddink. “Nature gave him that gift.”

Arsenal have been blessed with great attacking midfielders in the past and especially in Wenger’s reign, those creative wingers have set a high benchmark. The main argument against him will be that he is not involved as much in the Gunners approach play as Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg or Marc Overmars were but there’s no denying his statistics, that when he is involved, are very impressive. Overall in 46 games, Arshavin has made 13 assists and scored 19 goals – and let’s not forget the number of goalscoring chances he creates. Most crucially perhaps as well, his club manager feels that effectiveness is very important to his Arsenal side.

“He is always marked very tight and people do not give him a lot of room,” said Arsene Wenger. “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.”

Self-consciously, it wasn’t very likely the purpose of Wenger to make Arshavin the mercurial threat that he is. Wenger allows every player a sense of their own freedom to produce the “audacity” as he says and in particularly with Arshavin, knows the key is to get him in dangerous areas as often as possible. The start of last season, displayed the possibilities of him drifting inside and linking with Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas although injuries quickly had their own say to partnership. In the past also, Arshavin had a team built around the need to get the ball to him quickly and mainly played on his own accord, and he was especially devastating on the break, highlighting the difficulties of translating that style to English football. Arshavin, however, shouldn’t be too disheartened by the failure to discover his mojo again. The statistics are with him and the fans and the manager know he is capable of cropping up with something special in any game.

Part 2: How Arsenal are looking to improve their defence this season

August 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 1 Comment

The addition of Laurent Koscielny to the back line and two screening midfielders is anticipated to help win the ball back quicker.

As soon as Thomas Vermaelen kicked his first ball in the Premier League Arsene Wenger would have known he had a bargain in his hands. The Belgian international had cost the Gunners €12 million in the summer of 2009 but the way he handled his first game – a 6-1 win over Everton where he got on the score-sheet – showed he was perfectly capable of being the authoritative figure Arsenal so needed at the back. This season, the début of €10 million signing Laurent Koscielny against another Merseyside club, the 1-1 draw against Liverpool, would have also sent similar signals despite the blemish of a harsh last minute red card.

The French defender was signed as a replacement for William Gallas and the partnership he formed with Vermaelen at Anfield showed some promising signs. Vermaelen is very much the more commanding one as he looks to attack the ball early, particularly in the air. Koscielny on the other hand, is a strong reader of the game like Gallas, although unlike his predecessor, he looks to mark his opponent very tightly in the attempt to win the ball back quickly.  In fact, so good was he at stopping attackers last season that his coach at Lorient, Christian Gourcuff said he “never saw him [Koscielny] lose a one-on-one.” That obdurate defending very much impressed Wenger and his scout Gilles Grimandi and they were particularly keen in pushing through the transfer as they felt that ability to win the ball back quickly would be very important to the new defensive strategy of the Gunners.

As we saw last season, Arsenal’s attempts to recreate the tenets of Dutch Total Football – that of stretching the play in attack and making it as small as possible when not in possession – often created gaps in midfield. This desire to regain possession high up the pitch exposed the back four many times and left the deepest central midfielder isolated. To remedy that Wenger has look to make a bold move – squeeze the play further in front.

A high line was utilised against Liverpool and it was particularly effective in denying the Reds space in front of the defence, especially to the playmaker Joe Cole. They were also as effective in denying space behind, with David N’gog and co being caught offside five times. The same striker, however, was the benefactor of Arsenal’s eagerness to push their opponents up field as N’gog beat the offside trap to smash home. Similar problems were abound in the 3-0 win over Sturm Graz in pre-season as the back four were continually caught out by the quick pass from back to front. It’s a problem, Netherlands manager Bert van Maarwijk says that besets forward thinking teams because of the need to push the defence up the pitch.

“I think almost all the countries have problems with defence,” he said before the South Africa World Cup. “And this is partly because it’s very difficult to defend in modern football because you have to defend with space at your back. So, the best thing to do is learn to defend as a team.”

Van Maarwijk surprised many in the tournament with his over-cautious approach, abandoning the pressing game and defending deep. Instead Holland looked to play very compact in their own half and that was allowed by the presence of their two holding midfielders Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. Indeed for Arsenal, the effectiveness of their high line seemed very much determined also on the protection in front – and that is an area Arsenal has particularly looked to work on.

In the two league games against Liverpool and Blackpool, Jack Wilshere partnered Abou Diaby in the middle. When Cesc Fabregas came on for Diaby in the second half of the second game, the structure remained the same. Two “holders” allow easily for a team to keep their shape and in regards to Arsenal’s style, allow them to squeeze space better. It’s a more efficient system than the 4-1-4-1 we saw last season when Arsenal defended because it doesn’t put as much responsibility on the deepest midfielder and allows a more efficient covering of zones. Pressing has also improved and the marking of players required when defending in the “Barcelona” style is very visible. The attacking midfielder – Nasri against Liverpool and Rosicky in the next game – press with the central striker and the two wide forwards to pin the defence back. The midfielders behind look to cut off the remaining passing options and that then allows the back four to get tight. It is almost a system of chain reactions and that better understanding should ensure space is compressed better.

There are, however, improvements that can be made. Liverpool, at the start of the second half, showed Arsenal’s vulnerability to aggressive pressing against them and by committing people quickly to the edge of the box exposed some shortcomings in the Gunners tactical understanding. It continued on the trend from last season so it is important Arsenal drop back quickly as a team so as not to leave the back five isolated and essentially defend as a “broken team.” Sebastian Squillaci comes in to help Arsenal in aerial duels but it is unlikely a new goalkeeper will arrive at London Colney before the transfer window shuts. The bid for Mark Schwarzer – although not a great step up – is one to minimise mistakes particularly from set-pieces and crosses.

All in all, these are promising changes for a side that is noted for their commitment to attack. They are not perfect remedies – in fact they are probably even more risky – but it is thought that they will help Arsenal decrease last season’s goals conceded tally of 41. It is perhaps as Gael Clichy says; the tweaks will have a more profound effect than just stopping goals as a better defence will almost certainly aid them in their attacking objectives. And that is above all what Arsenal are famed for. “Of course we can always improve and that’s what we want to do,” said Clichy. “As a unit, as a team, we want to be better defensively, and we know that if we defend well we’ll attack better.

Part 1: Greater variety of attacking options make Arsenal title contenders

August 11, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 19 Comments

The retaining of captain Cesc Fabregas and much of the core of the side means Arsenal have an attack to mount a serious title challenge.

So what has pre-season taught us of Arsenal so far? That the Gunners, through all their ability to weave patterns around the opposition, still tend to overcomplicate things despite obvious attempts by the manager to introduce more directness to the play. And that at the back, a sudden inexplicable nervousness is prone to kick in at any time which contrives to throw open a game. But we already knew that about Arsenal. In fact, on the face of it, not much has changed for Arsene Wenger’s side however on the pitch, conscious efforts have been made to better last season’s third place finish and Champions League Quarter-finals exit.

The last friendly fixture – a 6-5 win over Legia Warsaw to commemorate the opening of their new stadium – displayed both sides of Arsenal’s brilliance and frailties but despite the performance, it has been a solid pre-season for the Gunners. Because whatever assessment you make of Arsenal so far, it must be taken into account of the fact that the majority of minutes were played by a limited selection of players – many of them youngsters – with Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong starting back-to-back Emirates Cup matches before the trip to Poland. Indeed, Alex Song, Denilson, Abou Diaby and long-term absentee Aaron Ramsey are four midfielders who would have added greater structure to the side while in attack, Nicklas Bendtner is still injured and the two most important players in Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas have just returned to training.

Keeping Fabregas has been the best news of the summer for Arsenal who may be disappointed they haven’t been more active in the transfer window having only added one more defender to the side and lost four to the Bosman rule. It is perhaps the only area which lacks depth (this will be talked about in more detail in part 2 of this article) because in the forward and midfield positions, the Gunners look a frightfully potent side.

Arsene Wenger has made a slight change to his 4-3-3 formation – essentially a continuation of last season’s structure – to add more balance to his side. The left-sided central midfielder is asked to drop deeper alongside the holding midfielder so Arsenal are more guarded in transitions and can press better. In pre-season that partnership was between Wilshere and Frimpong and the pair mightily impressed the manager with their mature tactical understanding in the centre. The most interesting role, however, was played by Samir Nasri and expectedly will be one that is assumed by Fabregas when he returns, in behind the forward.

Nasri, against AC Milan then Rosicky for the first half at Celtic, was given an almost undefined and free role. His purpose in the system is to aid the forward’s in pressing high up the pitch and engage the deep ball-players while being also the playmaking pivot in attack. It’s a role not to atypical to how Mesut Ozil played in the World Cup with Germany as he was found difficult to mark in an ambiguous midfield/forward role. Indeed, Lionel Messi was also given the same freedom in Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3/4-2-4 formation last year as the Argentinian tore apart Arsenal 4-1 at Camp Nou. But perhaps it is Jose Mourinho’s description of the role given to Wesley Sniejder in Inter’s treble triumph which will determine the success of the tactic. “He [Sneijder] comes into a team that is really strong in the tactical point of view,” said Mourinho. “And behind him there is a structure that can give him the freedom he likes to play. So we can say: ‘Is he a midfielder?’ Sometimes I think he is a striker.”

The question is do Arsenal have the structure to allow Fabregas or the ilk to revel? Excuses have been made of the expected consequences of such an expansive style and a team so young but aspects of Fordism such as discipline cannot go amiss. Abou Diaby is often noted that such deficiency but at the age where Wenger feels the team can push on, 23, it will be intriguing to see how his ability to turn defence into attack finally gets together.

It’s not just in the middle where exciting changes are being made. Andrey Arshavin is anticipated to have an even greater impact at wide left with Wenger offering the opportunity more than ever to link up with the forwards. Theo Walcott can put World Cup woes behind him by giving Arsenal a more orthodox and penetrative threat from the right while Carlos Vela seems to have come back from South Africa with more zest. New signing Marouanne Chamakh offers not just a more direct focal point in the attack as van Persie played last season but with the much of the play being shifted out wide, provides an outlet for crosses. His movement, particularly to the right opens up different channels of attack with Walcott moving inside from such moments in pre-season or Rosicky dropping deeper. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has impressed Wenger in a roaming forward role in pre-season and either of the front three positions is where he is likely to play. With Arsenal, the same caveats always apply but with more variety in attack, this is an Arsenal side which should challenge for more honours this season.

<Figure 1>Arsenal 1-1 AC Milan: Chamakh presses goalkeeper Abbiati with Nasri and Arshavin in close attendance to mark the nearest passing option. The shape is a 4-2-1-3 with Nasri given a free role. Here he presses as the second striker.

<Figure 2> Samir Nasri’s freedom is displayed on a number of times in the draw with Milan as this time he  drops into midfield in help press. Indeed, a similar structure can be attained in attacks as Wenger granted Nasri the ability to roam and on many occassions, the Frenchman played closer to Chamakh.

Why are two holding midfielders so crucial in the modern game?

August 4, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 70 Comments

The efficiency that two holding midfielders provide makes them very important to have in the modern game.

International competitions are always fascinating tactically if anything for the inflexibility they confront managers with. Arrigo Sacchi, in charge of the Italy side who reached the final of World Cup ’94, stated it was “impossible” for a national manager to drill the same understanding that club level coaches are afforded due to the lack of day-to-day availability of personnel. The sporadic amount of time they have with players means it can be difficult for coaches to develop plans so they usually are forced to stick with philosophies they think are correct – and that in turn highlights the common trends in the thinking of modern coaches. And certainly, what has become oblivious from the recent World Cup in South Africa and indeed club football for the past few years is that the use of two holding midfielders in front of the back four is become crucial in the modern game.

Importance of being compact

All four semi-finalists in the 2010 World Cup used some sort of double screen in front of the back four with Holland, Spain and Germany deploying a variant of the 4-2-3-1 (18 of the 32 teams played some form of 4‑2‑3‑1). Uruguay showed the rigid 4-4-2 isn’t exactly dead but the difference between theirs and England’s interpretation was that the Uruguayan central pair played deeper to counter the threat of players in “between-the-lines.” England’s central midfielders in the system are both required to attack and defend (as classical box-to-box midfielders) and as a result Germany, in their 4-1 win, were able to profit in the large gaps afforded to them. “We knew that Gerrard and Lampard always support the forwards and that the midfield would be open, there would be spaces,” explained Joachim Löw after the nation’s ruthless victory.

England’s failure to get compact quickly also seemingly went against the Fabio Capello doctrine that in modern football, all teams must employ some variation of a 9:1 defensive split in relative to the ball when they lose possession. The use of two defensive midfielders allow for such an easy transition into a defensive block while even the deployment two wingers on the “opposite side” are a means to push opponents inside. “The trend,” says Gerard Houllier, “is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball.” With England playing with two orthodox forwards and one attacking midfielder in Frank Lampard, they were essentially a broken team and that placed too much pressure on Gareth Barry to hold the defensive fort. Arsene Wenger succinctly sums up the conservative trend in South Africa in which most teams were all to willing to get nine men behind the ball. “Tactically, the World Cup was very, very one-sided,” said the Arsenal manager in the club’s magazine. “All teams played five men in the midfield and that was their priority.”

Tactics at club level are expectedly more varied although the desire to stay narrow and compact in the defensive phase still rings true. Most intriguingly, the UEFA Cup was one of 4-4-2 with the quartet in the last four all deploying two deep box-to-box midfielders and placing much reliance on the firepower of the two forwards – perhaps as a means to compensate for the lack of creativity. In fact, in playing the formation nowadays, it is essential to remain compact and that means the central midfielders are forced to play deeper.

I recently watched a friendly between Celtic and Lyon and despite the French side being the one expected to take the ascendancy; it was Celtic who initiated the first signs of adventure. The distance between the backline and forwards for the first thirty minutes was at times, no more than 40 metres apart but as the game wore on, both sides expectedly became more stretched. The two central midfielders, Joe Ledley and Scott Brown, had to start deep to compress the space in front of the defence while the running and natural creation of triangles in Lyon’s 4-3-3 was more superior to their flat four in the middle, not to mention their higher technical ability. The game also showed just how redundant a second striker can be if the team is outnumbered in the middle and the defensive midfielder – in this case Jean II Makoun – able to drop back to mark one of the forwards. Gary Hooper did pull a goal back to help Celtic equalise but only after Lyon rang massive changes to make what essentially was a reserve side.

Between the lines

As Alan Hansen so regularly dissects in the highlights programme Match of the Day, teams must be set up in bands when defending (the term “two banks of four” is usually heard on the show because of the prevalence of the 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 formations in the Premiership). In attack, however, things are likely to get slightly more complicated and, especially for a more forward thinking side, two holders may be repressive. Brazil were perfectly able to switch from their asymmetric diamond formation into a 4-2-3-1/4-3-2-1 in defensive transitions to stay organised but, in the end, were undone due to Dunga’s own stubbornness to abandoning their two defensive midfielders.

Volker Finke, a former coach of German side SC Freiburg, says that the use of two holding midfielders – or the double six as it is more commonly known in his native country – must not be on the same line, a point Pep Guardiola was adamant to stress in the tweaking of his formation last season. “This new look was implemented so that Messi could connect into the game more often because it’s good for us when does,” explained Guardiola when using the same system earlier last season in a 2-1 win over Malaga. Journalists speculated it was a 4-2-3-1, many saw it as an asymmetric version of the 4-2-4 but because of the individual defensive assignments, it more closely resembled an attacking version of their 4-3-3. “We found him more often than in other games. It also puts him closer to Ibra. It’s as if Messi were an ‘interior.’” And upon being questioned on the roles of Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets in front of the defence, he added: “They (Xavi and Busquets) were never on the same line. We have never played with a double pivot. However, we did make a small adjustment with the wingers and their defensive roles.”

Rather, Finke says the two in the middle must be “staggered” i.e. one slightly higher than the other.* Germany, the side who had most resembled a club side in the World Cup due to their efficiency, displayed that with Bastian Schweinsteiger dictating from deep and Sami Khedira essentially supporting and “knitting” things together in a box-to-box role (see Figure 1). For Spain, Busquets and Xabi Alonso only dropped alongside each other in the defensive phase, otherwise Busquets played almost as a third defender while Mark van Bommel, for the Dutch, looked to push up in attacks. “Defensive zones will be broken by players who seem to run out of nowhere,” said Czech Under-19 coach, Jaroslav Hrebik on the anticipated prominence of players such as Khedira. The fact that Lyon played with two similarly deep midfielders, writes Hristo for Ases Del Balon, contrived to the French club’s failure in Europe as he says “most major league teams (in Europe) are concerned with covering and controlling the midfield” and Lyon failed in regards to the latter. Of course, there is no right or wrong partnership although coaches are conscious that the area in front of defence is the space that needs to be controlled. Andrea Pirlo, a great modern day orchestrator, is himself performing a defensive duty just by operating in the zone in between defense and midfield. Yes, he possesses a panache and finesse about him than most holding midfielders but the idea of Carlo Mazzone, the coach who converted the Italian, was that Pirlo was to play as a libero (sweeper) in front of the defence.

<Figure 1> Imagine the two holding midfielders positioned in a 4-4-2 as in the graphic number one. The left-sided central players is the box-to-box midfielder (Khedira) and the right sided midfielder, the passer (Schweinsteiger). In attack one can envisage the pair attached by a bungee cord, giving an easy point of reference to each other. The pair can cover zones almost simultaneously with Schweinsteiger holding the midfield as a pivot. Now imagine below the ball reaches a defensive position – the deeper midfielder can go towards the ball to help out in channels and the other able to hold the fort. If the ball moves to the left, the pair can move likewise and ensuring the sensible covering of zones. (Graphics from Spurs Community – no, we’re not moving to the dark side).

Tactical Structure

Jose Mourinho, when talking about the impact Wesley Sneijder has had for his Inter side last season, claims it was the team’s strong “tactical structure” which gave the Dutchman the freedom to play as an ambiguous midfielder/forward role. Equally, Thomas Muller had an undefined role for Bayern in claiming the domestic double while Germany’s two holders allowed for Mesut Ozil to almost play as a striker (see figure 2). Maybe then, should a team have a strong defensive structure as indicated by the above examples, there isn’t the need to have nine back as Capello indicates. Indeed it’s a point Wenger is trying to make at Arsenal although, by pushing a midfielder alongside Song, seems to signify the importance of a double defensive base. Ozil hardly dropped back for the Germans although they did display some acknowledgement that the deep-midfielder must not have time on the ball. Over-enthusiasm however from Miroslav Klose saw him receive a red card against Serbia for persistent fouling.

<Figure 2> Germany’s average touch position in the 4-0 win over Argentina. The closeness of the Schweinsteiger (7) and Khedira(6) shows the understanding the two have and the concept of universality – one being able to cover for each other. The solid base allows Mesut Ozil (8) to play in an ambiguous playmaker/striker role.

Generally though, two holders have many benefits such as the protection they offer to the back four and the full-backs to bomb forward, and guard the team in moments of transition. As well as having the capability to stop attacks, the best sides make it their base for starting attacks. Johan Cruyff may have loathed the use of a double pivot by Spain and Holland, but the formation still allows for the natural creation of triangles he insists is a must. Zdenek Zeman, feels similarly a 4-3-3 is the “most rational way to cover the spaces” and that perhaps highlights why many teams have a preference of the double shield. Zeman is an attacking romanticist so his views may be considered quite an anomaly, but in an increasingly holistic game, turning the midfield triangle around presents a more efficient defensive structure. Of course in football all is relative and a strong defence aids a good offence. That was Rafa Benitez’s argument in building his Liverpool side around a 4-2-3-1 and for essentially half a season culminating in the Reds finishing second in the league, we saw that power as they demolished Real Madrid 4-0 in Europe earning a flattering comparison by Arrigo Sacchi to his own all-conquering AC Milan side.

The self-conscious symmetry the 4-2-3-1 gives allows coaches an easy division of labour. Holland’s 4-2-3-1, although effective in the grand scheme, was too functional in regards to ball circulation but that solid base gave freedom for their glut of individuals to prosper. Argentina and England were the ultimate description of the broken team as the former, with Macherano holding by himself, was too top heavy and so in essence attacked with five men and defended with five.

Arsenal Case Study

It was in the summer of 2005 when Arsene Wenger had to make the difficult decision of whether to let his captain Patrick Vieira go having in previous seasons rebuffed an offer from Real Madrid to make him a Galactico. Vieira was still good enough to compete in the Premier League but the emergence of a young Catalan, Cesc Fabregas, made, for the first time, the Frenchman droppable. The problem was that as a tandem, the pair did not work; the 4-4-2 left space for only one progressive midfielder and Fabregas’s displays in the middle made him indispensable. “When Cesc Fabregas was 18, 19, I would play him in a 4-4-2 with Patrick Vieira and I saw it did not work,” said Wenger. “Then I had the decision to make about letting Patrick go, because Gilberto Silva and Vieira worked, Fabregas and Silva worked, but I could not play Fabregas and Vieira.”

The formation was unlikely to change also as Wenger felt the 4-4-2 was “the most rational formation in most cases.” And he added in Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s book The Italian Job, that it was “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.”

The “double six” in front of the defence made much of that efficiency under Wenger’s reign; Petit and Vieira helped Arsenal to their first double in the Premier League era before Edu joined the latter to guide them to their second in 2002. Niggling injuries to Vieira meant it was a rotated central midfield between him, Edu and Gilberto in 2004 as Arsenal went the whole league season unbeaten. Starting in front of the defence and playing very compact, the  midfield was the base of which allowed the front four to flourish and had the same capability of halting attacks as it did the ability to springboard the side’s own.

In subsequent seasons however the 4-4-2 has become more inefficient for Wenger’s side. Matthieu Flamini bucked that trend somewhat with an all-action style and tactically astute display in 2007/08 but that was not to mask the intensity and astronomic distance he was required to cover. It was evident Gilberto Silva had his work cut out in the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup the same season. Some may feel part of the blame should be attached to Cesc Fabregas from a defensive viewpoint although statistics do show he covered more distance than nearly all players on the pitch. Indeed, Wenger felt that it was crucial to have Fabregas’ penetration up the pitch and certainly that has become more evident in recent seasons, the switch to the 4-3-3 looking to liberate the Spaniard. “Cesc likes to be at the start of things and then get on the end of things, and he can push forward more because he has two players around him who can defend,” said Wenger last season.

This season Wenger has stuck with the 4-3-3 formation as at the end of last season, with right central midfielder playing higher. The left-sided central player is detailed to drop alongside the holder effectively making it a 4-2-3-1 in the defensive phase. In the case of pre-season it was Jack Wilshere who played this role and alongside Emmanuel Frimpong the pair performed a solid base for which Arsenal could build attacks around and press better. The previous season, Alex Song was often left isolated in what essentially was a 4-1-4-1 formation and Wenger found that, if a team bypassed the first wave if pressure, the Gunners could be exposed in the centre. The revitalisation of the two in front of the defence should give Arsenal greater structure in defence and organisation into four easily identifiable bands. Of course, part of that solidity was displayed last season in a 1-0 win over Liverpool and 5-0 against Porto where Diaby’s late running was difficult to pick up as well as his ability to turn the momentum of an attack by winning the ball back quickly.


Literature on the use of two midfielders in front of the defence still seems to treat the matter beyond the simplicity; they obviously bring greater solidity to the team but further research and statistics such as area covered could provide a more accurate description of their roles. They do give more protection down channels, especially if full-backs are the most potent weapons in the modern game then two midfielders, similar to the “interiors” in the 4-3-3, can easily shuffle right and left. But perhaps simplicity is also apt because as Volker Finke says, the 4-2-3-1, the formation that is so synonymous with holding midfielders, “is less demanding in terms of team tactics, because it’s easier for the players.” Indeed in the second half of the 2008/09 season, Arsene Wenger made a switch to the formation as Arsenal’s league form faltered and goals leaked. The move proceeded to bring an 18-game unbeaten run to the young side.

Two central midfielders, as a means for a solid base have been around in some way or another for a long time. In Herbert Chapman’s WM formation the two half-backs, Baker and John, could have been primitive versions of the holding midfielder. They did not exactly screen as per the functions nowadays but were detailed mark the inside forwards. While Brazil’s 4-2-4 in 1970 World Cup owed much credit to it’s success to the tempo setting and zone patrolling of midfield pair Clodoado and Gerson. And fast forward to 2010 and despite being lambasted in the 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in the first game, the securities Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso gave ensured that wasn’t anyway close to happening again. It seems finally that two holding midfielders are here to stay.


*[Carlo Mazzone’s quote on between-the-lines players may help: “There are trends in football. This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.” That transforms to a 4-3-3 in the defensive phase but the asymmetry is important as it helps the side press better as Guardiola will also insist in his side’s interpretation of the 4-3-3.]

Eduardo finds brilliance in simplicity

July 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 8 Comments

Eduardo style may be seen as a luxury to some but his ability to make the difficult look simple can prove invaluable.

Gary Lineker may have loathed to be stuck out on his unfavoured position of outside right for Barcelona but he begrudgingly accepted that a job had to be done for the best of the team. Neverthless for the short remainder he remained at the club under Johan Cruyff, Linker undertook his task with a certain humility and gracefulness just as Eduardo did in his last season at Arsenal.

Much has been made of Eduardo’s waning of power after suffering his horrific leg injury at St. Andrews in February 2008 and certainly there’s prudence in that argument as his usually so assured self-confidence was lacking in front of goal and seemingly baulked under the pressure to rediscover his goalscoring boots. The statistics also look particularly damming – his conversion rate was 23.5% in the Premier League before his injury but was just 6.3% after (OPTA Stats).

But there are a number of factors not least the impossibility to build up a rhythm due to ongoing injury niggles sustained after being out for so long – he didn’t complete a single league game. He also played wide left in a 4-3-3 therefore the opportunities to find himself in front of goal would theoretically be less despite the notion of interchangeability at Arsenal. Indeed as Gary Lineker soon realised, being forced to consider a game from a different angle made him a better striker and Eduardo’s ability to make the difficult look simple seemingly went against him in the position. The Croatian made 6 assists in the league, the fourth best at the club and one less than Arshavin.

There is an axiom in the modern game that goalpoachers are becoming an outdated luxury. The improved defences mean strikers need to update their skill-set but it would also be a serious lapse in a trainers coaching should a striker at the top-level be bereft of the skills required to benefit a team of outside play. Even Michael Owen, the most famed of poachers, has developed his link-up after being tried out behind the main forward for Kevin Keegan at Newcastle. Wayne Rooney scored over thirty goals in refining his game to be more individualistic while Gonzalo Higuain’s brief has been nothing more than running the channels and playing in an opportunistic manner. Goalscorers do have a case especially with the World Cup showing the need for teams to get behind and especially if the side has ample creators as Spain although La Roja were all to comfortable in ditching Fernando Torres for a more holistic approach despite David Villa also being ineffectual as the number nine.

Eduardo’s movement is fantastic as can his link up be but there remained a feeling that his best work was to be with someone in close proximity to him and that was, certainly in the early use of the 4-3-3, difficult to guarantee. Robin van Persie was able to manufacture space with his movement, whether dropping off or roaming around that was more suited to Arsenal’s style. The Holland national side made much noise about van Persie’s movement in the World Cup creating space but without the support or runners was largely ineffective. Only in the second half of the season whereby Fabregas was pushed higher to the main forward could closer support be offered to Eduardo.

Of course it would be difficult to talk about Eduardo’s time at Arsenal without mentioning the impact the injury has had on his career. Indeed would he have stayed fit with more run of games, could easily have adapted himself to the Gunners new style. Let’s not forget also the good start he made to the season in the middle not forgetting the performance he displayed in the infamous 3-0 win over Celtic. As it was, Arsene Wenger was unable to assure Eduardo of a first choice role or even second; Arshavin is a sure starter on the left and the signing of Chamakh presents Arsenal with something different, making him effectively third choice. Wenger also rebuffed an enquiry from Deportivo for Carlos Vela highlighting the trust to be placed on the Mexican.

The transfer to Shakhtar of around £6.5m, as signings in the summer go, could be a potential bargain – as injuries aside – the Champions League enthusiasts have got themselves a genuine top class striker. With all due respects to the Ukrainian league, it should be a cannon fodder for Eduardo and he will fit into the 4-2-3-1 of Mircea Lucescu’s side comfortably. Wenger regrettably had to let go of his next “fox in the box” who failed to set the Premiership alight but also knows that Eduardo’s knack of doing the simple efficiently is an underrated skill and one that is underappreciated in the modern game. Eduardo may be gone, but he is not forgotten.

Nasri on the double as Arsenal prepare their defensive strategy

July 22, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 19 Comments

Samir Nasri’s delightful brace helped Arsenal on their way to a 3-0 win notable for the side’s continued progress on their defensive strategy.

It was close to this time last season when Arsene Wenger hurriedly paced the touch-line against third-place Hungarian outfit Szombathelyi Haladás, anxiously trying to knit together his changing plan for the coming season. “The team we have now gets there,” he told Martin Samuel of the The Times last season. “At 22 or 23 I think a team is mature enough to deliver and it is a massively important year for our club. I am conscious of that. I know people have no patience anymore.” A year on and there is a much calmer looking Wenger on the Arsenal bench this time, more confident that his troops have the added experience to back up their infinite technical ability.

There are slight changes afoot as well as the 4-3-3 as played out at the end of last season looks set to be the likely formation against Liverpool on the first day of the season. Here Jack Wilshere once again resumed his dual midfield role alongside Emmanuel Frimpong – ahead in the pecking order due to Denilson’s injury and his greater athleticism over Craig Eastmond. Samir Nasri was pushed a bit higher – Wenger conscious that the modern game dictates the need to play in between-the-lines and in bands so Nasri pushes closer to Chamakh in the attacking phase. Wilshere – or the left-sided central midfielder in any case – drops back to make a two in front of the back four.

Initially there were a few problems caused by Sturm Graz. The imbalance in the midfield meant Arsenal’s back line had to push up to squeeze the space in front but that also afforded the Strum Graz lone forward the opportunity to break past the offside trap. Last season we highlighted the problem in distances in Arsenal’s had in their implementation of the pressing game and for it to work, space must be squeezed for the side to remain compact. Of course, it can be a suicidal tactic to push up as high as Arsenal did as the Austrain opponents looked to exploit the space behind at every opportunity. Johan Djourou in particularly, looked uncomfortable early on.

Essentially, in the defensive phase, the Gunners made a 4-1-4-1 and that left Frimpong isolated at times so the defence knew they had to push up to remain compact. That is why Wenger feels it is important for the forwards to press better and the central midfielders to remain wary of the defensive assignments; Jack Wilshere dropping back is key to the style as it allows the side to maintain their shape. Another weakness was the side being vulnerable to the long diagonal across the left-flank because the of lopsidedness of the system meaning the formation tends to slant towards the right hand side. Arshavin’s lack of defensive discipline and Traore’s tactical awareness was continually sought to be tested by Sturm Graz’s forwards who switched sides also to exploit this gap.

Fortunately for Arsenal, their domination meant such occurrences were not as frequent as they could have been and despite issues to be ironed out, there remains much promise, especially from attack as a form of defence viewpoint. Wilshere and Arshavin showed their growing understanding on the left and their link up play created many openings especially the space for Walcott to work on on the right. As it was, Nasri opened the scoring with the type of burst and clinical finishing that will be expected of much next season. Jack Wilshere was again in the action as for the second goal he won a free-kick on the edge of the box which Nasri delightfully dinked into the top-corner to give Arsenal space to relax.

Relax they didn’t however as many of the youngsters, ready to stake their claim for next season put in a perhaps more impressive performance than the first half as they hardly allowed Sturm Graz a sniff a goal. Henri Lansbury was energetic in the box-to-box role and he finished off a good move set-up by Jay Emmanuel Thomas. Thomas, playing as the lone stiker, was clever in his movement and although relying massively on his beastly stature, continued to create space for his team-mates. Theo Walcott particularly enjoyed the opportunities presented to him to roam inside and Wenger will be hoping that the same ploy will add greater unpredictability to the side (an article on that later on in the season). In central-midfield Eastmond had a sightly error-strewn half but the assurances he provides to the back four is almost Sergio Busquets-like despite his limitations on the ball and he reads the game very well. Havard Nordtviet was one of the three players to play a full game and was very astute and mobile at right-back – and it must be said his his long-passing, developed playing in defensive midfield for FC Nuremberg, were unerringly accurate.

Overall it was a promising performance for the Gunners who, thankfully it must be said, are ready to give greater attention to the defensive side of their game and despite a couple of niggles, the side did come away with a clean sheet. The goalkeeping position is still yet to be decided and while it is an issue that needs to be sorted, it’s still quite a simplistic view that the goalkeepers are to blame for the number of goals shipped in last season – it requires a collective effort first and foremost to deny those chances. And that is what Arsene Wenger is looking to work on for the coming campaign.

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