Gael Clichy and Bakary Sagna are arguably the two best full backs in their position in the Premiership having been selected in last year’s team of the season. They are meant to provide both an attacking instinct to go with their defensive solidarity however this season I have noticed Clichy’s especially, unwillingness to attack as much.
Is this because of Arsenal’s frailties in defense or because of the threat from the counter, or both?
Here’s a bit of history of the full back courtesy of Tim Vickery. The full back position has evolved, starting as part of a back three in the WM formation or an early 3-2-5 or 3-4-3 system developed by the innovator and former Arsenal Herbert Chapman. They would be detailed to counter the threat of the winger but the ability and skill of the winger improved and thus the formation was not sufficient enough. Another centre back was added to cover and therefore pushed the full backs wider. Brazil have famously used the full back to great effect and has developed to what it is now; creating attacking opportunities usually late and wide, and especially on the counter. The implications the space they leave behind and therefore have to cover.
The role and importance of the counter attack has increased greatly and has become the point where matches are won and lost. Full backs can be a great weapon or a huge vulnerability. The wide area even more deadly as strikers move to the flanks and wingers required to more dynamic and explosive. Liverpool recognised this in the recent game to Chelsea, added to the fact that the defenders could be identified as glorified wingers and the midfielders doubled up to stop the Chelsea threat.
The great tactical innovator in recent years in English football has been Jose Mourinho, who says:
Transitions have become crucial. When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position. Similarly when we lose the ball we must react immediately. In training I sometimes practice keeping a minimum of five players behind the ball, so that when we lose it we can leep a good defensive shape. The players must learn to read the game- when to press and when to return to their defensive positions. Everybody says set plays win most games, but I think it is more about transitions.
Also in English football, full backs that lack height can have problems because of the long ball tactic employed by many teams.
What Mourinho implemented was Claude Makelele. The defensive midfielder able to cover for the full back if he full backs went out of position though the manager’s reluctance of them to attack lessened this requirement. Last season Flamini was Arsenal’s guard allowing the players to attack while he, for the most part did the dirty work. Denilson, Diaby and Song have more on their plate than first realised and maybe one of the reasons for Clichy being less adventurous because we know what sort of impact he can bring.