As systems are now created with individuals in mind and ‘between-the-line’ players it is refreshing to see Arsenal stick to their philosophy of ‘Total Football.’
Would the signing of Andrey Arshavin change the Arsenal style? That’s the question that has been going through my head as this saga unfolds and one that has become cannon-fodder to the media.
Often seen trudging back to the halfway line when detailed to do his defensive duties for Zenit and Russia, could the attacking midfielder fit in to a set-up where it is about the performance of the individual within in the system. For his club and country, the system is accommodated to suit him. It is easy to see why; blessed with great technique, balance and dribbling, he is one of the most effective players in the final third. “Arshavin is a footballer who can make something out of nothing,” says Russia coach Gus Hiddink.
Zenit and Russia are not the only teams who look to exploit key individuals abilities by creating a system which accommodates their strengths and weaknesses. Kaka has little to no defensive duties playing in between attack and midfield. Ronaldo is given the freedom of the left touchline while on the other side Park runs up and down tirelessly. Barcelona have created a quite brilliant system to take advantage of the magician Lionel Messi.
“Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists,” says former AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi. “The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”
Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan team played a fluid and compact 4-4-2, winning the European cup twice and his footballing philosophy influencing a whole host of coaches. His thinking was more systematic but derived from the core of ‘Total Football.’ It was an almost harmonious set-up where there was great fluidity, interchangeability and compactness. It was about the performance of the individual within the system and together with the system, given their ability they could beat anyone.
“There was no project; it was about exploiting qualities,” he said. “So, for example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend. But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”
This has shifted the emphasis to between-the-line players. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.”
Arsenal play a fluid 4-4-2 but there is no detailed between-the-line player when attacking while defending it is more about covering and marking the space. The movement and passing allows players like Fabregas, Van Persie and Nasri to utilise these channels. The total footballing sides of Dynamo Kyiv and Ajax played also a high back line, pressed the opposition in possession, passed quickly and had the fluidity to interchange positions. Of course on a defensive side this may course some strain; more mobility in defence and in the cover in midfield but it is working.
“We need to stick to it – because this is how Arsenal is. The Arsenal way is in our system now, it grows into you, and I don’t think it’s clever to change your philosophy,” Arsene Wenger says. “Things take time, and you often see clubs sacking managers for fun, and they don’t get anywhere. You need a long-term strategy. At Arsenal, the players have time to grow into the system, and if we stick to our principles we will get silverware.”
Arshavin is a great player and there’s every possibility he will fit in and maybe enhance the football being played. Total Football was possible in an era where such play was new; the ability to play the offside trap whereas now hardly any team does. The Gunners are getting close as close as possible in the modern game and as the next batch of kids have displayed against Wigan in the Carling Cup, it can be very destructive. Not many clubs are doing it their own way and it is refreshing to see so and even more when the players get better.