Arsene Wenger may have bemoaned the lack of good tacklers these days but what are the reasons for the demise and does he have one right under his nose?
“I see very few good tacklers nowadays,” said Arsene Wenger most probably reminiscing of the horrendous moment that ended Eduardo’ season and also Arsenal’s title aspirations at the same time last season. Tackling has been the talk of the Premier League in recent games with cards being dished out like confetti for challenges where one must side with the Frenchman. Indeed a player Wenger identified as one of the lost breed of clever tacklers was involved in what was probably the worst tackle ever and one which even had his own team mate Michel Platini proclaim that he thought he was dead, because “he had no pulse and looked pale”.
Along with Patrick Battiston, Wenger bracketed Frenchmen André Chorda and Christian Lopez in the same category. “A good tackle is beautiful to watch because in the tackle the player is already making a pass, not just clearing the ball. Most of the tackles nowadays they go in blindly. When you do a good tackle you are relaxed because you master every movement.”
His description may seem fanciful and indeed looking at the profile of some defenders, can fit quite a few in. Rio Ferdinand, Carvalho, Cannavaro (in the 2006 World Cup) and Pepe; in fact the trend nowadays is for central defenders to be mobile and technically secure. Even the arguably less aesthetically pleasing defenders such as Vidic and Terry are very adept at passing the ball. It is maybe not enough from these defenders that Wenger sees as they are not sweepers; the position the manager himself played but one which has since disappeared.
However the bulk of these rash tackles have featured midfielders with Wenger suggesting improved pitches are the reason for the lack of good tacklers. Players are able to control and turn more freely while it allows for better passing and movement. The greater technical emphasis has probably made having a specialised tackler more difficult because while they may be stronger at winning the ball back, hinder the teams passing momentum. Currently most teams play with deep lying playmakers in defensive midfield, able to initiate attacks and break down play just as the sweeper used to and with second strikers or playmakers.
Players in between channels are seen as the key to unlocking defences and one of the reasons for the demise of the box-to-box midfielder. “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.”
“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.”
“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,” he said when talking about his stint as Real Madrid’s director of football . “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?”
But such defensive midfielder’s can’t have everything. They must be able to pass, be tactically aware and strong in the tackle a difficult equilibrium to find. Sacchi believed in players being able to play a number of positions and hence do more and his AC Milan team played a high pressure game with the team defending in a organised defensive unit. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Defending is such a way allows for greater balance especially as deep playmakers are converted attacking midfielders in some cases (Pirlo, S. Petrov, Murphy, Scholes, Denilson) and while there is more utilisation of the dual defensive midfield shield that allows organisation.
For Arsenal the departure of Matthieu Flamini has had a great effect; hardworking and strong positionally and in the tackle as well. The only weakness was his limited technical ability but in his replacement, Denilson can offer more. Like all great defenders, at most times they are not required to even make a tackle to win the ball as his interception stats shows; the Brazilian is second only to Clichy in the league (109 to Clichy’s 118). Playing with much simplicity, Denilson is not the type of player one notices but the work he puts in is tremendous and is also able to initiate attacks. The boy from the favelas in São Paulo can be better and more expansive, but that will come with games and with quality players around him.
As Wenger says, there may not be too many intelligent tacklers but the player described as “a little bit in between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto” can be the one to rekindle the lost art of tackling in the midfield.