Denilson can rekindle the lost art of midfield tackling

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.


10 thoughts on “Denilson can rekindle the lost art of midfield tackling

  1. I agree. Denilson has been going through a lot of good work recently in matches and I felt like I’m the only one who could notice his worth. He’s being blamed for a poor season in front of goal when his interceptions and tireless running is actually one of the reasons for our improved defensive performances( along with clichy and sagna playing a bit more withdrawn)

    1. Hi. I did an analysis of the season (in Editorials) and I agree the more cautious approach has been one of the reasons for our defensive stability. Denilson made a shaky start I must say but has improved and so has the balance of our team also improving our performances too.

  2. Here it is important to note that Denilson actually was not naturally thought to be a replacement for Flamini. Diaby’s absence at the start of the season has thrusted Denilson to this role.
    Infact I remember the match against Manchester United , i think a couple of seasons back. Fabreagas and Henry were ruled out of the game.And Adebayor lead the attack and Denilson played in Fabregas’ place. Arsenal won that match 1-0 .
    So clearly the defensive position has not come naturally to him. But his hard work has shone through. Defensively Arsenal have been considerably good this season , but they need to retain the ball more. How many ever tackles Denilson seem to win there is always a Bendtner or an Eboue or even a Nasri who gives the ball away.This is why i feel we miss Hleb more than we miss Flamini.

    1. Nice to see you have entered the writing business. We have missed hleb for many reasons. One to keep the ball, the other to interchange positions, creative ability, assisting the assister and also dragging players out of position. Denilson was naturally a Central midfielder but had both qualities of playing higher up or lower down.

  3. Hi Brain,

    thanks for the post.
    I guess one of the reasons some people are reluctant to give credit to Denilson for his defensive work, i.e., ball winning and initiating another move, is because they think Denilson as Fab2 and hence Den is seen being mediocre both in defensive and creative role. In my opinion, Den is more like Alonso, but will be better than him soon judging by how much he’s improved in such a short space of time. With improved and settled Den and rejuvernated Fab4, I look forward to the next season’s fabulous CM paring of Fab and Den.
    As for the loss of Hleb, I agree the loss of Hleb has have graver impact on the functioning of the team overall than that of Flamini. However, in Arshavin & Nasri, I feel we’ve found a more ungraded version of Hleb, and as they are more used to playing with one another, their interchangeability will cause havoc in opposition’s defence. This season hasn’t been great, but there are so many reasons to look forward to the next season and be optimistic.

  4. I always have believed that Denilson is the perfect foil for Cesc – its just this season is one to early for him to be doing it week in week out.

    I think he will be a fantastic player for us and if the likes of Vieira agree then that tells its own story because if anyone knows; Vieira does.

    Denilson WILL be fantastic. He is good now.

  5. One interesting thing to note in this post is the issue about having players who can play multiple positions. I really think that’s important for the players particularly if we’re being countered upon. That’s why I think Flamini had the upper hand as compared to Denilson; he played in defence (both full-back positions), and pretty much across the midfield which meant that he had greater scope for what was occurring on the pitch.

    If it were up to me, I’d ensure that every player in my squad knew how to play at least 2 positions in different departments (i.e. defence, midfield, and attackers), not only for defensive reasons but for attacking as well.

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