Wenger transplants a more direct approach after losing creative brains

Wenger has recast his Arsenal team to a more direct and quicker side this season after the loss of key creative midfielders.

Arsenal received the bad news this week of another set-back to perennial sick note Tomas Rosicky or it would have been even worse had their not been another little figure orchestrating proceedings. The ‘Andrey Arshavin factor’ is in full flow with the Russian displaying the right amount of creativity and dynamism that has so been missing for the last couple of months and indeed maybe even the whole season.

With Arshavin and Walcott operating out wide against Blackburn and Hull City, it is quite a marked difference from the wide men of Hleb and Rosicky of last season, who making up for their lack of directness interplayed with quick, one touch passes. The creative abilities of the wide men often accused Arsenal of being over-elaborate but the movement caused much uncertainty among opposition defences.

“I like to have one behind the striker, and one or two on the flanks who come inside,” said Arsene Wenger. “I always feel that if you have players who can deliver the decisive ball in all areas of the pitch, you have many more chances of being creative. If it’s only focused on one central part, where it’s usually more concentrated, you have more space on the flanks to create.”

With Hleb and Rosicky both preferring to cut inside it resulted into the more pass-focused play and while the ‘Invincibles’ were the original pass masters, with Ljungberg and Pires wide, had greater dynamism and penetration to go with it. For most of this season Arsenal have had to use Nasri and Eboue but as both prefer to come inside, to play such a passing game requires players to play around them and that is where Fabregas has been missed.

“When he’s there, everything goes through him but when he’s not it can take a while to adapt because the game goes through different ways – it’s plural,” said Wenger. “When it’s Fabregas it is more one-way traffic at the start of the build-up.” As a result their has been an over-reliance on the front four recently which requires quicker build up play and more directness from the wings. The possession keeping when teams have taken the initiative to the Gunners is as of yet not as strong as it can be; a lower percentage of possession to both Fulham and Aston Villa would have been blasphemous last season. The shield of Denilson and Song/Diaby have improved immensely but as of yet not as expansive as the Spaniard however they are slowing gaining in confidence  and the signs are good.

The partnership raises an interesting point; Arsenal have always had a midfield shield in front of their defence but who also had the creative potency but with Fabregas it is always him plus one, maybe leaving the team open at times. He has created plenty of goals and has been the heartbeat of the side but ultimately the club’s trophy haul during his  years at the club suggests he wasn’t success. Of course it is an absurd statement given his talismanic status but if Fabregas pushes up could put a lot of strain on the defence hence Flamini’s impact last season. However both Denilson and Diaby have shown they can match the Frenchman for industry both clocking up 15,000 metres against Roma and are still under the age of 24 (when Flamini made his breakthrough). Fabregas has shown, upon given the captain armband that he can undertake a more dictating role to achieve a greater balance while his tackling has always been understated.

The more direct play have grown naturally but given Wenger’s statement on how Arsenal have had to adapt without the Spaniard, it seems more manufactured. After the match against Hull, Arshavin stated Wenger wanted the team to play more quicker in his half time team-talk. “He told us that while we were doing the right things, we needed to speed up a bit to get the result.” The late Renus Michels, who was former Holland manager during the ‘Total Football’ era feels such a counter attacking style has shown to be most efficient when ‘short term success is desired.’ In his book ‘Teambuiding: The Road to Success’ a team in phase two will usually implement this style as their main style while those in phase three master what he call ‘ball circulation’ something not many teams can do.

The team must master the ‘ball circulation’ component to be able to determine the correct moment to start the attack. However, ball circulation is a means, not a goal in itself! To carry the play on the opponents half of the field places high demands of the build-up. There is not much time and space to work in and you have to deal with high defensive pressure. Fast combinations and excellent positional play are a must. Circulation football!

To lose possession close to the middle line when building-up is almost ‘suicidal’ in this risky style of football. One touch passing is also a must in the building-up team function of this strategy. This demands additional tactical insight from the players as situations quickly have to be surveyed. Each player has to anticipate even more.

To carry the play means that one time you choose to play in a high tempo and the next time you use delaying tactics to slow the play down. A play-making team must take full advantage of the space and must have defenders who can quickly change the point of attack, wing forwards who remain on the outside, etc.

The transition from defence to build-up must be executed very quickly. The team tactical manpower in the centre of the field(central defenders, midfielders and striker) is of great importance.

During the build up, the tactical coherence between the central defenders who must be thinking of playing the ball forward, the attacking midfielders and the central striker is very precise work. When possession is lost, it starts in the opposite direction. Good ball circulation puts high demands on the quality of the positional play, the mastering of the tempo and the speed of action.

In terms of style Arsenal can be classed to be in the middle of the two as they rebuild but with the players Wenger has at his disposal they can offer the correct blend of circulation football and dynamism that the ‘Invincibles’ perfected. Arshavin has only to adapt to English football and the teams understanding, Samir Nasri is still developing his dribbling to be a more effective winger but has the capability to deputise for Fabregas in the near future. Defensively the team is as strong as ever, maybe due in part to the more cautious approach and as the team are young, can get even better.

Arsenal should continue to develop momentum and with a good end to the season and pre-season to adapt to each other, the team has the variety, interchangeability to be potentially beautiful to watch and explosive at the same time.


8 thoughts on “Wenger transplants a more direct approach after losing creative brains

  1. Hi there,

    thanks for the interesting post pointing out the midfield shield.
    I cannot wait for the return of Cesc in the heart of the team, but at the same time, feel a bit puzzled about the formation. For the last one month or so, 4-2-3-1 formation was working to great effect, with Arshavin finding a form playing on the left and Nasri floating in the middle and interchanging at will. As you’ve pointed out with the two-men shield of Denilson & Song/Diaby, we hardly concede a goal, and I for one wish to have any set of duo carrying on playing as they are now. In that case, would Cesc occupy Nasri’s role at present and Nasri be pushed to the right? I don’t know, but Nasri is just doing so well that I do not want to see him left on the bench.

    1. Hi. It is likely one of them will partner Fabregas in the centre and it is likely that is to be Denilson. They all have a case however; Diaby is the best tackler, Denilson is the best passer, better positionally and probably a harder worker. Song is probably behind the two. Many people are for the 4-2-3-1 Fabregas can provide cover also but if he does push up there could be some strain. However I feel that this can be offset by the cautious nature of the full backs and because of this has added to our stability more that the shield. We are not getting attacked as much from transitions as the start of the season.

      Regarding Nasri, he is developing well the only thing really is Wenger wants him to dribble and start attacking players more as his role will most likely be out wide. As a central midfielder he is also coming along well and can in the future be a back up also for Cesc if he gets injured.

      But with the quality still to return in Eduardo, Fab, Adebayor and Rosicky a lot of real quality players will have to miss out.

      1. Lovely article, you should be writing for the Beeb or Sky Sports.

        It depends on what type of game we are playing. With so much analysis on every team, it is good that Arsenal can rely on different personnel to play differently. I believe one of the reasons why Man Utd are so successful is because of their unpredictability in attack.

        As for Rosicky, I don’t think he is ever going to be a main player. At best he would be able to play 15 games per season. I see him as a squad player. It has been so long since he last played, our players have developed. Don’t get me wrong he is still a star player but I just can’t see him being a whole season player.

        Should Arsenal seek compensation from a football club? Check out my latest blog post!

  2. Thanks for an interesting article! I’m not an Arsenal supporter, but I have to admit that I would like the Arsenal way of football, if not necessarily the club, to be successful. I agree that the use of two holding midfielders has strengthened your defence during Fabregas’ absence, which could make it a bit of a dilemma where to play Fabregas in the future. He’s brilliant as a deep-lying play-maker, but if you push him forward he might get more opportunities to hit those incisive passes into the box. I’m not sure about the answer.
    For me Arsenal vs United in November is the game of the season so far with great attacking football from both sides (even if the result wasn’t very satisfying). Hope to see something similar (but with a different result) at Old Trafford in May!

  3. Very Interesting article. I’m personally interested in your quote of Rinus Michel’s book. Any chance that Wenger read that book too?
    I always think Wenger is a perfectionist and Arsenal is his playing field, or experiment lab to say.
    From the invincibles with its fast counter-attacking to our quick pass and move possession football, all were manufactured by replacing the parts (i.e. the players) in a transition phases.
    With respect to the Invincibles, they failed to conquer Europe. Which make sense if you try to relate it with the phases theory of Rinus Michel. In phase two: Counter-attacking still can be solved by playing behind the ball lines. But quick possession football for sure will tire your opponents and could confuse them by mixing it with counter-attacking since you have the quick and creative players too.
    I think Wenger is heading to build the PERFECT TEAM.
    Fans and players just need to be patient to wait for the fruit to come.
    Regarding Fabregas, he could play in a deep playmaker position since Arshavin and Nasri will take care of the final third. An option we didn’t have previously, even with Hleb and Rosicky. Hleb is just not quick enough and doesn’t have the eyes for a goal. It meant he have to interchange position with Fabregas with resulted in Fabregas scoring goals. With Arshavin and Nasri at his disposal, Fabregas could comfortly serve from his “quarterback” position, along with Denilson or Song as the breaker.

    1. Hi. Thanks for the comment and some very good points.
      The potential for this side to be the greatest Wenger has produced is very high. At the moment it seems keeping the ball without Fabregas is the biggest problem but that will surely come over time.
      Cesc can play a deep playmaker position but that will probably come at the cost of less creativity centrally. Wenger did say Fab could play sweeper because of his intelligence, the deep playmaker is an extension of that.
      The ‘Invincibles’ had Bergkamp (but at the sake of comparing, this was at a different era) so maybe Van Persie can drop in the hole as he did against Newcastle.

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