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.