The defensive shield may have been getting most of the plaudits but the cautious nature of Sagna and Clichy has been the real reason for Arsenal’s recent defensive stability.
For two players supposedly having below-par seasons, their contribution to Arsenal’s success in the second half of the season could not be more greater. Gael Clichy and Bakary Sagna have yet to hit the heights of last season offensively at least, but at the back the pair have been solid as ever though maybe not as spectacular because their roles have changed.
It is fair to say Arsenal are still fairly infant in their beginnings as a team and this season has mostly been one of rebuilding and getting the side back to genuine and consistent contenders for the league title once again. Last season, attack was the main form of defence; keeping the ball denied pressure on the back line while highly mobile players such as Flamini and the centre backs allowed for such an elaborate play. (Mobility and tactical awareness is the main difference between Denilson and Flamini, something which is hard to quantify).
This season key men have departed and indeed some have never left the treatment room therefore the same attacking verve was not there. The marauding full backs of Arsenal was one of the successes of the season as both were selected in the team of the year. But Wenger, after seeing his side lose five games before the halfway point and his team not quite as gelling as he would have liked, decided it was a liability to have his full backs bombing forward. “At one stage we had conceded too many goals, so we encouraged our defenders to be a bit more cautious,” said Arsene Wenger.
The affect of the change has been threefold: Early in the season (though not just limited to) Arsenal were being attacked in the space vacated by Clichy and Sagna (1) while at the same time putting too much strain on Denilson, (2) who was still maturing and the centre backs (3), who had to push up to make up the space hence playing with a line higher than Arjen Robben’s. And they are also stopping crosses coming in to the box, long thought to be the defences Achilles heel; that’s four then.
Full backs can be a great weapon and at the same time a great vulnerability. The shield has been also been a reason for the greater defensive performance but remember Fabregas also played there against Chelsea, in which the Gunners won 2-1. In that same match Bosingwa was the Blues’ chief architect in the first half but once the system was changed could not get involved.
Defender or Attacker?
The question is, is the full back primarily a defender or an attacker? It may seem obvious because of the term ‘back’ but recent times have seen such players signed for their greater offensive abilities. Traditionally most teams played the ‘WM’ formation but with the increased skill of forwards another defender was added hence pushing the full backs wider who were then used to counter the threat of wingers. The Brazilians with two their full backs both named Santos on either side made great use of this extra space and caused havoc to opposition defences. In the 1960’s Helenio Herrera deployed Giacinto Facchetti as a means of launching faster counter-attacks (incidentally the same coach also was the brains behind the rethinking of the sweeper role). Andrea Tallarita of Football Italiano said of the full back: ‘If fullbacks today are more than just central defenders playing on the sides, we owe it partly to this man’s revolutionary interpretation of the role.’
Key method of attack
Cafu and Roberto Carlos displayed how destructive full-backs can be combining great stamina with high levels of technical ability to cause all kinds of mess to defenders organisation and possibly their shorts as well. Their endurance and physical power allowed them to take advantage of the fact that they were unmarked. “Brazil have two great wing-backs in Cafu and Roberto Carlos but they are only able to get up so often because no-one is attacking them,” said Johan Cruyff.
Off the ball movement is crucial. Getting 1 v 1 situations as often as possible can win games but rather than the dribbling ability of players, it is the doubling up and providing movement causing uncertainty and unpredictability on the defender which can change a game. The search for space and making best advantage, whether defending or attacking is the first thing on every managers’ mind.
In Euro 2008 attacking full-backs was a major tactic used and one of the main exponents of that strategy, Russia benefited greatly from the late arrival and support from Anyukov and Zhirkov who were often unmarked. Spain went into the semi-final with Russia with a more orthodox set-up denying the two players space and as a result Russia were all at sea attacking-wise (not to mention the complete negation of Arshavin). But manager Hiddink’s recent excursions with Chelsea show that he is also wary of the drawbacks. “We have to stay back a bit more now and defend as a unit, and maybe that could be the change that could change our season,” said Jose Bosingwa of the Dutchman’s changes.
The space left behind is ripe for counter attacks, something Inter manager Jose Mourinho is prepared for. “Transitions have become crucial,” he says. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”
Teams defend in compact blocks and therefore it seems the greatest trait for a full back to have defensively is to be positioned well rather than the ability to tackle the ball of the winger. When Arsenal went a man down against Tottenham, Wenger played a 4-3-2 formation which at the time seemed suicidal given Aaron Lennon was on the right hand side but Clichy and when replaced by Gibbs, in conjunction with the three midfielders gave the winger space and but were organised enough not to allow him to make great use of it.
Former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues the physical development of the game and the packing of central midfield means that more emphasis should be placed on the wings. Around a quarter of goals from open play come from a cross and teams are quick to stop that happening. Clichy and Sagna are more cautious allowing in the other end for a more quicker approach while teams like Liverpool and Manchester United, especially in big games look to double up their midfielders in these areas to stop the threat (Kuyt and Riera, Rooney and Park, Eboue for Arsenal).
Full backs are not on their own the most major position in winning and losing matches but can be the key. Why Arsenal haven’t been as potent from this position can go down to the defensive nature of oppositions and the fact that the crossing and the options in the box have been poor. The question for Wenger is whether to reinstate the expansive style next season by which the team should have got to know each other better.
Great teams can make greatest use of full backs as an attacking option hence the hefty price tags for the best in recent seasons; Bosingwa, Alves, Evra, Sagna and Ramos to name a few. Still Arsenal reversed that trend slightly by signing the defensively more secure Sagna to replace Emmanuel Eboue and have not looked back.