As Arsenal’s football becomes more fluid and pass orientated, the demands become greater especially against the changing nature of the modern game.
It was only a pre-season friendly but with Arsene Wenger anxiously pacing the touchline during a match against third-place Hungarian outfits Szombathelyi Haladás, it showed just how crucial next season will be. He seemed satisfied with the cohesion and application shown in the end by the Gunners as they came out comfortable 5-0 winners.
Interestingly, four goals were scored in the first half yet the second half was the more impressive.
The opening period saw Arsenal line up in a 4-3-3 formation with Song the deepest midfielder and Denilson and Ramsey to the right and left of him respectively. It was blue collar stuff; hard-working and unfashionable at most times but then Arsenal committed white-collar robbery – two quick breaks, one headed in by Bendtner and the other fantastically finished by Eduardo, while the Croatian also scored a free-kick to make it three. Haladás played better than the scoreline suggested and although the fourth goal was a thing of beauty the more functional Arsenal showed their superior class.
In the second half, Arsenal played in a 4-4-2 with Senderos holding and the forward players playing with much more flexibility than the first. One goal was scored but the Gunners pushed Haladás back for much of the game and kept the ball almost monopolistically.
That Arsenal were the more impressive so why is it then that they found it more difficult to score in the second half?
Arsenal consumed by their success
Indeed, Arsenal have always played a similar brand of football but in the years between the Invincibles last one a title and now, the Gunners have only won one trophy. In an article for Four Four Two, Paul Simpson attempts to explain Arsenal’s four year demise by referring to business writer Danny Miller’s Icarus Paradox.
The theory argues that once a business (or in this case, team) taste success, they contribute to their own downfall through their own strengths by devoting more time and resources to what made them successful. Therefore what made Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal – youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and confidence in possession – have effectively taken over the team and other factors such as organisation, strength and ruthlessness have almost been swept under the carpet.
That is however, slightly unfair on the club – Arsene Wenger didn’t choose the direction of youth voluntarily, more as a result of the move to the Emirates. “The decision was to go for more youth when we decided to build a new stadium because we are not in a position where we could spend £30m or £40m on players,” said Wenger. “Whether people accept it or not is one thing but, today, we have a good side, we make profit and we pay our debtors back. People are scandalised when banks lose money but I’m scandalised when football clubs lose money. For me it’s the same process. I’m not against spending money; I’m against losing money.”
The interesting point regards organisation. As a side’s football becomes more about flexibility and freedom, the more difficult it is to maintain the shape. Coupled with the fact that the physical development of the game means it has become harder for teams to play such an expansive passing style as opponents pack the centre. Transitions and set-pieces have also become ever more important but ultimately it is all about controlling space; Carlo Ancelotti is about to embark on his Chelsea journey playing in a 4-4-2 diamond because it allows him to “put more zonal pressing” and this is something which the ‘Invincibles’ did very well.
With a combination of either Edu/Gilberto and Vieira in the centre and Bergkamp in the ‘hole’, the adaptable formation was argued to be a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-2-4. With such ‘between the lines’ players’ Arsenal could control operational areas that are considered key in unlocking the opposition’s defence.
Mattheiu Flamini had a fantastic year in 2007/08 because of his mobility and positional awareness, patrolling the area between defence and midfield expertly. Arsenal’s game has always been about fluidity and possession and if the Gunners lost or indeed had the ball, he kept the shape.
Therefore going back to the 5-0 against Szombathelyi Haladás, it was obvious Arsenal were more comfortable in the 4-4-2. Although only one goal was scored, on another day that could have been more while they were less troubled by the Hungarian’s as opposed to the tense first half. The most noteworthy point of the match was the performance of Philipe Senderos who remained disciplined in the centre of midfield and allowed the forward players to sustain the pressure.
Although the Swiss is not a realistic candidate for the spot, his positional awareness and strength allowed him to control the zone better against ultimately inferior opposition. If a defender could operate the zone so well then what’s to say a new midfielder is needed especially with the talent at Arsenal’s disposal already? Arsenal have always excelled in a 4-4-2 although with Cesc Fabregas, it is always him plus one meaning his partner has had to be very mobile. Defensive responsibility is bound to the team as a whole and it will take that understanding to bring back the balance in midfield.
When asked a question about Steven Gerrard when Real Madrid director during the Galactico era, former AC Milan coach and master tactician Arrigo Sacchi had this to say about the Liverpool midfielder. “We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry. But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision-making. They lacked positioning. They didn’t have that subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective.
“You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team, and, by doing this, making both you and the team greater. So, situations like that, I just have to say, he’s a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player.”
Fast forward to Wednesday, and Arsenal completed their fourth pre-season game against Hannover 96 coming out 1-0 winners. Arsene Wenger stuck with the 4-3-3 once again but this time had the luxury of calling up Cesc Fabregas, one of the most intelligent players in world football and a master of dictating play.
Arsenal were better in the match than against Haladás using the same formation but with the departure of Fabregas at half time, were not the same threat. Song’s positional play became suspect and the formation was shown to be more rigid. Work still needs to be done with this set-up but the thinking remains that this formation will give greater control of zones while allowing more or less the same fluidity.
Time will tell, but the conundrum for Wenger will be whether to stick with the 4-3-3 which is the more orthodox or return to the 4-4-2 which suits Arsenal passing game but could be the more difficult to organise. You can’t help but feel all there needs is a little understanding……