With great freedom comes great responsibility

Arsenal’s pre-season campaign has shown some promise but it is very much a work in progress as there is a need for greater understanding of one’s role if the team wants to perfect it’s fluid style.
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With every match, the Arsenal doom-mongers seem to put forward another flaw in Arsenal’s game. This week, following the 2-0 pre-season defeat to Valencia one absurd suggestion was that the Gunners central defenders now have problems dealing with pace. Luckily that criticism is not doing the rounds but what that one ‘fan’ saw was a consistent flow of quick breaks from the opposition.

With wholesale changes made in the second half and the introduction of live wire David Villa, such attacks became more frequent. The problem in this game and the two Emirates Cup encounters was a lack of discipline both from an attacking point of view and defensively. Too hasty to get forward and a lack of understanding of one’s responsibility on the pitch – even the great Cesc Fabregas could not get away with this one.

The consensus seems to be that there is two different ways to play the 4-3-3; one with fluidity and the other more functional – at the moment Arsenal seem to stuck somewhere in the middle. But ultimately, through all the tactics and preparation, both will succeed or fail on the attitude and application of the players in the side.

With more fluidity and flexibility in a side, in theory this should mean it will be more harder for Arsenal to organise. However the most attractive of teams in history have also been the most effective in controlling space. Wenger doesn’t have to look far to see that, as his own ‘Invincibles’ side had players who played in operational areas. Bergkamp in the channel between midfield and attack and Vieira and Edu/Gilberto disciplined in front of the defence.

In the days of the man-to-man WM system, Brazil came into the 1958 World Cup with the concept of the back four and zonal marking. While Brazilian football seems to be steeped in the stereotype of this fantastic carnival football but one which has no regard for tactical solidity, this defensive balance meant the flair players of Garrincha and Pele where able to revel.

Wenger admits his most greatest influence was the “Total Football” Ajax team of the late 60s and early 70s. A team which was built up with a core of players from the academy and played revolutionary football, interchanging positions and keeping the ball. That style reached it’s apex in the 1974 World Cup when, Rinus Michels having only three friendly matches to prepare his Holland side, chose a team compromising of mainly Ajax and Feyenoord and somehow managed to mold together a team in perfect harmony.

It was the utter demolition of Argentina 4-0 that sent shock waves around the footballing world as Holland constantly denied the opposition space by pressurising together. And then with the space afforded to them by Argentina, exploited it through the kaleidoscopic switching of positions . Michels later said: “It is an art in itself to compose a starting team, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, and between defence, construction and attack – never forgetting the quality of the opposition and the specific pressures of each match.”

One man watching at home, Arrigo Sacchi was completely entranced by it all, and in Jonathan Wilson’s book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics said, “Holland in the 1970s really took my breath away. The television was too small: I felt like I needed to see the whole pitch to fully understand it.”

Inspired among others by the Dutch’s controlling of space and artistry on the ball he created an all conquering AC Milan side that was not only entertaining but tough as needles to break down. Sacchi’s demanded that when not in possession, the defence and attack were to be separated by no more than 25m (before the liberalisation of the offside trap) and should pressure aggressively. It was highly systematised, with versatile players ensuring the system could continue and holding no compromises. “All of our players,” he said, “always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.” Such was his devotion and slight fanaticism he always maintained that five organised players would always beat 10 disorganised ones.

Slightly fanatical it may sound but the thinking of controlling space is still shared among the top coaches today. After watching USSR beat Italy 2-0 in the semi-final of Euro 88, Marcello Lippi hailed the victory of systematised pressing while Carlo Ancelloti will play a 4-4-2 diamond this season because he feels he can “put more zonal pressing”. Barcelona’s 4-3-3 wouldn’t be the same without the high pressuring of opponents and while the midfielders play with fluidity and freedom have, know what their role is when defending.

And up against Arsene Wenger in that pre-season game was an up and coming coach in Unai Emery who had his side defending with great organisation, set up in two banks of four. One player who caught the eye was young Argentinian midfielder, Ever Banega who outshone Arsenal’s own Alex Song. While the Cameroon ace was busy he left too much space behind and was reluctant to take the ball off his defenders. On the other hand Banega, once described as ‘Mascherano but can pass’  remained disciplined, kept the ball ticking and made some strong tackles.

Wenger maintains the toughest challenge is to find balance something which he is searching for with the change in formation to a 4-3-3. One of the advantages of this 4-3-3 formation is that it should offer securities to the other central midfielder, most thought to be Cesc Fabregas. However while Arsenal want to be fluid, in a fully systematised team, nobody can be carried – everybody must be carrying out their share of work.

* NB: There will be no match analysis following the Everton game unfortunately but normal service should resume for the game against Celtic.

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23 thoughts on “With great freedom comes great responsibility

  1. Great post!
    I try to read every possible Arsenal blog on a daily basis and I must say this is one of the best and most interesting I’ve read so far!
    Keep it up.

  2. Great article.

    What players do you think should be employed to ensure the 4-3-3 formation is fluid, flexible and responsible as you put it?

    1. Hi. Well, I do not have a problem with the formation or the players, just that they need to be more disciplined and understand their team role. I know Wenger wants them to pressure and remain organised but that is not happening as they are too hasty to attack.

      I feel the next tactical development is physical and mental; how players apply themselves and their workload. For example Park Ji Sung’s role or Kuyt’s is to patrol the right touchline defensively and in an attacking sense, get crosses, dribble and make sure they gets into goalscoring opportunities.
      Similarly, in a 4-4-2, the midfield must remain disciplined and organised to deny space.

      That is a problem with Arsenal; Fabregas needs to dictate more and asses the situation and Song/Denilson need to patrol their place but as a whole they are not defending as a discipline. I would like to see Diaby play deepest but there is still work to do on his release and decision making but the other parts are there.

      1. Hi, great article again. My feeling is that Song is not suited to this formation as a CDM. I think Denilson will do well playing the deepest and with Diaby, playing slightly in front of him, it may work. But as you say, everything will work only with discipline and proper understanding of their role.
        Another question. With RVP as the central striker, dont you think it affects the balance? Someone with the ability of holding the ball and creating chances would do better if you ask me. IMO, RVP is best suited to playing the bergampesque role and not on the wings as some people suggest. What are your views?

        1. I agree RVP is more suited to the Bergkamp role but could develop as a lone forward though he’s not ready as of yet. Wenger had this system in mind at the back end of last season and experimented with RVP upfront.
          He did quite well against Stoke, Roma and Man U. The thinking is a fluid forward line, similar to what Totti has played when the highest forward. Players play around him and he holds the ball up and creates though not quite so high up the field as a normal target man may.

        2. V.P plays on the wing for the dutch wen they play 4-3-3 and does it effectively, he can play in the middle of the 4-3-3 messi did it against man u in the cl final the difference s wenger has shown a tendency to play bendtner on the right wen v.p plays through the middle this pre season bentdner lacks the movement wen on the right of this system to provide the fluidity………… in the 4-3-3 my opinion is for that our best attacking three is from left to right arshavin-eduardo- wilshire/RVP… in midfield it should be song- denilson- cesc…

  3. Whatever formation we play, if we continue to have such a huge vulnerability in our defensive line, we won’t be winning anything this year, again…Wenger should fix this, before starting to experiment with formations.

  4. I actually thought that in the first half we played quite well. Song leaked a couple of passes to expose the defense, but the most dangerous chance against us came from a corner when Arshavin was half a step off concentration. What we didn’t do well earlier this half was the final third, where passing was quite disjoint. This was much improved later on the half – we looked sharp on the counter attack and created chances.

    Arsene kept only Cesc and Song in attack and flanked them with an entirely new set of runners-shooters in the second half. Until Cesc was subbed out, we allowed a saved penalty but created 2 clear-cut chances. Valencia dominated possession but didn’t know how to stop Cesc. He got fouled every other time Arsenal got the ball. I must say I was impressed with the boys. But the missed chances by Theo and Traore unfortunately confirmed that they’re still boys somewhat.

    Whatever happened after Cesc was withdrawn, I don’t think we should read in too seriously. Arsene needed to be gracious to Valencia on their ceremonial game while having to not tell his players to deliberately lose the game. He played a young team, let them be dominated and got them a chance against top class players. It would have been better had they sneaked out a goal, but I don’t see a better way to lose happily in a friendly and still get your the players on the field motivated.

  5. Good article.

    I agree that we haven’t really mastered the art of controlling the zones.

    Our players tend to be reactive, instead of proactive; chasing the ball as opposed to anticipating and intercepting it.

    This is why we struggled so much against Valencia; without Denilson, we had no-one with the tactical awareness to intercept and disrupt their quick-passing style.
    Against a possession based side, with more lenient refereeing – as we will likely find in the Champions League – we can’t rely on our players simply chasing down the ball and harrying opposition without any thought.

    Valencia just passed around the pressure, much like many of our opponents have found we do to them.

    This is why, in Nasri’s absence, Denilson will play such a vital role.

    1. Yes!! very good. reactive instead of proactive. i like that part of what you said very much.

      it seems that the defense is always a step behind in this manner. always trying to catch up to what the opposition is trying to do. i think that was arsene’s thinking in buying vermaelen, as he is a positional/intellectual player who tries to predict.

      dynamism without organisation is just running.

      i’ve noticed that song is very much like the type of player you say he is. he does harry players alot, but gets passed out of games too much. if denilson is as predictive as you say – i have not watched him quite as carefully, but know of stats – then he needs to be played more often.

      nice comment mate!

  6. very good analysis! I am not sure who should play in the DM position and whether Wenger will buy someone or not but I am convinced that Song is not the answer…yet! He has had a marked improvement, especially in the second half of last season and Denilson is good but I dont see either of them making much impact in front of a superior midefield of the opposition. They will be outmuscled by the aging beasts of Chavski or/and by the hard tackiling teams up North.

    On a different note…very glad to hear Viera is not making a comeback. I admire the guy like most Gooners but he would stop/patch remedy to our problem in the midfield. It would be trying to use Band aid for a major injury and then expect a full recovery! Viera coming back would have stiffled the growth of Song/Denilson by taking theior position and it would have been an indirect way of Wenger reverting to his young player policy.

  7. This is basically the biggest flaw with Arsenal. Positional Awareness. Each time the opposition has the ball, our players tend to react and chase balls without any positional awareness. The biggest culprit is definitely Song. If Wenger could just drum this into him, then he would become a complete DM. This is also the reason why some people feel that Denilson is better than Song coz he has that awareness.
    However, in terms of composure, skill and grit, Song is miles ahead.

  8. Brilliant article which i agree with on the whole as a unit defensively we still have along way to go.I mean pple suggest maybe Diaby coming in there but his positional sense is the worst defensively i think he is ranked third behind Song and Denii,he tends to dribble in the wrong place and most times hold onto the ball too long,i really dont think he tries hard enough i mean as a player if he looked at replays of his performances he would see all these things coz everyone esle can I jus dont think his commitment is aits optimal level.

  9. i’m thinking..

    clichy vermaelen gallas sagna

    fabrega diaby nasri

    van persie arshavin/bendtner eduardo/arshavin

    alternatively i believe this would be a good formation

    clichy vermaelen gallas sagna

    fabrega nasri arshavin

    van persie bendtner eduardo

  10. That was really great read. One thing. Song is IMO nowhere near to be top Premier League DM.He is weak passer and scorer, i mean if Arsenal want to win titles, DM must get 5-10 assist as 5-10 goals. It’s simple as that. With Melo (BIG, BIIG mistake from Wenger not signin him) Arsenal would be tough as hell to beat. Now they need DM and close range striker, who will provide 15 or more goals. Bendtner is very decent guy but i don’t think he would be much better (too stiff, technically challenged) and Van Persie and Arshavin are wingers (they need space to make things, Van Persie could be striker, but he never was, so i don’t expect he change his style now). I like Arsenal, but next season will be exactly the same as last without happy end (City/Everton/Villa 4th)…

  11. I like the look of the new 4-3-3 but I was wondering Brain which players do you see as best filling in the places in the team. What I’m most interested in is the midfield spots not occupied by cesc and the center forward role. Wenger seems to like Fabregas Denilson and Diaby as a central trio, as he used in the FA cup semifinal against Chelsea. I thought it was actually very effective in the first half although the second half was a much poorer defensive display, most likely due to Frank Lampard being pushed further up the field.

    For me upfront Eduardo is the best allround player for the central spot as he just seems well suited to the role, although Van Persie’s occasionally sublime linkup (assist to Cesc against Hannover) or his ridiculous goals (Liverpool and Everton last year) make a good case for him. Eduardo’s finishing and solid link up harkens to Eto’o’s role for Barca. Unfortunately RVP is one of the leaders on the team and he doesn’t seem to be most effective in any role that exists in a 4-3-3. I don’t see him being as effective on the right, although he may adjust to it as he apparently does for Holland. (I haven’t seen him play here myself) Arshavin seems to be nailed onto the left attacking spot.

  12. Good post again. Totally concur, especially with your closing remarks on there must be no passengers. The attitude and claiming of responsibility is one of the missing links, we need everyone to step up a level and take responsibility and take the lead, if Song/Denilson are not holding the midfield well enough, Fabregas should shoulder responsibility and show them how to do it, if Bendtner or Van Persie are struggling to find the openings, other players must take responsibility, even in defence.

    As for the 4-3-3, it is still a work in progress for sure, it is good to have a second option, but we need to ensure that all the players understand it. Speaking to a French friend of mine, they describe Wenger as one of the most un-French coaches, most French coaches have a tactical construct first, then ethos second, for Wenger it is the other way round. This is probably his biggest flaw, tactics have always been a method to tip the balance, we are equal to most opponents, we are undone tactically.

  13. Brain, what do you see as the ideal formation this year. I just checked out Eduardo’s stats and he had scored 34 in 32 games! A real fox in the box! Do you think Wenger will play him consistently? If yes, what will happen to Theo and RVP?

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