Thomas Vermaelen represents a sweeping change to Arsenal’s backline

Arsène Wenger’s quest for attacking perfection sees his two centre backs playing with more than a hint of libero.

In Arsène Wenger’s first match in charge of Arsenal, the French manager deployed a three man defence but despite a convincing 2-0 win over Blackburn the set-up was never to be seen again in red and white colours in the subsequent seasons. (Wenger only persisted with the 3-5-2 for the remainder of the campaign because of his freshness in the job and the players’ insistence on keeping it that way). It was easy to understand Wenger’s dissatisfaction; he was a sweeper in his playing days and a backline featuring a threesome of stoppers had no real long term benefit especially with the style of play he wanted to implant in the team. (That is not to disrespect the defensive abilities of the legendary back four, as Wenger has been quoted saying, “the back four were all university graduates in the art of defending. As for Tony Adams, I consider him to be a doctor of defence. He is simply outstanding.”)

His vision required all-round defenders, players in the vein of himself even – sweepers. But the libero (from the Italian word meaning “free”) in it’s classic incarnation, the director of the team with the freedom of the pitch, had practically died out.

Some say the sweeper was once and for all confined to the coffin by Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary tactics although the changing of rules had also made it difficult to play. His all conquering AC Milan side played a high-pressure game, zonal marked aggressively, and essentially incorporated the libero into the four-man defence however it could be argued he did so for all positions as Franco Baresi implicates. “With Sacchi, we focused on creating rather than breaking down, defending spaces rather than marking men,” he said. “The secret? At all times you must know your position, where you are standing, and you must participate in the action – even if you are far from the ball.” Baresi’s role was particularly revolutionary as the ‘centrale staccato’ (a detached central defender), as it effectively done away with the need for a sweeper.

But perhaps overall what Sacchi indicates is that the traits of the libero should lurk inside every player – the ability to play the ball and see danger and opportunities should not be confined to specialist players It is a view very much held in regard by Arsène Wenger where in the first team we’ve seen the gradual phasing out of the stopper. The argument is not whether the stopper has its use or not as clearly it does, as seen by the success of Arsenal’s English back four. But the thinking is that ‘universality’ brings fluency and if the Gunners are to play an expansive style then the centre backs must also be equally adept.

He wants his centre backs to essentially play like liberos, albeit slightly stripped down, while altogether remaining in a zonal defence. Call them advancing centre backs if you will.

Wenger wants attacking perfection, constantly looking for different ways of opening up teams and his latest development is to have his defenders engaged in forward play. By involving them in the build up they can effectively become an extra midfield, getting into unmarked space and causing more unpredictability. This variety and change in points of attack also allows the side to break from the monotony of packed midfields and deep defences which has been the scourge of Arsenal in recent seasons. Thomas Vermaelen has already added two goals this season in such a manner against both Blackburn and Wigan. It is  important to notice the amount of space afforded to the Belgian as he broke from the back as a result of the opposition not having the means to predict the charge.

“With the ball he’s really good,” said Cesc Fabregas on Vermaelen. “He’s like one more midfielder. These days, to have a centre back that can play, you know, these balls on the ground, between the lines, and past players, for players like me in midfield it’s really good because it gives you so much time and so much space on the ball. It’s really good.”

The upshot of this progressive manner is that the team must play a high line which requires the centre backs to have a good technique, highly mobile and read the game well so as to keep the ball circulating and also be on guard for a swift counter attack.

However giving license to your centre back will only be more effective if the opposition play with one less forward than you have central defenders hence allowing the space to get forward. In the Confederations Cup, USA made sure to station both their forwards up the field at all times so as to keep the modern advancing centre back of Gerard Pique busy and deny him the chance to get forward.

In that sense the role of Alex Song in front of the back four is very important and many would argue that the spirit of the libero is mostly alive in that position. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma. That first man in midfield – Daniele De Rossi at Roma – is the modern libero. His movements are similar, but he starts ahead of the defenders and retreats into the shell if needed. But he gets the ball all the time and is the main distributor.”

And if Italy is the country of trends then we may see the comeback of the libero due to the increase in the three-man defence in the league. But on the other hand, the use of a holding midfielder in front and the liberalisation of the offside trap and professional fouls complicating things, it may mean there is no need. But what has become increasingly apparent is that modern centre-backs will be required to have more skills most possibly resulting in the upsurge of the ball-playing, advancing centre-back. And it is Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal who lead the way.


15 thoughts on “Thomas Vermaelen represents a sweeping change to Arsenal’s backline

  1. Outstanding observations.
    Thomas Vermaelen’s primary job is to defend. But as we all know, teams like Blackburn, Bolton put men behind the ball and there is no one for the ‘other’CB to mark. This gives him the freedom to advance forward, taking the opposition by surprise.
    Another important thing to be noted is Song’s ability to play as a sweeper. We all have seen his dribbling skills(remember the goal last season where he dribbled past three defenders and finished it?). In the future we will see Song playing CB along with Nordtveit(similar type of player).
    These are all evolutions of the game to counter the ‘park the bus’ strategy. Variations win you games.

    1. The Carling Cup win over Wigan was a good example of attacking from the back. Djourou and Song were fantastic in reading the game and keeping the ball moving, and indeed the Swiss helped set-up the third goal by surging forward. But they missed the next game and the new-look Arsenal defence couldn’t handle the pressure that Burnley put on them.

  2. I think the only reason he switched to a 4-4-2 was because adams and some of the other defenders were unhappy with the back three system.

    Nice points in the article. I think wenger has always preferred these types of defenders, kolo toure wasnt a bad attacker either, and even sol campbell was encouraged to drive forward on ocassion when we needed him to.
    It’s true what you say about the DMs as well. Song is the latest in a line of technically gifted DMs capable of attacking well around the world. Mascherano doesn’t get enough credit for his attacking abilities, or lassana diarra at real madrid. Even makelele was very very skillful with the ball at his feet.
    I agree with kv about song too. I think djourou will end up playing at the back though. JD, nordveit can all play the CB “libero” role very well and all 3 are capable of doing it in midfield as well.

  3. Personally, for me.. I think wenger would have seen enough of Song’s performances as a DM and will feel that Song is the missing link we have all been calling for. Wenger knows Song can play as a CB. But with the CB position now congested, Wenger knows that Song is best placed as a DM.

    Song is still young and would only improve his play as a DM. He is only 21 and give him 3 more years, he would be a world class DM for us and hopefully he stays with us rather than moving to other clubs.

    By then, it would not be wise to play song as a CB anymore as he is already an accomplished DM. Gallas may be playing with us for the last season, but there is still a probability that he signs on with us for one more season. In that case, he would no doubt be at the heart of our defense again next season, alongside Vermaelen.

    It is only true that our CB position is rather congested. DJ is out for the season, and even if he comes back next season, he would have alot of work to do. Silvestre is a gone case, and I would not want to talk too much about him. That leaves Senderos. If Gallas decides to leave at the end of the season, then Senderos would most likely play alongside Vermaelen, provided he impressed during the Carling and FA cups this season. It would probably be Senderos and DJ fighting it out to be the defensive partner for Vermaelen for the next few seasons. Nordveit is young and developing well. He would be a contender as well, but he must first be introduced via the Carling and FA cup route so I would not expect him to make his EPL and CL appearances in the next 2 seasons. Kyle Bartley and Luke Ayling are another 2 that have potential to play for us as CB. Lets not forge about Gavin Hoyte as well. The tall player Ignasi miguel would also be a player to take note of. Standing at almost 1.9m at the age of only 16 is gonna make him a giant. But too bad he was a barca kid years ago, and if he manages to do well for us, those barca bastards are definitely to come out and say we stole him like how we stole cesc and merida.

    Therefore, my verdict is Song will still play as a DM for years to come. Diaby and Denilson will share the load with Song. Nasri would occasionally be played there as well.

    So in my opinion, Arsenal really do not need to buy anyone, because we are well stocked in every department. Even if the older players like Arshavin, Rosicky, Almunia and Gallas do eventually leaves us, we would have merida, wilshere, mannone and DJ to step up. Arsenal definitely have the depth to compete at all levels, and this season, we seems to be quite strong even without so many injured players.

    I can feel it.. can you feel it?? This is our year.. and this is definitely our year!!

  4. I completely agree that having specialist in the long-run is bad but may be sutable for certain games since it is easier to play against like the current Liverpool central midfield that cant play forward passes thus if you pressure them, you gain back possession.

    1. But if your player has a multitude of skills then it makes it easier for them to adapt to different roles. Essien for example is a central midfielder for me not defensive, but his marking skills and reading of the game allow to play there when required thus negating the need for specialists.

      Can Arsenal players play in more than one position? Mentally (i.e. tactically and decision-making) they need more work so I can’t really see many taking on a specialist marking role.

  5. I agree with most of your observations but one – sweeping change.
    Kolo on his good years were very much like Vermaelen we see today, with less shooting and more muscular prowess. Both players are fast and intelligent, making up for heights with exceptional anticipation and recovery.

    The big difference is that Kolo didn’t play on the left of Gallas as Vermaelen does. Gallas and Kolo were so busy trying to occupy that right side of CD that they forgot to work with each other(we can see how either Gallas or Kolo played like being revived when paired with Silvestre, albeit the latter’s waning speed and power). On paper the two could have been best defensive pair in the league, a shame. Gallas just play naturally better when Vermaelen came in and fill the left side of CD for him.

    1. I admit the title was journalistic; just wanted to use the verb sweep. I was about to mention Toure but as the price was good value, Wenger felt it was the best to let him go.

      Of course that allows Gallas to play right thereby offering more angles in the pass while overall Gallas is the better defender anyway. He is also underrated on the ball and chooses his options fairly well. Vermaelen’s spring also gives added advantage.

  6. read the second to last line of these stats:
    I have been saying this forever and ever about our games against the back four-
    denilson and song need to play together – we are very very strong on attack and their defensive work gives us a great balance.
    now there are numbers to back it up – very solid, undeniable stats.
    we average 1.67 points away against the top four when they are playing together and only 1 point when they are not.

  7. Not sure if you saw the Genoa vs Inter Milan, and the Napoli vs Bologna. Both home sides used 3 men defences, different outcomes. Genoa never expected Inter to play a 4-3-2-1, with Balotelli at the apex, Sneijder and Stankovic behind him, but what killed Genoa was that Balotelli peeled off to the left of midfield and instead of marking players, they faced runners, which Stankovic-Muntari-Vieira-Maicon utilised to devastating effect. Before Genoa knew it, they were 3-0 down, and Gasperini had no answer as the match was going to be uphill. Even with a 4 man defence, they would have been crucified with the runners, that said Sampdoria beat Inter with a 3 man defence for most of the game to constrict space and break quickly.

    Napoli always use a 3-5-2, but under the new coach, it mirrored something similar to a 3-3-2-2 with the likes of Maggio and Aronica less marauding as normal and coming infield instead of staying wide as they do when deployed as wing backs. They won the match, the selection of passes and moves was improved, and this came from having 1 less man at the back allowing them to keep the ball and get runners in on Bologna.

    The 3 man defence is coming, maybe not to a club like Barcelona that will die using a 4-3-3, even if Obama bombs the Nou Camp, but Schalke are using it now with a 3-4-1-2, Liverpool are finding solutions using a 3 man defence, it need not be dismissed as a relic from the old times, it has been used to win big prizes this decade. Roma won with a 3-5-2, Brazil won a World Cup with a 3-5-2, forza 3 man defence!

    1. I did see the Inter match, yes. Late running is a ploy I particularly like as is strikers who pull defenders out of position. Defenders have trouble as do the midfielders tracking them. Could they have done with a sweeper type player to watch the runners? They certainly needed someone to watch them. It really depends on the players and how they go about their task like Sampdoria did or Palermo at Juve.

      Interesting you mention Barcelona because at times like against Rubin they switch to a three-man defence. Fully aware that many teams will seldom play two forwards, Guardiola’s idea is to drop defensive midfielder Yaya Toure back into defence and release the full backs wide to stretch play. This essentially morphs the formation into Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 of the late eighties and release more players in forward positions and reassured with the knowledge that his team will have three quarters of the possession, aliviates some of the risks. Indeed at centre back, Dymitro Chygrinksy has ousted Carlos Puyol over his mobility and technical ability which can be almost comparable to a midfielder allowing the team to defend in transitions and circulate the ball.

  8. In relation to Arsenal using it, taking a man out of the 4 man defence, i.e. stop the inconsequential crosses from Sagna/Clichy, will allow the team to stay compact and direct and if the team is chasing a goal, to have a chance of recovery with 1less defender. Losing by 1 goal is no different to losing by 3 if you do not react to try rescue the game.

    1. Having three efficient defenders is better than having 4 out of which only 2 stay back(CBs). But we will need 2 defensive wingers to maintain the balance. I still feel 4 man defense is the way to go. Clichy and Sagna should be more cautious and the Central Midfielders must be quick to cover space left behind by the advancing wing backs.
      Controlling spaces while defending is more important than marking a forward imo.

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