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.