The history of tactics, as Jonathan Wilson puts it, is the history of the manipulation of space. So when Arsène Wenger wanted his side to become more dynamic in order to break down deep-lying opponents, his idea – borrowed from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football and adapted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona – was to stretch play to create more space. But the flip side of such an expansive style requires a careful balancing act at the other end, as opening up the pitch for midfielders to exploit gaps means the distances between attack and defence must be well deliberated. The solution, as Barcelona have so expertly displayed, especially under Pep Guardiola in recent seasons, is through high intensity, asphyxiating pressuring of the opponents. “Without the ball,” said the Barca coach, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.”
The stats so far seem to support the shift to 4-3-3 – or they do in an attacking sense at least. A voracious Arsenal have so far plundered in 53 goals in the league this season, at a goals to game ratio of 2.6 but profligacy on both sides of the pitch in big games mean the figures may not be as impressive as they were during the start of the season. At the back, the Gunners have conceded 23 goals, five more than the best defence in the league (Chelsea) and four more than Birmingham. What will be most displeasing, however, is that those goals have only come from a stingy 61 shots on target. Does that suggest Arsenal concede far higher quality chances than other teams or should more blame be attached to the goalkeeper Manuel Almunia? Certainly those are the shots which trouble the goalkeeper the most but it also backs up Wenger’s assertion that nowadays his men between the sticks need to have a far greater all-round game to them as their reflexes seemingly are only troubled two or three shots a game. “Every [modern] rule that has come out in football has taken something away from the ‘keeper,” says Wenger. “That means basically today he must be good with his feet, good with his hands, be very quick, be highly focused for 90 minutes, not make any technical mistakes and it makes the job very hard.”
Universality breeds fluency seems to be the maxim in defence also. For Arsenal to play a passing game, the defenders must be technically proficient in order to keep the ball circulating while being masters of reading the game and mobile to snuff out potential danger.
It can be also argued, however, that such an expansive style can put much strain at the back. The theory is that the more elaborate a team becomes, the more possession they will have hence requiring greater resources. So when Bakary Sagna makes his frequent forays forwards to support the attack, Gallas is needed to push wider, and as the defensive line stretches, the gaps become larger. Playing an expansive style will cause more resources to be used thereby creating undue strain at the back. Of course the trade-off for this is effectiveness but as all personnel are ball players it is harder to shake off that elaborate nature. On one side Wenger has tried to make the side more dynamic, the other looking to ensure his side is organised at the back. “I believe we have quality defenders and it’s more a case of balancing the team defensively,” said Wenger during the disappointing campaign last season. “It’s always easier to correct what doesn’t work defensively; if you don’t create chances you are always more worried.”
Indeed, one of the tenets of this 4-3-3 solution requires all playes to squeeze the space quickly when defending. Starting from the front, it has been a dignified success for a young team who’s natural instinct is too look forward. “I think we all want to get the ball back very quickly,” explains Bakary Sagna. “Everyone is defending quicker and the forwards are doing more. It helps us play as a team. We worked a lot on this in pre-season because we changed the formation and we have to keep working on it.”
As with all formations, there are subtleties underneath that render the labeling of systems as semantics. Tony Adams comment that the formation is indeed a 4-1-4-1 helps shed some light on the attacking and defensive responsibilities of individuals. Using the main forward as the focal point, the two wide men and central midfielders either side of the defensive midfielder look to play around him. Pushing up between the lines, it allows the side to better combat deep-lying teams and interchange positions. In the defensive phase, the quartet pressure in the same band up the pitch rather than having to drop back completely thereby not inviting the opposition at them.
However, as mentioned earlier, once entering the defensive phase Arsenal must suffocate the space quickly, which is a difficulty in itself when you consider stretching the play is fundamental to this style. Thus the problem that may arise is if the opponents bypass the first wave of pressure and are left with space, particularly down the channels, to attack one-on-one. “You have to stay away from one-on-ones,” explained Eugenio Fascetti to World Soccer Magazine when discussing the position of the libero (and incidentally he was the last manager to deploy a traditional libero in Serie A – while coaching Bari in 2000). “If your opponent plays with one striker, there should be no excuses. One of the two centre-backs must get him, the other sweeps from behind. If there are two strikers, one of the full-backs must mark him, leaving the centre-back free. In zonal marking, this is complicated. It’s easier to have someone like De Rossi tracking back and acting as libero, with two centre-backs busy marking the two strikers.”
Indeed Alex Song has been Arsenal’s Danielle De Rossi if using Fascetti’s analogy. The defensive midfielder’s secondary role is to cover for the central defenders, his primary as a dynamic screen in front of the back four, getting the ball back quickly and allowing for the side to keep shape from transitions. “I know that my position is crucial in the team,” the Cameroon midfielder said. “When everyone is attacking, I want to hold, so that if we lose the ball I’m the first defender in the midfield to stop any counter-attacks and passes coming through. It’s a vital role – I just need to close quickly and give the ball forward when I receive it. This year we have done well, everyone’s contribution when we have lost the ball has been very good. We’ve turned quickly to defend just as we turn quickly to attack when we win it.”
And despite it being a successful, there is still room for improvements. It’s like the saying in Brazil goes; “trying to organise a football team is like having a small blanket on a cold night – pull it over your neck and your feet get cold, cover your feet and your neck freezes.” The side has worked on a system of pressuring high up the pitch and closing down quickly, but it can be made even more difficult once the team opens up the pitch in the search for goals. “It’s difficult to have so many people going forward and as well have everybody straight away defending well,” says the French manager. “It’s a consequence of our philosophy a little bit.”
Although Arsenal do not concede many chances – which highlights the effectiveness of the defensive system during approach play and that a big part of defence is attack – the chances conceded are usually of a greater quality. Take for example Manchester City, who had five shots on target and ended up scoring four of them, three as a result from transitions. It’s easier to score when afforded more space and against a less organised defence, especially if teams get given ample one-on-ones to attack with speed. Landon Donovan had a great game for Everton in the recent 2-2 draw, taking advantage of the multitude of space given out wide to take on Armand Traore who was caught indecisive, not just because of his tender age, but also for the lack of cover in front of him. The idea has been for the full-backs, in anticipation of potential danger, follow the winger and squeeze them of space early.
Brazil under Dunga has specifically set-up his team to guard and take advantage of transitions, displaying how key readying yourself for such moments are in the modern game. Arrigo Sacchi, the zealot but fantastic former AC Milan coach used to have his side practice defending with five back, all organised against ten unorganised attacking men. The result; the defending side always won. Jose Mourinho also likes to have five back in anticipation of transitions and has had great success (although it can be argued Arsenal are doing the same especially as Wenger has told his full-backs to be a bit more selective in their forays forward).
The most concerning of all for the Gunners has been defending from set-pieces, where from the same passage of play, 14 goals have gone past them in 28 goals conceded in Europe and the league. Part of it can be blamed to the height issue (or bravery, tracking runners etc.), another mentality. (Long balls through the middle and picking up the loose ones where a problem last season, this season the statistics are a bit more scattered). It is evident in Almunia in particular the trust isn’t there in his players while Fabianksi and Manonne are impulsive to the airborne pass.
Further analysis of the defensive system can come in the form of Barcelona and Wigan who are teams at two ends of the 4-3-3 spectrum. The former suffocate opponents through constant attack and pressure; the latter just haven’t got the skills to be as consistent either on the ball, defensively or ruthlessness, culminating in the 9-1 mauling by Tottenham. Attacking is one part of the system and teams that have denied Arsenal space through the centre by pressing high and stopping the ball getting wide, have generally posed the Gunners backline more problems [and better results too West Ham (2-2), Everton (2-2), Burnley (1-1) and Fulham (0-1)].
Overall, however, Wenger will not be much too disheartened by his rearguard collective. Being the most effective offside trap in the League – catching the opponents out 91 times already – shows a harmonious defensive unit and one that is good at squeezing play. Of the (slightly) higher number of goals conceded compared to their direct title rivals, some have been rendered insignificant due to the result being out of question. Others, such as the 3-0 defeat to Chelsea was disappointing but with analysis mostly concerned with the attacking failings, ergo it shows confidence in a quality backline. It’s maybe as Wenger says; for an attacking side, it’s only when you don’t create chances that defensive question marks come to the fore. And Arsenal have been scoring their fair share.