The benching of Arsenal’s too most gifted dribblers due to slight knocks did not help the Gunners’ cause in the 1-1 draw to Birmingham.
Two goals. One had a bit of luck; the other was dizzyingly graceful. Yet both were just rewards for the almost impudent desire of both players – although paved with good intentions – to get as close to the goal as possible. Samir Nasri’s jinxing and hypnotic run and finish against FC Porto may last longer in the memory than Andrey Arshavin’s flick between two Hull defenders but the goals evoked memories of the golden age of the dribbler. And while the one man masterclass that is Lionel Messi shows week-in-week-out in La Liga that the art of the dribble is far from dead, modern tactics set out to make sure it’s becoming a marginalised trade. At best, however, the dribbler is a game-breaking trait to have and Arsenal’s movement increased ten-fold with the introduction of Nasri and Arshavin in the 1-1 draw against Birmingham.
The two ends of the spectrum were in some sorts displayed in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Hull City as the home side looked to remain compact and overcrowd the space in the centre for Arsenal’s more technically proficient players to play. As a result, Samir Nasri – the Gunner’s highest central midfielder – found his best work to be when linking up with the players out wide. At it was it was Andrey Arshavin who did find the early goal but even that, expectedly was hard work as he was instantly surrounded by three Hull defenders before firing in. As displayed by these examples, if the wide areas are the positions with the most space, then it is far better off taking advantage of them with your most gifted dribblers. Indeed, that represents part of Arsene Wenger’s thinking when deploying such players as the Marseilles man on the flanks – his ingenuity allowing Arsenal to retain a passing style but still possessing the option to be more dynamic. “What is important is to keep the balance between giving the ball in the final third and scoring goals,” said Wenger after Nasri’s goal against Porto. “On this occasion he made the right decision and has the talent to do it.” And he also added: “He is a very intelligent boy, a quiet boy. He analyses what is happening on the pitch very quickly. He has good technical potential…I believe with the pace he has he can play on the flanks.”
Following Wenger’s ideology early this season of having two different types of wingers on each flank, usually one dynamic and one more technical (although that has recently been challenged by deploying Rosicky and Nasri on opposite flanks to control play better), Nasri’s best chances of starting is on the right, with the left side most likely to be occupied by Arshavin. The Russian can sometimes feel like an incorrigible maverick but Wenger is in no illusions as to his explosiveness. “He is always marked very tight and people do not give him a lot of room,” said the manager. “Everybody who plays against Arshavin says ‘make sure you mark him tight’. But even when he is marked tight in some of the so-called less big games, when you look at the tape afterwards, you always think ‘this movement was good’, or ‘this pass was great’. He always turns up with something special. He can be quiet for 20 minutes, and then suddenly turn up with something decisive. That is what you want from the big players – the big players make you win the big games.” Indeed, at Porto it was arguably his dynamic play, creating three of the goals which helped turn Arsenal’s fortune around.
Dribblers can feel a chancy luxury to have and that is perhaps why managers are more reluctant to play them out wide as it requires quick acceleration made all the more difficult as there is less room to run at the full-back on his outside foot and can lead to moves breaking down. Nevertheless it’s the variation and dynamism that they provide which can turn matches as shown by Arjen Robben’s tantalising displays against Fiorentina, scoring the all-decisive third goal to send Bayern Munich through.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson has so expertly analysed the increasing use of wingers on the opposite sides to their preferred feet but while that makes dribbling easier (allows the winger to attack the full-back’s weaker side) that is not specifically the main advantage that is to be exploited. In Fulham’s recent 3-1 defeat to Tottenham, Damien Duff starting on the right, hardly spent much of the game attacking his man directly as he found cutting in would only lead to more congestion so he realised if he was to succeed in dribbling, it was to in dribbling with movement. The goal he created for Bobby Zamora was created by doubling up in the centre, leaving the left-back Assou-Ekotto with no-one to mark and forcing the central defender, Sebastien Bassong to push up to deal with the extra man he became. In tandem with Arjem Robben at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, the dribblers found a new dimension starting on the ‘wrong’ flank so as to say and which complemented the team’s style.
It seems like the game is taking a holistic route and if it is true as former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues, that taking advantage of wide areas is the key to opening up teams, that can only be exploited best by what’s happening around you. Antonio Valencia has particularly profited for Manchester United by the way his side build up play, allowing him to stretch play on the right as the opposing full-back is forced to tuck inside because of United’s moving of the ball from left to right. And in moments, the defender got too tight he found space to exploit in the centre, winning the penalty against Liverpool by running on the inside of Insua and causing the foul by Mascherano.
And so returning to the 1-1 draw at Birmingham, the starting line-up featuring a front three of Theo Walcott, Nicklas Bendtner and Tomas Rosicky instantly looked worrying at St. Andrews – even more so than the pitch. No real unpredictability and not enough complementation, Walcott was always going to struggle with a lack of creativity in the line up not helped by his style. Switching to the left flank may have been another option yet you couldn’t help think the versatility and explosiveness of Nasri and Arshavin were huge losses in opening up the Blues defence.