Improved fitness and technique exposes the specialists

The increased conditioning and speed of the game means the technical level of players will be forced to improve thereby exposing the specialists.

Juventus’ problems started with their over-reliance on Diego and Felipe Melo. That, some would argue, is justified given that they were big money summer signings but the Old Lady’s woes should not be entirely blamed on the Brazilian pair. Diego, in particular, is not a traditional ‘trequartista’ as he likes to drop deep but Juventus were expecting him to play as one. Felipe Melo on the other hand has won many fans – including Arsene Wenger –  since his stellar début against Italy at the Emirates Stadium but even then he was playing Robin to Gilberto Silva. Now he was expected to anchor the midfield with Momo Sissokho – a pairing instantly striking because of both players’ unwillingness to pass the ball short confidently and which will invariably lead to incompatibility with Diego.

Two defensive midfielders are not just regressive in a creative sense; it can be a double-edged sword defensively too. Because of the Italian game’s predilection with finding solutions through the middle, two ‘volantes’ seems a reasonable tactic to stop the playmaker from influencing. However, it can also put undue pressure on the back as it would mean play not circulating as fluently and the ball coming back more. Liverpool in particular, following the absence of Xabi Alonso have found this out the painful way.

Former AC Milan defender Franco Baresi feels Melo could have offered a solution to Real Madrid’s neo-Galacticos before his transfer to Juventus – in that he could play in a different line to their current central midfielders  – going by the thinking that modern football is one of between-the-lines players. “One thing does not fit,” says Baresi. “Why have they [Real Madrid] hired Xabi Alonso? Xabi Alonso is a good player but he serves the same profile as Gago, Granero and Mahmadou Diarra. They had to sign Felipe Melo. He is technically and physically superior (EDITOR: that’s highly arguable!) and is able to give a new dimension to the midfield. Lass, Xabi and Granero play on the same plane. It is a mistake to put them together. The only one who breaks the line is Guti.”

That Sissokho and Melo were playing in the same line as each other (similar players) meant there was no unpredictability about Juventus and it slowed down their fluidity of play. Even in Brazilian football, with their penchant for playing two ‘volantes’, one would still have a slightly different function; here there seemed little distinction. “I don’t like to play the 4-4-2 in two lines,” says Jose Mourinho. “I like the match in between lines and players with dynamic creativity to do that. What are you a midfield player or an attacker? Nobody knows.” So in theoretical terms, a standard 4-4-2 stands to lose against a 4-4-2 which transforms into a 4-2-3-1 as Mourinho effectively implies, as a triangle will always beat a line (you can further split the central midfield to two accounting for the innate specialities of the midfielder). Volker Finke (now coach of Urawa Red Diamonds) also feels a flat central midfield template is inefficient in the modern game as positions are nowadays separated into bands/lines in order to allow the team to control space better.

Some would argue the interpretation on the offside law made the splitting of players’ roles necessary as suddenly the larger pitch  meant there was more space to play in. The game became faster and more physical, and that gave the rise to the popularity of the defensive midfielder because their superior physical ability allowed them to dominate the centre and allow the side to play with more creative individuals. Pep Guardiola, just before he retired, commented on the situation saying: “…football now is different. It’s played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. The tactics are different, too. To play just in front of the back four now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that’s a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfield players are concerned, is all on defensive work.”

If improved fitness killed off the ball-playing defensive midfielder between the mid-nineties and the mid-to-late noughties, it seems improved fitness has now given them the kiss-of-life. Advancements in fitness is universal now with players running on average a lofty matter of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) a match. That puts a greater emphasis on speed as the ball is travelling much more and at a higher pace. Der Spiegel journalist, Christoph Biermann, following the findings of sport analysts at the German Sport University Cologne writes; “At Manchester United, the winner of the Champions League, the players whose job it is to stop the opposing team’s attacks are in possession of the ball for an average of less than one second per contact. The faster the ball circulates, the better, goes the thinking.”

The sequence between getting the ball and passing the ball has become shorter and that exposes any technical shortcomings of a player. The Premiership has seen the effect of this as many clubs have bow abandoned the idea of playing destroyers in the middle for ball-playing midfielders. Even Tottenham, who had early success in converting Wilson Palacios from a box-to-box midfielder at Wigan to a defensive midfielder, have chosen to pair the technically more superior Tom Huddlestone and Luka Modric in the centre lately. The physicality and defensive steel possibly conceded by this method is sought to be compensated by managers making sure their sides are organised and compact in the defensive phase. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham side, en route to the Europa League Final have perfected this art.

The increased fitness also means there is more pressing higher up the pitch, further exposing the destroyer and the need to pass quickly. Jaroslav Hrebik, the Czech Republic under-19 coach sums up the trend perfectly. “Defensive midfielders and centre-backs will have to be more creative,” he says. “Defences will try to adapt so there will be a lot of pressing to slow down the counter. Defensive positions will be tight, flexible blocks – tightest around their own area. This means the flanks and wigers will beomce more important.”

The compact nature and defending in front of the area, as Hrebik describes, has effectively ushered the natural playmaker into a stealth position. Playmakers now come in a number of forms and have essentially become players of “between-the-lines.” “The word Enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,” says former Argentina midfielder Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.” Kaka was thought by AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi as an attacking midfielder and so wanted new signing Ronaldinho to play as a forward – Carlo Ancelotti, however, was adamant that Kaka was already a striker. The example of Luka Modric is perhaps the most pertinent as in his homeland of Croatia, he is known as a natural number 10 but was converted to central midfield by Slaven Bilic and has also often played in a roaming role on the left, using his movement off the flank to create havoc. Increased conditioning of players today is also another factor as it means that there’s precious little time to shape a game.

The above trends seem to therefore highlight a shift to one of universality and football in a holistic nature. Technicality should become more important than ever, giving for the moment, less distinction to players of a high physical ability. That is not to say it should be skimped on; Arsene Wenger feels players such as Alex Song and Robin van Persie, who mix a degree of physique and technique are sought to be the future and as the game gets faster, has put more emphasis on passing the ball quickly in his current Arsenal side. “Players will become bigger, faster and stronger, but the ones with talent will succeed,” says Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta “Someone like Ronaldo is physically superior to most. In the future there might be less difference between this type of player and the rest, but with someone like Xavi, the physical side of the game is less important. Barcelona have shown that.”


23 thoughts on “Improved fitness and technique exposes the specialists

  1. I realise there is a lot of smattering of points here but I hope it conveys as I intend to.
    On the subject of improved technique, three points have come into my mind;
    (1)the increasing use again of the 4-4-2 (although only flat in the defensive phase and increase use of movement from the wingers);
    (2)the need to develop the minds of the players;
    (3) and where the next cycle of football will go – I’m guessing the opening up of markets in Asia and Afrcia in particular, will mean more talent – and that means more spectacular talent. Teams may want to fill their sides with such individuals and balance them again with specialists as fitness comes to a peak. If the foreign TV market becomes more lucrative, there may be a case in that.

  2. Well, if you compare Denilson with Song when we are in possession, most say that Song wins out b/c his physicality allied to his close technique gets him out of trouble when under pressure more readily than Denilson. Denilson, however, is cleverer when working with passing options, but less assured in the physical battles. Is Melo a combination of the two? Is his close control as good as Song?

    1. Melo plays as a second function defensive midfielder usually – I will be quite concerned in him anchoring unless he plays with someone close to him.

      But if he played alongside Song, that would make quite a partnership – but his short passes leave a lot to be desired. Much is in the head – he is a better passer than he realises but hasn’t the confidence or willingness to do so well. Press him also and that is big trouble – Denilson is a very assured passer under pressure – just remember the second half at home to Barceolona.

      1. I’d say Melo is more of a box-to-box marauder. He can destroy by pushing forward to meet the offensive threat (like Vieira used to do)as long as another holder remains static behind him. Denilson is a better passer than Mello, whilst Song displays more positional nous.

  3. nice analyses. Maybe we supporters should put you up to the Arsenal Board for a game tactician–you would do a helluva lot better than Wenger, the tosser!

    1. I’m trying to figure what this means? Is there something in this article about taxes or a racial connotation? Strange – each to their own I guess…

  4. Nice analysis.i think song has his spot under wraps but i think we need a new box to box to play between him and cesc.if you remember when flamini played for us he bossed kaka at the sansiro and we almost won at the bridge when playing as the duracell big games this player has to abit defensive to avoid the messis,rooneys…from destroying us over and over again.diaby has done well against lesser opposition but struggled in bigger games since he hasn’t developed that part of his game yet.thats why i think melo will be a good signing alongside song and cesc.cheers!by the way brain how do you think chamackh signing will alter our tactics?

    1. Having a mobile-defense minded box-to-box midfielder in a 442 worked well but it isn’t what is needed in the 433 as the additional DM covers the defense side of things freeing up the other two a bit more.
      Song plays as the “Destructor” (Though he’s also got decent control and passing too) and is doing a pretty good job, though he needs to be much more disciplined.
      Fabregas plays as the “Creator” and is quite simply fantastic at this job, capable of breaking down any team.
      The third midfield position needs to go to a “Circulator” or “Passer” (e.g. Xavi, though obviously he’s a capable creator too) who has quick and accurate passing under pressure (Diaby and Song don’t have this) which is where Denilson comes.
      I don’t believe Melo’s passing is quite strong enough for that role.

    2. – A box-to-box role could be quite right – just depends who it is. Diaby and Denilson have done good jobs – the latter I feel has been better and Wenger too, but Diaby has that penetration about him which the manager likes. he just doesn’t have the discipline or the decision-making at the moment.
      – I’m not too, advers in signing Melo. I think he could do a good job – and Brazil’s record is fantastic with him (I think they haven’t lost yet) – and could shore the team up in transitions.
      – Chamakh is an interesting signing. He may not even change much given that this season for various periods, the club have usually ran with one centre-forward or sometimes none. He is hard-working with good movement which means he can play a Wiltod/Kuyt role on the right. Though obviously not his best position.
      – May depend on RVP who’s had a fantastic time spearheading the attack and how sure Wenger is of the midfield. If not the so confident, I suspect the 4-3-3 remains. But the improvements the side has made this season – mentally – means the 4-4-2 will be better off than the previous season.

  5. Good article. I’ve spent literally 100’s probably almost a 1000 hours trying to figure out why Arsenal aren’t blowing teams out of the water and I have put it down to four tactical reasons.
    1. Our attack. None of our players are wingers (not even Walcott really) yet the ball is constantly given to these players who are pushed out to the sideline. They then either cross it in, where we have a lone striker trying to win the ball, they give it even wider to the full back who crosses it in to a lone striker. They sometimes try to cut in but are met by at least 3 defenders each time. Lastly, and not least, they pass it back to Song or a CB. Part of the biggest problem is none of these players can cross. The two players I believe can cross are VP, and Bendtner. (I know he is sometimes deployed on the wing but hes a much better target man)
    2. As this article talks about, we also have a problem in midfield. This problem is much more evident against better teams. We need a more defensive Midfielder who can pass, shoot, head the ball well (so they can attack crosses) and obviously defend well. We also need this player to have heart and plenty of it. I don’t believe we need Melo and you will see why later.
    3. Our Center backs are not Center backs. Both Gallas and Vermaelen are good defenders but not great. The thing that makes them great is that they have great skill on the ball and score goals. I believe we need Center backs who don’t come forward accept for set pieces. They need to direct the defense and get on peoples backs when they don’t do the defensive duties.
    4. Our Wing backs have too many duties. They need to have adequate cover when they go forward and they need to be threatening on attack. Clichy will be the best wingback in the world in 3 years. He isn’t that far off for now anyway. Sagna doesn’t hack it going forward for me. Eboue is good going forward but defensively i’m not sure. Not to mention his inconsistency is annoying.

    If we could fix all these problems we would destroy everyone each week, do you agree? At this point I will mention that with a good Dm and two true CB’s we will not need a Buffon or Lloris in keeper. What we do need is a tall, commanding keeper with plenty of confidence.

    So what is my solution?

    Firstly, a slight formation change. 4-3-1-2. How does this help? With Bendtner and Van Persie up front we definitely will get the best out of both of them. Both can go wide to cross so not much width is lost and remember with two wing backs overlapping there is no point having wingers as they just get in each others way. Just behind these two would be Arshavin. This is easily his best position and he will take responsibility off Fab’s shoulders. I know for certain that Arshavin would be lethal in this role. Fabregas would still play a very important role as he is a deep lying play maker AND the passing engine. Thus utilizing his two best features. This also takes much of the passing burden off of the CM (Diaby, Denilsons role) and lets them concentrate on their defensive role as well as being left unmarked more often so they can shoot from distance or run through to get on a cross. From there back it is all the same accept the Center backs are more defensive and Fullbacks more attacking. With two DMs one can drop in to cover while the other covers the defence. Ok so heres my lineup:
    ~~~~~~Van Persie~~Bendtner~~~~~~
    Clichy~~Signing A~~Signing B~~Eboue

    I don’t care who the center backs are as long as they’re really good. If Arsene wanted us to become a legendary team he would spend the money and get top players. I personally would go for something like this: Chiellini Naldo Maicon. (I think that we could hijack the Madrid deal and give Inter Sagna (who Inter incidentally want if they lose Maicon) plus some cash) So my lineup would be:
    ~~~~~~Van Persie~~Bendtner~~~~~~

    My master stroke was Vermaelen. When I asked myself what sort of player we needed in midfield I found that there was none better in the world than Vermaelen. Who would you want shooting from outside the box? who would you want running onto a header? Who would you want in midfield if we lose the ball? Who has the most heart? His passing is easily up to standard as well. Szeczesny is perfect for us. I don’t care if hes young. If we start giving him games now we will have our very own Casillas in no time. I honestly believe we could afford to buy those 3 players but you could replace them with others and it would still be very good.

    As you can see I have spent a lot of time thinking of this so please give me some feedback, I’d like to know if you think it’d work and why/why not. I would especially appreciate if brain could give me some feedback as I value your opinion highly.

    I honestly believe that with the team and tactics I have pointed out, we could have another undefeated season. (and yes I believe in Bendtner, he will be a beast next year especially if played centrally)

  6. ps. Vermaelen and Song wouldn’t have to play every game, Diaby would be able to play the same position he has this year partnering Song, While Denilson could play his role but slightly to the right instead of slightly to the left (so on his stronger side as he is right footed). This means we wouldn’t totally rely on any of the midfielders. (Even Fabregas could be replaced by Nasri or Ramsey) Djourou would be 3rd choice defender but Vermaelen or Song could easily drop into defense in a crisis with Sol as last option.
    pss. Sorry I wrote a novel but i’m very passionate about Arsenal and I want to see us top the world.

    1. – Everyone has their own ideas – and yours is quite radical – a bit like Nick Clegg! I don’t necessarily disagree with a 4-3-1-2 formation although what you have is a very narrow set-up because it seems you can’t see Fabregas shunted to a pheriphy role. It relies on movement also but as you say the wing-backs have too much responsibility, you want to give them more here!
      – Wenger won’t deviate from playing some sort of wingers. He wants Arsenal to be about passing quickly and with fast movement. The 4-3-3 has done that to some effect but died that quite miraculously towards the end and relied a lot on certain players – i.e Fabregas particularly and Song in the middle.
      – I think you are being a bit harsh on the two main centre backs there. I think they are fantastic and there is nothing wrong with them getting forward once in a while if Arsenal attack well – which they were doing at the start of the season. I’m guessing Wenger may bid for Phillipe Mexes, which is another Gallas, essentially. Let’s see – he’ll want a tall, mobile centre-back first and foremost however.

      1. Our CB suffer from the DM not dropping back into a three man defence during attacks if you ask me, which puts strain on the full backs and centre backs.

  7. Terrific again, Brain.

    Was esp. interested in this article as you mention Melo and the Brazil national team. I’m Brazilian, btw.

    As I’ve said on other blogs, Melo is not the principal holding midfielder for his national team — that’s Gilberto Silva’s role. Dunga uses him as a “transitional midfielder” (for lack of a better term) and he’s been quite good on the national team. Dunga relies on him regularly. Juve are using him very poorly. He is not the best candidate for a traditional holder. I’ve thought that AW’s been trying to turn Denilson into this type of midfielder, which is why I think a lot of gooners have misunderstood his role in our team. Their midfield expectations are limited to a Makelele and a Kaka and little in between. But there are players who do not fit these specialist categories and in Brazil it’s widely accepted that, esp. in midfield, you need someone who performs a more ambiguous role in addition to the AM and DM – but that player needs to be particularly fit physically, and very intelligent as well because he needs to balance both attack and defense and make very quick decisions. Melo’s good at it on the national team, I don’t know if he’d be just as good in such a fast-paced league as England, tho.

    1. Nice point on Denilson. With all respects to Juve, they have started to use him more as a traditional midfielder in the last few games as Poulsen is back to play deeper and hence more distinction between their roles.
      – There is an argument on which type of player, should the 4-3-3 remain should the transitional midfielder be. Should it remain Denilson, who did well but at times looked lost due to Arsenal’s distance problems. Diaby’s tactical discipline needs to improve, and that’s maybe why Wenger played him deeper against Blackburn. But he failed to impose himself against the direct Rovers attack.

      1. Ah, that’s the question isn’t it? And you can see that AW’s been struggling with it. Both players have their strengths and flaws. I’ve hoped for–and expected–both of them to grow into their midfield roles but at the moment, I’ve lost faith in Diaby’s ability to improve. He’ll be 25 soon and he’s still making the same mistakes in his decision-making he’s been making for yrs now. I have better hopes for Denilson – he does look lost sometimes but he’s younger and hopefully will get better.

  8. With Yaya Toure’s agent angling for a transfer to Arsenal, which would you guys prefer:
    1) Melo
    2) Yaya Toure
    Personally out of the two I’d go for Melo.

    1. I suspect, also Wenger would prefer Melo. Balance-wise he may be a better fit in the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 although Toure can play higher. Toure is, though, I feel a better player. Passing is not both players biggest strengths – Toure also looks a fine centre-back in the making. Wenger will probably look to sign one midfielder, definitely one defender and Chamakh coming in.

    2. My concern with Melo is his temperament. He was fantastic for Fiorentina 2 seasons ago but the club weren’t too unhappy to sell him to Juve. He does well on the national team because Dunga doesn’t put up with prima donnas, he can be quite ruthless and is intolerant of ego trips. It’s why Robinho fits into the national team (which is quite a miracle, since Robinho has ego problems in every single club he’s ever played at). And Dunga doesn’t have to deal with him week in week out. Melo is also several red cards waiting to happen — tho, as others point out, we were winning trophies when we were getting all those red cards. I’d also be concerned about his ability to get on with his new teammates.

      Melo needs a strong hand and frankly, I worry about AW’s tendency to coddle his players. He doesn’t like confrontation. Anyway, I’d be surprised to see Melo in England, he’s stated often enuf how much he wants to stay in Italy and feels more Italian than Brazilian. He’s always been dismissive of England. If he came to England, it would be because he didn’t have better options in Italy or Spain.

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