Speed of passing remains key for Arsène Wenger’s side

Despite seeing his side outclassed at Camp Nou last season, technical efficiency and movement remains Arsenal’s forte.

Theo Walcott apparently personifies the stereotypical anatomy of English football; that of “kick and rush.”  All running and no brain he is, according to Chris Waddle. His exclusion from the England squad indicates that Fabio Capello is looking for a more methodical approach which, in all likelihood, may see the Three Lions revert back to the rigidness and “organised muscularity” that has been both the bane and brilliance of England during the years.

Theo Walcott does have his fans however with Brazil’s World Cup winning captain in 1970, Carlos Alberto* picking out the winger-come-striker as the type of player who can offer his team a direct outlet to break from the compactness and short passing likely to be displayed by many teams in the World Cup.

Speed will not beat brains – but it is increasingly about teams having the balance of the two. Speaking of Zinedine Zidane, director of Real Madrid Jorge Valdano said the Frenchman’s “advances are slow but his decisions are agile.” What Valdano means is that, in a rapidly moving game, what set him apart  was his speed of thought and execution. Indeed analysts at the German Sport University Cologne found that the essence of European football nowadays is speed: players are running more (an average of 10 kilometres, 6.2 miles per game) and the ball is circulating quicker therefore decisions need to be made in a snap (the deepest midfielder is typically in possession of the ball for an average of less than one second per contact). At particular moments of Hiddink’s reign and in the second half of this season, Micheal Ballack has been preferred to the more cumbersome Jon Obi Mikel and indeed, German coach Joachim Löw will need to find a solution to his captain’s efficient distribution following his injury. (The finding from the university helped shape Löw’s Euro 2008 tactics and one such ploy was to force opposing wingers inside to the compact block – a tactic which is increasingly prevalent in Europe).

Ruud Gullit waxed lyrical about Wesley Sneijder’s technical efficiency during the Champions League final, effusively highlighting  that Sneijder rarely touches the ball twice in attacking movements and always finds the opportunity to make quick first-time passes to stretch opposition defences. Paul Simpson, editor of Champions magazine, in contrast analysed opponents Bayern Munich’s sloth-like decision-making – this coming from the side who’s rapid interchange of the ball from left to right – with ten men – brutally tired Lyon into submission in the semi-finals. “The only way to beat Inter was to attack them at speed – by that I don’t just mean physical pace but the speed with which the ball travels – and Bayern’s players sometimes took seven touches before passing,” wrote Paul Simpson.

Speed of passing is not lost on Arsène Wenger also who has always modelled his sides on being mobile and technically above the rest. However, despite seeing his side outclassed in that respect by Barcelona’s magicians, Wenger still remains committed to sticking with his philosophies. “Both sides like to play a quick passing game,” he said when discussing the scant positives of the 6-3 aggregate defeat.

The changes in season 2009/10 had sought to make his side more dynamic which, while on the whole have worked, the degree of its effectiveness has been severely affected by injuries and inexperience hindering decision-making and tactical awareness so crucial to the system. In particular, the attacking momentum seemed to suffer with the loss of key forwards – chiefly Robin van Persie (although you can also put a big case forward for Nicklas Bendtner too).

Wenger sees van Persie in the Marco van Basten type mould, having seemingly revised his Dennis Bergkamp type comparisons only the season before. The statistics indicating to him was that van Persie was more suited to making quick decisions higher up the pitch rather than in the hole where he would occasionally take that split second longer, anticipating for the movement he essentially should be at the end of. “Technical superiority can be measured,” said Wenger in Total Youth Football Magazine in 2008. “If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games – 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.” Former Arsenal midfielder, Stewart Robson is in agreement also: “The key to Arsenal playing well, being penetrative and dynamic, is when players turn on the ball,” says former Arsenal midfielder Stewart Robson. “When they’ve got their back to goal, suddenly they turn and look to play the next ball forward. Van Persie is brilliant is that, he can turn and run with the ball. He makes goals, he scores goals and with that left foot he is a constant threat.”

In midfield, Alex Song carries the same get-and-give efficiency that convinced Wenger to splash out on Gilberto Silva after the 2002 World Cup while love him or hate him, Abou Diaby’s transition from defence to attack will be a key weapon in years to come. But much still depends on captain Cesc Fabregas’ influence and whose tug of war with his heart-strings Arsenal must win. The notion that he will not get into the Barcelona side is wrong as there is not a more penetrative central midfielder in world football as Cesc Fabregas (although he is at the moment not Pep Guardiola’s first choice recruit).

Certainly with the uncertainty surrounding Fabregas’ future and Marouane Chamakh’s arrival, much anticipation surrounds the way Arsenal will line-up next season. Chamakh could certainly slot into the right side of the three-pronged attack although it is not his best position while a popular move would be to push Andrey Arshavin behind the main forward to boost penetration should Fabregas not remain. “You see that a guy never loses the ball, so you look at the number of times he passes the ball forward,” says Arsène Wenger. “You can get to the point where you can say, ‘I prefer the one who loses the ball a bit more but tries to play it forward.’” Wenger is adamant, however, that the Russian’s one-on-one skills aid the team better on the flanks.

Nevertheless, just as Carlos Alberto saw key earlier on, how Arsène Wenger sets out his side next season will just as much be about a team which produces his love for endless triangular passing as the ability to break away from such intricate patterns.

*Correction: The initial draft highlighted Carlos Alberto Parreira as commenting on Theo Walcott’s usefulness. That indeed was actually Carlos Alberto, former Brazil captain.

**NB: With the World Cup approaching, the blog will be switching its attention to matters regarding the tournament, providing analysis and features, and where relevant, an Arsenal focus. Stay tuned!


31 thoughts on “Speed of passing remains key for Arsène Wenger’s side

  1. Wonderfull blog. Its great to read quotes from Wenger. To read about the intricacies and dynamics of football really gives some perspective of how complicated it is. Perhaps those who criticise Wenger so often are unaware of this. Its not an easy job, not by a long shot. The man is brilliant, end of.

  2. Great article well put together. Nice change from the ramblings of other Internet blogs. Keep up the good work!

  3. Totally agree, and it’s even more important when we play teams that pack the box. Generally I feel we move the ball on well, but when teams play 2 banks of four in front of the box we have a tendency to play slow 5 yard passes along the edge of the box. Keeping possession is of course beneficial in such situations but it doesn’t mean that it should be at the expense of directness. It particularly annoys me to see Denilson for instance receive the ball, turn, take a touch and then pass it straight on to the nearest player 5 yards away in those types of games, often opening up his body and making the intended recipient of the pass very obvious. Of course Denilson’s not the only culprit, but he’s symptomatic of the problem at our club.

    I accept that it’s not easy to pass your way through teams who employ 8 men in the box, but we need to see a bit more spreading of the play to flanks (I think we lack a player who can hit quick, accurate diagonal balls) and quick interchanges. It’s frustrating to see players pass the buck in those sorts of matches, and we get them quite often.

  4. Good analysis brain.i think our passing last season was at times brilliant especially when rvp,cesc and AA were on the same wavelength earlier in the season.as you’ve pointed out rvp is essential to this since he distributes the ball very well in that false nine role but when he got injured our attacks slowed down and we wasted counter attacks on many occasions.if we can get back to passing invincibles/07-08 mode i believe very few teams can handle our attack since they won’t have anytime to regroup when we are on the attack.id also love to see the 3/4 touch counter attacks again…

  5. Good point in regards to the way arsenal play,however i think when playing the likes of chelsea and man u we should change the game plan,against the other teams our normal game should be fine.Against chelsea we could go the Mourinho way.I think getting nothing less than six points from chelsea and man u, i.e home and away could see us win the league.

  6. 4-1-3-2 for next season or a 4-4-2 with the midfield lining up in a diamond, pretty much the same thing. Its time to convert Walcott into a main striker. Based on our current squad and leaving out the out of contract players (Gallas, Senderos, Silvestre, Campbell and Gilbert) here are three possible line ups based on 4-1-3-2 (I think it clearly shows where our weaknesses lie (Goalkeeper and Centre Half)

    Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Clichy
    Nasri, Fabregas, Arshavin
    RVP, CHamakh

    Eboue, Nordveit, Bartley, Gibbs
    Ramsey, Diaby, Rosicky
    Bendtner, Eduardo

    Coquelin, Hoyte, Miguel, Traore
    Wilshere, JET, Lansbury
    Walcott, Vela

    However, I maintain that by selling the unhappy Fabregas(replacing him with YAYA and Chygriskiy and the cash to buy Gourcuff) we would then only need 3 more players a new keeper (Green) with Fabianski joining West Ham on loan, Kosicielney (Coquelin/Traore going to Lorient on loan) and J Cole on a free, total spend about £13m and would look like this

    Sagna, Chygriskiy, Vermaelen, Clichy
    J Cole, Gourcuff, Arshavin
    RVP, CHamakh

    Eboue, Kosicelney, Djourou, Gibbs
    Nasri, Diaby, Rosicky
    Bendtner, Eduardo

    Eastmond, Nordveit, Bartley, Botelho
    Wilshere, Ramsey, Lansbury
    Walcott, Vela

    All of a sudden the squad looks much strengthened right down to the 3rd choice line up

    1. I would be more inclined to play a 4-2-3-1 type next year.

      I know some may argue this is kind of what wedo anyway but I would prefer the “2” in front of the back 4 to consist of 2 true DM’s. Song would be one and the other either a purchase (Melo?) or perhaps allow Eastmond to develop here as he looks to have the tools for the job. I haven’t cited Denilson here because I just do not feel he has the discipline nor the work rate.

      This would not necessarily affect our quick passing game either as the players mentioned are technically good. I just feel that this would give us better protection and we’ll still have the fab 5 of Cesc, Nasri, Arshavin, VP and Chamakh. With the likes of Rosicky, Walcott, Vela to come in from the squad.

      We’ve concede so many on the break this year that having 2 disciplined DMs would make us a more solid defensive unit especially in the big games.

      Something like this?

      Sagna Djourou Vermaelen Clichy
      Song Eastmond
      Nasri VP Arshavin

      Chamakh for Nasri/VP. Bendtner for Nasri/Chamakh/VP

      Reasonably decent squad I feel for next year

  7. Against chavs and mancs we missed rvp alot.rvp makes very wise decisions in a split second which makes our attacks flow faster.at oldtrafford we were brilliant since rvp contributed alot.in both chav games and mancs we looked slow upfront since when rvp is out we have no player that can replicate his abilities in that false nine role.when the ball is played quickly its almost irresistable to defend.in 07-08 when we beat the chavs at the grove we played the ball so fast that they couldn’t handle it and i think with the right personell we can do it.it would help too if we eliminated tactical naivety in defence especially vermy…

    1. RVP is a key player no doubt but a lot of people are bing slightly harsh on Vermaelen. Yes he’s made a couple of errors- that seems to be because a lack of understanding and communication (as shown by the United and Barcelona goals, where he attacked the ball when someone else should have taken the man).

      However in attacking the ball early, Arsenal have benefited greatly from in recovering possession quickly.

      1. The van Basten comparison means RVP is not as effective as a second striker as he is as a number nine. As a second striker, he tends to drop too deep as per Wenger’s demands to make the 4-4-2 a 4-5-1. So, we might see the 4-3-3 continue for quite some time.
        RVP is a stunning player and imo he is more valuable than Fabregas to the team.

  8. What a brilliant article. May we have more of this kind that explains more on the technical aspects of our beloved team. Sure we really need players with pace & the football brain or Wenger should try harder & instill better decision making skills to his trusted players.

    1. Training is almost exclusively about exploiting decision-making – allowing for the chance to “develop audacity” as Wenger says. But one problem, which Wenger is partly growing frustrated of is the inexperience. He may not show it but he had faith in the 22-23 year olds to push on this season – and they did – but showing more mental strength than they displayed.
      It will be interesting to see one or two of the “experienced” heads that come in during the summer.

    1. – The passing ones from Wenger are in Total Youth Football Magazine (March 2008) but I’m sure if you just copy and paste the link into Google, you should find other sources.

      – The quote by Stewart Robson can be found on Arsenal.com
      – The quote by Wenger on Barcelona is from an interview – should be in the Arsenal magazine, April/May issue.
      – The research by Cologne University is taken from a report by German publication, Der Spiegel in 2008.

      Hope that helps (just search them on the interweb and you should be able to find most, if not from their initial source).

  9. Brain i think thats the whole problem.our defence needs coordination that we had in our cl run.its more about a cohesive system nowadays as a system is more important than the individuals in it.you could say it is naive of us to let vermy get so tight against top players like messi,drogba who turn him too easily.anyway we need better coordination in defence since individually we have superb defenders.

    1. Exactly, individually we have very good defenders. And a major part of improving our defensive coordination will be through getting a better keeper.

  10. Good article!
    Don’t you think playing a front 3 of RVP, Chamakh and Arshavin would mean the players have to press a lot to maintain the balance? Given our injury worries, I don’t think we will be able to sustain it throughout the season. I think the back 4, Song and the other CM, Fabregas, Arshavin and RVP are all certain starters. That leaves only one spot which hasn’t been nailed down by anyone convincingly to warrant a starting place. So, it will probably be the same 4-3-3 with Chamakh/Nasri/Theo/Rosicky filling the vacant wing position.
    Do you think the 4-4-2 or any other formation for that matter would be better suited than the 4-3-3?

  11. Kv i think aw will play a front two but AA will be a free role player.aw said chamakh won’t play out wide but centrally and we know rvp will play central.i expect him to tweak our formation abit to make our pressing more effective and chamakh is very good at that.our first wave of pressure is easily broken through exposing us in counter attacks.

    1. May be something similar to the asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 that Barcelona played is on the cards. But I think Chamakh and RVP will play on the same line, so it cannot be termed a 4-2-3-1. The winger on the right(if Arshavin plays on the left) will have to be defensively aware and someone like Nasri or even Diaby is ideal. Cesc and Song can play in the middle. This is what I mean:


      It comes out to be a lop sided 4-4-2! RVP, Arshavin and Cesc will have the complete freedom to make play in this set up. What do you think?

      1. Because of the lack of matches and training, it’s difficult to ascertain what Wenger will do – although we know that whaever it is, it sulrely will be assymetric.
        – But you can usually look at the last few matches to see whether Wenger is planning a change. The season before moving to 4-3-3, he experimented RVP up front alone, pressed higher and dropped Song deeper.
        – The end of season experiments seemed mainly about getting defensive efficiency; Eboue and Nasri played either side of Diaby/Eastmond with little assymetry.

  12. Kv i think its something close to that.it will be difficult to ascertain since formations are just diagrams the press use.slaven Bilic said nowadays formations are jurt used in giving team shape in defence .10men have to work on and off the ball alot.this new formations(4 band formations) are made to maximise the ground to be covered but in actual sense there are some very fine details you can’t represent on a diagram.am sure aw is looking at it critically and i reckon we will play something similar to what you’ve represented.in all aw teams the left is the more creative while the right more defensive.everything depends on signings so fingers crossed.

  13. Chamakh will either play as a right winger or as a central striker. Basically he and Bendtner will alternate on the right wing, where they will go more for the center of the box than Arshavin who has licence to roam but certainly will try to penetrate defences more from the side. The right winger will sometimes enter the box to try to go for crosses from Sagna or from van Persie having switched positions. All this will be similar to this season.

    The big thing for me is to get the midfield balance better fixed. Diaby must hold back his advances much more and stay close to Song to shield our defences. We will have to sacrifice a little bit of offensive pressure in order to concede fewer goals. Abou’s improvement this season is hopeful and I think he can do the job. Barcelona has played with Keita instead of Iniesta due to the necessity of having two strong defensive midfielders on the pitch.

  14. I think we need to say a forward is a forward not a winger.part of the reason the 4-3-3 is so good offensively is because it ought to have 3 forwards not wingers.when we play wingers it is a 4-5-1.i hope we can get that balance right thou and id advocate for a flamini type player next to song especially against top opposition until diaby learns about defensive discipline.against park the bus teams we can unleash diaby.

  15. Good piece, however from what I see, this only concerns passing when the team wants to attack, what about when the team wants to defend? Whilst having quicker passing in attack helps catch the opposition out, slower passing when defending can help the team organize and take a breather. Barcelona are key at doing this, they will blitz to a lead, then slow the game down, and then pick and choose when to speed it up when the opposition begins chasing the game.

    I get agitated when we are even 2-0 up and we keep going for more goals and passing quick, we should slow the game down, the team focusses far too much on attack, apply the reverse ideology to passing and it makes it a bit easier to defend, re-organize and not expend energy all the time.

    This then involves all players making proper movement, not having our CB’s passing short to Song all the time because Clichy and Sagna have already galloped up, or forcing Gallas/Vermaelen to go long to keep attacking.

    1. I would love to cover all the bases but it’s difficult – hopefully I’d like to think this provides a general framework of the attacking ideologies that Wenger has.

      Of course, much is about decision-making, which I should have included (training is much about fostering that skill although again mainly in an attacking sense) but even Barcelona attack when they are 2-0 up but the difference is, as you note, is selection and tempo. They pass quickly still although slow the urgency to minimise risk. So instead of Alves attacking full pelt a la Sagna, he will choose wisely.

      But even so, I think it’s difficult to pass slowly as the opponents will press – as Mourinho says, it’s all about managing intensity and decision-making.

  16. Speed of passing is a strange myth. Efficient teams dictate the tempo of the game, not the other way round. Case in point: Barcelona. Of more importance is a. better pressing b. off-theball movement c. conserving energy.

    You do make valid points, nevertheless.

    1. Speed of passing is inconclusive – but if you watch the World Cup, you will see just how needed such sides are – even Spain to pass the ball even quicker. Germany key strength has been that; they waste little time on the ball and make good passes.

      Of course there are moments you control the tempo – but which team doesn’t? The quotes by Wenger are only in a general sense but even so, if you see Barcelona their decision-making is so quick and that lends itself to a quick – and good pass, even at late stages of the game.

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