Arsenal’s system finds no space for holding midfielders

Some plans fall into place as if part of a grand design. Others just happen by accident. For Arsène Wenger, there is something prophetic about the way the season has panned out thus far. Less clairvoyant is his prediction that Arsenal would meet FC Barcelona in the Champions League but he is being proved right when he says, in his own, that his team will be able to “beat, in a comfortable way, all the other teams” when they reach the age of 23/24 years old. When Cesc Fàbregas scored the third goal in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Ipswich Town to send Arsenal to the League Cup final, it was almost a symbolic vindication of Wenger’s youth policy as the talisman and leader of a generation. Jack Wilshere had the chance to add another layer of symbolic meaning two minutes later as the first real “home-grown” star to emerge from the policy but fluffed his lines in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

That Wilshere took part in the game is not so extraordinary given that Wenger usually bloods his youngsters in the competition but the fact that he has become such an essential part of the team’s dynamics in the position he is playing now, that he will certainly start against Barcelona in the defining game of the season, whether for or against tactical sensibilities.

Before the start of the season, Jack Wilshere looked as if he may go out on loan but luck – bad luck in normal circumstances – plumped him at the heart of midfield. He was the mainstay during pre-season as injuries, and the need for recuperation for those involved in 2010’s World Cup, stripped him of his main contenders for the slot and hr has remained there ever since. His partnership with Alex Song has flourished and together they have created an understanding akin to Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar. Indeed, the two look like the typical odd couple pairing; one is a ball player, the other is a ball winner; one is small and the other one is big. But there is also something very atypical about the way they function which expunges the myth that the doble pivote in a 4-2-3-1, must compromise of a ball winner and a deep-lying playmaker. (Or more simply teams must play at least one holding midfielder).

In Arsenal’s system neither midfielder is the holding midfielder. That may seem contradictory given Wenger’s comments earlier this season when he said that Song is the “holding midfielder” and Wilshere is “more box-to-box” but it also shows the level of autonomy the manager grants his players. Over the course of the season, Wenger has let the process of natural assimilation dictate the nuances of the system and the understanding the pair have now is all the more impressive given that their first match together was in the third league game of the season against Blackburn Rovers. The process has probably bear fruit quicker than it may have at other clubs because the players are trained one way; the “Arsenal way,” as Wilshere calls it.

Of course, in Arsenal’s system, Alex Song is stronger defensively so his tendencies to help out in defence is greater but he spends just as much time going forward as does Wilshere stay back. Both move together in unison and together, they have created a natural understanding with each other that goes beyond the mere description of their roles.  “We have no deep-lying midfielders in our midfield,” said Wenger, before adding in regards to Jack Wilshere. “But he can play in any position because he is tactically intelligent. He can defend [and] he can attack, he’s a midfielder. For me a midfielder is not exclusively one position. He is a guy who defends when the team does not have the ball and attacks when we have the ball.”

The other point of importance is the need for Arsenal to have all-rounders in the team. This allows The Gunners to play with more fluidity and a higher tempo, enabling Arsenal to retain their thrilling passing from back to front when, elsewhere in a 4-2-3-1, not having the players of a certain mobility and technical ability, may make the formation look clunky. Indeed, Arsenal’s explosive start against Newcastle, where they took a 4-0 lead in thirty minutes saw both Wilshere and Abou Diaby at the edge of their opposition’s penalty area in the build up to the third goal. (Ironically in that game, the virtues of the holding midfielder was evident when Arsenal went down to ten men but there was not much else Wenger could have done; he had no Song or Denilson on the bench due to injuries therefore dropping Fàbregas back).

In the defensive phase it is just as important because Arsenal defend as a unit more than ever now. The team press high up the pitch and that means the back four must also push up to remain compact. Earlier in the season, Arsenal failed to get this part of their game correct thus leading to some of their inconsistencies but when it goes right; it can be devastating as Chelsea will attest. “We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see,” said Walcott after the 3-1 win over Chelsea. ”Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.”

Arsenal’s pressing has become more strategic. It is perhaps not as athletic as it was before, instead applying a mixture of the Dutch principles of “through-marking” (where player looking to eliminate all passing options by sticking tight to their opponents) and zonal marking. Wenger wants his team to play in the opponents half of the pitch both in an attacking sense and as a means of defence by suffocating their opponents. “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

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<Figure 1> Arsenal’s pressing this season is more focused on stopping the pass through midfield.Against Chelsea, Arsenal did that expertly. They let the centre-backs have possession of the ball but ensured it was difficult to build out play forward. John Obi Mikel was pressed tight in the first-half and when he was taken off in the following half, Arsenal gained their two goals by intercepting Michael Essien. It was a tactical blunder by Chelsea who, by stripping themselves of the best ball circulator, made them susceptible to the press. Against Manchester City, they were less intense but similar made it difficult for them to play the ball out. With the emphasis on the front four to press up the pitch, the two central midfielders have a great responsibility in keeping the structure of the side together.

In that respects, then, there are striking similarities with Arsenal and Arrigo Sacchi’s, highly-integrated and highly attacking Milan side between 1987 and 1991. Both managers stress the importance of “universality;” both acknowledge the significance of pressing to get the most out of the side and both have a unbending belief in playing football in a “pro-active” manner.

Sacchi says, in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, that “pressing is not about running…..It is about controlling space. I wanted to make my players feel strong and my opponents feel weak. If we let our opponents play in a way they were accustomed to, they would grow in confidence. But if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence. That was the key: that out pressing was psychological as much as physical. Our pressing was collective.” Wenger’s purposeful desire to play in his opponents half, despite the fact that it may leave the team open, is as much a psychological ploy as it is tactical as he indicates.

Of course, it is perhaps even a moot point that Sacchi and Wenger’s thinkings are similar. Sacchi’s ideologies come from the same bloodline as Dutch Total Football, the archetype Wenger cites as his greatest influence and that South American football sees it as the last, great tactical innovation, it is perhaps inevitable they carry the same traits. Indeed, those principles common with the two coaches are in some way interpreted by elite clubs but they perhaps would not so rigidly adhere to Sacchi’s ideologies because they are inherently too dogmatic. Sacchi’s main idea was that every player must play an equal part in a highly systematised layout – but as directed by the manager. That meant having players in all areas of the pitch who can deliver key passes (for him, everyone was the playmaker) and then able to press and defend to his instructions (i.e. compact, organised and moving as a unit – a difference of twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward was a must to be maintained). Managers may prefer to take small parts of his philosophies because essentially, it’s those parts that make modern (attacking) football. Nevertheless, now is the cult of the coach and more and more, players are expecting to have more obligations than liberties while Wenger prefers expressionism and indeed, it’s easy to think how clunky his system may look if Wilshere’s indulgences were reigned. (Or even, if Song had a higher ratio split in defending rather than the 50:50 it is now).

And that itself is another important point. Sacchi’s successor at Milan, Fabio Capello, was ultimately more successful than him and did it in a way that Sacchi would consider an antithesis of his approach. Capello’s Milan was defensive and was more about individuals and specialists than the team as one. With Marcelo Desailly holding, it allowed the attacking players to play with more margin of error. Indeed, in Arsenal’s one season with Flamini as the holding midfielder or even Gilberto, in the run to the Champions League final of 2006, Arsenal came as close to they have ever come with a designated holder. In 2008/09, it must be noted that trying both Denilson and Fabregas in a shared role was a disaster and it wasn’t until Wenger changed it all in the second half of the season and played a functional 4-2-3-1, in Arsenal standards anyway, did they improve massively. Just as Adam Smith’s economic theory,  the division of labour, indicates that by specialising parts, a processes can be more effective, a team may be more effective should players be encouraged to make the most of their specific talents.

But it perhaps isn’t an option currently for this Arsenal side to designate a holder. It is noticeable just how important the two in the middle are in creating a platform for the team’s structure and the way they move left and right, back and forth together to cover spaces is, a bit, reminiscent of Sacchi’s Milan. Certainly the same solutions are not available for Arsenal that Milan had to remain compact. The liberalisation of the offside law means despite all the efforts they try to push up, it still poses the danger that teams may get behind with one long ball. And even if Denilson, does try to stay back on his own, as he does when Arsenal attack, it may paradoxically create a larger gap in between midfield and attack.

But lets not also forget the impact Cesc Fabregas has had on the balance on the team coinciding in an upturn of form since the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United or the tracking back of the wide players and Robin van Persie’s return. With Wenger’s desire to push up the pitch early on, it strips, sometimes, Arsenal of a ball circulator so with Fabregas dropping back to pick up the ball makes him harder to mark and the two central midfielders to push up. The wide men are also tracking back more fastidiously, meaning the amount of ground Wilshere and Song may have had to cover before, is decreased. And of course, attack and defence is all relative and van Persie’s ability to bring others in the game is perhaps been the most impressive of the Premiership.

Arsenal’s scheme is about working together, encouraging combinations and harnessing the process that occurs naturally amongst a group of intelligent players who play with each other long enough and appreciate each other’s company. As the structuralist architect, Aldo van Eyck once wrote; “All systems should be familiarised, one with the other, in such a way that their combined impact and interaction can be appreciated as a single complex system.” The partnership of Jack Wilshere and Alex Song helps achieves just that.

A timeline of holding midfielders lost

January 31, 2010: “We have to focus on delivering a completely different performance [against Chelsea on Sunday] because today we were never close in our marking and you do not win big games like that. We gave them too much room everywhere and afterwards Rooney takes advantage of it. We conceded two goals which were ‘corner for us, goal for them’ – two goals, the second and third. I believe it was much more with our positioning and the intelligence of our positioning that we were wrong.” Arsene Wenger after Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in the league acknowledging the need to improve marking.

April 5, 2010: “We know that when we don’t have the ball you need everyone on board, especially against Barcelona and on a pitch like the Nou Camp. We have to make the pitch smaller and everybody must work hard to win the ball back. That’s where we failed in the first game last week, especially in the first half and of course the heart of the battle will be won in midfield.” Wenger on the Barcelona masterclass and the importance of structure without the ball. Arsenal played with a 4-1-4-1 and over the course of the two legs were destroyed because of the room they gave to the Catalan club.

June 8, 2010: “What happens in football is that there are trends. People see a [Claude] Makelele and say – you need a holding midfield player. Well, do you? Man Utd won the European Cup with [Michael] Carrick and [Paul] Scholes as central midfield players. All of a sudden Makelele defines the Makelele role and everyone says you’ve got to have a Makelele. What you need is good players who recognise danger. The idea that you need a natural holding midfielder – I don’t go along with that.” Gary Neville on holding midfielders.

July 2010 edition of Arsenal magazine: “Tactically, the World Cup was very, very one-sided. All teams played five men in the midfield and that was their priority.” Wenger on the importance of defending as a team and how better to improve his side’s attack/defence split.

August 1, 2010: “A little bit because at the start of the season I was not convinced that Wilshere and Frimpong could be central midfielders, defensively. There is a little bit more competition than we expected there to be. We were considering even maybe going on the market for a midfielder. We will not do that now.” Wenger on whether the Wilshere and Frimpong have changed his thinking ahead of the new season.

October 30, 2010: “We kept the structure of our game right, we didn’t do anything stupid, we kept trying to be intelligent and that in the end got us the goal with two minutes to go. He is [adding that to his game] because when you sum up his game today he had three good chances: the goal he scored, the one on his right boot and the header in the first half that touched the bar. He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder! But that is part of our game as well.”

“Offensively, it works very well. We have to show it works defensively as well. We have many who like to attack, so we have to be intelligent to do the defensive job well because if you want to be efficient you need to defend well in midfield. Wilshere at the moment suits a deeper role and Fabregas a little bit higher. Wilshere can find a good pass through the lines and find Fabregas.”

“Denilson had three good games this week – he played the whole 90 minutes at Manchester City, the whole 90 minutes at Newcastle and he did quite well today because he defended very well at the moment everybody went forward. But Jack can play with Denilson, he can play with Song, I have good potential for rotation and don’t forget we have Diaby who can come back too.”

Wenger first on the changing role of Song, the contributions of Fabregas and Wilshere and finally Denilson. After the 1-0 win over West Ham United.

November 03, 2010: “He is not completely holding, he is in between. He is a box to box player more than a holding midfielder. And in fairness he can play as well behind the striker, he can penetrate, he has a good burst. Give him time, let him play and I know that is not easy for you, and it’s not your greatest strength.” Wenger after Wilshere dismantles Shakhtar Donetsk with a complete all-round performance.

December 5, 2010: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.” How Wenger has changed his system to help make and break down space. After the 2-1 win over Fulham.

December 27, 2010: “We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see. Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.” Walcott after the 3-1 win over Chelsea.

28 January, 2011: “In our midfield he plays everywhere. We have no deep-lying midfielders in our midfield, but he can play in any position because he is tactically intelligent. He can defend [and] he can attack, he’s a midfielder. For me a midfielder is not exclusively one position. He is a guy who defends when the team does not have the ball and attacks when we have the ball.” Wenger commenting after Wilshere was tipped by Capello to play as a holding midfielder.

February 11, 2011: “He can play in any position. He can play everywhere on the football pitch because he’s a good football player.” Wenger after Wilshere’s full debut.

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