Football players often talk about fulfilling “dreams”; as if the vocation they are already in isn’t one. But when they speak of fulfilling “dreams”, it often encompasses to some degree, a revision of the ones they had in their childhood: playing for the best team possible, winning your first international cap, or like a New Star Soccer game, progression from anonymity to super-stardom beginning from the lower echelons of the football league to the team that you support. Of course, it rarely happens that way but for one player in particular, he can realistically say he is “living the dream”.
Two years ago, Carl Jenkinson was playing in the Blue Square Premier League with Eastbourne before he spent another loan spell at non-league side Welling United FC. He had barely played ten games for his parent club, Charlton Athletic, before the unexpected call from Arsenal came. It might have had something to do with former coach, Phil Parkinson, who spent a brief time at Arsenal after he was sacked although Arsène Wenger insists Jenkinson was under the radar for a while, particularly because of his stints with Finland U-19 and U-21. “It was a very steep learning curve for me,” says Jenkinson. “I believed I was capable of playing at the highest level, and sometimes it is about getting seen by the right people at the right time.”
Jenkinson was instantly thrust into the limelight in his début season and endured some difficult periods but this season, at the age of 20, he has matured into a dependable figure for Arsenal. In his latest matchagainst Montpellier at the intimate Stade de la Mosson, and particularly up against the intense pressure the team faced in the second-half,Jenkinson came out with a much-heralded performance. His low cross to assist Gervinho for Arsenal’s winner capped a superb all-round display.
Jenkinson‘s presence in the starting eleven has seemingly been steadier than his counterpart on the other side, Kieran Gibbs, who has caught the eye with marauding runs and his understanding with LukasPodolski. (Of Arsenal’s ten goals this season, eight featured build up from the left and only two towards the right). In some ways, that’sJenkinson‘s job; acting as a balancer for Arsenal as they press-on with more fruitful combinations on the other side. Indeed, one of the reasons for Arsenal’s defensive success this season has been the cautiousness of their full-backs.
The team worked on it extensively in pre-season but old habits just as quickly resurfaced when Arsenal entered the field for their first match of the season against Sunderland. As early as the eleventh minute, SteveBould noticed that twice, Sunderland had opportunities to score from attacks originating from fast breaks down the channels. Therefore, he instructed the full-backs to be more aware whenever they get forward. Thereafter, The Black Cats mounted no serious threat and of the 84 teams that played in the Football League and Premier League in the first weekend, they were the only side not to win a corner. Perhaps the cautiousness has suited Jenkinson because it was the area he was considered weakest – positionally – and in the tour of Asia against Manchester City, that was exposed. Can he show just how far he has progressed in a small space of time in the upcoming game against them? Certainly, the way Arsenal defend now, getting back into a compact 4-4-1-1 shape and the wingers double up have protected him much better.
There is, however, a flip-side to instructing your full-backs not to get forward as frequently. Because, as we know from last season in particular, when Arsenal were stripped of all of their natural full-backs, it has had a big effect on the team’s fluency getting forward. It was one of the reasons why Arsenal failed to get off the mark after their first two games of the season. Full-backs are now one of the most crucial positions on the pitch; they often start as the “free” man and also need to possess the all-round game to make a difference at both ends of the pitch. Arsene Wenger says “having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning.” Indeed, I’d put down Wigan Atheltic’s miraculous turnaround last season to the signing of left wing-back JeanBeausejour. Before he arrived at the club, Roberto Martinez used a central midfielder, David Jones, in that position. Before defeat to Swansea in March, they were hovering in the relegation zone; 11 games later, they had picked up 23 points out of33. In a strange way, JeanBeausejour gave the team balance and in that sense, we are seeing the same thing with Arsenal and their two full-backs this season.
Last season, I talked a lot about the bias Arsenal had towards the right-side and the subtle various it had on Arsenal’s play; the runs of TheoWalcott to break out of the triangles they created while the use of a right-footed winger on the left meant play tended to slant anyway. This season, Arsenal are using both flanks equally as much – indicating how well they are switching the ball from side to side – but it’s interesting to note *how* the build-up differs on each side.
As we can see from the player influence diagram below and the pass graphics, the build up is deeper on the right-hand side than it is on the left. This might be for a number of reasons; (i) Thomas Vermaelen’s tendencies to step out thus allowing Gibbs to advance higher up the pitch; (ii) Per Mertesacker acting as the “stopper” therefore staying deeper while (iii) Mikel Arteta usually starts towards the right of the double-pivot. And (iv) Arsenal’s best combination play, between SantiCazorla, Lukas Podolski and one of the central midfielders, happens on the left.
That difference between two flanks can be shown by the chalkboards of Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs in the game against Sunderland. (It’s the mirror image of last season where the build up generally started deeper on the left as opposed to the right. Click here to see example).
Gibbs is allowed the freedom to get forward more easily due to more options around him. As a result, his passes are less frequent and involve a lot of “give-and-goes”. One might say the responsibility is considerably less in this regard for Gibbs as opposed to Jenkinson who is asked to be “out-ball” for Arteta or Mertesacker. By the same token, Jenkinson has a tougher task passing the ball out because he often has to go inside or back. As such, opposition might press him higher up the pitch. That was certainly the case against Montpellier Who doubled up on Jenkinsonwhenever Arsenal moved the ball wide. And because of Gervinho’s propensity to drift inside, he never really was an option for Jenkinson to pass to down the line. (Click here to open .PDF file to see average positions). Nevertheless, Jenkinson handled the pressure superbly and when he did get forward, he whipped the ball a fantastic ball forGervinho to score. It’s the one part of his game which he hasn’t quite delivered on this season although we know just how well he can cross it – Jenkinson has made 15 tackles so far in the Premier League, joint seventh with four other players – but just like the mantra that has pervaded the collective this season, Jenkinson realises that he has a job, first and foremost, to do for the team. And he’s quietly risen to the responsibility.