On days three and four of Euro 2012…strikerless Spain and false nines

There is a fine line between a midfielder playing out of position as a striker – as Tim Cahill has done frequently for Everton in recent seasons – and a false nine. On Sunday, in their 1-1 draw against Italy, Spain did neither. Vicente Del Bosque instead chose to pack his team with creative midfielders, in a system which can be vaguely described as 4-6-0, in the bid to try and keep possession to pull Italy out of shape. And the Azzurri themselves played a novel formation, choosing three defenders – although given it’s popularity in Serie A, it wasn’t wholly unexpected – one of those being the holding midfielder, Daniele De Rossi. “I was a bit worried when I saw Spain were playing without a real striker,” said De Rossi. “I thought it would have been more difficult for me without a reference.”

Initially, it was easy as Spain passed and probed patiently without much penetration but as indicated by the fleet-footedness of brilliant Andrés Iniesta, the only way to break through would be through an injection of urgency. And they got it through Cesc Fábregas, although they had to fall behind first, getting beyond the Italy defence for practically the first time, after a fine flick by David Silva to score. “Fábregas is a very special midfielder,” Vicente Del Bosque said. “He’s not really a centre forward and has great llegada” (the ability to arrive late in the box).

It was France, in Monday’s 1-1 draw with England, who also could be described as playing without an orthodox centre-forward, although in this case, Karim Benzema is traditionally a striker. However, as his natural tendencies incline him to move backwards instead of forwards, it might be better off describing his role as a false nine. At club level, for Real Madrid, his movement out wide opens up space for the wide forward, Crisitano Ronaldo. For France, he’s as much a part of the build up play as he is a scorer and against England, his role was to drag the defenders out to make space for his team-mates – in a scenario not too unfamiliar to Spain’s against Italy. And while the idea was not incorrect –  because as Michael Cox notes for the Guardian, the goal by Samir Nasri highlighted England’s weaknesses in defending against players who operate “between-the-lines” – the wider issue was the underlying conservatism of the two coaches which ultimately forced them to relinquish a win.

Vicente Del Bosque reacted more progressively but Laurent Blanc chose to try and better what they were already doing. On came two more creative midfielders instead of the tall, towering presence of striker, Oliver Giroud. Del Bosque’s changes, though, did stretch Italy’s defence and should have won the game for them but Fernando Torres, put through on goal thrice, was thwarted by his demons each time. By the same token, Spain were now vulnerable to the counter-attack, something which avoiding, seems to be Del Bosque’s primary objective. Passing it endlessly, and it’s easy to see why on the basis of their performance, it continues to be misunderstood, was a mechanism to achieve that.

In the final matches of day three and four, though, Ireland against Croatia and Ukraine and Sweden, showed the virtues of proper strikers although it was the number tens instead the nines who got the goals – those strikers playing just deeper than the main striker. Mario Mandžukić found the net twice in Croatia’s 3-1 win over Ireland although not just his finishing, it was his work-rate which caught the eye. Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t inspire his side to a win although he was superb and his role was somewhat different to both Mandžukić’s and Andriy Shevchenko – whose brace won it for Ukraine – as he tends to play-make more than the two. In that sense, it more closely resembles  Wayne Rooney’s role for Manchester United (which is somewhat wrongly described as a false ten because, as far as I have seen, it’s an almost unique position at club level. Rooney tends to operate in a fixed area and is United’s main goalscorer despite playing behind an orthodox striker).

The lack of natural number nines might not traditionally be attributed to attacking football but Euro 2012 has so far proved the opposite. And despite the nuances of Spain and Italy’s style, it’s so far the benchmark for the game of the tournament.

On the first day of Euro 2012…non-goalscoring number nines and Arshavin

1.Who says number nines have to score?

When Aleksandr Kerzhakov screwed a shot wide on 70 minutes, it confirmed to everyone what they already knew; that he was going to be replaced. With the effort, he carried the unwanted – and previously unknown – distinction of being the first player in Euro history since records began, to attempt the most shots without hitting the target. But that shouldn’t mask what other good he did for the team. Granted, when Roman Pavlyuchenko entered the pitch in his place, he went more than one better, creating and scoring the two goals to make it a rout. But before that, Kerzhakov continually dragged the Czech defence and his tireless movement helped create space for the midfielders to run into.

I predicted before the tournament that the highest goalscorer will be a player who doesn’t conventionally operate as a number 9 before unwisely, at least, judging by this showing, go for Kerzhakov. But how much of Kerzhakov’s role consists of playing as a traditional number 9? Because it’s expected goals in Dirk Advocaat’s system come from all over – and certainly they broke with speed in midfield to support Kerzhakov – with Alan Dzagoev getting two, the second of which was created by Pavlyuchenko. Roman Shirokov got the other as a pass from Arshavin eluded Kerzhakov and trickled it’s way to him. In the other group game, Greece’s goal – after going down to ten men – was always planned to come from Dimitris Salpingidis as coach Fernando Santos, had him darting off from the right-flank at every opportunity. He also created the penalty with a similar move. In this case, the centre-forward’s role was mainly limited to a decoy for his runs. To try not to sound like apologising for Kerzhakov too much, he should have scored and his profligacy might have ultimately cost Russia at 2-1. But one might come to accept that centre-forwards don’t always have to score – if others do.

2.Warning: massive Arshavin apology

Russia’s 4-1 win over Czech Republic was exhilarating, exhibiting the kind of exuberance they showed in 2008 when they finally captured – after nearly two decades of obscurity – their total footballing heritage. They passed the ball quickly, poured forward in numbers and punished the Czechs when it mattered. Andrey Arshavin was superb, directing counter-attacks with sharpness. For his apologist, the win was a massive advert of what Arsenal did wrong. Except we can’t possibly excuse three years in which his numbers (except passing accuracy) were on the back of a match. Indeed, if he can play so well for Russia, what is it that makes it different at Arsenal?

For one, Arshavin relishes playing for his country; the responsibility of captaincy paradoxically liberating him. The other is the level of freedom he gets for Russia that he can’t possibly at Arsenal. Because for the national side, he’s the one player that’s capable of moments of spontaneity – and that kind of responsibility would be too much of Dzagoev – but for Arsenal, he is offered a degree of freedom but how much more can Wenger subsidise his role?

More appropriately, it’s that extra space he’s offered at international or Russian domestic level which he thrives on, particularly on the break. Perhaps, giving him a central role might have allowed him to do that at Arsenal, but patently, Wenger doesn’t see him as a playmaker. The Czech were naive to offer him that room – but they did so, because they thought they could go toe-to-toe with the Russians. In the Premier League, most teams approach Arsenal in an overly cautious manner thus 60+% of the game is played in their half. As such, it must be said Arshavin, simply hasn’t been able adjust to the lack of space in an Arsenal shirt. Indeed, Czech Republic realised their 4-1-4-1 was giving too much room on the break for him and a result, in the second-half, put on another holding midfielder, Thomas Hubschmann, to try and shore things up before the floodgates eventually opened again.

It was the partnership with Dzagoev, though, which caught the eye, interchanging freely with him in a way that Arshavin might not be afforded at Arsenal with Theo Walcott. The Gunners tried to do that more last season but not in real time and rather, at designated phases of the match. For Russia, they both figured wide in 4-3-3 initially but were tasked with roaming inside, at times resembling a Christmas Tree shape.

In turn, Arshavin thrilled and dazzled for Russia in a way all too familiar yet too far for the Gunners.

3.Poland’s Arsenal conundrum

Poland, hosting their first major sporting event, produced an atmosphere that was spine-tingling as it was inspiring. And as expected, their national team responded, using the nervous and excited energy to make an exhilarating start. They were relentless in the first-period, as they poured forward with pace and never allowed Greece to settle as they wanted to. However, in the second-half, they just couldn’t come out in the same fashion. Because once the novelty of hosting the first game set in, they looked ordinary and were soon pegged back through an equaliser and then a red card for Wojciech Szczesny.

In a sense, Poland’s second-half echoed the end of Arsenal’s season and the consequent conundrum they face for the next. Because The Gunners ended 2011/12 playing at a dizzyingly high-tempo that they can’t possibly retain for next season. Or if they do, they must do it in a more intelligent manner. Because from February,Arsenal managed to save their season by using the momentum in the race for third to devastating effect, approaching games with an intent that opponents couldn’t match. But they almost always let up in the second-half as that intensity is difficult to maintain. And as such, Wenger will be planning the next season with a hint of the unknown: does his team need to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks to play at it’s best? And considering how difficult that is to sustain as shown by the second-half of the campaign, it’s not a reasonable request to expect them to play like this all the time.

For Poland, the objective is more short-term. Because once the game settled, they showed their limitation and when asked to create, offered little in terms of cohesion apart from a selection of players. Łukasz Piszczek gave them a different dimension from right-back, Robert Lewandoski battled and bullied opposing defenders while Ludovic Obraniak only dazzled in glimpses. Host nations have always been empowered by their home crowd and it looks like Poland will need every one of their inhabitants to roar them on.

Arsenal player watch

Wojciech Szczęsny (2/10): The goalkeeper was relatively untested before Greece’s equaliser which he might have felt he should have done better. And his day – and possibly his tournament – came to a premature end when he was red-carded. Szczęsny has come far in a short space of time with not only his talent but his personality and he’s need every bit of that if he is to retain is his place once his suspension elapses.

Tomáš Rosický (5/10): Rosický showed neat the touches and turns that we have come to expect from him but was unable to deliver the telling passes to inspire his country. It was another long-haired schemer that impressed, however, for the Czech’s as Petr Jiráček outshone his captain.

Andrey Arshavin (7/10): The Russian captain seems to thrive playing for his country and he delivered once again, tormenting the Czech Republic defence and instigating breaks with pinpoint vision.

Euro 2012: Will Robin van Persie get the support he craves?

If this is the Golden Era of the prolific front men, then you might want to spare a thought for their back-ups. Because it’s they that have to suffer the most, having to sit and watch as each goal from the main striker further condemns to a bit-part role. Indeed, with the prevalence of the lone striker system in the modern game, it means only one can start. For Manchester United fans, that meant having to sit through last season perplexed as to why Dimitar Berbatov rarely figured while even the relatively prolific Javier Hernandez (10 goals in 21 starts) had to play second fiddle to Danny Welbeck because he created space better for the chief goal-getter, Wayne Rooney. At other clubs around Europe, it was a similar scenario: Lionel Messi’s exploits meant Barcelona went most of the season without an orthodox striker; Lucas Barrios only started three games at Borussia Dortmund despite top scoring the season before while Arsenal fans have seldom seen Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Young warm up, let alone enter the play. And in the forthcoming European Championships, both France and Germany have decided to pack their sides with creative midfielders and enter the tournament with only two strikers.

It’s not such an obvious choice up front for Netherlands, however, as they can call on the third and fourth top-scorers in Europe respectively, Robin van Persie (30 goals) and Klass-Jan Huntelaar (29 goals). Indeed, the decision to which of the strikers has been the main talking point in the lead up to Euro 2012. Huntelaar impressed in qualifying with 12 goals but the signs are van Persie will get the nod despite never quite convincing in the orange – it’s his fourth major tournament as a starter. But if van Persie is assured of a place in the line-up come the opener against Germany, it’s because the normally cautious Bert van Marwijk has decided give the Arsenal striker the support – on the pitch – that he so desperately craves.

The Holland manager, in van Persie’s words, has said that he “will go for a striker who works well with the midfield,” but stopping short of virtually confirming that he will start, van Persie added: “But that can also be Klaas.” And the slight tactically change – mainly decided upon by the unique skills of the personnel at his disposal rather than any ideological shift – suits van Persie more. “Robin is an all-round attacker, but he showed he is also a killer in the box,” said van Marwijk. “Klaas-Jan is a goal-getter and is always getting better with the squad.”

The new approach was indicated in the 6-0 thrashing of Northern Ireland where Robin van Persie created and scored two goals and in particular, linking superbly with Ibrahim Afellay. Indeed, unlike Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder beforehand perhaps, convincing Afellay to use his skill on the left is probably the final piece of van Marwijk’s puzzle. It allows Afellay to cut in his stronger foot and create but most importantly, to link up with the forward. Because with van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1 system, there’s a distinct 6-4 split between defence and attack and thus, a lot relies on the front four to produce. As such, having an extra creator in the line-up instead of the hard-working Dirk Kuyt allows van Marwijk to go with two holding midfielders. “At the World Cup, we played large parts of games in our opponents’ half,” said the manager. “That means you need to be very patient, because if you force yourself too much – and we know the level of football at the Euros – then you know you will face dangerous counterattacks, and we don’t want that.”

The set up should fuel Robin van Persie’s instincts; spontaneity is his greatest asset, yet those impulses haven’t been rewarded in the international stage. He complains about the lack of service he received in South Africa 2010, indirectly criticising the role of Wesley Sneijder. “However hard I find it to accept, I wasn’t on top of my game,” he told Henk Spaan in FT Magazine. “In the whole World Cup, I was only put [through] in front of the keeper four or five times. Cesc [Fabregas] did it four or five times a match.” The two have made up since then and the signs were good when Sneijder put through van Persie in the 2-1 warm-up defeat to Bulgaria. Indeed, Van Persie tells Spaan of the unique relationship between the team’s playmaker and the striker that that they have to “form a two-in-one unit” and it’s notable that for Arsenal last season, van Persie’s goalscoring really accelerated when Aaron Ramsey was push closer to him in attack. And later on in the season, his understanding with Tomas Rosicky (and the impact of Yossi Benayoun) seemed to be the only thing pushing Arsenal over the line.

Many feel that this might be Robin van Persie’s zenith moment – and not just Arsenal fans who anxiously wait with the belief that the tournament holds the key to his future. Ajax analyst and friend of Johan Cruyff, Tonnie Bruins Slot, feels van Persie can emulate the legendary striker with his interpretation of the no.9 role. “Johan always started as the team’s forward, and then dropped a bit deeper to direct play, and create space for wingers like Rob Rensenbrink and John Rep, and midfielders such as Wim van Hanegem and Johan Neeskens,” Tonnie Bruins Slot told De Telegraaf. “This indirectly led to the ‘Totaalvoetbal’ Oranje played at the 1974 World Cup. Van Persie can play a similar role this summer, and it looks like [national team coach] Bert van Marwijk intends to use him like that.”