Euro 2012: Breaking the Andrea Pirlo Code

pirlo

At the turn of the century, Andrea Pirlo, the bright young hope of Italian football, led the Italian under-21 team to European glory. Playing behind the strikers as a “trequartista”, Pirlo was one of the best players of the tournament, contributing with a number of assists and goals. His exploits as captain, didn’t fail to go unnoticed as managers across Italy earmarked him as the next great no.10 to don the blue of Italy. Life was seemingly nice and sunny for young Andrea; he completed a dream move to Inter Milan but in three years at the club, he failed to make the breakthrough. Because ahead of him, competing in the same position, he found the celestial Roberto Baggio – one of the finest playmakers all time – and as a result, Pirlo was loaned back out to his first club, Brescia.

Shunted and abandoned, it looked like was all doom and gloom for one of Italy’s great young talents. But little did he know that all these events would lead to quite possibly the most important conversation of his life with Carlo Mazzone, the coach at Brescia at the time. This is how the conversation unfolded, in the words of Mazzone:  “I was managing Brescia when Pirlo still considered himself a “mezzapunta” (attacking midfielder). I told him to play in front of the defenders, because he had vision. ‘But I like goals,’ he told me, unconvinced. ‘You score four or five a year,’ I replied. ‘Play in this position and you’ll score even more. Let’s try it for two weeks. You’ll be a base playmaker.’ “I told him to play two games without asking questions. Afterwards he told me: ‘I feel very comfortable here. I get the ball all the time.’ He found out how it worked. If I’d told him I was going to play him as a libero ahead of the defenders, he’d have run away terrified! Calling him a base playmaker convinced him.”

Twelve years later and Andrea Pirlo is considered as one of the greatest players of his generation. In his position as the deep-lying playmaker (or base playmaker as Mazzone likes to call it), he is almost peerless, performing the role in a way that must be considered unique in the modern game. But what is it precisely that he does which makes him the supreme playmaker right now? Below, Karthik Venkatesh (KV) tries to decipher the “Andrea Pirlo Code”.

Analysing Andrea Pirlo’s role

Andrea Pirlo is a smart man. He uses his strengths to add his own spin to the deepest midfielder role. He possesses arguably the game’s best long ball, unparalleled vision and a sophisticated technique. Despite being the deepest midfielder, he bagged the most number of assists in Serie A (13) for Juventus last season. As soon as he receives the ball, Pirlo begins a mini-game, where the objective is to provide the pass that finds his teammates with a large amount of space and less number of opponents to get past. He starts a routine process that involves the following:

  1. Technique: Pirlo started out behind the strikers and a pre-requisite for playing in the hole is high technical ability. He uses this to hold on to the ball and assess passing options on the move. Zbigniew Boniek, the former Poland player and coach, who is definitely in awe of Pirlo’s ability to not lose the ball, says,”To pass the ball to Andrea Pirlo is like to hide it in a safe.”

  2. Pirlo finds a way out when he is pressed: When being closed down, if he is unable to create space for himself or his teammates through dribbling, he uses the short pass wisely and chooses the safest pass. Being the key player in the team’s midfield, he often attracts more than one opponent and he immediately finds a free player close by. He doesn’t retard the flow and keeps the ball circulation going. But beware, Pirlo sacrifices a marginal drop in passing percentage to try and attempt adventurous passes over the top. That is probably the greatest difference between Pirlo and the other deep-midfielders. (Pirlo has completed 354 of his 459 attempted passes (77%), and has a forward passing accuracy of 76%).

  3. The long ball is his deadliest weapon: Once he finds space even for a split second, he is lethal and doesn’t miss the opportunity to use the long ball to set up one-on-one situations for the striker. He is probably the quickest in the world to spot a run from his teammates. Against England, Pirlo attempted a staggering 30 long balls!

  4. The master of the switch: Pirlo switches play to the wings excellently. One of his common moves against England was the pass to Federico Balzaretti down the left flank (who surprisingly found lots of space as England neglected pressing the full backs high up). They are highly effective in that the player who receives the ball finds himself in oodles of space and generally encounters at most one opponent facing him directly. “Today, I’d say the greatest passer is Juventus’s Andrea Pirlo,” says Sandro Mazzola for Champions Magazine. “His footballing intelligence exploits angles and avenues others just don’t see. Then his exceptional technique enables him to flight the pass brilliantly over distance, and to weight every delivery even when under pressure.” And as an interesting aside note, he adds: “It fills me with pride  – and pains me a little – to recall that I spotted him when he was just a teenager at Brescia Calcio and convinced Internazionale  Milano to sign him up.”

  5. Assists the assister: Other than having the highest number of assists in Serie A, Pirlo will most probably also have the highest number of ‘pass before an assist.’ He is always on the look-out for the pass that will empower his teammates and lead to a goal.

  6. Chance creator: Andrea Pirlo is a high C.Q.I chance creator. His pass to Balotelli against England was one of the highest we have ever recorded.

  7. Goal scorer: One must not forget that Pirlo is a high caliber free kick taker and he also has a great shot that can beat the best of keepers.

Here is a flow chart which roughly summarizes Pirlo’s game:

pirlo flowchart

How do you stop Andrea Pirlo?

To completely isolate and nullify Pirlo’s impact is close to impossible. But what can be done is mark him closely and deny him the space to exert his game. As you can see from the flow chart, you can limit him to safe short passes by restricting the amount of space he gets (like how Park Ji Sung did for Manchester United in their 4-0 win in 2010), but he will still hurt you by quickly circulating the ball and getting it to players further forward. Pirlo has his downsides too. He’s not so physical built as modern footballers are these days so there is an incline that he can be pushed aside by far stronger teams. Nevertheless, he almost always negates this with an amazing balance and ability to shield away multiple opponents at once off the ball (at times, bordering on nonchalance).  Pirlo’s defensive contribution in terms of tackles and interceptions is modest at best, but one must take into account that he is shrewd when it comes to positioning and does a great job just by occupying the space in front of defenders. Against Spain in the final, Pirlo will obviously see far less of the ball, but he will be a dangerous threat on the counter with his ability to hit long passes behind Spain’s high line.

Perhaps the best chance of negating Pirlo is not to focus on him individually but to try and disrupt the team’s fluency, hence breaking up his effectiveness. Spain are probably the best at doing this as they hound the opposition once they lose the ball and often Pirlo is the one who receives it first. But it’s their brilliant defensive shape which doesn’t get the attention it deserves because through the use of through-marking to aid their pressing, they are fantastic at stopping opponents find their man.

Why don’t more teams use a Pirlo-esque player in deep-midfield?

There aren’t many players in the world who have the skill set that Andrea Pirlo possesses. To use those skills in a deep position and still exert total control over the game requires a great understanding of the role and few players can match him in that regard. Xabi Alonso and Paul Scholes spring to mind, but they have far fewer assists when compared to Pirlo and they are more of instigators, whereas Pirlo is well and truly the  playmaker of the team. Another caveat is that, Pirlo usually requires players like Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and De Rossi (who has been splendid this tournament, possibly Italy’s second most important player) to do the defensive job and offer drive higher up the pitch. Pirlo is only as good as his midfield partners. (To add to that, Italy use a “magic square” formation in the middle which is exclusive to specific midfield functions. As Michael Cox notes, the player who is expected to be the “trequartista”, Ricardo Montolivio, is not and is asked by Cesare Prandelli to get back to make an extra central midfielder in defence).

At Arsenal, we have many players who can perform that role. Denilson, once described by Le Boss as a cross between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto Silva is talented enough to play that role. Besides being suspect in his positioning, he has a long way to go as he doesn’t quite have the vision and long passing required to be the playmaker of the team. Mikel Arteta has proven to be one of the best midfielders of the season and Alex Song has shown that he too is more than capable of doing the job, with his dribbling, and who can forget those exquisite chipped passes over the top for Robin van Persie. But the best bet is our very own ‘Spanish’ player, Jack Wilshere who possesses all the required attributes like vision, technique, passing, positioning and quick decision making to succeed in that role. But is it an intelligent decision to not use his skills higher up the pitch? Probably not, but he is the closest Arsenal can get to Andrea Pirlo, the most stylish and yet, the most important player in the world.

Alex Song perfects the art of the lofted through-pass

Sandro Mazzola is talking about Andrea Pirlo. The former Internazionale forward, who played exclusively for the club between 1960-1977, spotted Pirlo as a teenager at Brescia (and not Mircea Lucescu as Wikipedia states) and convinced the club to sign him. The midfielder, he says, is the greatest passer in today’s game and in particular, he is talking about the lofted, weighted pass. “Pirlo’s footballing intelligence exploits angles and avenues others just don’t see,” Mazzola tells Champions Magazine. “Then his exceptional technique enables him to flight the pass brilliantly over distance, and to weight every delivery even when under pressure.”

This season, it’s been Alex Song who has joined him in mastering the art of the lofted pass. But while Mazzola may be talking about the high pass as a means of switching the emphasis of play, usually from side to side  — after all, he did start his Inter career under Helenio Herrera where the short, lateral pass which pervades the modern game, was scorned and saw West Germany dominate through the accurate, long passing of Günter Netzer and then Wolfgang Overath — there’s arguably a greater skill Song and Pirlo have perfected; that of the lofted through-pass.

This season, both players have made 24 assists between them and are among the highest exponents of the through-ball in Europe. Yet, while it may be expected of Pirlo, it’s not so much of Song who has come to the fore for Arsenal with his defence splitting passes in the absence of Cesc Fàbregas.  “He has improved his technique of transmission,” said Arsène Wenger. “When he arrived here, the passing of his longer balls was not the best. But he was worked on that, improved on that and now he can combine vision with technique.”

There are three passes of Song that stand out; his assist against Everton in December which made everyone – neutrals that is – take note of his special ability and he repeated the trick against their Merseyside rivals, Liverpool, with another deft pass. Both were finished emphatically by Robin van Persie. The third one against Blackburn, though, is not an assist but it demonstrated perfectly, just how much of a weapon he’s been to Arsenal in opening up defences as he floated the ball onto path of Theo Walcott to cross. Nevertheless, he managed to produce a carbon copy of that pass in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa which directly did lead to a goal.

Song’s not all about chipped passes though. His best assist is probably neither of the above. That came against Borussia Dortmund when, looking as if he had run into a cul-de-sac with three defenders converging on him, he deployed another little unbeknownst weapon in his armoury, clever footwork to jinx between them. His cross after was perfect as van Persie (again) guided a header in. And he’s shown he can keep it on the ground too; he played a sumptuous pass between a trio of perplexed Blackburn defenders to find Gervinho in the 4-3 defeat and did well to ignore him away to Norwich City, instead threading it to van Persie. The other five of his eleven league assists have come against Tottenham (a left footed cross to Aaron Ramsey), Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion (both to Andre Santos), Wolverhampton Wanderers and Norwich at home. (Note: he also floated the pass that led to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League but for a ricochet off a defender as he dribbled with it, it might not stand as Song’s assist).

Alex Song might nominally play as the enforcer but last season, he showed he’s becoming the complete link between the defence and attack for Arsenal.

Aaron Ramsey can look back at a solid season

It can be hard to deconstruct the impact that Aaron Ramsey has made this season because it came at a time when Arsenal were at their worst. But when the team began to improve, Ramsey was central to it in an unheralded manner. His drive was crucial at an aesthetically bleak period in Arsenal’s season, especially when they lacked full backs and everything was forced to come from the middle. Thus his role was hard to define, because it flitted in between a playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder (and at times, a second-striker because he was often asked to press with Robin van Persie). He passed the ball neatly and before falling out of the team midway through the season, Ramsey was in the top 6 for chances created in open play in the league. But Arsenal found their best – and most fluid form – when he went out of the side and Tomáš Rosický came in. Suddenly, the dynamics of the midfield changed. Arsenal played at a higher tempo and displayed a ruthlessness that was unrecognisable in the first-half of the season.

Yet, that’s not to say Aaron Ramsey doesn’t quite fit. He does. Although, in his first full season, he’s still learning about his own game as much as we’re finding out how best to utilise him. In the recent 0-0 against Chelsea, Ramsey ended up with a 97% passing accuracy which indicates that he had little trouble replicating Mikel Arteta’s role just to the side of Alex Song –  but he did, especially in the first-half. His passing, while accurate, was slow thus failing to implant the same tempo Arteta does. And while he managed to find a team-mate with the majority of his passing, it tells a wider story of Ramsey’s style; he’s methodical – almost excruciatingly so – weighing up all potential options so much so that he often eschews the simple pass and by the time he’s decided, the risky pass passes him by. That sometimes leads him to cede possession sloppily – against Chelsea, Ramsey lost the ball five times through being tackled or by bad control. As a result, he can seem cumbersome on the ball but there is far more talent in his noggin than he’s been given credit for.

Arsène Wenger has been able to get the best out of him through a bit of guidance. In a few matches earlier this season, Ramsey made an immediate impact after being given his half-time instructions (Bolton, Tottenham, Aston Villa FA Cup and off the bench against Marseille) while at the start of matches, Wenger always looked to push him up the pitch in order to profit from his energy.

Rosický now assumes the position behind van Persie and since his recall to the starting line-up, Arsenal haven’t played better. But it also shows how Arsenal’s style has subtly changed over the season. Because for half a season, shorn of key creative figures, Arsenal played more vertically, more through the wings but what pervaded their play was an overriding sense of cautiousness dictated by the bad start they made. (They pressed deep in their half, while looking back at their run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December, it’s notable Arsenal almost exclusively dealt in low scores). Since their path became clearer – essentially just gunning for third place – Arsenal have been able to re-adjust their game back to the way they want to play. The tempo is higher as is their pressing while the use of a “half-winger” on the left-side has given the team more balance. “Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” Wenger said, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”

Thus the role of Rosický is different to the one Ramsey played because while Ramsey was once the instigator, primarily used highest up the pitch for his energy, Rosický is the natural playmaker. His passing has given Arsenal greater impetus and often, it’s him they build attacks round. Certainly, chance creation is still plural but whereas once the midfield was noted for it’s rotation, Rosický is overwhelmingly now the spearhead. The Czech captain expands: “I am in the advanced position of the three, looking to get in between the opposition’s midfield and defence,” says Rosický. “When we have the ball I am starting quite close to Robin [van Persie] up front, and after that I can come a bit deeper and stretch the pitch out. I can’t say for sure whether this has made the whole difference, but I would certainly agree that what the boss is asking [of me] at the moment suits me nicely.”

As the season draws to a close, Ramsey has flitted in and out of the squad and that may mean taking a back seat and learning from the little master, Tomáš Rosický. Certainly, the recent deployment of Ramsey on the left-side indicates so which Arsène Wenger says is for “the education of the player”, to help his movement and ability to get “into little pockets”. But even if Ramsey doesn’t end the campaign as the central starter, he can nevertheless be satisfied with his involvement this season and can look back proudly at the contribution he has made to help get Arsenal to where they are right now.

For extra reading, here’s my piece on Ramsey for Arsenal Insider.

Ramsey’s passing v Chelsea

Using this video here, I attempted to work out how long Ramsey takes to pass the ball after he receives it (implored by this comment here). The stopwatch starts as the ball is passed to him (as this helps gauge his ability to survey the situation) and stops as it’s released. Most passes are received in midfield but the ones which involve a different activity, are described.

First-half Average: 2.27 seconds

Passes: 2.7 secs, 3.4, 2.8, 1.5, 4.5 (dispossessed), 0.5, 6.0 (attack down right and cross cleared), 4.0, 2.0, 6.0, 1.5, 2.3, 3.8, 3.8 (wins tackle and release), 3.5, 1.7, 1.8, 1.5 (collects loose ball), 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.5, 3.2, 1.5, 1.4, 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.9 (wins possession and release), 1.3, 1.2 (give and go in attack), 3.0 (wins possession and releases), 0.6 (start of counter-attack), 1.9, 0.8 (receives throw), 1.2 (pass from wide).

Second-half Average 2.0 seconds

Passes: 1.7 secs, 1.5, 1.2, 0.4, 0.3, 1.3, 3.6 (build up wide leading to Gervinho run in box) , 0.7 (bad touch/loss of possession), 0.9, 3.4 (pass from wide), 2.36 (chance created – long pass to van Persie), 4.5 (pass back to ‘keeper), 1.4, 1.1 (switch play to release full-back), 2.8, 2.7 (pass from wide under pressure), 0.7 (start of counter) – 4.5 (release Gervinho down touchline – end of counter), 2.14 (switch play to release full-back), 1.4 (pass to van Persie), 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 1.8 (loss of possession in tight area), 3.1, 1.6, 2.8, 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 0.4 (miscontrol), 2.5, 1.3, 2.5 (dribble and counter), 1.6 (switch play to release full-back), 2.7 (ball falls to feet after clearance outside opposition box).

Yossi Benayoun: The loan diamond who came from Dimona

On-loan players are often quicker to win the hearts of fans than permanent signings. They have to. Time is at a premium to make an impact and like visits by long-distance, gift bearing relatives, you have to make the most of it. Fans often endear to their nuances and foibles quicker too; Yossi Benayoun was taken aback, as if it was the first time anyone has noticed, when asked about the conditioner he uses to maintain his perfectly groomed hair.

Ah, Benayoun. Speaking of foibles, I somewhat harshly likened him to Edvard Munch’s The Scream on Twitter but followers would also know just how much I rate the guy. Of course, I had little to back that up with  – he had rarely played for one-and-a-half seasons – but he was just made for Arsenal. His glide on the ball, his skinny frame that revealed nothing but indicated so much and his penchant for the big games. Yet, despite that, he rarely figured for the first part of the season. Unlike loan-signings, he was forgotten. This is what I wrote about him in December:

However, The Gunners do have someone to call on with capability to give Arsenal’s play a plurality in Yossi Benayoun; a fleet-footed schemer with an art deco finish but Wenger’s adamant his three striker tactic can be deadly and as such, Benayoun misses out. (Given the right creativity – another reason why Benayoun must play more often – and penchant to keep the ball).

But unfathomably, he’s forced his way into the team and his impact might even remain beyond next season. Not because he’s likely to stay – Benayoun knows he won’t get many games at a big club again despite his ability – paradoxly, a loan is probably the best chance to appreciate his talents. But because he gives Arsenal balance due to his artistry and next season, Wenger will want to replicate it. Playing on the left of the attacks, he’s put an end to the “three striker system” in big games at least. Because using someone like Benayoun out wide, Arsenal can keep the ball better and put pressure on teams higher up the pitch. It also synchronises better with their high-line and quick passing tempo.

The obvious answer here is that Arsenal, next season, will use their strength-in-depth and pick and choose styles depending on their opponents. But they won’t have a Benayoun – a Plan A in big matches, and a Plan B in smaller games. Aaron Ramsey is not the long-term solution on the wings and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still developing although he looks the best option. New signings might put a welcome spanner in the works – Lukas Podolski is a give-and-go winger and has the added advantage that Marouane Chamakh hasn’t of versatility that means he will always be involved.

Yossi Benayoun looks to be getting the credit he finally deserves and not just as essential as a coat-hanger in the dressing room. Okay, he’s only started five times in the Premier League but his affect is arguably far larger – that he’s impacted on the strategy and, laid the foundations for Arsenal to build on next season.

Anyway, here’s my piece on the effect Benayoun has had tactically for Arsenal Insider. Peace.

The evolution of Robin van Persie

van persie liverpool

Not a week goes without a prelude to Robin van Persie but every time, he seems to justify it. This week, he single-handedly – well almost as he required wonderful goalkeeping from Wojciech Szczesny and some woeful finishing from Liverpool – earned Arsenal a 2-1 win at Anfield. And again he scored a technically perfect goal. There were some who criticised Pepe Reina for being beaten at the near post but such is his expert technique that he killed the ball dead from Alex Song’s lofted pass to volley pass Reina. His first, however, was a bit more banal but van Persie has made a habit of scoring such goals and that’s significant because a couple of seasons, such a transformation didn’t seem possible.

Van Persie has been crucial to Arsenal even as early as 2005 but his involvement was regularly curtailed by injury; he has only played more than forty games in two seasons. But back then, he was playing as a number 10, the role previously assumed by Dennis Bergkamp. He had the same swivel of the hips, the deliciously dinked passes and the ability to score spectacular goals but many question his maturity. Even so, considering that he was liable to miss matches, some would also question whether playing van Persie in such a crucial position was a wise idea. It needn’t matter because Arséne Wenger thought not to consign him to a number on the pitch. He’s a “football player,” said Wenger. “Who you expect to create something special. You do not think they have to score so many goals, they added that to their game.”

Wenger initially deployed van Persie in 2009, in a roaming capacity in a role nowadays referred to as the “false nine.” It worked a treat but no sooner had van Persie got the hang of it, he succumbed to injury. It wasn’t until 2011 when we saw the best of him again but he had refined his game and has since gone on a superb goalscoring run (currently on 43 league goals in 46 games). Indeed, that has been a rarely-talked about part of van Persie’s evolution: each time Wenger has implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes to their play, van Persie has adapted and yet consistently delivered the goals.

Playing as the false nine in 2009, van Persie brought others into play with his movement which, at the time, was crucial because it allowed those strikers vying with him for a central role to remain involved, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo could still play alongside him on the right and left of the attack, respectively. Just as significant, Arsenal no longer required such a tactically demanding player to play alongside Cesc Fábregas; the three man midfield that they used ensured that the multitude of creative players they possessed could be used. When he finally put his injury curse behind him midway through the 2010/11 season, his goalscoring came to the fore, necessary because Arsenal were shorn of their most creative player, Fábregas, and he constantly had to bail out the team out with his spontaneity. And this season, van Persie’s explosiveness typifies Arsenal’s new-found back-to-front directness but were it not for his goals, we’d probably be talking about how monumental a failure the tactic is. Either side of him, Gervinho and Theo Walcott haven’t nearly scored enough goals and as the captain, van Persie is right to deflect attention to their creative output but even Wenger would have expected his three-striker system to yield more goals beyond his talismanic forward. (Wenger: “We have players who deliver fantastic numbers of assists – I think Gervinho and Walcott are among the best providers in the world if you look at the number of assists. But I know there are more goals in them and I am sure from midfield we need some goals as well. They will be welcome tomorrow.”)

The above reason also serves as another reason why van Persie is a perfect captain for this club, beyond his stature amongst the players, as van Persie’s leadership is also tactical. The Dutchman works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point for their defensive structure (or the half press which they tend to use). He alludes to this example by action in an interview for Arsenal.com, stating the somewhat obsessive need to perfect his average of 11.5km covered per game. Which, on it’s own, is an extraordinary statistic but even more so because it comes from a striker; normally, you’d expect a midfielder to work as hard as van Persie does. (Van Persie covers the most distance of any player in the Premier League at 6.148 miles per game).

Talk of anyone being the most “complete striker” might seem a bit exaggerated but in van Persie’s case, it’s wholly justified (backed up by Arrigo Sacchi no less, the legendary coach who advocated a universalistic style made by universalistic players). Van Persie’s movement is superb, dragging defenders all over the pitch. Indeed, Jurgen Klopp, Borussia Dortmund’s manager, says he’s “rarely ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.” The coach, in the 3-1 defeat away to Arsenal, promised to stop the supply to van Persie to stop him from scoring but the nature of his play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. Van Persie constantly peels of his marker, whether playing on the shoulder or picking up possession. And if he does pick up the ball around the box, all manner of things can happen – he essentially made the second against Liverpool possible with his movement followed by his excellent technique – which highlights the joy of Robin van Persie at the moment and long may it continue because he’s deserved it.

Van Persie’s evolution can almost be seen as a journey; he has gone from number 11 from his time as a winger for Feyenoord, to a number 10, to a false 9 before making the final transition to where he is now as a number 9. But naturally of course, Robin van Persie says he’s neither; he’s a 9-and-a-half.

Aaron Ramsey has been central to Arsenal’s progress

Speaking just after Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in October, Aaron Ramsey acknowledged he can – or rather, must – get better. “I have produced some good performances so far and maybe just need to be a bit more consistent throughout games,” he said. This was after a North-London Derby in which he came under a lot of flak despite scoring the equaliser for Arsenal. One of the criticisms was that his passing was unnecessarily ambitious – an absurd argument it might be felt, considering this was Arsenal but Arsenal was also going through one of the roughest times in its near history. However, after the defeat, we wrote that the team “was still searching for their identity” but since then, they have gone on an eight-game unbeaten run in the league.

Aaron Ramsey’s role in that sequence has been largely unheralded. It’s not that he hasn’t been pivotal – Mikel Arteta and Alex Song have been more so in the middle – and he’s made important contributions. A clever dink to find Gervinho in the 5-3 win over Chelsea capped off a brilliant performance after which Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net hailed Ramsey as a better prospect than Jack Wilshere. He’s Wenger’s go-to man as well, usually tasked with tactical briefs before the match or at half-time with the main objective of taking the game “by the scruff of the neck.” The first signs of that were against Bolton Wanderers when he was pushed higher more closely resembling the formation to a 4-2-3-1 shape as Wenger sought to take advantage of Ramsey’s energy; the Welshman covers the most amount of ground in the Premier League. The same tactic was deployed against Tottenham, where he scored his first goal and the other time against Marseilles where he got his second. Perhaps that’s natural to give instructions to a young player as Ramsey as older heads need less guidance but once again it highlights the detail of the role he is playing.

In recent games, Aaron Ramsey has been pushed higher from the start of the match and there might be a few reasons for that. Perhaps, Arsenal have gotten over their fears at the start of the season and are more confident that they can remain secure for the majority of the match. Essentially though, this was perhaps Wenger’s preferred set-up, having one of the midfielders in a three push up further forward so the formation can flit in-and-out of a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. With Ramsey, they can win the ball higher as he did in the lead up to Arsenal’s winner at Norwich City. It’s a tactical role and that’s likely to be the case against Manchester City. It’s not exactly the “free” role that Cesc Fábregas played last season but it has some similarities. Ramsey’s through passing has progressively gotten better and not just making five assists in all competitions, he also has five pre-assist (as in the pass just before the actual assist). Ramsey also often presses higher than Robin van Persie and is the first to back him up. His brief, at many times, is to mark the first-passer in midfielder (he did so up against Luka Modric) and against Manchester City, that is likely to be the in-form Gareth Barry. But in a battle of two 4-2-3-1’s, it’d be movement that will be key and that’s where Aaron Ramsey’s drive might be crucial.

Because neither side is likely to play with recognised full-backs – or at least on the correct side (although Micah Richards, if fit, will be a huge threat) – therefore the game will probably be split into two obvious defensive/attacking splits. The four Arsenal defenders will mark and follow the four City attackers while Ramsey just might be the one who finds a bit of space. Knowing the full-backs won’t provide the same attacking thrust as Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson did earlier this season, Wenger might feel he can afford to take the risk and commit an extra body forward because he’ll have enough back anyway. Such highlights the trust Wenger’s has in Aaron Ramsey and the confidence that he can deliver in the biggest game this season.

Predicted line-ups

Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Song, Ramsey – Walcott, Gervinho, Van Persie.
Subs: Almunia, Rosicky, Arshavin, Frimpong, Chamakh, Benayoun, Miquel.

Man City (4-2-2-2): Hart – Richards, Lescott, Kompany, Zabaleta – Toure Yaya, Barry – Silva, Milner – Aguero, Balotelli. Subs: Pantilimon, Dzeko, Johnson, Savic, Nasri, Toure, De Jong.

Andre Santos adds a different dimension to Arsenal’s attack

Andre-Santos-Arsenal

When hoping to get a glossary commissioned translating Anglo-French football terms, journalist Philippe Auclair realised just how under-developed England’s vocabulary was when it came to the beautiful game. Writing in the biography Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King, he says; “The French (and indeed, the Spaniards, the Italians and, believe it or not, the Germans) had at their disposal an arsenal of descriptive words and phrases which my English press-box colleagues had yet to coin.” To highlight his point, he says any piece of skill would generally be referred to as a “flick” whilst “nutmeg” springs to mind as perhaps the only skill to have been baptised.

The English lexicon is similarly unrefined in regards to football positions: a striker is a striker even if in a 4-4-2, one of those strikers drops deep to pick up the ball. Likewise, players are often strictly defined by their roles. For example, the common argument you hear today is that Alex Song cannot get forward because he is a holding midfielder. And indeed, that’s the same argument used against Andre Santos, who has been unfairly criticised for constantly looking to get forward to support the attack.

To be fair to Santos, he had rarely played at full-back for his club side, Fenerbahce, before signing (although he did for Brazil) so his enthusiasm to join the attack may have partly stemmed from that. However, in saying that, his forays forward have been selective and they only have the look of reckless abandon because when he does get forward, he tends to do so with the aim of maximising from the opportunity. Yet, the misgivings about his excursions up the pitch say more about the tactical sophistications of the English game than about Andre Santos’s deficiencies.

In Brazil, the full-back is known as the “lateral” which is perhaps misleading as although it gives the notion of width; it could just as well be misconstrued for the English definition of the full-back whose primary purpose is as a defender who defends across the back-four. However, in Brazil, the full-back is an integral part of attack and the term “lateral” indicates “a wide player, but not necessarily a defensive one,” writes Jonathan Wilson. This idea can be further elaborated by José Thadeu Gonçalves who, writing in the book, Principles of Brazilian Soccer (1998), highlights just how important the full-back is as an attacking capacity.

“One of the most effective ways to penetrate into the offensive zone during the game is utilizing the lateral parts of the field. Because of the excessive development of defensive tactics and the tremendous physical power of many teams, the only way to identify an open space in that zone by moving the attackers and the outside midfielders inside, carrying their marks, and opening space to the full-back moving forward to become the attacker responsible for the crossing.”

The quote has particular resonance to the scenarios Arsenal frequently face and you don’t need to go further than the last fixture against Fulham to see how The Gunners are often faced with deep-lying teams. Thus the attacking thrust of Santos becomes more significant and towards the end of the 1-1 draw with Fulham, he nearly created the winner.

Arsenal failed to get enough from their full-backs last season, particularly on the left. Gael Clichy’s performances, while not the disaster some fans have made out, didn’t really rise above the average. Defensively he was generally solid and particular when Arsenal pressed, he was magnificent but he tended to handle pressure badly and suffered from a lack of concentration which sometimes led to him giving away dangerous opportunities. In attack, though, he was not very effective and as a result, Arsenal suffered when breaking down defensive sides. It proved crucial towards the end of the season as a lack of creativity proved to be the downfall of their title challenge.

In defence, Santos is not the liability he’s made out to be. In seven matches in the league, he averages 4.9 tackles per game – the highest at the club – and makes the most interceptions too at 3.4 per game. The notion that he dives into tackles far too much is fair – as he can commit a lot of fouls – but it’s also a key part of Arsenal’s game. With every ball he wins back quickly, he’s initiating another attack, in a sense, similar to Alex Song who also commits his fair share of fouls but makes even more successful tackles. Risk comes with reward might be the mantra but as intelligent players, they are being selective also. Nevertheless, Santos has shown a composure on one-on-ones that is essential to Arsenal, especially playing on the left side as he does. And that’s because Arsenal have a bias to the right-hand side; 34% of their attacks start on that side as opposed to 31% on the left and that figure increases to 37% at home matches. The reason for the tendency to build up towards that side may be that Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey, two of the three central midfielders, are attracted the to the right whilst Theo Walcott is given a box-to-box role on the flanks. Gervinho, on the other hand – and on the other side – is afforded more freedom and generally stays up the pitch. Bearing that in mind, you might want to forgive Andre Santos if he ever does complain about the lack of protection he gets.

That difference can be shown by their chalkboards in the game against West Bromwich Albion; Santos had more of the ball deeper as generally he was isolated while Carl Jenkinson was allowed 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” while Santos often has to go inside for options and use his drive to influence higher up the pitch. Full-backs are generally the only players “free” on the pitch and Santos’ bursts down the left can leave the defence unaware just as when he did scoring against Chelsea and Olympiakos.

In the game against Fulham, however, and that may be the trend in the coming games as Arsenal are to play without a recognised right-back, Santos was expected to provide more of the width. Johan Djourou’s distribution was understandable more simplistic for a player in a make-shift position and as such, most of Arsenal’s play came on the opposite side.

Andre Santos, though, realises the differences between the English and Brazilian games and is learning quickly in order to improve the defensive side of his game. Arséne Wenger, however, signed Santos for his attacking capabilities and is not going to let the English game’s restrictive linguistics hold him back: “For me, having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning,” he said. “Take the Brazilian national team, the ones who have won trophies anyway, you will see that there is always two good full-backs. With two average full-backs they would not have won.” Arsenal already have one outstanding attacking full-back and it’s a shame Bacary Sagna can’t join him due to injury.