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!