The art of defence is in attack for Barcelona and Arsenal

March 8, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,

It is a celebrated part of Arsenal’s history but Herbert Chapman’s revolutionary tactics were initially received with much furore. The seeds of the change that was to see the W-M formation (or 3-2-2-3) supersede the 2-3-5 were planted in Chapman’s spell in charge of Huddersfield when in 1922, in the FA Cup final game against Notts County, his side won the trophy in a scrappy affair. However, the FA were not pleased with the way Chapman sent out his side because they felt it went against the “right way to play.” It wasn’t that they were incensed with the amount of “niggly” fouls on show in the final but the way Chapman had purposely deployed, what they saw, as a defensive strategy by dropping his centre-half very deep, almost as a third centre-back. Chapman took those tactics to Arsenal where the W-M formation was finally borne out with the aim to win the match, almost at all costs a strategy which Chapman later came to regret. (It remains a strategy that is still the primary objective of most teams and their success measured by the league table). Bernard Joy, writing in Forward Arsenal! gives a greater insight to his tactics: “The secret is not attack, but counter-attack….We at Arsenal achieved our end by deliberately drawing on the opponents by retreating and funneling to our own goal, holding the attack at the limits of the penalty box, and then thrusting quickly away by means of long passes to our wingers.”

The Arsenal of today may be a direct opposite of those such ideals but tonight at Camp Nou, they will be forced to borrow some of the tactics of Chapman’s side from yore. “We will have to [play another way] because it’s one of the few games where we will spend 60 per cent of the time defending,” said manager Arséne Wenger. And that’s no over-statement from Wenger – in fact, it may be a bit hopeful because this season, in 44 matches played by Barcelona in all competitions, the lowest share of the possession they have accrued is an astonishing 61%. Two times and both against Valencia. To put that into context, Arsenal only managed to let Pep Guardiola’s side have 66% of the ball in its 2-1 win.

But there was also something a bit un-defensive about Arsenal’s strategy in the game at The Emirates that makes it distinguishable from those who have faced Barcelona before them.

At the Emirates, there was an unwavering desire from Arsenal not just to stop Barcelona from playing but looking to play, as much as it could, their own game. Their strategy was asphyxiating to the point where the distances between the first line of defence – the attack – and the last line – the back-four – was not much more that 25 metres apart and at some moments, even closer to 15metres. Arsenal’s defence was proactive; they played a high-line, pressed up the pitch although perhaps not all the way up to the centre-backs as they knew the danger of losing shape and stuck tight to Barcelona’s carousel of ball-players. Some labelled it as “parking the bus in front of the goal” and in some respects it was true but more apt will have been a defensive block in the second quarter of the pitch. Arsenal was like a black cloud, swirling and snarling at Barcelona’s feet while it tried to keep passing.

The Gunner’s success this season has been all about the unit and those arguing that Arsenal, as beautiful martyrs, can’t have both a good attack and defence, have been proven wrong. The notion that the two styles are mutually exclusive simply isn’t true. In fact, there seems to be a whole swirl of clichés and truisms that surround the Arsenal Football Club that just do not stand up. Yes, the team is prone to making a few defensive errors which are more a matter of mentality that contrive to throw open a game but it has been an example that modern clubs can be highly-integrated like a machine but still produce expressionist football. In the last nine matches, Arsenal concedes less than 2 shots on target per match and have kept seven clean sheets in nine. “We have to fight against the pre-conceived ideas because the only way of thinking is that Arsenal cannot defend,” said Wenger. “I will just remind you that in the last seven games [actually nine] we have seven clean sheets in the Premier League, we have conceded less goals than Man United who have a very good defence.”

Defence can be an effective form of defence as Barcelona has also shown. They will pass a team to submission because put simply, if you don’t have possession, you can’t attack Barcelona. And when you do get it, you can be sure that you are a) too tired b) committed too many resources back to stop the attack and/or c) Barcelona will press you at all angles quickly in order to win the ball back. The back four are far better than they are given credit for but it is not only about who starts in defence – as Barcelona will have to prove with both Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique unavailable – defending starts with the ball and thus the back-four doesn’t remain a four but rather, becomes a back-eleven. Both Arsenal and Barcelona uses the Dutch principles of through-marking to aid their closing down although while Arsenal’s is more structured, Barcelona try and ensure the ball is won back as quickly as possible. The Gunners use a 4-2-3-1 that transforms into a  4-4-1-1, the Blaugrana opt for an adaptive 4-3-3/3-4-3. But as shown in the first-leg, a team cannot maintain a hard press for the whole 90-minutes. The Ajax side of the 70 would naturally lose intensity at around 70 minutes while, under Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Dynamo Kyiv used to implement “false press” during games to give itself a rest from true pressing. The substituition to bring on Seydou Keita for David Villa last time round was a confirmation that pressing high up the pitch would be difficult to maintain so Guardiola went and added another man in the midfield. Arsenal will surely have to weather out the early storm before sensing their best chance, should they survive, after 60 minutes. Guardiola will prepare for this but his main hope will be getting the goal that will put them in the lead.

Arsenal will need to keep defending as it did at the Emirates – squeezing space to stop Barcelona thriving in the final third.  It is risky but those are the margins against best side in the world. For the Catalan club, passing to keep the ball is the least riskiest strategy, for one because they are wondrously accurate with it but all the more important, because as Pep Guardiola says, they are “horrible” off it. Strategic defending and studious work on positional play, they say, will compensate for a lack of height. Arsenal though will feel they can take advantage. If the chance comes. The encounter may be seen as a match pitting attack vs attack but both sides know defence will be just as important.

Arsenal’s defence must overcome its mental barriers

March 1, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City (League Cup Final) ~ Fuuuuuuccckk part II

So the monkey on Arséne Wenger’s back remains. On Sunday, it was viciously clawing and grasping onto Wenger’s shoulders, trying desperately to keep balanced; especially so after Arsenal dominated the middle period of the second-half, aiming shot after shot at Ben Foster’s goal. Today, it rests happily on his back, chain-smoking like a simian Zdeněk Zeman casually wearing a porter’s uniform as if waiting for work – without the trousers, of course. On Wednesday night, it will surely be back to its taunting best, furiously pointing and gesticulating at the manager who faces an FA Cup replay at home to Leyton Orient.

Six years it’s been without Arsenal lifting a trophy and it is a monkey Wenger will want to get off his back. Perhaps not desperately because modern football is about staying competitive but it remains a major objective for his iconoclastic side and the 2-1 League Cup defeat remained its best chance. Key matches in the FA Cup and the Champions League are yet to come, not to mention the league where the holders play the leaders tonight. With the loss, Arsenal has become now, perennial failures, having overtaken Manchester United in the domestic cup loses count with 12 defeats and the most recent cup failure had a bit of fatalism about it.

Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish, set up his team to try and exploit what he saw as Arsenal’s flaws as he packed a midfield with runners, backed up by a menacing technician on the right-wing in former Gunner, Sebastian Larsson to aim balls forward to beanpole striker Nikola Zigic. In the end, they may have accrued less possession and were visibly shattered at the back but McLeish knew, because of their direct style, could always create a chance It was up to Arsenal then, to be more effective with the ball – they only completed half the job having notched up 58% of the ball possession – but lacked the cutting edge of Cesc Fabregas or even Theo Walcott. Abou Diaby’s powerful runs would surely have made a difference even but Wenger decided not to risk him in the squad and opted for an adjustment up top after Robin van Persie’s injury.

The second job to negate Birmingham’s strategy, was to press quickly but the hectic nature of the English game can make that difficult. Birmingham were able to escape with one quick release and the fact that Arsenal don’t press as high up the pitch as last season left Barry Ferguson and the back four relatively unopposed. The long ball tactic also meant it was more difficult to get organised as the team would have to rush back into position straight after attack, so knock downs and loose balls would almost exclusively have to be picked up by the defence and Jack Wilshere and Alex Song. Tomas Rosicky was often too high up the pitch to make a three which would have made a great deal of difference to Arsenal as it was already outnumbered in the centre.

And the third task and perhaps the most simplistic instruction on paper, was to win challenges in the air. Initially, Laurent Koscielny tried to stick to Zigic like glue but the Serbian kept on peeling off his markers and when he began to win an increasing amount of headers, doubts crept in. And that, in a nutshell sums up the problem with Arsenal’s defensive strategy, if indeed it is a problem. Wenger has long been criticised for not purchasing another a commanding centre-back and consequently an experienced goalkeeper and that supposed intransigence, cost them the trophy. But can it be as easy as that?

In the goalkeeping department, perhaps more pragmatism should have been taken because it is the most mentally frail position. But at centre-back, it is more complicated than that. Improved fitness, thereby exposing technique and mobility makes “no-nonsense” defenders obsolete. Footballers must be all-rounders and those defenders that are usually described as the aforementioned – John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Vidic – are adept at all parts of the game. Initially Vidic had a uncomfortable transition to the English Premier League but now regularly completes 5-10 passes in the oppositions half while Terry is a fantastic two-footed passer of the ball. Yes, football may still be specialised, but in each position, a player must compose of a multitude of traits.

Arsenal’s centre-backs in the past few years have been on the passive side but the current four, and given that two are in their début season, like nothing more than to put their head on the ball as well as their foot. The mix up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny may go down as a communication error and one that highlights the embryonic partnership between the pair rather than meekness. When Wenger did enter the club, he inherited the best back four in the country and so it is to some surprise that he has neglected the battling qualities of the old guard of which he talks glowingly about. But lets not forget also, he signed, possibly the most gifted of the lot. Sol Campbell was boisterous on the pitch and displayed a fantastic all-round ability, no less displayed when he made his comeback to the team last season, at 35 years old and was forced to defend on the half-way line against both FC Porto and Tottenham. Who could have, however, fathomed that he had a mental frailty that he suddenly released in between his two spells? and certainly, what could Arsenal have become did he stay and inspire the class of 2007-08?

Campbell’s reincarnation, however, also shows that some pragmatism may be allowed in the centre-back position even given the expansive nature of Arsenal’s style. Wenger, as the psychologist Jacques Crevoisier who has devised customised personality tests for the manager, explains, wants “above all…intelligent players. To play for Arsenal you have to be intelligent, technical and fast.”

The difficulty then becomes obvious in building a team like Arsenal’s and trying to find a balance between technique, speed, efficiency, dynamism, possession, mental strength and height. Every team must have a weakness. Barcelona has conceded half of their goals from set pieces as height becomes an issue in trying to produce a technical level of football. Brazil may achieve this because as Dunga says, “it’s about the Brazilian population because the height is increasing and this brought a good stature and physical agility.” But on the whole, it’s generally difficult. Chelsea or Manchester United may be closer to getting there but it come as a sacrifice on ball-hungry possession keeping and an intricate style.

As a compensation perhaps, although, Arsenal does practice set-plays and practice, does indeed, make perfect, Arsenal has concentrated a lot on strategic defending. This season, it’s been awe-inspiringly integrated and one that is so dependent on the unit that one chink in the system can affect the whole. If the distances between the back four and the midfield and consequently, the midfield and the attack are too large or too small, the press will fail. The mantra is to win the ball back and that comes through structural pressing and the use of Dutch priniciples of through-marking. (Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention). As Andoni Zubizarreta, the director of professional football at Barcelona says, “strategic defending has nothing to do with height.” But he adds – almost as a caveat – a point one which is perhaps the most pertinent to Arsenal: “But defensively, it’s a good team, and it’s not as if we’re an English team, who are always physically more powerful. We might pay for that in some games.”

Arsenal’s system finds no space for holding midfielders

February 11, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

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.”


<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.

Arsène Wenger will have to find a way to recreate Samir Nasri’s craft

February 3, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

After Samir Nasri had waltzed through the Fulham defence – twice – to score two goals for Arsenal in their 2-1 win in December, The Guardian ran the rather flattering headline, “Samir Nasri evokes memories of Best.” Now, some would question the wisdom of a comparison between one of the greatest players in a generation and one who’s career is just fledgling but footballers should be allowed comparisons. The initial feeling of awe and overriding ecstasy can be so large that it induces such sentiments and superlatives and besides, comments like that are never meant to be taken at face value. However, watching it again and you can see why the goals at, descriptive level at least, evoke memories of the great player. Nasri tip-toed past his opposition defenders with much impudence and ease that it was reminiscent of the swagger of Best at a similar age. And on a destructive level, when was the last time a player was able to conjure up the same level mastery and skill to see off the opposition? Perhaps it hasn’t been so prevalent in the Premier League era but there are similarities between Nasri’s goals against Fulham andGeorge Best’s in the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica.

Samir Nasri’s immediate comparisons are with Zinedine Zidane but Arsène Wenger is quick to play down the playing styles between the two. “The flexibility of his hips is similar to Zidane but Zidane was a different player,” he said. “Zidane was more a guy who creates openings through his skill, Nasri is more direct. Cesc Fabregas is a passer of the ball, Nasri is a guy who is more half-winger; a wing midfielder. He has his own style but he is quick and tricky and very flexible.”

To look at Nasri, you wouldn’t necessarily attribute him to the elegance and athleticism Wenger speaks about. His smile is slightly buck-toothed but that only adds to his boyish handsomeness. His play, splayed with trickery, cunning and a deceptive turn of pace indicates the intrepidity of a leader of a boy’s gang, harking back to the football he played on the streets of Marseilles. He has bulked up a bit also, he has a Bart Simpson belly almost, and has shown he has the determination and maturity to fight for his team, as displayed by the matches giving him the captain’s armband.

Nasri’s performances this season have been scintillating and has backed up Wenger’s faith in his players’ capability of delivering at the age of 23-24 years old. The loyalty and belongingness he feels for the club is part of what the youth policy aims to instil and Nasri wants to stay for longer. “Samir is happy at the club, the coach believes in him, the directors believe in him as well,” told his agent, Jean-Pierre Barnes to the Daily Express. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe the great atmosphere in the changing room, I’ve rarely experienced anything like this.’”

The rise has been almost inexorable but whereas last season, he was sometimes criticised for not being assertive enough on the ball, this season he has added a ruthlessness and dynamism to his game which has been crucial to Arsenal’s challenge. Playing on the right side at the beginning of the campaign but recently moving to the left with a smattering  of matches in the middle, Nasri has scored 14 goals in 28 matches and has been tipped, like one former Arsenal midfielder, to bag the individual player prizes at the end of the season. There looked no stopping him, that is, until a hamstring injury on 33 minutes of the 2-1 win over Huddersfield struck. The Frenchman is set to be out for three weeks and because of his importance to the team’s dynamics, Arsène Wenger will have to try and recreate his style in his absence.

One of Samir Nasri’s main assets is his versatility. Whether on the right or left side of the front three this season, he almost acts as a balancer to Arsenal’s lop-sidedness in the 4-3-3. With a forward on the other side – earlier this season it was Andrey Arshavin, recently it has been Theo Walcott – his ability to mix up his game gives Arsenal a variety and an unpredictability. He has the temerity to take on his opponents and create chances but a criticism of Arsenal has been they are too elaborate at times, so his ability to get behind has been very effective for The Gunners. Against Tottenham, he bamboozled Benoit Assou-Ekoto by making a diagonal run centrally to open the scoring and did that all day against Fulham, so much so that the starting left-back, Matthew Briggs, had to be taken off midway through the first-half. “Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball,” said Wenger when analysing Nasri’s impact. “We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”

But perhaps most impressively is the understanding and link-up he has struck up with Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie in recent matches. The triumvirate’s mixture of technical excellency, intelligence and dynamism makes for a potent partnership and the interchange between the three cannot be rivalled in the Premier League. With all of them on the pitch, responsibility can be shared; losing one of them and it places more demands on other two to create. Against Everton, Wenger attempted to try the slightly out of form Tomas Rosicky on the left (although much of it down to a lack of minutes) due to his combination of creativity and guile. However, partly down to Everton’s marking game, dropping their two wingers back to double up on Arsenal’s wide men, Rosicky was unable to influence. As it was, Andrey Arshavin, who was similarly out of form, was introduced and his directness, brought Arsenal back into the match.

But therein lies Wenger’s conundrum; if he starts with Arshavin, Arsenal will have a speed about their game and the ability to get the ball forward quickly but due to his individualism, will lose protection out wide. Nasri and Walcott have done well to cover the spaces on the flanks, thereby alleviating some of the inefficiencies the side had earlier in the season and have allowed the team to press better. With Rosicky, you will get the latter because of his abilities as a half-winger but may lack a bit of penetration and sharpness to balance the system. With a crucial month in February that may decide Arsenal’s season, it’s a dilemma Wenger and Arsenal will need to address.

Speed of passing remains key for Arsène Wenger’s side

June 6, 2010 at 10:00 am | Posted in Arsenal | 31 Comments
Tags: , , ,

Despite seeing his side outclassed at Camp Nou last season, technical efficiency and movement remains Arsenal’s forte.

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!

Tweaked Arsenal aim to capitalise on Cesc Fábregas’ craft

February 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 34 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

Arsene Wenger has made three slight adjustments to his side following key defeats in the league, one of them pushing Cesc Fábregas higher up.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “experience is simply the name we give our mistakes” but following the defeat to FC Porto in the Champions League where two errors gifted the tie, Cesc Fábregas has had enough of experience. Defeats to Chelsea and Manchester United where avoidable goals had put Arsenal out of the contest had already irked the captain enough, his body language in those matches displaying an air of resignation and Arsène Wenger has seemingly caught Fábregas’ drift – and responded by playing him higher up the pitch.

The need for slight adjustments had been somewhat displayed before those crucial matches, with Everton, Aston Villa and Bolton not just stifling Arsenal’s fluency to certain extent but also creating their fair share of dangerous opportunities. Wenger could not use the excuse, conceding chances is the “consequence of our philosophy a bit” which at the start of the season was compensated by the effectiveness in which Arsenal tore apart teams, as those sides had already took the game to Arsenal. Cesc Fábregas had already shown his importance to the side by coming off the bench to inspire the Gunners to a 3-0 win over Aston Villa at home although Arsenal had already put in a good team performance but lacking bite and has been the main benefactor of tackling high up the pitch. However, with much of Arsenal’s best success this season based on a holistic culture, could alleviating someone’s role disrupt the balance of the team?

In the past three matches, Wenger has sent his side out in an asymmetric 4-3-3 formation which could almost be described as a 4-2-Fábregas-3 given the amount of freedom the Spaniard has been granted and entrusted to do that higher up the pitch. Unlike last season in which Fábregas looked lost at times in the role, this season he has added greater penetration to his game, scoring 12 goals in 23 games and making 13 assists to boot. “He has become a complete midfielder because he can defend now, he has kept his vision and I believe he has added some physical power to his game,” said Wenger. “If you compare Fabregas two years ago and today, physically they are completely different. He has got that injection of power to his body and that makes him a different player.”

Playing asymmetrically is much to do with granting an euphoric mind-set and defensively is all about chain reactions. The two midfielders behind Fábregas do not play as a double shield but one slightly slanted to the left and pushing on a bit. In recent games, that role has been engaged by Diaby and Ramsey and tellingly they have been instructed to be more disciplined. This is so the flanks are less exposed in the defensive phase and Arsenal are not under-manned in the centre. Alex Song though remains the glue in an attempt to keep the side compact and his intensity, interceptions and anticipation help stem the oppositions raids. He has also against Liverpool and Sunderland allowed Emmanuel Eboue to flourish and as Slaven Bilic so expertly analysed, when playing with two covering midfielders the side must allow the full backs to bomb forward. The Ivorian’s urgency has been a plus in defensive transitions as Wenger looks to instruct his full-backs to get more tighter to the winger while curiously, unlike most defenders who profit from being initially unmarked by attacking on the outside, he has benefited from Arsenal’s stretching of play to cause havoc by foraging inside. One would wonder how even more devastating Maicon of Inter Milan would be if a similar ploy could be replicated at his club.

The tweak however is not just a reactionary fix; it is hoped it will rekindle the early season mentality where it was all about collectivism and will give Fábregas the chance to play more naturally, where eventually he starts deep and pushes on ‘between the lines’ as offered by the re-discovered balance. “Cesc likes to be at the start of things and then get on the end of things,” said Wenger early on in the season, explaining his desired intentions. “And he can push forward more this season because he has two players around him who can defend.”

Arsène Wenger planning to keep it in the family

January 7, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 7 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

Arsène Wenger feels keeping his talented groups of players will allow much future success as inspired by Ajax’s “Total Football” sides.

Arsène Wenger was keen to avoid any comparative superlatives with the late 60s and early 70s Ajax sides in 2004 but if his current side realise their fledgling potential, they should comfortably sit alongside the legendary Dutch team.

Emblazoned on the walls of Ajax’s academy are photographs of players who have painted a rich of history of the club; Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edwin van der Sar to name a few. The icing on the cake? All came through club’s fabled youth system and it is that which had kept them consistently challenging in Europe until the late 90’s. “If you have a good youth development system,” says Cruyff, now part-time Catalunya coach. “Then it is obvious first team will one day be good too. It’s not hard to get things right; all that is required is a lot of hard work.”

But as the game became increasingly globalised and money took over (the Bosman rule has also had a particularly adverse effect), they find themselves in a precarious position. Nevertheless it’s the culture, the shared heritage and philosophy that Ajax created which has been highly sought-after.

Growing up, Ajax were the pin-up side for Wenger and have certainly played a part in shaping the manager’s thinking. “Ajax were certainly the first team in relation to my generation because they had the perfect players everywhere,” he said. Rinus Michels, the then coach watched his side grow up almost organically during the ‘Gloria Ajax’ era; a group of supremely talented players from the academy led by Johan Cruyff would garner an almost telepathic understanding and on the pitch that would be allowed to be expressed through rapid passing, pressuring together and the interchangeing of positions. And it’s this philosophy that’s not far removed from the one at the Emirates.

“I want to have success by building a team with a style, a know-how, with a culture of play specific to the club and it’s fans and with young people,” said Arsène Wenger. “Our purpose is not to say are we a great team or not but to try to improve, try to get better. You don’t try to copy. I try every time to add good players to the team based on movement and technique. We know we are mobile, we know we are technically good.”

Wenger has given Arsenal a style to rival that Ajax side, an illustrious history (although with a lack of consistency) and a youth system renowned worldwide for educating the best. “We are able to attract the most promising prospects because we have a calling card stamped Arsène Wenger,” says Gilles Grimandi. (Incidentally, Arsenal are set to profit not only from the more densely populated London area but like the Dutch did from Suriname immigrants, the Gunners from African with promising youngsters such as Benik Afobe, Chuks Aneke, Zak Ansah and Emmanuel Frimpong coming through the ranks).

The recent contract signings, 15 in total since May 2009 and with the talisman of the side, Cesc Fabregas already tied down at Arsenal for four more years, this will allow the captain to carry the current nucleus of talent forward in the next few years. Much like the Ajax team, it is thought bringing a gifted group of players forward together with a shared sense of belonging and loyalty will allow success to be sustained and create a footballing culture which evokes the same sense of collective improvisation as the “Total Football” sides.

Research by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Why England Lose – And Other Curious Football Phenomena, show why there such an importance in keeping your best players because wages dictate 92% of success. Indeed, one of the reasons former chairman David Dein is so keen to bring in an outside investor into the club is because wage bills are rising however with the strategy in place now, total wages only account to around 50-60% of total revenue, compared to around 80% for both Chelsea and Manchester United. The Gunners were able to create a team ethos and mentality in achieving their unbeaten run in 2004 and the same has applied to the recent successful Premiership sides.

Indeed in Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal board have struck more than an just oil. In the Frenchman they have an economist, a forecaster which is every bit as important because of the financial stringent placed on the club since the move to the Emirates and with Ajax’s current plight serving as a caveat. Speaking in September 2009’s International Football Arena in Zurich, the Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis said of Arsenal’s objective of keeping their best players: “We believe transfer spending is the last resort. That’s a sensible view to have. Re-signing existing players is a far more efficient system.”

Wenger expands on the importance of contract renewals, citing new player contract rules which FIFA have recently introduced but could follow the same route as the Jean-Marc Bosman case. “At the moment, after 28 you need only two years. I see the next thing coming is people saying, ‘Why is it 28 and not 27? That’s age discrimination. Why do we have to wait two years after 28 and three years before? If it goes down to two as well, you go from one extreme to the other. It could mean the disappearance of transfer fees.”

Football is very much a psychological game and Arsenal’s recent good form has owed much to keeping the group’s spirits high in the fight for the title and hopefully new era domination. “I know is that within our team we have a great hunger for success,” said Wenger. “We have great solidarity and team spirit. We are a team who has grown up together and wants to achieve things. We have not won anything yet together and that makes us hungry for success.”

Arsénal – The making of a modern of attacking super club

December 24, 2009 at 5:27 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 13 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

Arséne Wenger’s trust in the spontaneity of his players owes much to Arsenal’s exciting brand of attacking football.

“In times of transformation, not only do new problems arise; old ways of looking at things become problems themselves.” That’s the thinking that has been presented to Arsène Wenger since the move to the Emirates affected his planning on the pitch. Indeed certain points have had to be exaggerated. What was so good about the ‘Invincibles’ was that youth, fluidity, pace, creativity was backed up by discipline, tactical understanding and ruthlessness, and Wenger is aware that this second part has become difficult to replicate to the same degree because of the youth policy route they’ve decided to go down.

“Exceptional talent” it is hoped will carry the side to the next level.

Wishful thinking or achievable through careful planning, it is Arsène Wenger’s job now, through all the groundwork he’s laid, is to somehow bridge that gap despite the obvious contradictions if the maxim “experience comes with age” is to be taken at face value.

Part of that solution has been the transition to the 4-3-3 this season, suiting not only the technical abilities of the players but also the mental side. “The total [of goals scored this season] so far shows our style of play suits the team,” said Wenger. “The way we play football, the way we are organised and go forward suits our players too.” Now there is not only theoretically more angles in the pass for Arsenal to play intricate triangles but also help stretch sides and become more dynamic. Robin van Persie was the fulcrum which play revolved around and his injury, and to those of others have seen a slight downturn in the impressiveness of their performance since the start of the season. Maybe the grueling schedule is also starting to catch up on them as the demands placed on such young bodies to play such an expansive style cannot always be consistently maintained. Indeed one of the key details of the system change has seen the players look to asphyxiate opponents through intense pressure, augmenting their developing tactical sense which naturally favours defend from the front. One of the key beneficiaries of this has been Alex Song, whose role is now of much importance to the way the team functions.

“I know that my position is crucial in the team,” the 22-year-old told The London Evening Standard. “When everyone is attacking, I want to hold, so that if we lose the ball I’m the first defender in the midfield to stop any counter-attacks and passes coming through. It’s a vital role – I just need to close quickly and give the ball forward when I receive it. This year we have done well, everyone’s contribution when we have lost the ball has been very good. We’ve turned quickly to defend just as we turn quickly to attack when we win it.”

Song’s rise highlights the freedom of psychological development Arsène Wenger gives his players and the importance of it. Pressed into the team at a young age and soon vilified for a disappointing performance in the defeat to Fulham, he went out on loan to regain some confidence. It took him a while to break through once he came back but gradually his game improved to become the rock he is now in the centre of midfield. At one moment it looked like the Cameroonian was set to become a central defender but never actually pushed, Wenger allowing his player to assimilate knowledge like a sponge so as to naturally develop his game.

Indeed training is rarely authoritative or bureaucratic. Players are expected to absorb the objective of drills (usually timed games to replicate moments of technique on the pitch) while feedback is given almost instantaneously on how to improve but never at any time meant to feel like your hand was being held or were being spoon-fed. It’s quite a contrast to the repetitious routines practiced by Rafa Benitez or Fabio Capello and while no method is definitive, it is Wenger’s trust in the spontaneity of his players which owes much to the style of football produced. In fact, back when Pep Guardiola was in charge of Barcelona’s ‘B’ side, he spent time studying Arsenal’s methods and was captivated by the way Wenger encouraged his players to express themselves on the pitch and with the pace and skill the ball was passed.

“We work a lot on the potential of combinations between players,” Wenger told French radio. “We plot it on the pitch and, once a player has the ball, there are red lights or green lights. The collective goal is to create the most possible green lights. That is to say to give passing solutions to the man with the ball and to leave the responsibility with that man to make the best choice possible, allowing the team to keep possession but at the same time – if possible – make the game progress towards the attack.

“So you must always offer the player solutions that allow him to utilise his intelligence around the game to the maximum.”

“For it to work, players must make themselves available and we work on that in training,” he told . “That’s where top-level sport becomes really interesting, in finding a way to have the team in a position of psychological comfort so that they can offer solutions. Because you know that, when doubt creeps in, the green lights become red lights. “Because each player takes fewer spontaneous initiatives and, all of a sudden, it’s absolutely unbelievable at what speed all those lights become red and the player with the ball finds himself in the shit.

“Doubt is the key enemy of our game but, eventually, we must at the same time give our team the sense of availability. And, on a psychological level, we must give them a taste for audacity and for developing connections between each other.” Indeed doubt also saw Aaron Ramsey withdrawn against Sunderland in the 1-0 defeat, the Wenger citing bad decision-making as the reason for his his bad performance. “A player who recieves the ball has to solve a millions problems within a fraction of a second; a great one is the one who chooses the right solution,” said manager in Phillipe Auclair’s Cantona: The Rebel who Would be King biography.

Fans may be beguiled by the club’s failure to land a trophy in four years but Arsène Wenger is adamant that the club will get through this tumultuous period. He has recently stated that the last four years have been his best due to the difficulties in battling against an unforgiving environment. The temporary (it is hoped) youth policy may be arguable but as researched by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Why England Lose – And Other Curious Football Phenomena, there is an importance of keeping your best players – wages dictate 92% of success. Indeed, one of the reasons former chairman David Dein is so keen to bring in an outside investor into the club is because wage bills are rising however with the strategy in place now, total wages only account to around 50% of total revenue, compared to around 80% for both Chelsea and Manchester United. The aim is to build around the current players, create a sense of belonging and loyalty thereby allowing success to be sustained.

There is more than trophies (although still a big part) the Frenchman is aiming to leave as his legacy to the club. There is a philosophy, an identity, a vision that Arsenal must strive towards, and in Arsène Wenger, a manager working his way to building an Arsenal that will last years to come.

Have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

ARSÈNAL – The Making of a Modern Superclub by Alex Fynn and Kevin Whicher highlights the outstanding progress made by “Le Professeur” in more than a decade at the club. A fabulous insight to the strategies on and off the pitch put in place by Arsène Wenger during a tumultuous period of change, expectation, struggles and some disappointment. A must read book for all Arsenal fans and specifically relevant to the current period at this great club.

Age old problem of balance has proven difficult for Arsene Wenger

May 12, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 2 Comments
Tags: , , ,

Arsene Wenger’s tactical experiments in trying to secure a balance between attack and defence from his young side, has not gone all to plan this season.

With that defeat, Arsenal’s 21 game unbeaten league run came to an emphatic halt. And perhaps fittingly, that run which started at Chelsea and ended against the same club, reveals how much the two clubs have come since then.

On the face of it, a great deal hasn’t changed from the Chelsea under Luis Felipe Scolari and the one currently managed by Guus Hiddink. However the Dutchman has made the Blues hard to beat again, instilling a more cautious and efficient approach to their play which in reality is just like the Chelsea of old. Against Arsenal they were counter-attacking, letting their opponents to do most of the running before hitting them with a sucker-punch. The return of Essien has been most important and the Ghanaian allows the team to be more dominant in the centre and control space better.

Scolari on the other hand wanted to make Chelsea the expansive, ball-hogging side that they were not suited to, especially without the injured pair Joe Cole and Deco. Tactically they fell short, as the Brazilian coach never look to deviate from the same style of football even when the game was being chased. Nevertheless even with these adjustments Hiddink has made, it is easy to see this side is running it’s course and look more likely to struggle than Arsenal next season if much of the team remains the same.

And indeed, Arsene Wenger has admitted signings are to be made next season, who more importantly are to be players of experience because the club is overflown with stars of the future. But for some, that reinforcement should have come before the start of the season when it was apparent in the previous campaign that a lack of depth was the reason for the derailment of Arsenal’s title charge. A lot then was placed on young Denilson’s shoulders to carry the fight after a slow start but while Arsenal were decent in attack, they were not great, even Fabregas’ return couldn’t bring back the flowing football.

Five defeats and the Brazilian was at the forefront of fans’ fury, some stating he was playing in Cesc Fabregas’s areas. The truth was, that the Spaniard was playing even higher up in order to repeat the previous season’s heroics thereby exposing the young(er) midfielder.  Pressuring was a team game but the stats actually showed Denilson was mostly (and quietly) leading the charge. The handing of the captain armband to Fabregas was part of the turning point; the playmaker became a bit more disciplined and started dictating proceedings all the while adding balance to the line-up. And with the club leaking goals, Wenegr urged the full backs to be more cautious.

“At one stage we had conceded too many goals, so we encouraged our defenders to be a bit more cautious,” said Wenger. The affect of the change has been fourfold: Early in the season (though not just limited to) Arsenal were being attacked in the space vacated by Clichy and Sagna (1) while at the same time putting too much strain on Denilson (2) and the centre backs (3), who had to push up to make up the space and contribute in creating the pressure in the other end. And they are also stopping crosses coming in to the box (4), long thought to be the defences Achilles heel.

A first half barrage at the hands of the Chelsea wingers and the Arsenal defence survived with only one goal conceded. The second half saw a Van Persie double inspire the Gunners to an important win but little did he know his role would become even more crucial in the coming months. Fabregas exited injured as Arsenal lost their main creative force. “When he’s there, everything goes through him but when he’s not it can take a while to adapt because the game goes through different ways – it’s plural,” said Wenger. “When it’s Fabregas it is more one-way traffic at the start of the build-up.”

Indeed it took a while and required some tinkering, no less helped by Arshavin’s arrival. Wenger responded to a barren run in front of goal by focusing the play on getting the ball wide and up the pitch quicker. The opponents were being pressured higher up the pitch due to assurances given by the cautious full backs and the midfield shield. Nasri moved to the centre in a 4-2-3-1 and mixing the above factors together, Arsenal produced their best senior performance of the season against Roma.

Fabregas’s return saw the skipper take up the Frenchman’s role but to mixed success; while Cesc was the more incisive passer, Nasri added better balance by supporting play better. Another good performance at home to Villarreal seemed to suggest the 4-4-1-1 to be Arsenal’s best system. However with the 2-1 FA Cup defeat to Chelsea, the hard work was becoming undone and the defensive shield proving irrelevant; good against the smaller clubs but against the bigger sides it meant it invited the opponents forward. Of course Arsenal were pressing higher up the pitch but if that failed (and a simple long ball could easily undo it) meant exposing the midfield cover.

Which invariably led to the Chelsea game. The high pressure exposed Song and the back four were left with too much to cope with in front of them. It required a bit more discipline from Fabregas or Nasri (at times it was difficult to fathom who was the deeper midfielder) who without that player operating as a number 10 were all too eager to move there. Arsenal produced their best attacking display without the finishing against the best defence in the league but the balance was wrong. “I believe we have quality defenders and it’s more a case of balancing the team defensively than the quality of our defender,” Wenger explained. “I still feel I was more worried in February when we were drawing 0-0 without creating a chance. It’s always easier to correct what doesn’t work defensively; if you don’t create chances you are always more worried.”

With players like Hleb, Rosicky and Eduardo last season Arsenal were able to share creative duties while the mobility and tireless work of Flamini was priceless. The Chelsea defeat, although large shows that while the attacking part of the game was less complete the defensive side, as a team required a bit more fine-tuning. Injuries have meant the constant changing of the line-up to find the right balance and with everything the team has learned over the season, can surely be displayed with a complete performance away to United on Saturday.

Denilson can rekindle the lost art of midfield tackling

March 7, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 10 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Arsene Wenger may have bemoaned the lack of good tacklers these days but what are the reasons for the demise and does he have one right under his nose?

“I see very few good tacklers nowadays,” said Arsene Wenger most probably reminiscing of the horrendous moment that ended Eduardo’ season and also Arsenal’s title aspirations at the same time last season. Tackling has been the talk of the Premier League in recent games with cards being dished out like confetti  for challenges where one must side with the Frenchman. Indeed a player Wenger identified as one of the lost breed of clever tacklers was involved in what was probably the worst tackle ever and one which even had his own team mate Michel Platini proclaim that he thought he was dead, because “he had no pulse and looked pale”.

Along with Patrick Battiston, Wenger bracketed Frenchmen André Chorda and Christian Lopez in the same category. “A good tackle is beautiful to watch because in the tackle the player is already making a pass, not just clearing the ball. Most of the tackles nowadays they go in blindly. When you do a good tackle you are relaxed because you master every movement.”

His description may seem fanciful and indeed looking at the profile of some  defenders, can fit quite a few in. Rio Ferdinand, Carvalho, Cannavaro (in the 2006 World Cup) and Pepe; in fact the trend nowadays is for central defenders to be mobile and technically secure. Even the arguably less aesthetically pleasing defenders such as Vidic and Terry are very adept at passing the ball. It is maybe not enough from these defenders that Wenger sees as they are not sweepers; the position the manager himself played but one which has since disappeared.

However the bulk of these rash tackles have featured midfielders with Wenger suggesting improved pitches are the reason for the lack of good tacklers. Players are able to control and turn more freely while it allows for better passing and movement. The greater technical emphasis has probably made having a specialised tackler more difficult because while they may be stronger at winning the ball back, hinder the teams passing momentum. Currently most teams play with deep lying playmakers in defensive midfield, able to initiate attacks and break down play just as the sweeper used to and with second strikers or playmakers.

Players in between channels are seen as the key to unlocking defences and one of the reasons for the demise of the box-to-box midfielder. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.”

“Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists,” says former AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi.  ”The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

“For example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend,” he said when talking about his stint as Real Madrid’s director of football . “But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”

But such defensive midfielder’s can’t have everything. They must be able to pass, be tactically aware and strong in the tackle a difficult equilibrium to find. Sacchi believed in players being able to play a number of positions and hence do more and his AC Milan team played a high pressure game with the team defending in a organised defensive unit. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Defending is such a way allows for greater balance especially as deep playmakers are converted attacking midfielders in some cases (Pirlo, S. Petrov, Murphy, Scholes, Denilson) and while there is more utilisation of the dual defensive midfield shield that allows organisation.

For Arsenal the departure of Matthieu Flamini has had a great effect;  hardworking and strong positionally and in the tackle as well. The only weakness was his limited technical ability but in his replacement, Denilson can offer more. Like all great defenders, at most times they are not required to even make a tackle to win the ball as his interception stats shows; the Brazilian is second only to Clichy in the league (109 to Clichy’s 118). Playing with much simplicity, Denilson is not the type of player one notices but the work he puts in is tremendous and is also able to initiate attacks. The boy from the favelas in São Paulo can be better and more expansive, but that will come with games and with quality players around him.

As Wenger says, there may not be too many intelligent tacklers but the player described as “a little bit in between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto” can be the one to rekindle the lost art of tackling in the midfield.

Next Page »

Blog at | The Pool Theme.
Entries and comments feeds.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 117 other followers