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.