Andre Santos adds a different dimension to Arsenal’s attack

Andre-Santos-Arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teams of the Decade, #19: São Paulo 2005-08

Three times-in-a-row Brazilian champions São Paulo are our 19th team of the decade.
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Amazingly, the 2009 Brazilian championship season had four teams in with a realistic chance of winning the title on the last day and if São Paulo had made won, they would have made it four in a row. As it was, the side finished third but all in all, it was a good decade for them at a time where domestic Brazilian football has been floundering as typified by the crowning (2004/05) then relegation of Corinthians two years later.

São Paulo’s lasting story was the 1-0 win over Liverpool, where against the odds, triumphed in the Club World Cup. But less was it the David and Goliath story which was of the most significance but how the underdogs slayed the giant. On the face of it, it sounds ugly – taking the lead through Mineiro, they retreated to defend deep and countered, surviving a barrage of attacks from the Reds – but take a look at the winner again and it will display why it was such a well fought and well thought-out victory.

As the ball was played out of defence, Aloisio the loose forward found himself with acres of space, and similarly Mineiro, who ghosted through unmarked to finish off from the through ball. Movement was a key feature to the build, dragging defenders out of position and they did this by stretching the pitch and the players functioning in an asymmetric way. Josue and Mineiro provided the screen in front of the defence, with the latter’s role being more central and less bureaucratic, and Josue’s, not only holding the fort but covering for the advancing full-backs. Danilo, the attacking midfielder or meia was also loosely defined to take advantage of space by moving inside or out.

The deployment of two volantes may be loathed by purists but their popularization caught on during the noughties due to not wanting give an inch to the opposition and balancing the team. Recent championship success has had Muricy Ramalho, now coach of Palmiera, admit his team had limitations and indeed his layout did nothing to dispel those thoughts, but in his distinctive positioning and interpretations, could get more out of his side.

Pragmatism is also the philosophy off the pitch. Their model of stability is still the envy of many South American clubs who have since seen their stars flock overseas and São Paulo have been no exception. Potential big name players such as Kaka and Baptista have departed the club for massive fees which allows them to recoup and more, the initial investment spent on youth development and reinvest that cash into the first team. A quick look at 2006 team sheet sees youth system graduates, journeymen,workmanlike players and potential quick bucks populate their line-up, displaying the great attention detail the club played in long-term success. As 1970 World Cup great Tostão wrote, the defining characteristics of São Paulo are “marking, physical strength, power in the air and making few mistakes.” Which is not markedly different to contemporary Brazil but São Paulo have made sure they’ve stayed at the forefront in their well deliberated plans on and off the pitch.

Defining moment: São Paulo 1-0 Liverpool: Mineiro, 27. (2006)

Sao Paulo (3-5-2): Rogerio – Fabao, Lugano, Edcarlos – Cicinho, Mineiro, Josue, Danilo, Junior – Amoroso, Aloisio (Grafite, 75).
Subs not used: Christian, Alex, Denilson, Fabio Santos, Renan, Flavio Donizete, Thiago, Richardlyson, Souza, Bosco, Flavio Kretzer.

Useful men ship Arsenal to shape and help tame Tigers

Denilson and Diaby were key complementers to Arsenal’s defensive and attacking side of the game, helping the Gunners to a 3-0 win.
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In his playing days (and even now as the boss of Selecao), Brazil midfielder Dunga always seemed to be playing with the metaphorical middle finger up at his critics. Sneered despite his success, eventually leading the national side to World Cup glory in ’94, he just wasn’t Brazilian enough – European even, meaning helping achieve the end result was more important than how it preceded.

He was the ultimate volante – the destroyer – a hard tackler, constantly harrying the opponents and crucially, holding the team together so as to let them flourish. “I know there are things I can’t do on the pitch,” Dunga once said. “But there are other things which I think I do very well. And they are the things which help us get results. And that is what matters.”

Ironically, however, his style of play rather divides opinion like no other. The late Zizinho and star attacking midfielder in the 1950 World Cup, like much of his contemporaries, was rather critical of Dunga. In his autobiography in 1985, he wrote “the cabeca-de-area [midfielder who sits in front of the centre backs], a man who can control 70% of his team’s possession, has now been given the specific function of destroying, when it should be to set up the play” (quote referenced from Tim Vickery).

Arrigo Sacchi, the former AC Milan manager and revolutionary tactician, whose ideas rather unintentionally contributed, similarly agrees. “Many believe that football is about the players expressing themselves,’ he said. ‘But that’s not the case. Or, rather, it’s not the case in and of itself. The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager.” And speaking in Jonathan Wilson’s book, Inverting the Pyramid about his brief tenure as Real Madrid’s director during the first Galactico era, he also added: “There was no project; it was about exploiting qualities,” he said. “So, 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.”

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?”

The two questions Sacchi posed, can also be applied, albeit loosely, to Arsenal’s football. It was the Denilson’s goal right before the stroke of half-time which ultimately decided the remaining tone of the match against Hull City but he, Diaby and Song were also crucial in their roles as Arsenal assumed control of the game.

Denilson’s role in particularly is very intriguing. Playing in this game as the auxiliary midfielder, this season he has acted as the balancer alongside the now de facto holding player Alex Song. “Denilson gives us stability,” said Wenger. “Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”

For a team like Arsenal to work, the side needs players like Denilson and Song, the latter coming on leaps and bounds in his technical game. The Brazilian also representing a similar shift in his native country. Now many teams are playing with two volante, one purely holding and the other as a functionary midfielder, covering for gaps and giving stability in transitions and when the full back attacks. But it’d be harsh on Denilson to state he is a functionary player. An all-round midfielder is a more apt description and being able to perform many roles in one allows the team to flourish.

Back to the game against Hull and the side found it difficult to cut open a resilient and focused Tigers defence. Many would have chewed over what was a largely negative report of the first half from the mainstream press but in truth the away side made it difficult to play. It wasn’t until Denilson decided to take free-kick matters into his own hands when Arsenal could step up a gear as the midfielder’s free kick dipped into the bottom corner. Eduardo finished off a great move after a one-two between Diaby and Song before the former capped up a good win with a powerful move and finish after linking up with Andrey Arshavin.

Arsenal: Almunia, Eboué, Vermaelen, Gallas, Silvestre, Song, Denilson, Nasri (Ramsey), Diaby*, Eduardo (Walcott), Arshavin (Vela).
Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Sagna, Wilshere, Emmanuel-Thomas.

Hull: Myhill, McShane, Zayatte, Gardner, Dawson, Boateng, Garcia, Geovanni, Barmby, Hunt, Fagan.
Subs: Duke, Mendy, Kilbane, Ghilas, Cousin, Vennegoor of Hesselink, Olofinjana.
Referee: Steve Bennett (Kent).

Arsenal Team Statistics Hull City
3 Goals 0
1 1st Half Goals 0
4 Shots on Target 3
11 Shots off Target 4
5 Blocked Shots 2
8 Corners 0
9 Fouls 17
0 Offsides 4
1 Yellow Cards 5
0 Red Cards 0
83.5 Passing Success 71.2
27 Tackles 25
81.5 Tackles Success 68
65.3 Possession 34.7
53 Territorial Advantage 47