Arsenal can pressure more efficiently by emulating Barcelona

Karthik (KV) explains why and how Arsenal pressing game is to improve if they are to better guard themselves when possession is lost.
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In an interesting article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Vivek Ranadive coached a team of twelve year olds into the US nationals , this despite being a Basketball novice. Upon undertaking the role, he set about changing the way his girls played, because as he understood it was all very tentative playing a game where essentially both sides took turns to attack and this he felt, invited the opposition to attack. So using his tactical knowledge of football, Vivek encouraged his team to use a full-court press in order to get the ball back as quick as possible which helped elevate the team despite perceived limitations in their skills.

This season Arsenal has replicated the formation of the treble winning Barcelona side by shaping up in the 4-3-3. Playing stylish yet effective football seems to be the mantra of both these clubs but recent results against Manchester United and Chelsea show that imitating the formation has not led to similar successes for Arsenal. These encounters exposed the chinks in the armour and Arsenal’s Achilles heel seemed to be leaving space for the opponents to exploit when possession was lost. Since these defeats, fans have clamoured for the return of the early season team ethic where the side implemented high-intensity pressing to get the ball back and ward off the counter. Seemingly, the work-ethic hasn’t been there despite covering more or less similar distances to the opponents. What exactly has changed since?

In this article we will detail Arsenal’s pressing system and how they can more effectively compress space.

Why?

As Chelsea have displayed this season, they are a wonderful passing side and have shot to the top of the Premier League table playing attractive football but up against Arsenal, they were willing to forget all that happened before. They knew that battling for possession would be pointless – one will always be better than the other which would inevitably turn the game into one of thrust and counter-thrust – so they sacrificed some of the initiative and made sure they were better equipped in moments of transition. The result was that with Arsenal choosing to play an expansive style, Chelsea was able to exploit the Gunners on the break as shown in the second goal, with Didier Drogba taking full advantage of uncertainties with a powerful run and finish.

For Arsenal the problem comes in playing such an expansive style which often exerts a massive strain on the defense. The idea in the 4-3-3 is to stretch play therefore creating more angles in the pass but the flip side is that if Arsenal loses the ball they will be left unorganised and disoriented in the defensive phase making it easy for teams to take advantage of the space. So therefore, when they lose possession, they need to find a way to maintain the shape. This is the fundamental aim of pressing. Let us see why we need to press teams.

1. If you pressurize an opponent near his goal, the chances of him losing it in a compromising position are high and may result in a goal.
2. And the above helps in an attacking sense as the more you have the ball, the more you can create and score.
3. Our system leaves only 3-4 at the back and pressing helps counter potential counter attacks.
4. It allows for the side to remain compact so even if players are out of position, the space is closed up quickly.

It is widely known that for a team to press from the front, they need to push up from the back. Ball pressure is all about the space and options the opponent has. Reduce those two things and ball pressure becomes more effective. Therefore, compressing space and advancing high up the pitch results in a compact midfield which can play efficient passes and also less space for an opponent to start an attack. Even if they do so, the midfielders and the attackers are in a good position to retrieve the ball. To put it in better words, the team is in a position to play an attacking defence.

How to press effectively?

Due to the nature of stretching in the 4-3-3 system, there are huge packets of space left in between the wings and near the wingers. In the past few matches, Arsenal have let in counter attacking goals due to mistakes in defending, marking and not covering space. Let us analyse the different options we have to deal with counter attacking scenarios and how we can nullify it through intelligent pressing (below, the key zones as highlighted by the red areas). Remember that the main aim here is to slow down the opponents and force them to play a misplaced pass. The principal condition is that regardless of where the ball is lost the man closest to it will pressure.

The Wing

Trapping the opponent by driving him towards the touchline is an effective tactic. This uses the touchline as an extra defender and it will lead to the opponent passing back or misplacing the pass. Two defenders take part in this and the third can join if feasible. To further add to the trapped attacker’s misery, Arsenal can overload to that side to further take away the opponent’s options. What does this mean? The whole team shifts slightly to that side to take away the player with the ball’s options. One midfield marks their midfielder closest to the trapped player while the forwards roam across their backline. This gives the feeling of asphyxiation to the trapped player, increasing the chance that he will make a bad choice and give away the ball in a bad (good for us) spot. This also helps in the sense that if the trapped player does manage to pass to one of his teammates, there will be an Arsenal player close by to fall on him quickly. However, the risk of executing this strategy is that one cross field ball to the other flank will almost automatically result in a goal. But not everyone has the vision of Cesc to do that sort of a thing! Anyway, the defenders should move into a position to intercept the ball.

Through the centre

Things are tougher now as the centre provides a 360 degrees field view as opposed to a 180 degrees view on the wings. This is why the likes of Arshavin cut in as they have wider options. How does Arsenal press in this situation? It depends on where the players are with reference to the ball. As soon as the side lose the ball in the centre, the advanced midfielders, attackers must press aggressively and isolate the opponent quickly, to slow them down. This will give the much needed time for the defenders to get back into shape and intercept the loose balls by their expert reading of the game. The central defenders’ role is interesting – push up too much and there is the threat of the opponent taking advantage of the space behind. Barcelona is essentially a freak case because as they are so good at keeping possession and movement, they force more players backwards therefore the threat is minimised. However, the most successful teams have shown, and recently USA against Spain, that keeping one up or even two, gives a greater chance of scoring and indeed such is the case of the direct nature of the Premier League.

What are we doing now? How to proceed?

The above tactics are basic pressing techniques used by teams to press effectively. Teams like Barcelona have numerous pressing techniques and they are the masters of compressing space. “Without the ball,” said Pep Guardiola, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.” What they do is they push back the opponents to let the defence read the game and push forward. The midfielders are quick to get on to any loose balls and the full backs get tight on the wingers. One of Guardiola’s newest ploys to perfect the perfect side of last season is in the defensive phase, push the defensive midfielder back into central defence thereby making it a 3-4-3, allowing greater organisation and the ability shift left and right more easily.

The 1-0 win over Liverpool displayed such improvements – Clichy and Eboue were quick to impose themselves on the wide men while the double pivot in front of the back four gave both a lateral and longitude organisation.

Our expansive game exposes huge spaces in between and the Gunners are probably the most vulnerable side in the transition. What Arsenal cannot do is reverse the previous results. But what they can is learn from their mistakes, compress space quickly and pressing efficiently will help concede lesser goals.

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Exploiting the uncertainties of marking – when it’s not man, zone or ball

Recent trends have sought to take advantage of uncertainties in marking as debate still persists on whether the best option is to mark men, zones or the ball.
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The damage to Arsenal in their 3-1 defeat by United may have been done on the counter but Arsène Wenger feels it was their uncertainty in their marking that helped contribute to the situation. “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,” he said. “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.”

The asymmetric 4-3-3 has been a huge success for the club this season but recently, teams have exploited the space afforded to them after bypassing the first line of pressure and the uncertainty it creates. Commit numbers forward (in conjunction with speed is a great weapon) and it causes havoc to not only the zonal-marking system, but to the lesser-used in mainland Europe (more prevalent in Eastern Europe however), the man-marking system. The idea in the defensive phase is to squeeze play, as Barcelona has so expertly displayed under Pep Guardiola, only conceding a miserly 10 goals this season so far and at a rate of 0.5 goals per game. Such a tactic may be anomaly in today’s game as teams usually look to drop back into a defensive block, most commonly a 9-1 split depending on the footballing culture. Nevertheless it’s a desire to be compact that both styles relate. “The trend,” says Gerard Houllier, “is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball.”

With teams defending more compact and the physical development of the game complicating matters, it means teams have had to find more effective ways of breaking down opponents. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”

The Inter Milan manager has also previously expressed his preference for “between the lines” players; those players that are unpredictable in their movement by getting into difficult to mark areas. Indeed, with the influence of playmakers proceeding to become limited due to the prevalence of players with destroying capabilities, between the line players are seen as key to unlocking opposition defences. Some playmakers have been ushered into stealth positions; Luca Modric and Robert Pires profiting from starting from wide areas while others like Deco reinventing themselves as interiors. Deco himself was marginalised to the point of periphery by Darren Flecther and Michael Carrick in 1-0 win over Manchester United earlier in the season and it was only when Anelka dropped deeper in to the hole to support him, did the playmaker get some joy. The caveat here being, that the best playmakers have survived in the hole by displaying effective movement and getting and providing support. Slaven Bilic best sums up the trend: “When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now.”

In the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, the Argentina coach Carlos Bilardino switched from a 4-3-1-2 to the 3-5-2, playing Maradona, not as the playmaker even though he had performed there with much success in the previous rounds, nor as a traditional forward but as a second striker playing in between the lines. Disrupting the oppositions marking by operating in areas that were hard to pick up, the forward reveled, scoring two famous goals. Accordingly, it is from such precise moments that zonal-marking has usurped man-marking as a side’s overall form of marking. A central defender could have tracked Maradona for most of the game but that would also mean tracking him at times when the forward is without the ball. Zonal-marking means the defender can see both man and ball and while it is not a fool-proof method, it is a far more flexible and composed method, allowing the side to keep their structure and remain compact.

However, former Juventus defender and manager, Ciro Ferrara feels the strenuous approach of zonal-marking may cause confusion and invariably, problems. “I passed from just ‘stop your opponent reaching the goal’ mentality to ‘wait for your opponent, stop him, get the ball and pass it to start an attack,’” he said. “I didn’t just have to re-evaluate my position; I had to improve the fundamentals become more nimble, look up, gain a better picture of the whole pitch. It wasn’t easy.”

Thomas Vermaelen may fit the bill of such a defender who can more than handle Ferrara’s concerns but that wasn’t exactly the case when Park Ji-Sung ran forward to score the third for United. As far as Vermaelen was concerned, in the build up to the goal, Wayne Rooney was his man so he followed him out of his zone as the striker dropped short. But in doing so, Rooney had also entered Alex Song’s and Samir Nasri’s zone, so both men, in conjunction with Vermaelen proceeded to make the challenge on the man whom they all thought were theirs. That one move, took three defenders out and allowed United to pass the ball forward to Park who had run on unmarked. The key tactical success therefore in open play lies in disrupting the patterns of marking and taking advantage of the moments of uncertainty.

In the modern game the full-back is usually the only unmarked player on the pitch up to  a certain point and given they have space to make the runs, can cause great damage. This was expertly displayed by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final in 2009 when Maicon’s constant late surges created two goals in their 3-2 comeback against USA. And Sagna twice laid on Robin van Persie with crosses on the right hand side in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Tottenham.

Traditional strikers are disappearing and what we are seeing now is all-rounded forwards who, not only have the capabilities of scoring but also the means to bring others in to play. “We used to say the midfielders are the guys who bring the strikers alive but what is happening now is the strikers are the guys who can bring your midfielders alive,” said Wenger. “They come to score from deeper positions and you can really do that with one-man up front.” Teams have deployed ‘false nines’ to recreate the threat but they are not everlasting. Strikers need to be hybrids as displayed by the ineffectiveness of Andrey Arshavin in big matches as more competent defences are quick to compress the space to which it then becomes one-dimensional. Robin van Persie is a big miss in that regard as he could play both the role of creator and goalscorer giving Arsenal more unpredictability and variation. “Robin Van Persie, when he played we always scored three or four goals. He didn’t score too many [himself] but he made a lot. Not only with passing, but with movement and the quality of that movement. Strikers open walls for the deeper players. That is a big part in the modern game.”

But as tactically sophisticated as football can sometimes seem, it is stopping midfielders running from deep that has still yet to find a solution. Even zonal-marking has not been able to address the old age problem. The answer could lie in defenders developing marking in relation to the ball. But it’s difficult to see how Denilson may have benefited from such insight when chasing down Manchester United’s blistering counter attack for the second goal. All eyes were on the ball and his positioning was satisfactory – but he only needed one glance backwards to spot Rooney and potentially stop the back of the net rippling, rather than understanding his position in relation to the ball.

Maybe then, it’s down once again to Arrigo Sacchi’s all-conquering and somewhat over-zealous AC Milan side in 1989 and ’90 to indicate the way forward. “All of our players,” said Sacchi, “always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.” Defender Franco Baresi also adds: “With Sacchi, we focused on creating rather than breaking down, defending spaces rather than marking men. The secret? At all times you must know your position, where you are standing, and you must participate in the action – even if you are far from the ball.”

Marking then isn’t just a case of man, zone or ball. Because, it seems, everything in football is relative.

Analysing Arsenal’s defensive system

The number of goals conceded by the Gunners has much to do with the side’s expansive style of football.
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The history of tactics, as Jonathan Wilson puts it, is the history of the manipulation of space. So when Arsène Wenger wanted his side to become more dynamic in order to break down deep-lying opponents, his idea – borrowed from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football and adapted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona – was to stretch play to create more space. But the flip side of such an expansive style requires a careful balancing act at the other end, as opening up the pitch for midfielders to exploit gaps means the distances between attack and defence must be well deliberated. The solution, as Barcelona have so expertly displayed, especially under Pep Guardiola in recent seasons, is through high intensity, asphyxiating pressuring of the opponents. “Without the ball,” said the Barca coach, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.”

The stats so far seem to support the shift to 4-3-3 – or they do in an attacking sense at least. A voracious Arsenal have so far plundered in 53 goals in the league this season, at a goals to game ratio of 2.6 but profligacy on both sides of the pitch in big games mean the figures may not be as impressive as they were during the start of the season. At the back, the Gunners have conceded 23 goals, five more than the best defence in the league (Chelsea) and four more than Birmingham. What will be most displeasing, however, is that those goals have only come from a stingy 61 shots on target. Does that suggest Arsenal concede far higher quality chances than other teams or should more blame be attached to the goalkeeper Manuel Almunia? Certainly those are the shots which trouble the goalkeeper the most but it also backs up Wenger’s assertion that nowadays his men between the sticks need to have a far greater all-round game to them as their reflexes seemingly are only troubled two or three shots a game. “Every [modern] rule that has come out in football has taken something away from the ‘keeper,” says Wenger. “That means basically today he must be good with his feet, good with his hands, be very quick, be highly focused for 90 minutes, not make any technical mistakes and it makes the job very hard.”

Universality breeds fluency seems to be the maxim in defence also. For Arsenal to play a passing game, the defenders must be technically proficient in order to keep the ball circulating while being masters of reading the game and mobile to snuff out potential danger.

It can be also argued, however, that such an expansive style can put much strain at the back. The theory is that the more elaborate a team becomes, the more possession they will have hence requiring greater resources. So when Bakary Sagna makes his frequent forays forwards to support the attack, Gallas is needed to push wider, and as the defensive line stretches, the gaps become larger. Playing an expansive style will cause more resources to be used thereby creating undue strain at the back. Of course the trade-off for this is effectiveness but as all personnel are ball players it is harder to shake off that elaborate nature. On one side Wenger has tried to make the side more dynamic, the other looking to ensure his side is organised at the back. “I believe we have quality defenders and it’s more a case of balancing the team defensively,” said Wenger during the disappointing campaign last season. “It’s always easier to correct what doesn’t work defensively; if you don’t create chances you are always more worried.”

Indeed, one of the tenets of this 4-3-3 solution requires all playes to squeeze the space quickly when defending. Starting from the front, it has been a dignified success for a young team who’s natural instinct is too look forward. “I think we all want to get the ball back very quickly,” explains Bakary Sagna. “Everyone is defending quicker and the forwards are doing more. It helps us play as a team. We worked a lot on this in pre-season because we changed the formation and we have to keep working on it.”

As with all formations, there are subtleties underneath that render the labeling of systems as semantics. Tony Adams comment that the formation is indeed a 4-1-4-1 helps shed some light on the attacking and defensive responsibilities of individuals. Using the main forward as the focal point, the two wide men and central midfielders either side of the defensive midfielder look to play around him. Pushing up between the lines, it allows the side to better combat deep-lying teams and interchange positions. In the defensive phase, the quartet pressure in the same band up the pitch rather than having to drop back completely thereby not inviting the opposition at them.

However, as mentioned earlier, once entering the defensive phase Arsenal must suffocate the space quickly, which is a difficulty in itself when you consider stretching the play is fundamental to this style. Thus the problem that may arise is if the opponents bypass the first wave of pressure and are left with space, particularly down the channels, to attack one-on-one. “You have to stay away from one-on-ones,” explained Eugenio Fascetti to World Soccer Magazine when discussing the position of the libero (and incidentally he was the last manager to deploy a traditional libero in Serie A – while coaching Bari in 2000). “If your opponent plays with one striker, there should be no excuses. One of the two centre-backs must get him, the other sweeps from behind. If there are two strikers, one of the full-backs must mark him, leaving the centre-back free. In zonal marking, this is complicated. It’s easier to have someone like De Rossi tracking back and acting as libero, with two centre-backs busy marking the two strikers.”

Indeed Alex Song has been Arsenal’s Danielle De Rossi if using Fascetti’s analogy. The defensive midfielder’s secondary role is to cover for the central defenders, his primary as a dynamic screen in front of the back four, getting the ball back quickly and allowing for the side to keep shape from transitions.  “I know that my position is crucial in the team,” the Cameroon midfielder said. “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.”

And despite it being a successful, there is still room for improvements. It’s like the saying in Brazil goes; “trying to organise a football team is like having a small blanket on a cold night – pull it over your neck and your feet get cold, cover your feet and your neck freezes.” The side has worked on a system of pressuring high up the pitch and closing down quickly, but it can be made even more difficult once the team opens up the pitch in the search for goals. “It’s difficult to have so many people going forward and as well have everybody straight away defending well,” says the French manager. “It’s a consequence of our philosophy a little bit.”

Although Arsenal do not concede many chances – which highlights the effectiveness of the defensive system during approach play and that a big part of defence is attack – the chances conceded are usually of a greater quality. Take for example Manchester City, who had five shots on target and ended up scoring four of them, three as a result from transitions. It’s easier to score when afforded more space and against a less organised defence, especially if teams get given ample one-on-ones to attack with speed. Landon Donovan had a great game for Everton in the recent 2-2 draw, taking advantage of the multitude of space given out wide to take on Armand Traore who was caught indecisive, not just because of his tender age, but also for the lack of cover in front of him. The idea has been for the full-backs, in anticipation of potential danger, follow the winger and squeeze them of space early.

Brazil under Dunga has specifically set-up his team to guard and take advantage of transitions, displaying how key readying yourself for such moments are in the modern game. Arrigo Sacchi, the zealot but fantastic former AC Milan coach used to have his side practice defending with five back, all organised against ten unorganised attacking men. The result; the defending side always won. Jose Mourinho also likes to have five back in anticipation of transitions and has had great success (although it can be argued Arsenal are doing the same especially as Wenger has told his full-backs to be a bit more selective in their forays forward).

The most concerning of all for the Gunners has been defending from set-pieces, where from the same passage of play, 14 goals have gone past them in 28 goals conceded in Europe and the league. Part of it can be blamed to the height issue (or bravery, tracking runners etc.), another mentality. (Long balls through the middle and picking up the loose ones where a problem last season, this season the statistics are a bit more scattered). It is evident in Almunia in particular the trust isn’t there in his players while Fabianksi and Manonne are impulsive to the airborne pass.

Further analysis of the defensive system can come in the form of Barcelona and Wigan who are teams at two ends of the 4-3-3 spectrum. The former suffocate opponents through constant attack and pressure; the latter just haven’t got the skills to be as consistent either on the ball, defensively or ruthlessness, culminating in the 9-1 mauling by Tottenham. Attacking is one part of the system and teams that have denied Arsenal space through the centre by pressing high and stopping the ball getting wide, have generally posed the Gunners backline more problems [and better results too West Ham (2-2), Everton (2-2), Burnley (1-1) and Fulham (0-1)].

Overall, however, Wenger will not be much too disheartened by his rearguard collective. Being the most effective offside trap in the League – catching the opponents out 91 times already – shows a harmonious defensive unit and one that is good at squeezing play. Of the (slightly) higher number of goals conceded compared to their direct title rivals, some have been rendered insignificant due to the result being out of question. Others, such as the 3-0 defeat to Chelsea was disappointing but with analysis mostly concerned with the attacking failings, ergo it shows confidence in a quality backline. It’s maybe as Wenger says; for an attacking side, it’s only when you don’t create chances that defensive question marks come to the fore. And Arsenal have been scoring their fair share.

Thomas Vermaelen represents a sweeping change to Arsenal’s backline

Arsène Wenger’s quest for attacking perfection sees his two centre backs playing with more than a hint of libero.
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Vermaelen-shot

In Arsène Wenger’s first match in charge of Arsenal, the French manager deployed a three man defence but despite a convincing 2-0 win over Blackburn the set-up was never to be seen again in red and white colours in the subsequent seasons. (Wenger only persisted with the 3-5-2 for the remainder of the campaign because of his freshness in the job and the players’ insistence on keeping it that way). It was easy to understand Wenger’s dissatisfaction; he was a sweeper in his playing days and a backline featuring a threesome of stoppers had no real long term benefit especially with the style of play he wanted to implant in the team. (That is not to disrespect the defensive abilities of the legendary back four, as Wenger has been quoted saying, “the back four were all university graduates in the art of defending. As for Tony Adams, I consider him to be a doctor of defence. He is simply outstanding.”)

His vision required all-round defenders, players in the vein of himself even – sweepers. But the libero (from the Italian word meaning “free”) in it’s classic incarnation, the director of the team with the freedom of the pitch, had practically died out.

Some say the sweeper was once and for all confined to the coffin by Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary tactics although the changing of rules had also made it difficult to play. His all conquering AC Milan side played a high-pressure game, zonal marked aggressively, and essentially incorporated the libero into the four-man defence however it could be argued he did so for all positions as Franco Baresi implicates. “With Sacchi, we focused on creating rather than breaking down, defending spaces rather than marking men,” he said. “The secret? At all times you must know your position, where you are standing, and you must participate in the action – even if you are far from the ball.” Baresi’s role was particularly revolutionary as the ‘centrale staccato’ (a detached central defender), as it effectively done away with the need for a sweeper.

But perhaps overall what Sacchi indicates is that the traits of the libero should lurk inside every player – the ability to play the ball and see danger and opportunities should not be confined to specialist players It is a view very much held in regard by Arsène Wenger where in the first team we’ve seen the gradual phasing out of the stopper. The argument is not whether the stopper has its use or not as clearly it does, as seen by the success of Arsenal’s English back four. But the thinking is that ‘universality’ brings fluency and if the Gunners are to play an expansive style then the centre backs must also be equally adept.

He wants his centre backs to essentially play like liberos, albeit slightly stripped down, while altogether remaining in a zonal defence. Call them advancing centre backs if you will.

Wenger wants attacking perfection, constantly looking for different ways of opening up teams and his latest development is to have his defenders engaged in forward play. By involving them in the build up they can effectively become an extra midfield, getting into unmarked space and causing more unpredictability. This variety and change in points of attack also allows the side to break from the monotony of packed midfields and deep defences which has been the scourge of Arsenal in recent seasons. Thomas Vermaelen has already added two goals this season in such a manner against both Blackburn and Wigan. It is  important to notice the amount of space afforded to the Belgian as he broke from the back as a result of the opposition not having the means to predict the charge.

“With the ball he’s really good,” said Cesc Fabregas on Vermaelen. “He’s like one more midfielder. These days, to have a centre back that can play, you know, these balls on the ground, between the lines, and past players, for players like me in midfield it’s really good because it gives you so much time and so much space on the ball. It’s really good.”

The upshot of this progressive manner is that the team must play a high line which requires the centre backs to have a good technique, highly mobile and read the game well so as to keep the ball circulating and also be on guard for a swift counter attack.

However giving license to your centre back will only be more effective if the opposition play with one less forward than you have central defenders hence allowing the space to get forward. In the Confederations Cup, USA made sure to station both their forwards up the field at all times so as to keep the modern advancing centre back of Gerard Pique busy and deny him the chance to get forward.

In that sense the role of Alex Song in front of the back four is very important and many would argue that the spirit of the libero is mostly alive in that position. “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 4-1-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma. That first man in midfield – Daniele De Rossi at Roma – is the modern libero. His movements are similar, but he starts ahead of the defenders and retreats into the shell if needed. But he gets the ball all the time and is the main distributor.”

And if Italy is the country of trends then we may see the comeback of the libero due to the increase in the three-man defence in the league. But on the other hand, the use of a holding midfielder in front and the liberalisation of the offside trap and professional fouls complicating things, it may mean there is no need. But what has become increasingly apparent is that modern centre-backs will be required to have more skills most possibly resulting in the upsurge of the ball-playing, advancing centre-back. And it is Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal who lead the way.

Thomas Vermaelen fits the bill of the modern central defender

Thomas Vermaelen’s technical prowess and reading of the game will help Arsenal both at the back and in building up attacks.
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vermaelen

Arsenal’s defensive perils have always seemed slightly exaggerated, if a tiny bit superficial. Yes, it would help if the defenders were taller but the height issue always seems to rear it’s head as a talking point whenever Arsenal didn’t perform as well as an attacking unit.

As a reader keenly pointed out, teams must defend as a team but the same is also true when attacking. Arsenal are a possession based team and their ability to keep the ball is both a form of defense and as a means of sustaining the pressure at the other end. The deployment of the high line enables the ball to be circulated continuously to build up pressure. The permeations of this however is that it means the centre backs must be adept at passing the ball and reading the game, while being highly mobile so as to keep the game flowing and be ready for a swift counter attack.

In the past two seasons Arsenal have had three notable headers of the ball; Sol Campbell, Phillipe Senderos and Pascal Cygan (the less we talk about the latter the better). The former two on the whole produced good partnerships with whomever they lined up with as they were the ones who attacked the ball if play broke down while the other stayed back. They also passed the ball well, read the game comfortably and by attacking the ball almost made up for their slight lack of pace. And with the signing of Thomas Vermaelen, Arsene Wenger will be hoping he has found the right balance this time.

Arsenal have been following the Belgian since the age of 16 along with Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and the move has baffled a few, mainly due to his height or rather lack of. But at 6ft, FIFA reckon it’s the ideal height for the modern top player. The governing body’s research suggests such players make up the height because of their powerful leap, an area where Vermaelen excels at. Around 30% of goals are scored from set pieces (half of that penalties) and 70% from open play (40% are scored from quick breaks). Last season in all competitions, Arsenal conceded 7 headed goals, 9 goals altogether from set pieces (not counting penalties). 16 goals were scored from quick breaks and having admitted goals conceded was the Gunners main downfall, Wenger will hope Vermaelen will help contribute to a lower goals against tally next campaign.

Indeed Vermaelen’s rainbow of skills should put him at a good advantage but it would be foolish to think the Belgian will get to the speed of the English game straight away. While he has great underlying potential, praised by Ronaldo De Boer no least, Ajax fans feel they have not seen the best of him.

An underwhelming season as skipper for Van Basten’s side saw Ajax finish third and the manager sacked. A 4-1 defeat to Vitesse raised a few questions among the Dutch press about Vermaelen’s suitability to Arsenal; he seems comfortable challenging on the ground and in the air when close to his marker but was exploited on the break on more than a couple of occasions in the fixture, going against one of the chief reasons why he was signed. Vermaelen will no doubt point out the weak cover in front of him but having been watched for a long time, it seems rather the lack of quality around him than the actual player himself which was the main cause. The overwhelming  feeling however is that Arsenal have a potential diamond in the rough here, and there is no better person than Arsene Wenger to polish off the edges.

Characteristics 0f Elite Players (FIFA)

• Height: 181cm
• Weight: 74kg
• VO2Max: 60 to 65ml
• Sprint 10m: 1’’78
• Sprint 20m: 2’’89
• Sprint 60m: 7’’43
• Jumping height: 63cm
• Great speed of movement and
running
• Dynamism
• Technical skills
• Muscular power
• Ability to recover quickly
• Ability to repeatedly produce short
and intensive efforts
• Tactical understanding
• Mental strength and self control