David Silva’s inside game creates tactical anarchy

David Silva  is quite a player, isn’t he? Shorn of many outstanding individuals, Silva has risen above the challengers to claim the crown as the Premier League’s top talent.  But perhaps, therein lies the question.Manchester City-Arsenal was a great advert for the league, argues Michael Cox for ZonalMarking.net – it was played at a pulsating pace, full of trickery and cunning and not to mention great technical ability –  but it lacked a certain control the best European counterparts, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona, are masters at. Indeed, is it that the hectic nature owes in part, to the failure of English sides in the Champions League and thus the extra space allowing David Silva to become the best in the league?

Cesc Fábregas talks similarly of the Premiership, saying in Four Four Two magazine as being “alocado” (crazy). On the other hand, a mix of continental astuteness and British urgency has seen Fábregas start the season wonderfully in La Liga and key part of Pep Guardolia’s plans. But the manager has also commented on the tactical “anarchy” that Fábregas brings to the side, sometimes to eager to get forward and thus relinquishing some of their vice-like grip on matches. Yet, control might not have been paramount in this game and in Manchester City’s case, Roberto Mancini was perhaps happy to cede some possession as he was always going to play through his front four. Nevertheless, Manchester City did have control for large periods of the game with and without the ball and showed ruthless ambition on the break Arsenal did not have. For The Gunners, they lacked spark in attack. They essentially also played with a front four although the difference between the sides’ interpretations was noticeable.

Gervinho made his best performance in an Arsenal shirt in terms of involvement, attempting 48 passes (42 successful) and was generally Arsenal’s biggest threat. But he, like the rest of the team, lacked end product. The Gunners looked best when he got involved, often linking up with Robin van Persie and taking up his spaces but while it highlighted what was good about Arsenal, it proceeded to show what could be better. Because City’s front four did it better. David Silva jinxed and drifted from his right-flank and that dragged Arsenal’s defenders this-way-and-that. When he vacated his right position, Mario Balotelli often took up his space. If he didn’t, Sergio Aguero did. Samir Nasri also had a neat game and the goal was perhaps the only time, in an attacking instant, where the coaches tactical plan paid off. Manchester City won the ball back and suddenly the front four darted into life, breaking with speed before Silva anticipated Balotelli’s shot. It’s generally difficult to defend from breaks – highlighting why Arsenal are often punished despite the paucity of chances they concede; most are quick breaks/counter-attacks – but Laurent Koscielny’s confusion summed it up as Nasri played the pass to Balotelli, somehow popping up on the left. They did it in the Carling Cup and Mancini’s selection, choosing Kolo Toure at centre-back to read Arsenal’s attacks, indicated he wanted to do it again.

While City’s attack interchanged and buzzed, Arsenal’s jerked and in the end, was too functional. Aaron Ramsey often found himself in dangerous pockets but lacked the movement to deliver a telling pass. Theo Walcott, on the other hand, isolated himself on the right-flank and when he did get into good positions, was not found.

This was not a bad Arsenal performance but just a bit short of Manchester City’s exuberance in possession. Wenger has decided to go with a three striker policy although in the meantime, it’s alienating Yossi Benayoun who would have revelled in the spaces “between-the-lines.” The tactic depends 1) on technique, which Mikel Arteta has provided, 2) on movement, which had usually come from the midfield three rotating but Wenger, in the last three games, choosing to play closer a 4-2-3-1 and 3) creativity, which Ramsey wasn’t too comfortable with and Alex Song unable to break forward as he has. His pass which found Gervinho in the first-half was an uncharacteristically rare moment of incision.

Arsenal clearly suffered without any full-backs and when they did push forward in the second-half when the personnel changed, they were punished on the break. That’s why Wenger has pushed Ramsey forward more recently although this time, his tactic failed to pay off. If they had either one of Andre Santos or Bakary Sagna, Arsenal might have been more confident of getting at least a point. As it was, both sides pressed without achieving the desired impact, creating a game of pass the parcel. It was up to, then, the two front fours to decide the game and it was David Silva who came up with the clincher, causing anarchy to Arsenal’s defence.

Pass masters: Both teams’ main threat came from clever passes, Sergio Agüero in particular making shallow runs to beat Arsenal’s defence. *NB: We couldn’t produce an image better than The Guardian’s to illustrate the article so we stole their’s instead. All royalties will be paid to the trustees of the media group in due course. When we actually make some money from this site. If we do. Actually, we lose more money than we make.

Advertisements

How do short, on the move strikers at Barcelona help break the bus?

Barcelona’s clever use of short, tricky forwards have made them an unpredictable force against defensive-minded teams and particularly have allowed Lionel Messi to revel. By Karthik (KV)
______________________________________________________________________________

At Camp Nou, Barcelona fielded a forward line of Messi, Bojan and Pedro to battle it out against the determined defense of Arsenal. One similarity between these players that springs to our mind is their height – all three are 170cm or less. How then did these players, with their slight build and a hardly awe-inspiring physique wreak havoc to Arsenal’s backline?

Movement

Movement is to Barcelona what oil is to a machine. Barcelona, arguably the most attacking team in the world, encounters teams week in and week out which just park the bus in front of their goal to stop Barcelona from scoring and playing freely. They are a side who rely heavily on movement to breakdown defenses and score goals. They require a well drilled, fast and a quick thinking frontline for their team to function properly. Bojan, who is an out-and-out striker by trade, possesses all these qualities. He is technically brilliant, intelligent, blessed with great ball control, balance, vision and devastating acceleration. “There are only a few players who have a magical touch,” the Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola said, “and Bojan is one of them.” As the spearhead of the attack, his movement along with Messi’s is vital to opening up space elsewhere for other players to make the most of. This cannot be more critical as the relentless machine that is Barcelona function superlatively only if there is no one restricting the flow. They need to keep getting better and find better ways to disintegrate defenses.

The unorthodox forward

In the olden times of England, the centre-forward tended traditionally to be a big target-man figure – what Brian Glanville intelligently labels as “the brainless bull at the gate”. His job was, essentially, to meet crosses and hold up the ball with his imposing form. Elsewhere, though, where skill was prioritized over physicality, he soon became something rather more subtle, and there is evidence to suggest that by the 1920s it was not uncommon for centre-forwards in central Europe and in Latin America to drop deep and roam around the ground freely. Over time, we have seen hybrid strikers who can hold the ball up and also play as a false nine leading the attack for most of the big clubs. But Bojan is a different type of striker. He may not quite offer the flexibility of style but he moves about the pitch without restraint in search of open spaces. This enhances the fluency of movement which the likes of Xavi and Iniesta crave for. “People think we had these big strong players, but we had guys like Evani and Donadoni who were slight. No they became big strong players because of their positioning and movement. That’s what made them seem big” said Arrigo Sacchi. Similarly, the likes of Messi, Bojan and Pedro compensate for their slight physique with intelligent movement and by dropping between the lines. Bojan is capable of playing on the wings too, which adds to his versatility.

The Decoy

Basketball is a game which is all about movement the movement of players on court. Teams plan beforehand and devise intricate plays to attract double teams and isolate a player. As play is generally compressed into one half, it is extremely interesting how much impact a simple movement from the center to the wing makes enough space for the man on the ball to drive inside. The man off the ball is as important as the man with it. The same comparison can be made on attacking teams like Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United which rely heavily on movement of players to score goals. Lionel Messi, most certainly the best player in the world, is used as a decoy by Pep Guardiola. The goals in the first leg of the quarterfinal match against Arsenal, demonstrate this. Defenders are attracted to him and neglect the presence of other players, who are just as capable of inflicting damage. In the average position graph above, we can clearly see the amount of space available for Xavi (6) to thread in his passes. Messi (10) has the ability to attract the direction of play towards him. With their movement, they will be able to outwit bigger and brawny defenders, which may be why Silvestre was drafted in place of Sol Campbell.

The Arshavin experiment

Arsene Wenger’s love for short players with meteoric acceleration led to his brief experiment with Andrey Arshavin, a shrewd player, up top as a Center Forward was largely a failure. Arshavin, who is 172 cm high, relied on swift movement to create space for others. But, due to the injury crisis at that time, the right personnel weren’t there to take advantage of his movements. Lack of penetration and dynamism on the wings were major reasons for the failure. But pushing Fabregas higher up the pitch seemed to be the right solution but the return of Bendtner, a hybrid striker himself, ended the short-lived experiment.

What next?

Will we see more of the Bojans and the Messis leading the line? May be not on a regular basis as things may get one-dimensional and easy to defend against. What the hybrid striker offers is flexibility of styles and options for the manager when things are not going as per plan. Ibrahimovic is certainly not the ‘brainless bull in front of the gate’ type of player. They may present an alternative such as the long ball, but not quite the fluency of movement that the players like Bojan and Messi offer. But they too are versatile in their own way, which may see more being deployed up front in the near future.

Next up: Analysing Arsenal’s Pressing Game.

How Pep Guardiola is looking to improve on perfection

Just how does Pep Guardiola improve on the most successful club side in a calendar year? We detail the tactical changes the Barcelona coach has made to his side to make them even better.
______________________________________________________________________________

After Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Estudiantes in the Club World Cup in which the Catalan side recorded a never before paralleled, six cup wins in a calendar year, manager Pep Guardiola turned to his assistant Tito Vilanova, with bleary eyed with tears of joy, seemingly asking “where do we go from here?” Just how does Pep Guardiola possibly improve upon perfection?

In truth, Guardiola has been planning his quest to create a footballing monster team since he served his apprenticeship as a rookie coach, among others paying a visit to Arsenal’s training ground to see just how Arsene Wenger grants his side the capacity to play with such a euphoric spontaneity and the audacity although he didn’t have to look further than the Dream Team he was an integral part of in the early nineties. He soon took over as Barcelona B coach in 2007 and not coincidentally in one of this season’s group stage matches his starting eleven featured seven La Masia graduates. And when he took over the senior squad a year later he made it the team mantra “diversity in counsel, unity in command,” and then proceeded to strip off the negative influences and shirkers such as Ronaldinho and Deco. That continued at the start of this season also, as he almost unthinkably got rid of a key component of his treble winning side in Samuel Eto’o in a gargantuan part exchange deal to bring in Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the opposite direction. That move people said was going to give Barcelona a Plan B, the option to play direct especially after the way Chelsea shackled them in last year’s Champions League semi-final first leg by playing an ultra-defensive game. And it worked, with Barcelona putting all three past Sporting Gijon in their first game of La Liga from headers but as each match wore on, Guardiola was indicating he had in mind, more than a Plan B, Plan C or even a Plan D. He was looking to add more variety to his Plan A than a Muttiah Muralitharan over, all at the seamless barking of instructions.

Against Stuttgart, in the Champions League Second Round First Leg, Barcelona became unstuck against the German side’s pressuring high up the pitch. Stuttgart, playing a 4-4-2 against the default Barcelona 4-3-3 was able to profit from attacking the wings with speed and the forwards dropping into space with movement – just as Athletico and Villarreal have done in previous season and indeed this season. For the return leg, however, Guardiola switched to what looked like a 4-2-4 and with Lionel Messi revelling behind the forward the Argentine hit a superb hat-trick (and also doing the same the following game against Real Zaragoza). Pep Guardiola is adamant though that this formation hasn’t a name and its asymmetry lends itself to the strengths of the team to cause unpredictability. “Our rivals have studied us a lot and we have to look for alternatives,” said the captain Carlos Puyol. “The important thing is the intensity [we play]; the tempo and that we want the ball.”

Indeed this maxim is what makes the layout and Guardiola’s men were able to cause havoc to Stuttgart’s planning in the way they were set-up. In the centre of midfield, Seergio Busquets and Yaya Toure played alongside each over though not in the same lines, with Toure slightly higher up and slanted towards the left. Iniesta was deployed as the half-winger out wide, used more for his intricacy and link up while Pedro was the more dynamic on the right, looking to engage the full back and pin him back. The result saw a collection of hard to mark individuals in attack and a system which was almost all about chain reactions in the defensive phase to make staying compact easier. “This new look was implemented so that Messi could connect into the game more often because it’s good for us when does,” explained Guardiola when using the same system earlier this season in a 2-1 win over Malaga – though the scoreline hardly reflected the complete domination Barcelona had on the match. “We found him more often than in other games. It also to puts him closer to Ibra. It’s as if Messi were an ‘interior.’ They (Xavi and Busquets) were never on the same line. We have never played with a double pivot. However, we did make a small adjustment with the wingers and their defensive roles.” So in essence the formation was a 4-1-1-1-1-1-1 but numbers will never portray what Guardiola wanted to outline. [Carlo Mazzone’s quote on between-the-lines players may help: “There are trends in football. 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.]

Barcelona’s formation as per the 4-0 win over Stuttgart in the Champions League Second Round Second Leg.

At varying moments in this season, Guardiola has also deployed a back three with either a defensive midfielder dropping back or in introducing another centre-back. The full-backs then become wing-backs and depending on his personnel at disposal, the formation resembles a 3-4-3 (used by Johan Cruyff when coach and was very confident in minimising the risks because of the team’s ability to keep the ball) or a 3-1-3-3.

The tinkering though doesn’t stop there because in the signing of Zlatan Ibrahmovic is a player who creates room for others by roaming around the pitch, doubling up or dropping deep to cause uncertainty in marking and pulling defenders out of position. That tactic enables players like Xavi and Keita to get in the box unmarked which the neither the system of zonal or man-marking has got to grips with yet. The biggest point argued in the loss of Samuel Eto’o, however, is said to be the ability for the forward to get behind the defense otherwise Barcelona may lead themselves to a trap of over-elaborateness. The stats do seem agree with Eto’o fans to some degree as according to OPTA Ibrahimovic has been caught offside the most this season in La Liga yet that stat also may highlight the fact that the Swede just needs to time his runs better. But as displayed in the Champions League win over Manchester United, does this switch indicate a move away from the false nine – the role Messi deployed in the final? Indeed, with Eto’o, the interchange of positions is seamless but with Ibrahimovic it can only be used in periods. Nevertheless, that hasn’t detracted Guardiola from doing so and in doing so presents another problem to the opposition which so far, no-one has been able to answer.

Teams of the Decade, #20: Czech Republic 2004

Our (late) review of the noughties sees The Arsenal Column count down the top 20 teams of the decade (not definitive).
______________________________________________________________________________
A slightly sentimental choice given the golden generation didn’t win a thing and the semi-final featuring a blonde weeping on the bench but each time the Czech’s played, they thoroughly entertained.

In Euro 2004, they were many’s dark horse for the tournament and encapsulated that belief with an extraordinary display of thrusting and counter-thrusting football against the exponents of “Total Football”, Holland. Czech Republic fell behind by two goals in the first 19 minutes as Wilfred Bouma then Ruud van Nistelrooy, toying around with the new offside law, surely put the game beyond doubt early on. Indeed they should have as their wing play caused havoc of the Czech’s diamond system with Arjen Robben in potent form. However Milan Baros added a career worth of depth to his CV by inspiring his team of troupers to a fantastic comeback, first by intercepting a tame pass by Philip Cocu to set up lumberjack Jan Koller before being returned the favour for the equaliser. A chest down from the tall striker found Baros, who first time, thundered a volley into the back of the net. And it was a perfectly timed tackle by Tomas Rosicky that set the motions to send a whole nation to ecstasy as Vladimir Smicer completed the turnaround.

The neutrals select for the championship couldn’t repeat the heroics however despite featuring an orgy of talented players. Karel Bruckner sorted his men into a diamond formation with Pavel Nedved and Rosicky in particular looking to interchange positions while a great feature of their system were their two bombing full-backs. Midfielder Lubo Lapsansky, now playing in Austrailia perhaps describes Czech football in the best possible service as displayed by the nation in the tournament; “[…] always about playing short balls, a lot of movement off the ball, trying to create the space for the players for the ball to be played into. It’s a fairly tactical game. Players are required in any position, and need to be technically smart in advance. You drag the players out, and open up the space behind and you start attacking. You learn your patterns, you don’t panic, you keep the ball till things open up. That’s pretty much what Czech football is all about.”

Czech Republic (4-4-2 diamond): Cech, Grygera,Ujfalusi, Jiranek, Jankulovski, Galasek, Poborsky, Rosicky, Nedved, Baros, Koller.

Subs: Blazek, Kinsky, Mares, Lokvenc, Rozenhal, Vachousek, Smicer, Hubschman, Tyce, Plasil, Heinz.

Predicting the tactical advancements of the new decade

Improvements in technical ability and fitness means the likely trend in football could see the proliferation of all-rounded players.
______________________________________________________________________________

This summer, we may get the earliest indication of where the next phase in the cycle tactics may be heading. Brazil have swept everything in their path thus far and are justifiably the favourites for the World Cup in South Africa. But they’ve done it in a way quite removed from the free-flowing exhibition of attacking football married into a team collective that won them three Jules Rimet trophies between 1958 and 1970. The problem as Dunga sees it as coach of Selecao, is that opponents now make it harder for such teams to pass their way through the middle and indeed in a sense that was proved as Brazil played some of the best football before 1994 but it wasn’t until players like him (a destroyer) that the nation became world champions again.

His thinking therefore sees greater opportunity lying in transitions and set-pieces, relying on the dynamism and individual brilliance of a select few (namely Kaka and Maicon) to take advantage from outside play and their expert organisation to stop others from playing. When it was pointed out to Dunga in the 1-0 defeat to England in Doha that his team often had eight men behind the ball, his answer was pretty stark. “That’s the way we play,” he said. “England had 11 men behind the ball. They need to learn how to dribble [through us]. That’s what you have to do. Teams are more compact these days.”

But can we learn anything from a tournament lasting only a month, especially as  international managers have less time to work with their players? It is true that recent trends seen in club level such as pressuring high up the pitch (Chile one exception but on to that later) or the use of hybrid strikers or ‘false nines’ have been less prevalent in the international game, possibly because the selection pool is much more limited while Fabio Capello feels it’s because there is a dearth of top quality strikers at international sides.

However, the more underlying trends seen in club level were all on show during the early parts of the decade. Brazil shifted towards catering for the individual in even greater disregard for the collective game in 2006, France’s performances in the same year took a positive upturn when Zidane became the focus while Greece’s compact, counter-attacking side in Euro 2004 typified zonal marking in Europe. But more positively, recent winners (Brazil being the only exception in Copa America) have shown a greater emphasis on technical and creativity, with Slaven Bilic stating Italy’s win in 2006 as being about the “movement of 10 players.” And Spain’s win in Euro 2008 owed much credit to a culture of technical excellence, movement and ingenuity backed up by beaten semi-finalists Russia’s speed of passing and dynamism out wide. Somewhat strangely however, Egypt have not translated their recent African Cup of Nations form, defeating arguably more physically imposing teams, into World Cup qualification.

So it is with this more technique-orientated shift, it is curious to see how well Brazil will fare in the next World Cup. Because the danger is, beneath the defensive resilience, if a team can pressure the two holding midfielders/destroyers of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo, you can stop the team from playing by exposing the pairs’ technical shortcomings. If that happens, you are likely to see Brazil put the emphasis back on producing deep-lying playmakers as opposed to pure destroyers. Indeed you don’t even have to look far at the English Premier League to see the upshots of recovery of the deep-playmaker with teams such as Aston Villa, Birmingham, Everton (before Arteta’s injury) and Fulham having great success with them.

However it seems more apt to attributed its revival to the increasing fitness demands on players rather than technique. The fast pace of the Premier League has led to managers opting for players who can distribute the ball quickly and in turn not be easily closed down,  and the conceded physicality compensated by making sure their sides are more organised and compact. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Teams are pressuring more aggressively and higher up the pitch, which should lead to more universal or all-rounded players such as like former Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Redondo, who played as the deep-lying playmaker but his energy levels allowed him to dominate far greater areas of the pitch than his position implied.

Arrigo Sacchi is adamant not much has changed in football since his AC Milan side triumphed in the European Cup in 1989 and 1990, except the proliferation of specialists. Inspired by Rinus Michel’s Holland side, the key idea was that every player must play an equal part in a highly systematized layout. 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 the manager’s ideologies (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). “With [Sacchi] it was all about movement off the ball,” said Paulo Maldini. “And that’s where we won our matches. Each player was as important defensively as in attack.” And as fitness improves, technique will almost become a prerequisite therefore universality seems the obvious trend. Indeed teams playing with strikers on the wings have indicated this may be the case.

Strikers and defenders have also seen transformations, as forwards are required to be hybrids – to be able to score goals and create chances as well. Defenders represent a precarious case; some see the return of the sweeper (libero) as the lone forward becomes the preferred choice thus leaving one centre back spare. However, disregarding the fact that the libero requires extraordinary mental talent, tactical evolution in modern football is all about controlling space – when one space opens, it’s attempt to exploit it becomes closed which invariably opens up another one. It’s difficult to see the libero in a free roaming incarnation in this decade again because the space will be much more limited and harder to exploit. More likely, is three or two advancing centre-backs each alternating moments to get forward when the time is right so as to spring greater surprise and effectiveness.

The back three is likely to see some sort of revival although probably not as wide spread in its use as in the ’80’s. Chile have played a 3-3-1-3 in qualifying for the World Cup without any wing backs and pressuring high up the pitch. Could we see more customised formations in the near future such as a 3-6-1, looking to take advantage of the underlying trends in recent times? Also in pressuring high up the pitch, could we see players like Alex Song or Wilson Palacios pushed higher up the pitch to stop teams from distributing the ball forward? Maybe a mixed attacking midfielder in the hole marking the deep-lying playmaker is a possible advancement.

David Dein secretly says Arsene Wenger feels the future lies in Africa and South America and with a mix of physique and technical ability, it makes perfect sense. Players such as Alex Song, Michael Essien and Yaya Toure who can distribute the ball well combined with cosmic energy levels will be desired in every team. Indeed as competition intensifies, the best African youngsters are making the way to the top clubs earlier which can only serve to better their technique and creativity. England may also find themselves in a good position as the fruits of a ten-year cycle in improving youth infrastructure nears its conclusion which should see graduates mixing old-style English ruggedness with continental flair.

Football is only ever likely to see subtle changes, unless their is a change to the standard dynamics of the game, with advancements such as fitness creating small evolutions such as  how the different players interpret their roles and their movement. For example Cristiano Ronaldo played on the left of a fluid 4-4-2 in Man United’s 2007/08 triumph but was expected to carry the same goalscoring duties of a striker while on the other side, Park Ji Sung despite playing in the same position per se, was more defensive, tracking back and pressuring but also expected to get in the box. We can see in the centre of midfield, Diaby’s importance as defensively he covers for the left forward and makes tackles for the team while his strong, late running is considered one of the best by Wenger.

The next decade seems set to follow a holistic nature but as fitness peaks, football is likely go full circle again and as soon as someone finds success with a destroyer, a stopper or a goal-poacher, others will follow suit. Nevertheless with universality looking the near future, the twentytens looks set to become an exciting one.

Next up: Analysing Arsenal’s defensive game

With great freedom comes great responsibility

Arsenal’s pre-season campaign has shown some promise but it is very much a work in progress as there is a need for greater understanding of one’s role if the team wants to perfect it’s fluid style.
______________________________________________________________________________
fabregas-001

With every match, the Arsenal doom-mongers seem to put forward another flaw in Arsenal’s game. This week, following the 2-0 pre-season defeat to Valencia one absurd suggestion was that the Gunners central defenders now have problems dealing with pace. Luckily that criticism is not doing the rounds but what that one ‘fan’ saw was a consistent flow of quick breaks from the opposition.

With wholesale changes made in the second half and the introduction of live wire David Villa, such attacks became more frequent. The problem in this game and the two Emirates Cup encounters was a lack of discipline both from an attacking point of view and defensively. Too hasty to get forward and a lack of understanding of one’s responsibility on the pitch – even the great Cesc Fabregas could not get away with this one.

The consensus seems to be that there is two different ways to play the 4-3-3; one with fluidity and the other more functional – at the moment Arsenal seem to stuck somewhere in the middle. But ultimately, through all the tactics and preparation, both will succeed or fail on the attitude and application of the players in the side.

With more fluidity and flexibility in a side, in theory this should mean it will be more harder for Arsenal to organise. However the most attractive of teams in history have also been the most effective in controlling space. Wenger doesn’t have to look far to see that, as his own ‘Invincibles’ side had players who played in operational areas. Bergkamp in the channel between midfield and attack and Vieira and Edu/Gilberto disciplined in front of the defence.

In the days of the man-to-man WM system, Brazil came into the 1958 World Cup with the concept of the back four and zonal marking. While Brazilian football seems to be steeped in the stereotype of this fantastic carnival football but one which has no regard for tactical solidity, this defensive balance meant the flair players of Garrincha and Pele where able to revel.

Wenger admits his most greatest influence was the “Total Football” Ajax team of the late 60s and early 70s. A team which was built up with a core of players from the academy and played revolutionary football, interchanging positions and keeping the ball. That style reached it’s apex in the 1974 World Cup when, Rinus Michels having only three friendly matches to prepare his Holland side, chose a team compromising of mainly Ajax and Feyenoord and somehow managed to mold together a team in perfect harmony.

It was the utter demolition of Argentina 4-0 that sent shock waves around the footballing world as Holland constantly denied the opposition space by pressurising together. And then with the space afforded to them by Argentina, exploited it through the kaleidoscopic switching of positions . Michels later said: “It is an art in itself to compose a starting team, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, and between defence, construction and attack – never forgetting the quality of the opposition and the specific pressures of each match.”

One man watching at home, Arrigo Sacchi was completely entranced by it all, and in Jonathan Wilson’s book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics said, “Holland in the 1970s really took my breath away. The television was too small: I felt like I needed to see the whole pitch to fully understand it.”

Inspired among others by the Dutch’s controlling of space and artistry on the ball he created an all conquering AC Milan side that was not only entertaining but tough as needles to break down. Sacchi’s demanded that when not in possession, the defence and attack were to be separated by no more than 25m (before the liberalisation of the offside trap) and should pressure aggressively. It was highly systematised, with versatile players ensuring the system could continue and holding no compromises. “All of our players,” he said, “always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.” Such was his devotion and slight fanaticism he always maintained that five organised players would always beat 10 disorganised ones.

Slightly fanatical it may sound but the thinking of controlling space is still shared among the top coaches today. After watching USSR beat Italy 2-0 in the semi-final of Euro 88, Marcello Lippi hailed the victory of systematised pressing while Carlo Ancelloti will play a 4-4-2 diamond this season because he feels he can “put more zonal pressing”. Barcelona’s 4-3-3 wouldn’t be the same without the high pressuring of opponents and while the midfielders play with fluidity and freedom have, know what their role is when defending.

And up against Arsene Wenger in that pre-season game was an up and coming coach in Unai Emery who had his side defending with great organisation, set up in two banks of four. One player who caught the eye was young Argentinian midfielder, Ever Banega who outshone Arsenal’s own Alex Song. While the Cameroon ace was busy he left too much space behind and was reluctant to take the ball off his defenders. On the other hand Banega, once described as ‘Mascherano but can pass’  remained disciplined, kept the ball ticking and made some strong tackles.

Wenger maintains the toughest challenge is to find balance something which he is searching for with the change in formation to a 4-3-3. One of the advantages of this 4-3-3 formation is that it should offer securities to the other central midfielder, most thought to be Cesc Fabregas. However while Arsenal want to be fluid, in a fully systematised team, nobody can be carried – everybody must be carrying out their share of work.

* NB: There will be no match analysis following the Everton game unfortunately but normal service should resume for the game against Celtic.

Robin Van Persie represents new breed of ‘hybrid’ strikers

Robin Van Persie showed that he is more than a support striker by leading the line against Roma, a sign that the requirement and ability of strikers is changing.
____________________________________________________________________________robin-van-persie_1350374c1

“Van Persie is Dennis Bergkamp – with goals,” enthused Arsene Wenger before the game at Tottenham. And while the Dutchman failed to inspire Arsenal to a win against their North London rivals and the two goalless draws in between, Van Persie has been involved in all goals the Gunners have scored this year when he has been on the pitch. But against Roma he did what the Arsenal legend failed to convincingly do; lead the line by himself.

Of course Bergkamp was from a different era and ultimately of a different style, one of the best ever in his position but with his frame one may feel the Dutchman could have fulfilled that role. Indeed the closest players to his style now may be Dimitar Berbatov of Man United and Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow who is a wonderfully fleet footed second striker, both all about touch and movement.

The fact that Robin Van Persie can play in this higher role signals an evolution in the requirement of strikers. “Robin’s always had the vision and the talent, but what really stands out for me is how he’s developed into a team player,” continued Wenger. “It’s a remarkable transformation. And the fact he is 25, you know he’s going to get better. His best years are in front of him.” His heading ability must not be underestimated and has great touch and balance but more crucially he is making the correct decisions, which is the difference in top level football.

Strikers have evolved and are now expected to do more; to use their intelligence to drop off into space and play in team mates while also being able to make runs to stretch opposition. Goalscoring need not be a forwards principle purpose; an increased mobility and interchangeability in strikers has lessened the need for the traditional ‘goal-poachers ‘ while there is a greater expectation on midfielders to contribute goalscoring-wise. “For me, a striker is not just a striker,” says Jose Mourinho. “He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.”

Tactically the game has changed with greater cautiousness especially of transitions in play. Defensively teams are stronger and the game could now be argued as one of many little battles where a goal poacher won’t have enough in his armoury to win and will require more work from team-mates.

As a result the traditional 4-4-2 is seen as harder to play. “I think 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases. In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space,” Wenger says but even he has had to utilise Van Persie as the fifth midfielder by detailing him to track back. “If I have a triangle in midfield, Makelele behind and two others just in front, I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things. That’s why I think the popularity of 4-4-2 will come to an end in England. It has to. It does not work against teams like us.” All of Arsenal’s forwards can lead the line, play behind and out wide bar perhaps Adebayor. This allows the Gunners more flexibility and poses greater problems to opponents both tactically and individually, as essentially Arsenal could switch to a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 as displayed at Roma.

World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira even predicts that strikers may be a thing of the past. Wishful thinking it may sound but his notion is not unrealistic; it makes for harder marking, dragging defenders out with the movement to disrupt the tactical, compact block teams tend to defend in. “Systems are dying,” says Slaven Billic. “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.” When successful it is hard to mark as displayed by Man Utd last season as Ronaldo scored 42 goals while the other strikers still manager 15+ themselves. However effective utilization of movement requires great stamina which is one of the reason why the great Total Football sides had found it hard to continue.

With Arsenal’s five ‘hybrid’ strikers who can perform both roles of the forward in a 4-4-2 and more Arsenal can more easily than others achieve the balance of attacking fluidity and defensive solidity. Of course such strikers are not a new thing but the idea of them are as it was once thought teams should have a little and small partnership; one to run behind and one to link up and allow more variety. Fans who are not yet convinced of Bendtner usually feel the Dane should play as a natural target man but which is an old-fashioned notion. Yes maybe at the end of the game when the team should go gung-ho to save the match it is the best option but when you have two strikers who can do both, it can be more dynamic and less predictable.

While a Peter Crouch and a Micheal Owen have their merits as specialists, especially if things are not going well, it would be better if a team could have a player that can do both their jobs to get things right the first time.