Alex Song perfects the art of the lofted through-pass

Sandro Mazzola is talking about Andrea Pirlo. The former Internazionale forward, who played exclusively for the club between 1960-1977, spotted Pirlo as a teenager at Brescia (and not Mircea Lucescu as Wikipedia states) and convinced the club to sign him. The midfielder, he says, is the greatest passer in today’s game and in particular, he is talking about the lofted, weighted pass. “Pirlo’s footballing intelligence exploits angles and avenues others just don’t see,” Mazzola tells Champions Magazine. “Then his exceptional technique enables him to flight the pass brilliantly over distance, and to weight every delivery even when under pressure.”

This season, it’s been Alex Song who has joined him in mastering the art of the lofted pass. But while Mazzola may be talking about the high pass as a means of switching the emphasis of play, usually from side to side  — after all, he did start his Inter career under Helenio Herrera where the short, lateral pass which pervades the modern game, was scorned and saw West Germany dominate through the accurate, long passing of Günter Netzer and then Wolfgang Overath — there’s arguably a greater skill Song and Pirlo have perfected; that of the lofted through-pass.

This season, both players have made 24 assists between them and are among the highest exponents of the through-ball in Europe. Yet, while it may be expected of Pirlo, it’s not so much of Song who has come to the fore for Arsenal with his defence splitting passes in the absence of Cesc Fàbregas.  “He has improved his technique of transmission,” said Arsène Wenger. “When he arrived here, the passing of his longer balls was not the best. But he was worked on that, improved on that and now he can combine vision with technique.”

There are three passes of Song that stand out; his assist against Everton in December which made everyone – neutrals that is – take note of his special ability and he repeated the trick against their Merseyside rivals, Liverpool, with another deft pass. Both were finished emphatically by Robin van Persie. The third one against Blackburn, though, is not an assist but it demonstrated perfectly, just how much of a weapon he’s been to Arsenal in opening up defences as he floated the ball onto path of Theo Walcott to cross. Nevertheless, he managed to produce a carbon copy of that pass in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa which directly did lead to a goal.

Song’s not all about chipped passes though. His best assist is probably neither of the above. That came against Borussia Dortmund when, looking as if he had run into a cul-de-sac with three defenders converging on him, he deployed another little unbeknownst weapon in his armoury, clever footwork to jinx between them. His cross after was perfect as van Persie (again) guided a header in. And he’s shown he can keep it on the ground too; he played a sumptuous pass between a trio of perplexed Blackburn defenders to find Gervinho in the 4-3 defeat and did well to ignore him away to Norwich City, instead threading it to van Persie. The other five of his eleven league assists have come against Tottenham (a left footed cross to Aaron Ramsey), Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion (both to Andre Santos), Wolverhampton Wanderers and Norwich at home. (Note: he also floated the pass that led to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League but for a ricochet off a defender as he dribbled with it, it might not stand as Song’s assist).

Alex Song might nominally play as the enforcer but last season, he showed he’s becoming the complete link between the defence and attack for Arsenal.

Aaron Ramsey can look back at a solid season

It can be hard to deconstruct the impact that Aaron Ramsey has made this season because it came at a time when Arsenal were at their worst. But when the team began to improve, Ramsey was central to it in an unheralded manner. His drive was crucial at an aesthetically bleak period in Arsenal’s season, especially when they lacked full backs and everything was forced to come from the middle. Thus his role was hard to define, because it flitted in between a playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder (and at times, a second-striker because he was often asked to press with Robin van Persie). He passed the ball neatly and before falling out of the team midway through the season, Ramsey was in the top 6 for chances created in open play in the league. But Arsenal found their best – and most fluid form – when he went out of the side and Tomáš Rosický came in. Suddenly, the dynamics of the midfield changed. Arsenal played at a higher tempo and displayed a ruthlessness that was unrecognisable in the first-half of the season.

Yet, that’s not to say Aaron Ramsey doesn’t quite fit. He does. Although, in his first full season, he’s still learning about his own game as much as we’re finding out how best to utilise him. In the recent 0-0 against Chelsea, Ramsey ended up with a 97% passing accuracy which indicates that he had little trouble replicating Mikel Arteta’s role just to the side of Alex Song –  but he did, especially in the first-half. His passing, while accurate, was slow thus failing to implant the same tempo Arteta does. And while he managed to find a team-mate with the majority of his passing, it tells a wider story of Ramsey’s style; he’s methodical – almost excruciatingly so – weighing up all potential options so much so that he often eschews the simple pass and by the time he’s decided, the risky pass passes him by. That sometimes leads him to cede possession sloppily – against Chelsea, Ramsey lost the ball five times through being tackled or by bad control. As a result, he can seem cumbersome on the ball but there is far more talent in his noggin than he’s been given credit for.

Arsène Wenger has been able to get the best out of him through a bit of guidance. In a few matches earlier this season, Ramsey made an immediate impact after being given his half-time instructions (Bolton, Tottenham, Aston Villa FA Cup and off the bench against Marseille) while at the start of matches, Wenger always looked to push him up the pitch in order to profit from his energy.

Rosický now assumes the position behind van Persie and since his recall to the starting line-up, Arsenal haven’t played better. But it also shows how Arsenal’s style has subtly changed over the season. Because for half a season, shorn of key creative figures, Arsenal played more vertically, more through the wings but what pervaded their play was an overriding sense of cautiousness dictated by the bad start they made. (They pressed deep in their half, while looking back at their run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December, it’s notable Arsenal almost exclusively dealt in low scores). Since their path became clearer – essentially just gunning for third place – Arsenal have been able to re-adjust their game back to the way they want to play. The tempo is higher as is their pressing while the use of a “half-winger” on the left-side has given the team more balance. “Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” Wenger said, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”

Thus the role of Rosický is different to the one Ramsey played because while Ramsey was once the instigator, primarily used highest up the pitch for his energy, Rosický is the natural playmaker. His passing has given Arsenal greater impetus and often, it’s him they build attacks round. Certainly, chance creation is still plural but whereas once the midfield was noted for it’s rotation, Rosický is overwhelmingly now the spearhead. The Czech captain expands: “I am in the advanced position of the three, looking to get in between the opposition’s midfield and defence,” says Rosický. “When we have the ball I am starting quite close to Robin [van Persie] up front, and after that I can come a bit deeper and stretch the pitch out. I can’t say for sure whether this has made the whole difference, but I would certainly agree that what the boss is asking [of me] at the moment suits me nicely.”

As the season draws to a close, Ramsey has flitted in and out of the squad and that may mean taking a back seat and learning from the little master, Tomáš Rosický. Certainly, the recent deployment of Ramsey on the left-side indicates so which Arsène Wenger says is for “the education of the player”, to help his movement and ability to get “into little pockets”. But even if Ramsey doesn’t end the campaign as the central starter, he can nevertheless be satisfied with his involvement this season and can look back proudly at the contribution he has made to help get Arsenal to where they are right now.

For extra reading, here’s my piece on Ramsey for Arsenal Insider.

Ramsey’s passing v Chelsea

Using this video here, I attempted to work out how long Ramsey takes to pass the ball after he receives it (implored by this comment here). The stopwatch starts as the ball is passed to him (as this helps gauge his ability to survey the situation) and stops as it’s released. Most passes are received in midfield but the ones which involve a different activity, are described.

First-half Average: 2.27 seconds

Passes: 2.7 secs, 3.4, 2.8, 1.5, 4.5 (dispossessed), 0.5, 6.0 (attack down right and cross cleared), 4.0, 2.0, 6.0, 1.5, 2.3, 3.8, 3.8 (wins tackle and release), 3.5, 1.7, 1.8, 1.5 (collects loose ball), 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.5, 3.2, 1.5, 1.4, 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.9 (wins possession and release), 1.3, 1.2 (give and go in attack), 3.0 (wins possession and releases), 0.6 (start of counter-attack), 1.9, 0.8 (receives throw), 1.2 (pass from wide).

Second-half Average 2.0 seconds

Passes: 1.7 secs, 1.5, 1.2, 0.4, 0.3, 1.3, 3.6 (build up wide leading to Gervinho run in box) , 0.7 (bad touch/loss of possession), 0.9, 3.4 (pass from wide), 2.36 (chance created – long pass to van Persie), 4.5 (pass back to ‘keeper), 1.4, 1.1 (switch play to release full-back), 2.8, 2.7 (pass from wide under pressure), 0.7 (start of counter) – 4.5 (release Gervinho down touchline – end of counter), 2.14 (switch play to release full-back), 1.4 (pass to van Persie), 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 1.8 (loss of possession in tight area), 3.1, 1.6, 2.8, 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 0.4 (miscontrol), 2.5, 1.3, 2.5 (dribble and counter), 1.6 (switch play to release full-back), 2.7 (ball falls to feet after clearance outside opposition box).

Improved fitness and technique exposes the specialists

The increased conditioning and speed of the game means the technical level of players will be forced to improve thereby exposing the specialists.

Juventus’ problems started with their over-reliance on Diego and Felipe Melo. That, some would argue, is justified given that they were big money summer signings but the Old Lady’s woes should not be entirely blamed on the Brazilian pair. Diego, in particular, is not a traditional ‘trequartista’ as he likes to drop deep but Juventus were expecting him to play as one. Felipe Melo on the other hand has won many fans – including Arsene Wenger –  since his stellar début against Italy at the Emirates Stadium but even then he was playing Robin to Gilberto Silva. Now he was expected to anchor the midfield with Momo Sissokho – a pairing instantly striking because of both players’ unwillingness to pass the ball short confidently and which will invariably lead to incompatibility with Diego.

Two defensive midfielders are not just regressive in a creative sense; it can be a double-edged sword defensively too. Because of the Italian game’s predilection with finding solutions through the middle, two ‘volantes’ seems a reasonable tactic to stop the playmaker from influencing. However, it can also put undue pressure on the back as it would mean play not circulating as fluently and the ball coming back more. Liverpool in particular, following the absence of Xabi Alonso have found this out the painful way.

Former AC Milan defender Franco Baresi feels Melo could have offered a solution to Real Madrid’s neo-Galacticos before his transfer to Juventus – in that he could play in a different line to their current central midfielders  – going by the thinking that modern football is one of between-the-lines players. “One thing does not fit,” says Baresi. “Why have they [Real Madrid] hired Xabi Alonso? Xabi Alonso is a good player but he serves the same profile as Gago, Granero and Mahmadou Diarra. They had to sign Felipe Melo. He is technically and physically superior (EDITOR: that’s highly arguable!) and is able to give a new dimension to the midfield. Lass, Xabi and Granero play on the same plane. It is a mistake to put them together. The only one who breaks the line is Guti.”

That Sissokho and Melo were playing in the same line as each other (similar players) meant there was no unpredictability about Juventus and it slowed down their fluidity of play. Even in Brazilian football, with their penchant for playing two ‘volantes’, one would still have a slightly different function; here there seemed little distinction. “I don’t like to play the 4-4-2 in two lines,” says Jose Mourinho. “I like the match in between lines and players with dynamic creativity to do that. What are you a midfield player or an attacker? Nobody knows.” So in theoretical terms, a standard 4-4-2 stands to lose against a 4-4-2 which transforms into a 4-2-3-1 as Mourinho effectively implies, as a triangle will always beat a line (you can further split the central midfield to two accounting for the innate specialities of the midfielder). Volker Finke (now coach of Urawa Red Diamonds) also feels a flat central midfield template is inefficient in the modern game as positions are nowadays separated into bands/lines in order to allow the team to control space better.

Some would argue the interpretation on the offside law made the splitting of players’ roles necessary as suddenly the larger pitch  meant there was more space to play in. The game became faster and more physical, and that gave the rise to the popularity of the defensive midfielder because their superior physical ability allowed them to dominate the centre and allow the side to play with more creative individuals. Pep Guardiola, just before he retired, commented on the situation saying: “…football now is different. It’s played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. The tactics are different, too. To play just in front of the back four now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that’s a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfield players are concerned, is all on defensive work.”

If improved fitness killed off the ball-playing defensive midfielder between the mid-nineties and the mid-to-late noughties, it seems improved fitness has now given them the kiss-of-life. Advancements in fitness is universal now with players running on average a lofty matter of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) a match. That puts a greater emphasis on speed as the ball is travelling much more and at a higher pace. Der Spiegel journalist, Christoph Biermann, following the findings of sport analysts at the German Sport University Cologne writes; “At Manchester United, the winner of the Champions League, the players whose job it is to stop the opposing team’s attacks are in possession of the ball for an average of less than one second per contact. The faster the ball circulates, the better, goes the thinking.”

The sequence between getting the ball and passing the ball has become shorter and that exposes any technical shortcomings of a player. The Premiership has seen the effect of this as many clubs have bow abandoned the idea of playing destroyers in the middle for ball-playing midfielders. Even Tottenham, who had early success in converting Wilson Palacios from a box-to-box midfielder at Wigan to a defensive midfielder, have chosen to pair the technically more superior Tom Huddlestone and Luka Modric in the centre lately. The physicality and defensive steel possibly conceded by this method is sought to be compensated by managers making sure their sides are organised and compact in the defensive phase. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham side, en route to the Europa League Final have perfected this art.

The increased fitness also means there is more pressing higher up the pitch, further exposing the destroyer and the need to pass quickly. Jaroslav Hrebik, the Czech Republic under-19 coach sums up the trend perfectly. “Defensive midfielders and centre-backs will have to be more creative,” he says. “Defences will try to adapt so there will be a lot of pressing to slow down the counter. Defensive positions will be tight, flexible blocks – tightest around their own area. This means the flanks and wigers will beomce more important.”

The compact nature and defending in front of the area, as Hrebik describes, has effectively ushered the natural playmaker into a stealth position. Playmakers now come in a number of forms and have essentially become players of “between-the-lines.” “The word Enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,” says former Argentina midfielder Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.” Kaka was thought by AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi as an attacking midfielder and so wanted new signing Ronaldinho to play as a forward – Carlo Ancelotti, however, was adamant that Kaka was already a striker. The example of Luka Modric is perhaps the most pertinent as in his homeland of Croatia, he is known as a natural number 10 but was converted to central midfield by Slaven Bilic and has also often played in a roaming role on the left, using his movement off the flank to create havoc. Increased conditioning of players today is also another factor as it means that there’s precious little time to shape a game.

The above trends seem to therefore highlight a shift to one of universality and football in a holistic nature. Technicality should become more important than ever, giving for the moment, less distinction to players of a high physical ability. That is not to say it should be skimped on; Arsene Wenger feels players such as Alex Song and Robin van Persie, who mix a degree of physique and technique are sought to be the future and as the game gets faster, has put more emphasis on passing the ball quickly in his current Arsenal side. “Players will become bigger, faster and stronger, but the ones with talent will succeed,” says Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta “Someone like Ronaldo is physically superior to most. In the future there might be less difference between this type of player and the rest, but with someone like Xavi, the physical side of the game is less important. Barcelona have shown that.”