Sergio Busquets: Re-inventing the midfield pivot role

Karthik Venkatesh (KV) argues why Sergio Busquets is one of this generation’s most important players. Oh, and why that also makes him the perfect foil to the the sitcom character, Barney Stinson.

Sergio Busquets is the ultimate ‘Bro’ on the pitch. His game is so astonishingly altruistic that he can be fittingly compared to the perfect ‘wingman’ who will do his all to set you up with that girl of your wildest fantasies. Once he gets the ball, it seems like all he does is greet the ball and say; “Hello! Have you met my genius friend, Xavi?” Here are three good reasons why Sergio Busquets is an extremely vital cog in the Barca team and the foremost ‘team player’ in the world today.

Passing Efficiency

The prime reason for Sergio Busquets’ near perfect passing success rate is that he knows where to pass to even before he receives the ball. His awareness of the players around him is extraordinary, enabling him to complete the process of choosing and executing in a matter of seconds. In the game against Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey, Busquets took an average of 1.6(!) seconds to complete a pass. In some cases, he dispatched the ball within a heart attack causing 0.4 seconds. His game is mostly about releasing the ball quickly and it is fair to say that he has more than achieved the goal. In the recently concluded La Liga season, Busquets completed 91.9% of his passes successfully.

Personifying efficiency, Busquets is technically compact, finding solutions in jet speed to pick out a free team mate. He uses the ‘fake’ to a great deal of impact to open up space in a passing lane and also ensures that he hits the ball with minimal rotation, so his team mate can play another one touch pass. Xavi Hernández, quite possibly the greatest midfielder of this generation, describes Sergio Busquets as “fundamental”. He says: “Busi sees you quickly, he always takes the simple option. He reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches a possible.” Here is the graph showing the relation between his passes and the time it took to complete them:

[image lost]

Tactical Intelligence

Sergio Busquets performs a key role as the “pivote” of the team, playing in between defence and attack. This role involves carrying out a number of tasks. In the defensive phase, Busquets crucially moves into space to cut off passing lanes for the opponent, forcing him to play the least dangerous pass. He uses his sharp anticipation skills to win the ball back by intercepting it in midfield and immediately transfer it to a well positioned teammate. His primary function is to ‘receive and release’ and he performs this task flawlessly due to his astute reading of the game and tactical intelligence.

He plays an extremely crucial role in attack also. The basic foundation of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of play is creating triangles. Busquets, being an imperative component in midfield, moves into space when his teammate has the ball to form triangles and increase passing options. The spontaneity with which he carries out this task is critical to the circulation of the ball and a ‘destroyer’ in midfield would retard the flow of circulation, unlike Busquets. Also, when in possession of the ball, Barcelona morph into several formations ranging from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, and Busquets dropping deep in between the center backs is the trigger which changes the structure. When he drops in between the center backs, they are allowed to move laterally and cover space out wide. This in turn pushes Daniel Alves higher up the pitch, meaning the right winger cuts inside to make use of space vacated by Messi dropping deep, increasing the number possibilities of attack. Watch how Sergio’s off the ball movement from CDM to CB causes a chain reaction which eventually leads to a goal. “Xavi and Iniesta are the most creative midfielders in the world, but, above all, there is Busquets,” says Javier Mascherano, who is highly regarded to have a keen eye on the beautiful game. “He has the talent to play for any team anywhere in the world, but he’s made to play for this team. Literally, he’s the perfect guy. He robs the ball, he has superb technical skills and brings tactical order. I watch him and try to learn from him.”

Selfless Playing Style

Barcelona, a team obsessed with attacking football and scoring goals, scored a whopping 114 goals in the league last season. Only one of the 114 goals was scored by Sergio Busquets (1goal and 1 assist), a stat which belies the fact the he is a major force in the Barca midfield. Of his one goal, Sergio Busquets jokes that that is an error on his part: “I made a mistake once.” Always preferring to not hog the limelight, Busquets is the ultimate team man, focusing on plugging gaps and covering space, instead of venturing forward and having fun with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas. Statistics show, for example, that Dani Alves, nominally Barcelona’s full-back, spends more time in the opposition half than his own. “The coach knows that I am an obedient player who likes to help out and if I have to run to the wing to cover someone’s position, great,” he says. “I genuinely enjoy watching the full-back run up the pitch and going across to fill in. I spend the game calculating: how many on the left? How many on the right?”

Standing 189cm tall, Sergio Busquets standing between his Barcelona teammates looks like Gulliver amidst a bunch of Lilliputians. As comfortable in a scrap as with the ball at his feet, Sergio is ever ready to leap to the defense of his teammates, putting himself in the dangerous situation of getting carded. The perfect amalgam of intelligence and the ability to do the dirty work for others sets him apart from his more famous and celebrated teammates. When questioned about the style of his game, Busquets says: “My only obsession is not to lose the ball and to give my all, make sure I leave it all on the pitch. I am here to help. I have to be intense.” Del Bosque agrees: “He is an example of generosity, always thinking of the needs of the team rather than himself.”

Conclusion

If Barney Stinson, the serial womaniser in the television series “How I Met Your Mother”, ever notices Sergio Busquets doing his job for either Barcelona or Spain, he would at once convince/beg Sergio Busquets to accept the coveted position of being Barney Stinson’s wingman. Even if he has to only utter the lines, “Hi! Have you met my friend Barney?” and leave, Sergio will do it so perfectly that Barney’s efficiency, just like Busquets’ passing efficiency, will touch the ninety percent mark. Such is the effectiveness and impact of Sergio Busquets, the unheralded hero of modern day football.

Advertisements

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).

Yossi Benayoun: The loan diamond who came from Dimona

On-loan players are often quicker to win the hearts of fans than permanent signings. They have to. Time is at a premium to make an impact and like visits by long-distance, gift bearing relatives, you have to make the most of it. Fans often endear to their nuances and foibles quicker too; Yossi Benayoun was taken aback, as if it was the first time anyone has noticed, when asked about the conditioner he uses to maintain his perfectly groomed hair.

Ah, Benayoun. Speaking of foibles, I somewhat harshly likened him to Edvard Munch’s The Scream on Twitter but followers would also know just how much I rate the guy. Of course, I had little to back that up with  – he had rarely played for one-and-a-half seasons – but he was just made for Arsenal. His glide on the ball, his skinny frame that revealed nothing but indicated so much and his penchant for the big games. Yet, despite that, he rarely figured for the first part of the season. Unlike loan-signings, he was forgotten. This is what I wrote about him in December:

However, The Gunners do have someone to call on with capability to give Arsenal’s play a plurality in Yossi Benayoun; a fleet-footed schemer with an art deco finish but Wenger’s adamant his three striker tactic can be deadly and as such, Benayoun misses out. (Given the right creativity – another reason why Benayoun must play more often – and penchant to keep the ball).

But unfathomably, he’s forced his way into the team and his impact might even remain beyond next season. Not because he’s likely to stay – Benayoun knows he won’t get many games at a big club again despite his ability – paradoxly, a loan is probably the best chance to appreciate his talents. But because he gives Arsenal balance due to his artistry and next season, Wenger will want to replicate it. Playing on the left of the attacks, he’s put an end to the “three striker system” in big games at least. Because using someone like Benayoun out wide, Arsenal can keep the ball better and put pressure on teams higher up the pitch. It also synchronises better with their high-line and quick passing tempo.

The obvious answer here is that Arsenal, next season, will use their strength-in-depth and pick and choose styles depending on their opponents. But they won’t have a Benayoun – a Plan A in big matches, and a Plan B in smaller games. Aaron Ramsey is not the long-term solution on the wings and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still developing although he looks the best option. New signings might put a welcome spanner in the works – Lukas Podolski is a give-and-go winger and has the added advantage that Marouane Chamakh hasn’t of versatility that means he will always be involved.

Yossi Benayoun looks to be getting the credit he finally deserves and not just as essential as a coat-hanger in the dressing room. Okay, he’s only started five times in the Premier League but his affect is arguably far larger – that he’s impacted on the strategy and, laid the foundations for Arsenal to build on next season.

Anyway, here’s my piece on the effect Benayoun has had tactically for Arsenal Insider. Peace.

The evolution of Robin van Persie

van persie liverpool

Not a week goes without a prelude to Robin van Persie but every time, he seems to justify it. This week, he single-handedly – well almost as he required wonderful goalkeeping from Wojciech Szczesny and some woeful finishing from Liverpool – earned Arsenal a 2-1 win at Anfield. And again he scored a technically perfect goal. There were some who criticised Pepe Reina for being beaten at the near post but such is his expert technique that he killed the ball dead from Alex Song’s lofted pass to volley pass Reina. His first, however, was a bit more banal but van Persie has made a habit of scoring such goals and that’s significant because a couple of seasons, such a transformation didn’t seem possible.

Van Persie has been crucial to Arsenal even as early as 2005 but his involvement was regularly curtailed by injury; he has only played more than forty games in two seasons. But back then, he was playing as a number 10, the role previously assumed by Dennis Bergkamp. He had the same swivel of the hips, the deliciously dinked passes and the ability to score spectacular goals but many question his maturity. Even so, considering that he was liable to miss matches, some would also question whether playing van Persie in such a crucial position was a wise idea. It needn’t matter because Arséne Wenger thought not to consign him to a number on the pitch. He’s a “football player,” said Wenger. “Who you expect to create something special. You do not think they have to score so many goals, they added that to their game.”

Wenger initially deployed van Persie in 2009, in a roaming capacity in a role nowadays referred to as the “false nine.” It worked a treat but no sooner had van Persie got the hang of it, he succumbed to injury. It wasn’t until 2011 when we saw the best of him again but he had refined his game and has since gone on a superb goalscoring run (currently on 43 league goals in 46 games). Indeed, that has been a rarely-talked about part of van Persie’s evolution: each time Wenger has implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes to their play, van Persie has adapted and yet consistently delivered the goals.

Playing as the false nine in 2009, van Persie brought others into play with his movement which, at the time, was crucial because it allowed those strikers vying with him for a central role to remain involved, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo could still play alongside him on the right and left of the attack, respectively. Just as significant, Arsenal no longer required such a tactically demanding player to play alongside Cesc Fábregas; the three man midfield that they used ensured that the multitude of creative players they possessed could be used. When he finally put his injury curse behind him midway through the 2010/11 season, his goalscoring came to the fore, necessary because Arsenal were shorn of their most creative player, Fábregas, and he constantly had to bail out the team out with his spontaneity. And this season, van Persie’s explosiveness typifies Arsenal’s new-found back-to-front directness but were it not for his goals, we’d probably be talking about how monumental a failure the tactic is. Either side of him, Gervinho and Theo Walcott haven’t nearly scored enough goals and as the captain, van Persie is right to deflect attention to their creative output but even Wenger would have expected his three-striker system to yield more goals beyond his talismanic forward. (Wenger: “We have players who deliver fantastic numbers of assists – I think Gervinho and Walcott are among the best providers in the world if you look at the number of assists. But I know there are more goals in them and I am sure from midfield we need some goals as well. They will be welcome tomorrow.”)

The above reason also serves as another reason why van Persie is a perfect captain for this club, beyond his stature amongst the players, as van Persie’s leadership is also tactical. The Dutchman works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point for their defensive structure (or the half press which they tend to use). He alludes to this example by action in an interview for Arsenal.com, stating the somewhat obsessive need to perfect his average of 11.5km covered per game. Which, on it’s own, is an extraordinary statistic but even more so because it comes from a striker; normally, you’d expect a midfielder to work as hard as van Persie does. (Van Persie covers the most distance of any player in the Premier League at 6.148 miles per game).

Talk of anyone being the most “complete striker” might seem a bit exaggerated but in van Persie’s case, it’s wholly justified (backed up by Arrigo Sacchi no less, the legendary coach who advocated a universalistic style made by universalistic players). Van Persie’s movement is superb, dragging defenders all over the pitch. Indeed, Jurgen Klopp, Borussia Dortmund’s manager, says he’s “rarely ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.” The coach, in the 3-1 defeat away to Arsenal, promised to stop the supply to van Persie to stop him from scoring but the nature of his play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. Van Persie constantly peels of his marker, whether playing on the shoulder or picking up possession. And if he does pick up the ball around the box, all manner of things can happen – he essentially made the second against Liverpool possible with his movement followed by his excellent technique – which highlights the joy of Robin van Persie at the moment and long may it continue because he’s deserved it.

Van Persie’s evolution can almost be seen as a journey; he has gone from number 11 from his time as a winger for Feyenoord, to a number 10, to a false 9 before making the final transition to where he is now as a number 9. But naturally of course, Robin van Persie says he’s neither; he’s a 9-and-a-half.

Andre Santos adds a different dimension to Arsenal’s attack

Andre-Santos-Arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrey Arshavin delights and frustrates in equal measure

There are two great philosophical debates that divide the football world; whether to play attractive football or to favour a more pragmatic approach and how to jude how good a player is. While the former is more or less answered by the league format biasing towards a “winning at all costs” mentality the latter is much more subjective. For example, I would rate Ronaldinho as the best player of the decade gone by because of his frequent spectacular performances and one-man showings but he only performed at his peak for four – albeit fantastic – years. Zinedine Zidane may be the widely held option as he did it more consistently however Ronaldinho thrived due to his unorthodoxy and for that reason, he will have stuck out more. Zidane, though, may be the purists choice because he brought great visceral joy in his balletic movements. Either way, judging and thus comparing talent is an ambiguous art.

Is it goals that you use to judge a player; the medals they won or their effectiveness in the international stage, a measure which straight-away puts those players born in an average nation at a disadvantage? What about taking individual attributes such as tackling and passing and assigning a score and weighting system to each one thus arriving a total at the end? Paul Ince used one for The Mirror’s pull out paper, Score, to settle the argument on who’s better; Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? Conveniently, Ince arrived at a tie. Of course, there can be no answer and rather, you use a number of factors to decide on the outcome although that method is unlikely to remain consistent. Put simply, it is an intuitive feeling that differs from person to person.

I ask this because there is one player at Arsenal for which this particularly applies to; Andrey Arshavin.

The Russian was brought to Arsenal in 2009 as a marquee signing; an antithesis to their youth development project and in that half a season that he arrived in, he single handedly qualified Arsenal for the Champions League. His 6 goals and 9 assists offered a tantalising vision of what he could bring when he finally acclimatises to the English league and most importantly, the “Arsenal way” if given a full season in the colours of red and white. However, by his own admission he has failed to live up to the hype, only delivering his explosive talents in sporadic moments. This season, he says confidence has dented his form although in recent matches, he is showing again that he can be an important player for Arsenal. Yet, this follows a brief period on the bench which coincided with Arsenal’s best spell of form from the middle of December to the end of February and it is likely that should Arsenal’s preferred eleven (Szczecny – Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Wilshere – Walcott, Fabregas, Nasri – van Persie) remain fit at once, an impact substitute would be his default role again.

Andrey Arshavin divides because he is a maverick; an individual who frustrates and delights at the same time. He is not one to fall into the collective endeavour, partly because he lacks the stamina to track back and partly because he just doesn’t believe he needs to. Arshavin speaks of the same vision of football he and Wenger have but the Frenchman has yet to convince the Russian of doing his bit defensively. At least, Arshavin realises the necessity of pressing up the pitch although by the time he closes down the first opponent, he effectively renders himself out of the defensive phase should they evade his presence.

Those Andrey Arshavin apologists point to his statistics as his main saving grace and it is true, they are very impressive. “If you look at the assists in the Premier League, Arshavin is the best,” said Wenger. This season in 43 games in all competitions, Arshavin has scored 10 goals and made 17 assists.  However, are goals and assists enough to judge the success of the player? It should be, especially as the saying goes, “goals win games” and Arshavin has contributed to his fair share. But this time the statistics are against him. In his 21 starts in the league this term, Arsenal have won 52% of their matches and in the seven he doesn’t feature or arrives from the bench, The Gunners have won 75%. Of course, you can point to the sparse amount of matches without him which makes the latter statistic more impressive but there is a correlation here. Of Arsenal’s six matches between December and March (Chelsea, Birmingham City, Manchester City, West Ham United, Wigan Athletic and Stoke City) where they found their best form with their fantastic eleven, their win percentage is 83%. And in the three more league games in that period where the only changes made were enforced, the win percentage was still at an impressive 77%; a figure that is very close to the 75% win percentage without Arshavin. It is true, however, that the bulk of Arshavin’s matches were at the beginning of the season when the team was often impacted by injuries but perhaps it is significant that Arsenal soon found their fluency when Arshavin was not a regular in the team anymore.

Arshavin says his style has been “altered” and is now “more effective, but less sparkling” but is that just a way to cover up his waning talents and failure to adapt? Certainly that is the view in the Russian press following their recent 0-0 draw with Armenia with Sovetsky Sport columnist Yuri Tsybanev suggesting he is now being picked on reputation alone. Jonathan Wilson continues to note the scathing attacks directed at Arshavin by writing in the Guardian that former USSR defender Yevgeny Lovchev has said that “Arsène Wenger continues to make encouraging noises about Arshavin only to make sure his value doesn’t drop too much. Meanwhile the satirist Mikhail Grushevsky called Arshavin “a sacred cow” who must be replaced.”

It has become evident then, that Arshavin cannot rely on numbers alone to back up his case. It pains me to say it but the Russian has simply failed to integrate himself to the Arsenal style as well as he should have. His passing statistics are particularly poor; yes he is capable is sprinkling a bit of magic that can create a moment out of nothing while he has also delivered at key moments this season and last season that have gone unnoticed. But that may mean falling into the same trap; that direct is more better when, tactically Arsenal may be better off playing more shorter. His passing percentage is at a disappointingly low 70% and the rhetoric that his position encourages more killer passes look decidedly thin when comparing it to the 80% pass success of Arsenal’s best through-ball specialist, Cesc Fábregas. All this must take into account also that Arshavin plays in that all to selfish role of the wide forward and one that is heavily subsidised to cater for his vices. As Roberticus of Santapelota writes in his overview of Brazilian football “Where have all the wingers gone? the position is “undoubtedly the most selfish of roles in modern football. Selfish, I say, not as a character judgement, but rather in the sense that such a style of play carries with it so many potential rewards and comparatively little concomitant responsibility.” Indeed, how long can he be excused of not tracking back thus exposing poor Gael Clichy due to the possibility that he may create a goalscoring opportunity?

However, there is a charm about Andrey Arshavin that makes him irresistible at times. His plump cheeks and minimalist haircut indicates an innocence in his play; a player who is much in tune with his artistic freedom and takes infinite pleasure in the simple act of playing football. Watch his face before every goal and you will see his tongue reveal itself from his mouth in excitement. It was quite surprising to hear that the criticism of his form affected his confidence as much as it did because here was a player seemingly so free of fear and that was indicated by his style. Free spirited and ambitious, every touch on the ball gets you off your seat because there is an anticipation that he may produce something special. He more often than not does although with his unpredictability does also come frustration. Loose balls are aplenty with Arshavin, as is the frequent “stuck in the mud” routine whenever a pass goes beyond him. Perhaps we are being a bit harsh on Arshavin but there were signs this season that even the most ardent of fans were becoming disgruntled by his style.

How do you judge Andrey Arshavin’s worth to the team? Is it his numbers; his unpredictable brilliance or how involved he is in the team’s attacks? Because with Arshavin, it’s seems it’s a question which will forever remain unanswered.

How do you stop Lionel Messi?

Even the most extensive database on earth can find no solution. Try typing into Google, “How to stop Messi” and while it produces 2,660,000 search results, none come anywhere close to answering the million pound question. When Arsenal faced Barcelona in the Champions League last season, they resisted the calls to treat Lionel Messi with special dispensation but instead, they considered him the same as everyone else and the results were disastrous. Messi was instrumental in the first leg as Arsène Wenger’s side survived an onslaught in the first twenty minutes but in the second leg at Camp Nou, delivered what he so promised at the Emirates as he ran amok to complete a devastating  twenty-one minute hat-trick.

He’s not omnipotent although his mother tells us he is just angelic. Nor is he a mutant although his minute stature is because of a hormone defect he had as a youngster which enables humans to grow. And he certainly isn’t a holographic character, which, essentially some have described him as. (Theo Walcott and Arsène Wenger, “Messi’s like a PlayStation”). He is simply a human being. An extraordinary one at that, however, and one so ahead of his peers at this current moment that there was no doubt he was to be crowned FIFA’s world player of the year despite Xavi’s most mesmeric efforts. This season, Messi has scored an amazing 40 goals in 34 games, a feat which Cristiano Ronaldo is doing his darnest to try and make look as insignificant as possible. (Currently Ronaldo has 34 goals in 36 games and the rivalry should prove to be the most defining of a generation since Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbaur).

When Arsenal faces Barcelona in Wednesday’s clash at The Emirates, the immediate question will be whether or not they should man-mark Messi and the answer will almost certainly be “no.” Wenger will put faith in his team’s ability to squeeze Messi out of the game through their improving structural pressing. It is tactic that is to be admired and it is only one of the two ways to approach Barcelona.

Man marking

The supposed problem with marking Lionel Messi is that invariably you neglect the other individuals that make Barcelona brilliant. And there are a lot of those. But it is also a risk that it may be worth taking as it strips Pep Guardiola’s side of their most spontaneous player and that is more easier, in theory, to defend against. Taking Messi out of the game, some argue, leaves you essentially facing Spain, a weak argument perhaps given that there are massive structural differences not to mention changes in personnel but it serves to highlight the dynamism Messi gives. Wenger was virtually implying that very point in the 4-1 defeat last season although he knew that if he did state it pointedly, questions will be fired back at why he didn’t detail a man to follow the Argentinian. But can you really mark Messi out of a game because his impact goes beyond what he does on the ball? Sticking close to him creates space elsewhere for others to exploit and also leaves you with one man short in another area of the pitch while his movement is always proactive, always finding ways to be useful in one way or another. Chelsea did that successfully in 2009 as Jose Bosingwa followed him from left-back but it was with an ultra-defensive approach Arsenal is not willing to take.

That was two years ago and it shows just how far tactically Barcelona have come to stop such instances occurring again. Messi has now almost exclusively played a free role, last season behind the forward, this season as the central forward. If Arsenal have plans for any such individuals, positioning will almost always complicate them.

On the right

With Barcelona’s formation, there is bound to be some interchangeability with Messi swapping with Pedro at some point in the game, and the right-winger shifting into David Villa’s position as he takes up the striking role. On the right, Messi will look to drift infield by initially starting on the right. Dani Alves will bomb forward regardless, nevertheless, his central tendencies will open up space for the Brazilian right-back. Barcelona’s keep ball means there is a constant movement of players and while it would seem like Messi is drifting into a congested area, it will certainly make space for someone else. If anything, it will give Barcelona a spare man centrally – a tactic Chelsea used well in their 2-0 win over Arsenal earlier this season as Florent Malouda occupied Alex Song, affording Ashley Cole the space to get forward. Arsenal’s wide men will almost certainly have to track back but there is still much onus on Song and Jack Wilshere to shuffle right and left. One can envisage a similar scenario for the pair to contend with while even moving centrally alerts the two centre-backs of a player entering their zone and one will at some point have to cover him.

MESSI-RW

<figure 1>1.Messi cuts in from a right-wing position therefore creating the space for Alves to run into. 2. By occupying his place in the centre it gives Barca a man advantage but also engages either the full-back to push out of position, a centre-back to push out or a midfielder to watch him. If Messi plays on the rihjt, it’s not an undesirable position because it means Arsenal can double up and squeeze him out the gmae but here he tries to ensure a man advantage. 3. The space that Koscielny vacates is spotted by Villa who looks to make a darting run behind.

False nine

Messi, however, is likely to play as a false nine. It is a tactical trend which Arsenal have been at the forefront in recent times and with Robin van Persie being able to combine dropping off with the timing of runs off the shoulder of the defender, have a striker for Barcelona to worry about. Nevertheless, it’s Messi which is the focus and his deployment in the position has scratched many-a-heads. Opposition are unsure of whether to stick tight or stay back and at most times, are left to do neither. Central defenders hate marking space, at that is particularly true of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, who prefer to win the ball back quickly. As they don’t fancy marking space, they invariably push up and that creates space behind. With Barcelona using two wide forwards, Pedro and Villa will look to take advantage, not to mention the effervescent Alves and the wily thinking of Xavi.

As mentioned, Koscielny and Djourou like to get tight, which at first seems tactical suicide, but if they do get it right, it could be a master stroke. The best option is still to play deep against a false nine and against Barcelona in general. They seldom look to do the orthodox even if their spectacular is made to look mightily easy. Inter did that last season in the most defensive of approaches although their first leg 3-1 win serves as a protocol. The kept their three strikers up the pitch and defended in a unit that shifted left and right (similar to Arsenal’s). But Barcelona are not oblvious to the ploy of defending deep, so instead of looking  to play into opponents hands by playing an orthodox forward who will play as the same line as them, they look to drag the defenders out by playing with the space in front. Arsenal will have to patient as it will be the greatest test the youngsters have faced mentally.

There is another salient point and that is how Messi has adapted to the centre-forward position. It is not an inhibiting role although it puts him closer to defenders as it may have seemed for Wayne Rooney. He is still encouraged to find space but in a sense he’s liberated as he’s playing higher up and is more ambiguous than before.

mess-cf

<figure 2>1.Messi drops off into a  false nine position thereby committing one of the centre-backs to follow him. 2. The effect is two-fold on the defence. Djourou is then made to shuffle across to help cover the space and likewise is the right-back as he doesn’t want to create a too big a gap between he and Djourou. Either way, Villa looks to take advantage of the extra space by hugging the touchline or looking to get behind.

Arsenal pressing

Arsenal will stay true to their word and look to press up the pitch. It will be crucial, then to form an effective wall that frustrates Barcelona’s passers. Sergio Busquets is the best one touch passer in the world but Arsenal should not worry about him. Stopping Xavi and Andres Iniesta from getting to the supply line will be key. It may be more effective then, for Arsenal to drop Cesc Fabregas back to make a five man midfield rather than press as a 4-2-4 as they have this season. Last season at the Camp Nou, the tactic failed because The Gunners pressed with a 4-1-4-1, taking out the rest with one pass and exposing Denilson; this season, the adoption of the Dutch principles of through-marking should help Arsenal stay compact and squeeze the space. This will stop Messi because as Alves says and in some ways displayed by Argentina’s abject failure in the World Cup, it’s the team that must be stopped first. “I believe the secret to marking Messi is to not worry about marking him,” says Alves. “Because he doesn’t play alone and has a team by his side. That’s the key to marking Messi.”

Villarreal pressing in 1-1 draw last season. Pep Guardiola: “In the game, we were unable to score a decisive second goal. We struggled to get past Villarreal’s first line of pressure in the pitch and that made the match an end to end affair.”