Mesut Özil’s mastery of space makes Arsenal play


In the end, it was the only thing Mesut Özil had to break sweat to do. Not the finish – which was a master class in watching the ball all the way and not hurrying the technique – but actually getting there, as he was still a long way away from play – the only time in the match – and as he reached Aaron Ramsey’s cut-back, he expertly guided on the half-volley into the top corner.

Özil’s goal set Arsenal on their way to a superb 2-0 win against Napoli, scoring from the type of move that when Arsenal perfect, is usually too slick, too evasive for opponents to handle. It has been an impressive start to the season, one though, which has seen Arsenal make a slight shift to the way they normally play. Because in six league games,Arsenal’s average possession has dropped from 58% last season, 60.2% in 2011-12 and 60.3% in 2010-11, to just 53.7% this season. That may just be a case of a streamlined Arsenal side still working out how best to play with each other but this is an Arsenal side also, which manages moments better.* In that, it might be more similar to the early 2000s Wenger sides, and not the nearly teams of 2007-08 and 2010-11, which played a mixture of joy and ruthlessness that can be both intoxicating and devastating – as Napoli found out in the first 15 minutes.

Roy Hodgson says that football matches are not decided over ninety-minutes, but in a handful of incidents (or transitions as it might be said in coaching terms) and it’s about picking these moments to be truly effective.

The Arsenal Way, though, has taken a bit of a battering in recent years, exacerbated by the trophy drought. Previously it was vibrant brand of football – mixed with discipline and steel – that weaved intricate patterns up the pitch like delicate fingers up Chantilly lace. In the past few years it became ever more intricate, more possession-based (as popularised by Spain and Barcelona) and even comical as moves could feature 15-20 passes but be soiled by a miss-kick in front of an open goal (sorry Gervinho). The old way, though, looks like it is coming back (probably even inspired by Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich), owed in large part, to a record-breaking German: Mesut Özil.


 To understand Mesut Özil’s movement, I refer you to a scene in the Minority Report (about 1:36:00) where Tom Cruise, on the run from the police in a crowded mall with a pre-cog as hostage (somebody with the ability to see the future), suddenly finds himself surrounded. On all sides police are zeroing in and for a moment, amid the flurry of movement and busyness, he has nowhere to turn. The pre-cog, though, tells him not to move because in a few seconds, a man selling balloons will obscure their view, allowing a convenient escape. What Özil would do on the pitch, wouldn’t be too dissimilar, except he wouldn’t hold his position because he never stops moving, but to use the man with the balloons as a decoy, running in behind in the space he has just vacated.


Özil’s spatial awareness is extraordinary. He’s a little like WALL-E, surveying the area and then scuttling into the spaces where others don’t go. His special move is drifting into wide areas (I write for that his role might be best described as an inside-forward) and this is why he works so well at Arsenal. Wenger has always maintained he prefers wide players who roam inside, but with Özil then moving into those spaces that the wide player vacates (in recent games, it has usually been Jack Wilshere in that role), it means Arsenal always have a zone occupied: Özil makes the fluidity complete.** Indeed on the training ground, Arsenal practice a drill called “through-plays” which is an exercise which aims to help players learn where their team-mates are. With Özil always slotting in, filling the empty spaces, it’d make finding each other on the pitch more natural.  One can also see why Özil’s lateral movement (and indeed the team’s) helpful in the defensive phase as it means whenever Arsenal lose the ball, there is somebody always covering, ensuring that the players are still evenly distributed across the pitch. Indeed, that was one of the things Arsenal’s front four did so well against Napoli because whenever the attacking players swapped over, they made sure that they stayed in that position until the next phase of play.

** Santi Cazorla expands on Arsenal’s fluidity in an interview with talkSPORT: “I speak with the coach and tell him I can play wherever you want. My preference is to start on the left but then [as the game unfolds] go to the middle. Wenger speaks with me before every game and he’ll say: ‘You play on the left, but only left when we don’t have the ball. When we have the ball, you can come in – you are free.’”

Özil also has this unique dribbling style that makes him so effective, running with the ball almost side-on as if showing the opponent the ball, with his head always up. He’s always looking to change direction or slip a quick pass. Indeed, Arsenal have submitted to his creed as much he has Arsenal’s, with it especially notable against Napoli, Mikel Arteta slipping quick passes to Ozil because he knew swiftness would be key to making the most of his strengths. In the same way Santi Cazorla made Arsenal tiki-taka again after signing, Özil’s master of space makes Arsenal fluid. “I think he is like the team,” said Wenger. “He had an outstanding first half (against Napoli) where you had everything you want to see from a great player – individual skill, team play, finishing, final ball… just sit there and enjoy it. I believe as well that he enjoys playing football and you could see that. He enjoys playing with his partners; he has integrated very quickly into the team, with the mentality. He came as well in a period where we are doing well and that maybe made it easier.” Özil’s team-mates will probably concur too; he’s certainly made things easier.


Arsène Wenger will have to find a way to recreate Samir Nasri’s craft

After Samir Nasri had waltzed through the Fulham defence – twice – to score two goals for Arsenal in their 2-1 win in December, The Guardian ran the rather flattering headline, “Samir Nasri evokes memories of Best.” Now, some would question the wisdom of a comparison between one of the greatest players in a generation and one who’s career is just fledgling but footballers should be allowed comparisons. The initial feeling of awe and overriding ecstasy can be so large that it induces such sentiments and superlatives and besides, comments like that are never meant to be taken at face value. However, watching it again and you can see why the goals at, descriptive level at least, evoke memories of the great player. Nasri tip-toed past his opposition defenders with much impudence and ease that it was reminiscent of the swagger of Best at a similar age. And on a destructive level, when was the last time a player was able to conjure up the same level mastery and skill to see off the opposition? Perhaps it hasn’t been so prevalent in the Premier League era but there are similarities between Nasri’s goals against Fulham andGeorge Best’s in the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica.

Samir Nasri’s immediate comparisons are with Zinedine Zidane but Arsène Wenger is quick to play down the playing styles between the two. “The flexibility of his hips is similar to Zidane but Zidane was a different player,” he said. “Zidane was more a guy who creates openings through his skill, Nasri is more direct. Cesc Fabregas is a passer of the ball, Nasri is a guy who is more half-winger; a wing midfielder. He has his own style but he is quick and tricky and very flexible.”

To look at Nasri, you wouldn’t necessarily attribute him to the elegance and athleticism Wenger speaks about. His smile is slightly buck-toothed but that only adds to his boyish handsomeness. His play, splayed with trickery, cunning and a deceptive turn of pace indicates the intrepidity of a leader of a boy’s gang, harking back to the football he played on the streets of Marseilles. He has bulked up a bit also, he has a Bart Simpson belly almost, and has shown he has the determination and maturity to fight for his team, as displayed by the matches giving him the captain’s armband.

Nasri’s performances this season have been scintillating and has backed up Wenger’s faith in his players’ capability of delivering at the age of 23-24 years old. The loyalty and belongingness he feels for the club is part of what the youth policy aims to instil and Nasri wants to stay for longer. “Samir is happy at the club, the coach believes in him, the directors believe in him as well,” told his agent, Jean-Pierre Barnes to the Daily Express. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe the great atmosphere in the changing room, I’ve rarely experienced anything like this.’”

The rise has been almost inexorable but whereas last season, he was sometimes criticised for not being assertive enough on the ball, this season he has added a ruthlessness and dynamism to his game which has been crucial to Arsenal’s challenge. Playing on the right side at the beginning of the campaign but recently moving to the left with a smattering  of matches in the middle, Nasri has scored 14 goals in 28 matches and has been tipped, like one former Arsenal midfielder, to bag the individual player prizes at the end of the season. There looked no stopping him, that is, until a hamstring injury on 33 minutes of the 2-1 win over Huddersfield struck. The Frenchman is set to be out for three weeks and because of his importance to the team’s dynamics, Arsène Wenger will have to try and recreate his style in his absence.

One of Samir Nasri’s main assets is his versatility. Whether on the right or left side of the front three this season, he almost acts as a balancer to Arsenal’s lop-sidedness in the 4-3-3. With a forward on the other side – earlier this season it was Andrey Arshavin, recently it has been Theo Walcott – his ability to mix up his game gives Arsenal a variety and an unpredictability. He has the temerity to take on his opponents and create chances but a criticism of Arsenal has been they are too elaborate at times, so his ability to get behind has been very effective for The Gunners. Against Tottenham, he bamboozled Benoit Assou-Ekoto by making a diagonal run centrally to open the scoring and did that all day against Fulham, so much so that the starting left-back, Matthew Briggs, had to be taken off midway through the first-half. “Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball,” said Wenger when analysing Nasri’s impact. “We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”

But perhaps most impressively is the understanding and link-up he has struck up with Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie in recent matches. The triumvirate’s mixture of technical excellency, intelligence and dynamism makes for a potent partnership and the interchange between the three cannot be rivalled in the Premier League. With all of them on the pitch, responsibility can be shared; losing one of them and it places more demands on other two to create. Against Everton, Wenger attempted to try the slightly out of form Tomas Rosicky on the left (although much of it down to a lack of minutes) due to his combination of creativity and guile. However, partly down to Everton’s marking game, dropping their two wingers back to double up on Arsenal’s wide men, Rosicky was unable to influence. As it was, Andrey Arshavin, who was similarly out of form, was introduced and his directness, brought Arsenal back into the match.

But therein lies Wenger’s conundrum; if he starts with Arshavin, Arsenal will have a speed about their game and the ability to get the ball forward quickly but due to his individualism, will lose protection out wide. Nasri and Walcott have done well to cover the spaces on the flanks, thereby alleviating some of the inefficiencies the side had earlier in the season and have allowed the team to press better. With Rosicky, you will get the latter because of his abilities as a half-winger but may lack a bit of penetration and sharpness to balance the system. With a crucial month in February that may decide Arsenal’s season, it’s a dilemma Wenger and Arsenal will need to address.

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.”

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

Denilson can rekindle the lost art of midfield tackling

Arsene Wenger may have bemoaned the lack of good tacklers these days but what are the reasons for the demise and does he have one right under his nose?

“I see very few good tacklers nowadays,” said Arsene Wenger most probably reminiscing of the horrendous moment that ended Eduardo’ season and also Arsenal’s title aspirations at the same time last season. Tackling has been the talk of the Premier League in recent games with cards being dished out like confetti  for challenges where one must side with the Frenchman. Indeed a player Wenger identified as one of the lost breed of clever tacklers was involved in what was probably the worst tackle ever and one which even had his own team mate Michel Platini proclaim that he thought he was dead, because “he had no pulse and looked pale”.

Along with Patrick Battiston, Wenger bracketed Frenchmen André Chorda and Christian Lopez in the same category. “A good tackle is beautiful to watch because in the tackle the player is already making a pass, not just clearing the ball. Most of the tackles nowadays they go in blindly. When you do a good tackle you are relaxed because you master every movement.”

His description may seem fanciful and indeed looking at the profile of some  defenders, can fit quite a few in. Rio Ferdinand, Carvalho, Cannavaro (in the 2006 World Cup) and Pepe; in fact the trend nowadays is for central defenders to be mobile and technically secure. Even the arguably less aesthetically pleasing defenders such as Vidic and Terry are very adept at passing the ball. It is maybe not enough from these defenders that Wenger sees as they are not sweepers; the position the manager himself played but one which has since disappeared.

However the bulk of these rash tackles have featured midfielders with Wenger suggesting improved pitches are the reason for the lack of good tacklers. Players are able to control and turn more freely while it allows for better passing and movement. The greater technical emphasis has probably made having a specialised tackler more difficult because while they may be stronger at winning the ball back, hinder the teams passing momentum. Currently most teams play with deep lying playmakers in defensive midfield, able to initiate attacks and break down play just as the sweeper used to and with second strikers or playmakers.

Players in between channels are seen as the key to unlocking defences and one of the reasons for the demise of the box-to-box midfielder. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.”

“Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists,” says former AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi.  ”The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

“For example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend,” he said when talking about his stint as Real Madrid’s director of football . “But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”

But such defensive midfielder’s can’t have everything. They must be able to pass, be tactically aware and strong in the tackle a difficult equilibrium to find. Sacchi believed in players being able to play a number of positions and hence do more and his AC Milan team played a high pressure game with the team defending in a organised defensive unit. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Defending is such a way allows for greater balance especially as deep playmakers are converted attacking midfielders in some cases (Pirlo, S. Petrov, Murphy, Scholes, Denilson) and while there is more utilisation of the dual defensive midfield shield that allows organisation.

For Arsenal the departure of Matthieu Flamini has had a great effect;  hardworking and strong positionally and in the tackle as well. The only weakness was his limited technical ability but in his replacement, Denilson can offer more. Like all great defenders, at most times they are not required to even make a tackle to win the ball as his interception stats shows; the Brazilian is second only to Clichy in the league (109 to Clichy’s 118). Playing with much simplicity, Denilson is not the type of player one notices but the work he puts in is tremendous and is also able to initiate attacks. The boy from the favelas in São Paulo can be better and more expansive, but that will come with games and with quality players around him.

As Wenger says, there may not be too many intelligent tacklers but the player described as “a little bit in between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto” can be the one to rekindle the lost art of tackling in the midfield.