Arsenal’s pre-season campaign has shown some promise but it is very much a work in progress as there is a need for greater understanding of one’s role if the team wants to perfect it’s fluid style.
With every match, the Arsenal doom-mongers seem to put forward another flaw in Arsenal’s game. This week, following the 2-0 pre-season defeat to Valencia one absurd suggestion was that the Gunners central defenders now have problems dealing with pace. Luckily that criticism is not doing the rounds but what that one ‘fan’ saw was a consistent flow of quick breaks from the opposition.
With wholesale changes made in the second half and the introduction of live wire David Villa, such attacks became more frequent. The problem in this game and the two Emirates Cup encounters was a lack of discipline both from an attacking point of view and defensively. Too hasty to get forward and a lack of understanding of one’s responsibility on the pitch – even the great Cesc Fabregas could not get away with this one.
The consensus seems to be that there is two different ways to play the 4-3-3; one with fluidity and the other more functional – at the moment Arsenal seem to stuck somewhere in the middle. But ultimately, through all the tactics and preparation, both will succeed or fail on the attitude and application of the players in the side.
With more fluidity and flexibility in a side, in theory this should mean it will be more harder for Arsenal to organise. However the most attractive of teams in history have also been the most effective in controlling space. Wenger doesn’t have to look far to see that, as his own ‘Invincibles’ side had players who played in operational areas. Bergkamp in the channel between midfield and attack and Vieira and Edu/Gilberto disciplined in front of the defence.
In the days of the man-to-man WM system, Brazil came into the 1958 World Cup with the concept of the back four and zonal marking. While Brazilian football seems to be steeped in the stereotype of this fantastic carnival football but one which has no regard for tactical solidity, this defensive balance meant the flair players of Garrincha and Pele where able to revel.
Wenger admits his most greatest influence was the “Total Football” Ajax team of the late 60s and early 70s. A team which was built up with a core of players from the academy and played revolutionary football, interchanging positions and keeping the ball. That style reached it’s apex in the 1974 World Cup when, Rinus Michels having only three friendly matches to prepare his Holland side, chose a team compromising of mainly Ajax and Feyenoord and somehow managed to mold together a team in perfect harmony.
It was the utter demolition of Argentina 4-0 that sent shock waves around the footballing world as Holland constantly denied the opposition space by pressurising together. And then with the space afforded to them by Argentina, exploited it through the kaleidoscopic switching of positions . Michels later said: “It is an art in itself to compose a starting team, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, and between defence, construction and attack – never forgetting the quality of the opposition and the specific pressures of each match.”
One man watching at home, Arrigo Sacchi was completely entranced by it all, and in Jonathan Wilson’s book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics said, “Holland in the 1970s really took my breath away. The television was too small: I felt like I needed to see the whole pitch to fully understand it.”
Inspired among others by the Dutch’s controlling of space and artistry on the ball he created an all conquering AC Milan side that was not only entertaining but tough as needles to break down. Sacchi’s demanded that when not in possession, the defence and attack were to be separated by no more than 25m (before the liberalisation of the offside trap) and should pressure aggressively. It was highly systematised, with versatile players ensuring the system could continue and holding no compromises. “All of our players,” he said, “always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.” Such was his devotion and slight fanaticism he always maintained that five organised players would always beat 10 disorganised ones.
Slightly fanatical it may sound but the thinking of controlling space is still shared among the top coaches today. After watching USSR beat Italy 2-0 in the semi-final of Euro 88, Marcello Lippi hailed the victory of systematised pressing while Carlo Ancelloti will play a 4-4-2 diamond this season because he feels he can “put more zonal pressing”. Barcelona’s 4-3-3 wouldn’t be the same without the high pressuring of opponents and while the midfielders play with fluidity and freedom have, know what their role is when defending.
And up against Arsene Wenger in that pre-season game was an up and coming coach in Unai Emery who had his side defending with great organisation, set up in two banks of four. One player who caught the eye was young Argentinian midfielder, Ever Banega who outshone Arsenal’s own Alex Song. While the Cameroon ace was busy he left too much space behind and was reluctant to take the ball off his defenders. On the other hand Banega, once described as ‘Mascherano but can pass’ remained disciplined, kept the ball ticking and made some strong tackles.
Wenger maintains the toughest challenge is to find balance something which he is searching for with the change in formation to a 4-3-3. One of the advantages of this 4-3-3 formation is that it should offer securities to the other central midfielder, most thought to be Cesc Fabregas. However while Arsenal want to be fluid, in a fully systematised team, nobody can be carried – everybody must be carrying out their share of work.
* NB: There will be no match analysis following the Everton game unfortunately but normal service should resume for the game against Celtic.