With great freedom comes great responsibility

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

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Arsene Wenger banking on Arsenal’s central strength for the new season

The Emirates Cup has signaled a change in formation for the coming campaign as manager Arsene Wenger looks to maximise Arsenal’s creative potential.
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Arsene Wenger has lost his religion. Or make that, devoting more time to what had made his previous sides a joy to watch. Wenger will never deviate from the fluid, passing style that has been the hallmark of his Arsenal sides but that had long been in a 4-4-2. “I think 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases,” he said in Gianluca Vialli’s book, ‘The Italian Job’. “In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space.”

But if the Emirates Cup is anything to go by, Arsene Wenger is greatly pondering a switch in system to a 4-3-3 in an attempt to galvanize his young team. And it make sense; the Gunners have a abundance of central attacking players and with the switch, allows fluid combination play and creativity. The three central midfielders are set-up in a triangle, one deepest and two either side as opposed to last season’s 4-2-3-1 while the wide men have freedom to support the lone forward.

Far from being perfect yet a step up from last pre-season, Arsenal produced two solid, attacking team performances to win the competition. Against  Athletico Madrid Arsenal were typically domineering and kept possession well but ultimately lacked that dynamism to prise open the Spanish defence until Andrei Arshavin’s introduction. The Russian has had a slow start to pre-season but is getting used to his new wide role and it’s easy to see why Wenger prefers him there. His ability to take people on and killer instinct should mean a more clinical Arsenal.

At Rangers, we saw a more rounded attacking performance. The front three of Eduardo, Wilshere and Arshavin pressured well and their movement in particular was bamboozling. In fact in the post-match conference, Wenger admitted that the formation Arsenal have indeed been playing is a 4-2-3-1, adding to the flexibility (In this case Fabregas closest to the right of Song/Denilson and Merida higher and slightly elongated to the left). He has n0 doubt been watching a lot of Brazil who have always intimated under Dunga that their 4-2-3-1 formation is indeed a diamond formation.

Nevertheless, it is a three man central midfield and from a defensive point of view, it should feel like one. The advantage of this set-up is that it gives greater security to the other central midfielder but over-eagerness to get forward has not dispelled the problems associated last season with the 4-4-2.

Often the deepest midfielder has been left exposed and in such situations there is the argument that a ‘enforcer’ is required. However, unless that enforcer has extendable legs capable of spanning 20 yards, what is best required is someone with astute positional sense, capable of nicking the ball away.

In an unfair comparison with Barcelona, Yaya Toure is able to remain disciplined because players like Iniesta, Xavi and Messi are better at keeping the ball and making the right decisions. As of yet, because of the Gunners’ elaborate playing style, more resources are pushed forward in order to sustain the pressure but at times a bit too hastily. NB: having seen much of Barcelona, this formation Arsenal is playing is not the same as the Catalan club.

There is a case also that a tall target man in the build of someone like Huntelaar would be best suited to the system, capable of patrolling around the box and linking up play. As of yet only Eduardo has played with distinction of the available strikers while Van Persie still looks best as a support striker. We will see some matches played in a 4-4-2 and some in a 4-3-3, but unless someone takes the second central midfielder mantle like Flamini did in 2007/08, the latter looks the formation of choice.

And somehow, playing this system has opened up new levels of depth to the side. More onus has been placed on the creative players to not only create but to score and with the options on the bench, Wenger is able to switch talent seamlessly. Which is the supposed beauty of this system; fluidity.

Arsenal: young, slick and a love for all things passing

As Arsenal’s football becomes more fluid and pass orientated, the demands become greater especially against the changing nature of the modern game.
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It was only a pre-season friendly but with Arsene Wenger anxiously pacing the touchline during a match against third-place Hungarian outfits Szombathelyi Haladás, it showed just how crucial next season will be. He seemed satisfied with the cohesion and application shown in the end by the Gunners as they came out comfortable 5-0 winners.

Interestingly, four goals were scored in the first half yet the second half was the more impressive.

The opening period saw Arsenal line up in a 4-3-3 formation with Song the deepest midfielder and Denilson and Ramsey to the right and left of him respectively. It was blue collar stuff; hard-working and unfashionable at most times but then Arsenal committed white-collar robbery – two quick breaks, one headed in by Bendtner and the other fantastically finished by Eduardo, while the Croatian also scored a free-kick to make it three. Haladás played better than the scoreline suggested and although the fourth goal was a thing of beauty the more functional Arsenal showed their superior class.

In the second half, Arsenal played in a 4-4-2 with Senderos holding and the forward players playing with much more flexibility than the first. One goal was scored but the Gunners pushed Haladás back for much of the game and kept the ball almost monopolistically.

That Arsenal were the more impressive so why is it then that they found it more difficult to score in the second half?

Arsenal consumed by their success

Indeed, Arsenal have always played a similar brand of football but in the years between the Invincibles last one a title and now, the Gunners have only won one trophy. In an article for Four Four Two, Paul Simpson attempts to explain Arsenal’s four year demise by referring to business writer Danny Miller’s Icarus Paradox.

The theory argues that once a business (or in this case, team) taste success, they contribute to their own downfall through their own strengths by devoting more time and resources to what made them successful. Therefore what made Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal – youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and confidence in possession – have effectively taken over the team and other factors such as organisation, strength and ruthlessness have almost been swept under the carpet.

That is however, slightly unfair on the club – Arsene Wenger didn’t choose the direction of youth voluntarily, more as a result of the move to the Emirates. “The decision was to go for more youth when we decided to build a new stadium because we are not in a position where we could spend £30m or £40m on players,” said Wenger. “Whether people accept it or not is one thing but, today, we have a good side, we make profit and we pay our debtors back. People are scandalised when banks lose money but I’m scandalised when football clubs lose money. For me it’s the same process. I’m not against spending money; I’m against losing money.”

The interesting point regards organisation. As a side’s football becomes more about flexibility and freedom, the more difficult it is to maintain the shape. Coupled with the fact that the physical development of the game means it has become harder for teams to play such an expansive passing style as opponents pack the centre. Transitions and set-pieces have also become ever more important but ultimately it is all about controlling space; Carlo Ancelotti is about to embark on his Chelsea journey playing in a 4-4-2 diamond because it allows him to “put more zonal pressing” and this is something which the ‘Invincibles’ did very well.

Controlling Zones

With a combination of either Edu/Gilberto and Vieira in the centre and Bergkamp in the ‘hole’, the adaptable formation was  argued to be a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-2-4. With such ‘between the lines’ players’ Arsenal could control operational areas that are considered key in unlocking the opposition’s defence.

Mattheiu Flamini had a fantastic year in 2007/08 because of his mobility and positional awareness, patrolling the area between defence and midfield expertly. Arsenal’s game has always been about fluidity and possession and if the Gunners lost or indeed had the ball, he kept the shape.

Therefore going back to the 5-0 against Szombathelyi Haladás, it was obvious Arsenal were more comfortable in the 4-4-2. Although only one goal was scored, on another day that could have been more while they were less troubled by the Hungarian’s as opposed to the tense first half. The most noteworthy point of the match was the performance of Philipe Senderos who remained disciplined in the centre of midfield and allowed the forward players to sustain the pressure.

Although the Swiss is not a realistic candidate for the spot, his positional awareness and strength allowed him to control the zone better against ultimately inferior opposition. If a defender could operate the zone so well then what’s to say a new midfielder is needed especially with the talent at Arsenal’s disposal already? Arsenal have always excelled in a 4-4-2 although with Cesc Fabregas, it is always him plus one meaning his partner has had to be very mobile. Defensive responsibility is bound to the team as a whole and it will take that understanding to bring back the balance in midfield.

When asked a question about Steven Gerrard when Real Madrid director during the Galactico era, former AC Milan coach and master tactician Arrigo Sacchi had this to say about the Liverpool midfielder. “We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry. But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision-making. They lacked positioning. They didn’t have that subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective.

“You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team, and, by doing this, making both you and the team greater. So, situations like that, I just have to say, he’s a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player.”

Fast forward to Wednesday, and Arsenal completed their fourth pre-season game against Hannover 96 coming out 1-0 winners. Arsene Wenger stuck with the 4-3-3 once again but this time had the luxury of calling up Cesc Fabregas, one of the most intelligent players in world football and a master of dictating play.

Arsenal were better in the match than against Haladás using the same formation but with the departure of Fabregas at half time, were not the same threat. Song’s positional play became suspect and the formation was shown to be more rigid. Work still needs to be done with this set-up but the thinking remains that this formation will give greater control of zones while allowing more or less the same fluidity.

Time will tell, but the conundrum for Wenger will be whether to stick with the 4-3-3 which is the more orthodox or return to the 4-4-2 which suits Arsenal passing game but could be the more difficult to organise. You can’t help but feel all there needs is a little understanding……