Mesut Özil is a lightening quick playmaker with amazing dribbling skills, remarkable vision, and first class passing ability. This sounds like we’ve heard this before, doesn’t it? In short, in a basic respect he’s just another smallish, attack-minded midfielder who relies upon speed and technical skill to succeed rather than upon size and strength. We already have a stable full of those, right? Well, sort of, but truly, there’s no “just” about Özil, who is immediately the best player on a team that already has a number of very good players.
So what will Özil provide to the club that it does not already have, beyond of course merely the marginal increase in skills that he has over whoever he replaces in the lineup? This and the next blog post explore the answer to this question by looking at the tactics Arsenal have typically employed. The third blog post in this series will explore Özil’s impact specifically.
ARSENAL’S ATTACKING SCHEME
The shortcoming of the “#-#-#” method for defining shape is that it oversimplifies what complex modern schemes require of players, even players who play the same positional “level” on the pitch. This oversimplification is particularly troublesome when those schemes are imbalanced or allow significant movement of players between positions, such as is embodied in “Total Football”. This method of discussing tactics can be deceptive the way that a two-dimensional Mercator projection map skews land masses on a round planet. Nevertheless, any map is better than no map at all, and this one’s somewhat familiar, so we we’ll use it.
Arsenal’s primary formation in the last few seasons can with differing levels of accuracy be labeled a 4-4-2; a 4-3-3; a 4-2-3-1; or a 4-5-1. As long as we’re sticking with this poor method for defining the scheme, the description which I think fits the most conceptually is a 4-2-2-2, because that at least recognizes the three basic levels of the formation beyond the defense. As will be seen, even that is somewhat misleading and is certainly over-simplified.
The Back Four
At first glance, Arsenal plays a traditional back four with two center halves and two full backs. Wenger’s Arsenal is very attack-minded, so it prefers to play with at least one center half who is especially mobile and who has the ability to challenge attacking players unsupported in the open field, and also to start counter-attacking moves with quick passes forward. Koscielny and Vermaelen both fit this style; the slower Mertesacker plays a more traditional defensive style, but is at least a competent passer. At his most precocious, Vermaelen has even ventured forward in open to the edge of the opposition’s 18-yard box in support of attacking moves.
Of note, if Mertesacker is playing, the more mobile center half plays to the left. This is the first sign of Arsenal’s preferred imbalance in its formation.
The full backs are more attack minded than the center halves and both are expected to get forward to support attacks and occasionally overlap with the respective wings along the touchline and get crosses in from the top of the 18-yard box. This is essentially what the right back does (and no more).
The left back, however, is more of a wing back and is expected to go forward along the touchline and support or overlap as needed all the way down to the opposing end line at times, effectively becoming an “extra winger”. The left back overlaps more often than the right back.
Kieran Gibbs’ play best exemplifies the full embodiment of this position given that he has the speed to both get forward and recover back into defense if necessary, and also the passing skills to compliment the attack. Gibbs is even good enough to angle into the channel from the touchline occasionally and become a direct scoring threat himself, as was dramatically demonstrated by his stunning volleyed goal against Swansea. Nacho Monreal is slower and therefore plays this position a little more conservatively and doesn’t always venture as far forward, though he is competent in every other respect and may be more dependable as a defender than is Gibbs.
It is no coincidence, then, that the more mobile and attack-minded center half is typically played on the left – that allows that center half to start counter-attacks in the more dynamic left side of the attacking formation as the attack builds. It also allows the more mobile center half to cover for the wing back if he’s caught forward, all the way over to the touchline if necessary.
Finally, it’s also no coincidence that Arsenal has been at such a disadvantage on the attack when Gibbs has been out of the lineup, especially before Monreal was signed – it was almost like a wing player had been removed from the attack, rendering the attack “shorthanded”.
The Deep Midfield
In front of the defense, the first “2″ midfielders in the 4-2-2-2 play vitally important roles for Arsenal. One or both of them are often referred to as “defensive midfielders” (“DM’s”), but Wenger’s preferred scheme nowadays does not typically involve the use of a DM.
To be clear, when I refer to a “DM”, I’m referring to a player who sits in front of the center halves, and whose job consists almost exclusively of winning the ball back via tackling or interceptions, followed by simple, short, typically lateral passes to creative players who then begin the next attack. Claude Makelele is the classic embodiment of this sort of player. Such a player is useful even today and indeed many top teams commonly play with a DM. This approach is “safe” as it ensures defensive depth, however having a fifth outfield player essentially dedicated to defending takes away from the potential power of the team’s attacking play.
While Arsenal have on occasion had DM’s (and Flamini Part 2 appears to be another example), Wenger prefers more from even his deepest midfielders in his standard formation. Wenger’s deep midfielders are expected to do everything that a DM does defensively, however once the ball is won they are expected to directly support the attack, dribbling forward, passing through the defense and even getting into the box as extra attackers trailing the play. The best embodiment of this style of play presently is the blossoming Aaron Ramsey who has the work rate and mettle to tackle and win the ball deep, the technical ability to dribble and pass creatively in the middle of the pitch, and the speed and finishing ability to run into open space in the opponent’s 18-yard box as an additional attacker.
Ramsey essentially transitions on the run between three positions: defensive midfielder; box-to-box midfielder; deep-lying playmaker. His remarkable ability to play all three roles well effectively “adds a player” to the team when it transitions from attack to defense, and from defense to attack. To use a military term, he is a “force multiplier”.
Of note, this style of play from a pair of central midfielders also requires a high degree of coordination and cohesion between the two players, which can only happen after hours together on the training ground and in games. Even if someone is not playing as a “DM”, at least one of those players needs to be filling that role or something approximating it at all times – when one player is forward supporting an attack, the other must remain farther back to guard against a counter-attack. This lack of discipline was Alex Song’s great shortcoming.
But this high requirement for coordination and shared understanding is also what makes this combination play so lethal – the opposing midfield cannot simply stand off from a DM and await his simple pass to a teammate when he has the ball in the middle of the pitch, because players like Ramsey, Rosicky, Arteta or Wilshere are able to quickly dribble upfield if given space; in the final third the defense does not know where this extra midfield attacker will come from in support of the attack, so if the defense loses shape for example on a counter attack, an open space may well be filled by one of those deep midfielders streaking forward and ready to pounce on a teammate’s key pass.
With remarkable candor, Fulham’s Martin Jol noted before the 1-3 defeat to Arsenal that “you can’t figure out who is the defensive midfielder and who is the offensive midfielder because they rotate all the time”. What Jol was saying was that both of Arsenal’s deep midfielders must be accounted for because either of them can move forward in the attack if given time and space, and this effectively eliminates the ability of at least one defender from double marking or simply dropping back, and it also makes it difficult to mark properly and maintain defensive shape. This difficulty in turn forces the defense into mistakes, especially when scrambling back to defend counter-attacks, and opens up what Gary Neville once referred to as “Arsenal space”, the open area in the opponent’s final third where a trailing attacking player runs to receive a killer ball.
Now, consider again the complaint about how “all of Arsenal’s midfielders are the same”. While not literally true of course, the reason for the superficial similarity is that a high degree of mobility and stamina, as well as a high degree of technical skills are required. You simply aren’t going to find many traditional big, hard-tackling midfielders who can do all of these things – players like Yaya Touré and Patrick Vieira don’t grow on trees; along those lines, it’s also not coincidence that the club have shown so much patience with the person at the club most like Touré and Vieira athletically, namely the much-injured Abou Diaby. Simply put, Arsenal recruits smaller but skilled and hard-working players to fill this role because they’re the players who are the most available to be recruited for this demanding job.
Also consider that the well-rounded nature of players like Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere and Rosicky enable them to also play attacking midfield positions, which in turn facilitates player rotation in the lineup and reduces the need for squad depth from sheer numbers. So while it’s frustrating at times against more physical teams, there are definite benefits to Arsenal’s approach to player development and squad construction in the midfield.
[Coming soon - Part 2... And don't worry, I will discuss Ozil in depth.]
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