Is Coquelin enough or must we buy? Can Santi, Rambo and Jack (Mikel el Capitan, Flamini le Veteran or Rosicky the rambling man…) do the job? Or, are there other ways of looking at the problem?…
As preseason begins and–the transfer merry-go-round reaches full velocity– Centripetal (or is it Centrifugal?) forces push us towards external solutions or other ways of thinking about how we can get the best out of our squad. Some of our rivals–including a couple who are doing the most transfer business this summer–will likely be trying formations with 3 (or is it 5?) at the back. Could this be something Arsenal should consider? Would it allow a greater chance for our midfielders (and our full or “wing” backs) to do their thing? Is it about personnel or could it be more about formation? In other words, what should Arsene be thinking?
Maybe we already know. According to reports–see previous post–the team looked GOOD taking down Everton in Singapore. Petr Cech sure looked happy holding a cup festooned with ribbons sporting the Barclays name–and even better in an Arsenal shirt! Arsenal are starting the season where they hope to be ending it. If only it were in London in May rather than Singapore in July!
So far, Cech (and a few players out) has been our ONLY summer business. His purchase and some minor tweaks (including finding a replacement keeper) over there at Stamford Bridge are some of the only business being done by the big teams down in London–in stark contrast to what’s happening up in the greater Manchester area.
Up there, Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal, buoyed by getting his club back into the Champions League, is buying (and selling) players almost as if it were a bodily function. His most notable buys are a pair of deep lying midfielders–the S-C-H brothers, Schweinie and Schneidy, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. Memphis Depay was secured before the previous season even ended and surely there will be others to replace departed forwards Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao. They’re dragging it out, but all signs point to goalkeeper David De Gea heading off to Real Madrid, while Angel Di Maria could also be swapped for even more big money–and thus big money players. It’s enough to make one’s head spin.
Across town at Manchester City, where Manuel Pellegrini persists uneasily at the helm, a calmer approach is prevailing. Younger English players with a measure of attacking verve seem to be in favour. Pellegrini has nabbed two of the hottest in Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph. With the money at his disposal Pellegrini surely isn’t done either.
Meanwhile at Liverpool, where Brendan Rodgers sits on a similar hot-seat, the manager has taken an older Pellegrini cast-off in search of more playing time–James Milner–amongst many others. Spending the (absurd, obscene?) Sterling money is his next task and he must make no mistake with it. Should he splash on a big man up front (Christian Benteke) or look to find a replacement for Steven Gerrard towards the back of his midfield? Maybe he too needs a keeper upon whom he can really count. Luckily, City spent so much on Sterling that Rodgers can probably improve his squad in multiple positions.
Fitting all these players into first 11s or figuring out what the managers are thinking is too much for me and, frankly, I cannot wait to just get the games going. When the transfer window finally shuts–or even earlier, with the start of the season–we will likely see some of the more subtle differences in approach. .
With all the personnel changes at ‘Pool and United I’m wondering if those clubs may also be contemplating a more dedicated 3 defender look. Van Gaal and Rodgers have experimented with (and relied upon) these approaches in the past and there’s a belief that these formations can bring solidity in the tighter matches and in helping to protect less than fully confident goalkeepers. Playing a sitting pair of midfielders ahead of 3 central defenders–while allowing wing-backs to work the wide spaces–seems a great way of spreading the pitch to give plenty of space for attackers to do their business further forward.
In lieu of such an approach, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City protect their keepers and central defensive pairings by employing a midfielder (or sometimes two) who organize with an eye to defending–while hoping that rampaging fullbacks can get back to help as needed. Francis Coquelin, a player who has never scored a goal for Arsenal, was nonetheless our revelation of the season. His organizational shouting up at Man City and the repeatedly broken nose he thrust towards the elbows of Maroune Fellaini in a pair of matches at Old Trafford will not soon be forgotten.
Still, on the back of the recent–and sumptuous–final performance in Singapore where Coquelin only came in late on, it’s tempting to believe that players with more attacking intent–including Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey–might be exciting options in their favoured central positions. Mesut Ozil, who Wenger has said will be playing in the #10 role, has also been known to happily drop deep and do more of the mundane possession work himself while routinely clocking the highest running totals on the team. And then there are the veteran players–all who prefer central roles–Captain Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini. Can these guys dust off the rust and do a job directly ahead of our center backs? I won’t even get into the youth team prospects some observers see as being ready (or nearly ready) to contribute. For all the regular mention guys like Isaac Hayden and Krystian Bielik get from the youth watchers, those focused on the first team probably will be happy enough to hold off on their inclusion–for now at least.
The question, for me at least, is how–in a very competitive league–managers should be thinking about these positions. Is it defense first and giving space to the attack which the 3 defender, 2 sitting mid approach of Van Gaal or Rodgers would seem to suggest, or is it all about one (or two) more cynical and ball controlling midfielders–I’m thinking about Coquelin for us, Nemanja Matic or John Obi-Mikel at Chelsea and The Brazilian pair–Fernando and Fernandinho–at Man City–ahead of a more traditional back 4?
With Coquelin, it seems we have a guy who can see the value of playing for a draw or at least sacrificing his offensive game to try and keep the clean sheet, even if that seems the last thing our manager would ever consider. Mourinho at Chelsea, although he was fired for his negative brand of football in his first stint there, seems uncompromising in his approach, while Pellegrini at ManCity suffered more by way of injuries to key down-the-spine players like Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure. Do these coaches need to consider an occasional switch to a back 3 (or 5) or is the (new) tradition of a back 4 with (alternately) bombing fullbacks solid enough? Which approach is most flexible and allows teams to turn 1 point into 3 (or none into 1). Personnel is critical, of course, but does one (or the other) approach allow teams to switch more quickly into a more attacking mode without becoming too open at the back? Does 3 at the back signal that it is more important to avoid losing? Does playing with a flat (or not so flat) back 4 mean teams are always ready to go for the win?
My take on these questions is that confidence in attack can mask a LOT of issues and save (and grab) a lot of cheap points. If the goal is a top 4 finish, getting plenty of wins against the lower teams is the way to do it. Real confidence to absorb pressure and keep clean sheets (against the best in the league and on the continent), however, is what wins championships and those pesky (and sometimes two-legged) ties at the business end of the season. Bottom line: I think we can safely try these more attack minded combos in the earlier home matches and easier away games but we must pull off the results. Any slip-ups and conservatism must almost surely creep in, much as it did with the unchanged line-ups–with Coquelin likely the first name written down–near the end of last season.
We need to use the great depth of players who prefer these central postions, but how much can we rotate in the center of our midfield–and perhaps at fullback–where younger, more attack oriented guys like Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs might need to give way to more experienced guys (who’ve also slotted in at center back) like Mathieu Debuchy and Nacho Monreal? Do we need even more experience in these critical areas or should any further transfer business be done more with an eye to the future (in this area) or to getting goals by buying further forward?
When push comes to shove does experience (and defensive poise) trump attacking potential and technique in these key positions? Are Van Gaal and Rodgers onto something with their newer (but perhaps more conservative) formations?
Sorry for prattling on as I have (but thanks for reading!)… Over to you, fine fellow Gooners (and would-be-Wengers). Fill us in on your faves (and fears) for formation fun (or fright)… Or take me to task and talk tactics and transfers…
by 17highbury Terrace