Thesis: Do you need big players in your team to win big games?
It’s been the most obvious question posed towards Arsenal and Arsene Wenger in well over a year: why don’t you invest in a dynamic, ball winning, physical player?
No doubt a question worth posing, because it serves to question why Arsenal have such a one dimension-ally-skilled team. In all of his eighteen year reign Wenger has prioritised, technical, aesthetically pleasing passing in his teams- that was the foundation in which he built the Invincibles.
Technicality is now what they have in abundance- in fact, probably too much. It allows him an outstanding amount of squad depth to adhere to his ‘plan A’, to gear the team towards a single purpose that it will execute consistently.
But it’s easy to see through that straightforward outlook when Arsenal meet their match on the passing front, as they often do in career-defining games in each of their Premier League seasons. Wenger will send his players out in that same ordinary fashion, full of technical brilliance and flair, with little consideration for the nitty-gritty, dirty side of the game.
As we all know, Arsenal usually come un-stuck in their quest to pass to the title. Last season, in particular, presented that imbalance dilemma in a most crude fashion, with the Gunners leading the league for 127 days and keeping an impressive 18 clean sheets, while being mauled by Everton (0-3), Chelsea, (0-6), Liverpool (1-5) and Man City (3-6).
But their landmark 2-0 victory over Man City this weekend posed a challenge to the physicality thesis. It is necessary to be defensively sound?
In that game at the Etihad, they lined up with their usual centre back pairing, and fielded the impressive Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla in midfield with a tired Aaran Ramsey making surges up the pitch. They weren’t overly-physical players, yet Arsenal looked more defensively assured than ever before.
On that basis, is physicality necessary in personnel necessary, or can a system that a team of smaller players adhere to be equally effective?
Pep Guardiola’s incredible Barcelona team are the proto-type to Wenger’s passing aspirations, and are the shining example to the passing-beats-all argument . Their 2011 Champions League team was hardly dependant on physical play- only Gerard Pique, Carlos Puyol and Sergio Busquets were ‘big’ players, yet the side as a whole relied on quick pressing and unfathomably high percentages of ball possession to defend.
If the case study of Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over City proves anything, it’s that if Wenger instructs his full backs to sit deep, keeps his holder in place, and has his wide men track back to maintain a compact midfield base, the system can resist a siege. Instead of relying on the aggressiveness of a big player to dominate a smaller more technical opponent, the system itself can cut the supply off to that playmaker in the first place, rendering the use of physicality redundant. It’s holistic- if all contribute in comprehensive unison, results will come.
That, however, is rarely the case.
Tactical commentators have largely concluded that the death of Tika Taka (the extreme movement of passing football) was brought about by physicality, that ‘intensity and intricacy’ now trumps Spanish precision (as embodied by Bayern Munich’s 7-0 mauling of Barcelona in the Champions League semi final two seasons ago).
Furthermore, the death of the ‘classic no.10’, a technically astute playmaker from years gone by (a Juan Riquelme or Pablo Aimar) was brought about by the emergence of the Claude Makelele (the epitomy of a physical specimen).
Southampton arguably boast the best defensive record in the league because they actually beautifully combine the outstanding combination of Morgan Schniederlin (the tactically aware player who articulates ‘the system’ around him) and Victor Wanyama (your Claude Makelele physical unit). Liverpool, for instance, in recent weeks, have actually looked far superior with the dynamism of Lucas back at the base of their midfield.
Ultimately, Arsenal’s victory over Man City should not be over-played. Had Yaya Toure played, who’s capable of beating a smaller player in an individual battle, it’s likely City would have regained control of the midfield, have broken down Arsenal’s rearguard, and manoeuvred Silva back into an influential role. His absence was integral in helping Arsenal cope.
That’s not to take encouragements from the foundations in which that victory can be built upon.
But Wenger should be wary of being mis-lead. After all- it’s highly unlikely he’ll be able to build a team technically as good as Guardiola’s Barca. Which means physicality is still important, and the sooner that attribute is adopted into his squad, the more likely we’ll be seeing a more competitive Arsenal in the future.