Trying or even key moments in a season breeds ingenuity. At least from the best.
Pep Guardiola had studied Real Madrid’s weaknesses, finally discovering the key to defeating Barcelona’s closest rivals. It was during his first season in charge and ahead of the Clasico in the Bernabeu when he moved Lionel Messi permanently from the right side of attack into the centre and into a false nine position.
Barcelona annihilated Real Madrid 6-2 in one of the most memorable matches in Guardiola’s tenure, seeing 63 per cent of possession (away at Real Madrid) and producing 17 shots.
Arsenal don’t have players of the calibre of Barcelona, but they nevertheless have the personnel to execute such a style of play, even if only on rare occasions throughout a season.
The false nine can be erratic and flat out dangerous for those who adopt it. It can force the most dominant of displays, as we regularly saw with Barcelona, or it can offer up ninety minutes of toothless football.
Let’s not be wrongly led down the path in assuming Barcelona are the only team to have used this style in recent years. Roma, with Francesco Totti in the false nine role, toyed with the formation to some degree of success before abandoning it. Spain, obviously, have looked to replicate Barcelona’s success by using either David Silva or Cesc Fabregas in the “Messi position.” And while Guardiola may be steadily introducing this formation at Bayern Munich with Mario Goetze, Germany have been down this tactical path before, which is where Arsenal can find some joy.
Mesut Ozil was Joachim Loew’s choice to take up the false nine position. The German is ideally suited to the role. He can retain the ball, he drops deep, in turn dragging defenders out of position for the benefit of wide players, and he can obviously create.
How important is Olivier Giroud to the way Arsenal play? He’s hugely important. There isn’t anything false in the relentless hammering of the idea that Arsenal will be lost if he succumbs to injury. Nicklas Bendtner may have done a good job of deputising during Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Hull, but the Dane isn’t a long-term solution.
Though even with Giroud in the starting XI, Arsenal at times bypass him and use the genius of the midfield to conjure avenues to goal. The interchanging of Ozil and whoever else makes up the attacking midfield three can be mesmerising. Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, and Aaron Ramsey are able to rotate positions with ease, each capable of acting as chief creator through the middle or as a supplement out wide.
Against Cardiff, Arsenal produced three goals without the need for Giroud. The third goal highlighted the threat of pace provided by Theo Walcott, but the two which came before were the sole creation of the midfield. Ozil, creators in both, offered a glimpse of what can be done with a player like him creating space for others: both goals, notably the second, came from onrushing midfielders.
Ozil is never static, which is vital in the use of a false nine. In comparison, Giroud, while effective, allows for more certainty in the opposition centre-backs. They know what they’re dealing with and generally where the traditional centre-forward will be.
Arsene Wenger is in a position where he can use the obvious strength in his squad, his midfield, to combat the lack of depth at centre-forward. It’s risky, of course, evidenced by the dearth of teams who are prepared to adopt this tactic and stick to it.
Barcelona, always the template, had the pace from the flanks, the rapid passing and movement, the attack-minded full-backs, and the clinical Lionel Messi. Ozil isn’t the prolific goal scorer that the Argentine is – though no one bar Cristiano Ronaldo is – but that’s not a problem. Arsenal do have the personnel to get this formation off the ground, especially with Walcott back from injury.
It’s an option that can be explored and one that does fall in line with Wenger’s footballing philosophy. It’s unlikely to ever be the team’s primary formation – Giroud is still the team’s best option at the tip of the sword – but it’s one that can offer an alternative based on the strengths of the current squad.