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 something worth asking, because it serves to question why Arsenal have such a one-dimensional team. In all of his 18 years in the Premier League, Wenger has put the emphasis on having technical, aesthetically pleasing passing in his teams – that was the foundation on which he built the ‘Invincibles’.
Technical ability is now what they have in abundance – in fact, one could argue they have too much. It allows Wenger 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 have in career-defining games in all of their recent Premier League seasons. Wenger will send his players out in that same 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 win the title. Last season, in particular, presented that imbalance dilemma in the 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 recently posed a challenge to the physicality thesis. Is it necessary to prioritise defence in such fixtures?
In that game, they lined up with their usual centre back pairing and fielded the impressive trio of Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey in midfield. They aren’t overly-physical players and yet Arsenal looked more defensively assured than they have for years.
On that basis, is physicality 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 prototype for 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 could be described as ‘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 a holistic approach – 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’ was brought about by physicality; that intensity now trumps intricacy – as best demonstrated 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 anti-playmaker, with Claude Makelele perhaps serving as the best example.
The reason for Southampton’s enviable defensive record is arguably due to the outstanding combination of Morgan Schniederlin – the tactically aware player who orchestrates ‘the system’ around him – and Victor Wanyama – your classic ball-winner. Similarly, Liverpool have looked far superior in recent weeks with the re-introduction Lucas’s dynamism at the base of their midfield.
Ultimately, Arsenal’s victory over City should not be overplayed. Had Yaya Toure been on the pitch, it’s likely City would have had greater control of the midfield, which would’ve enabled David Silva to exert his usual influence on the game. The Ivorian’s absence was integral in helping Arsenal cope.
However, that’s not to take away from the encouraging foundations on which the victory was built upon.
But Wenger should be wary of being misled. After all, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be able to build a team technically as good as Guardiola’s Barcelona. Without such a high level, physicality remains important. The sooner Wenger adds this attribute to his squad, the sooner we’ll be seeing a more competitive Arsenal in the Premier League.