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Arsenal tactics review part 2 – Ball playing defenders

By Phil Gregory

Continuing from where I left off in the first article (which looked at the centre backs and set pieces), lets continue from the back.

In that article I talked about centre backs and why I didn’t think we need a typical English clogger centreback, à la Shawcross. One thing I mentioned was an emphasis is placed on ball playing defenders, and I’ll develop that a little more now. Ball playing centre backs are valued because of the prevalence of the parked bus tactic against us: we now come up against it in a quite a few games in the season, not just versus the traditional bottom three.

When this happens the opposition defend deep, so our entire team moves up, leaving our centre backs perched on the half way line, and our fullbacks even further forward. In that situation, a brutish centreback is an utter liability as the defenders are then either bringing the ball forward or playing forward passes. Neither is the strong point of a Shawcross type, and at best that sort of player would only weaken our offensive game, and at worst it’d cost us goals on the break if our defenders give the ball away when we are heavily commited going forwards. A good ball playing centreback also reduces the need for a midfielder to come short and bring the ball forward – the defender can do that himself. When we’re looking to pick the lock of a packed penalty area, the more men that are options for our attack the better.

Another Arsène favourite in defence is the interception. Dark Prince mentioned this in the comments to the last article and I’m glad he did, as it’s a very valid point. For me, I’d rather have a defender whose strong point is interceptions rather than tackles. The reasoning is simple: if you tackle a player, you may or may not end up with the ball at your feet. If you do, then great but more likely is that the ball will go loose, taken by another attacker and the attack continues, albeit delayed or slightly off course.

The interception, on the other hand guarantees you have the ball at your feet, and under control too. You’re also probably moving away from your own goal to make it, so have a directional advantage over any opponent who would like to nick the ball back off you. The key point here is that interceptions aren’t as eye-catching as thundering tackles, but they are a hell of a lot more effective, and potentially tee up a great attacking opportunity if done in the opponents half of the pitch.

Those two reasons then are why I think we favour ball playing centrebacks, and I set out my reasons in the previous article why I’m not in favour of an aerial monster of a defender unless they have other abilities too. It’s easy for fans to scream “we need a X. Y and Z” when we concede a goal, it’s harder to look at the benefits we get from our current ball playing defence. That said, ball playing defenders, especially ones such as Koscielny who were chosen for their footballing intelligence, should be able to mark effectively at corners and free kicks, so hopefully we see some improvement in that regard after the summer. Then we’ll see the best of both worlds.

Another issue that we’ve seen in the second half of the season has been distribution from the goalkeeper. For all his strengths, Szcznesy distribution isn’t the best I’ve ever seen. That makes life a little bit more difficult: a poor pass from the goalkeeper puts the receiving player under more pressure, risking the opposition stealing possession.

The problem is compounded when you consider that a long punt almost always means gifting the opposition possession given our lack of height in attack (something that’ll be looked at in another article). This is a big issue for Arsenal: the Bolton game was a great example of how we can ping in 30+ crosses but not win a single header. It’s the same issue when the keeper has to play the ball long, headers aren’t won and we rely on pressing the second ball, hardly the most elegant of build up play.

That forces us then to build up from the back. Naturally, the opposition can make that sort of build up play tougher by pressing the back four, but if anything I’d be delighted to see a Stoke or Blackburn type side press us, as they’d not be sitting so damned deep all the time. A side coming out and battling for the ball can be passed around unless they do the pressing supremely effectively, like Barcelona. Even if the defensive pressing is perfect, most Premier League sides wouldn’t have the legs to press like Barca do, as Barca do it for a hell of a lot less time than  a Blackburn would due to the ability of the Catalans on the ball.

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That then leaves us with a situation where we play it out from the back relatively easily versus a side sitting deep, but then hit a brick wall (or parked bus if you like). Walter’s recent stats show that we are the masters of scoring inside the six yard box, but often it is frustrating trying to work the ball between a massed defence when it doesn’t seem to be working. Short of options, the fullbacks stay wide and we play the ball to them, and see an ineffectual cross put in, headed away by the opposing defence for us to try again. Thus the cycle continues, with us either working our way through (or getting a very lucky break from a cross) and winning the game, enduring a frustrating draw or losing thanks to a breakaway or set piece goal. The problem is a lack of height offering us more options in attack.

That leads us nicely to the deficiencies in our attacking game, and the third article in this tactical review series which will be written soon!

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23 comments to Arsenal tactics review part 2 – Ball playing defenders

  • WalterBroeckx

    I think it is a difficult choice Wenger has to make.
    For the moment we don’t have any big lump centre back so there is no choice but to play the defenders that are also decent footballers.
    But in some games against some teams it might be a help to have that big lump out there somewhere helping out in defense. Not really the Shawcross type (just the thought makes me want to throw up my breakfast) but maybe the Samba type. I admit I would like him to come but even then I really am not sure that it would make us better? Only AW will be able to answer that one I think by buying him and giving him a chance. 😉

    But it is a dilemma in some games I think.

    Because our “bad defenders” (without Vermaelen!!!!) turned out to be the best in the games against the other teams in the top 4 with only 4 goals conceded in 6 games! So when we play skillful attackers like they have in the top teams we are doing very well in fact. So no need for a Samba type in such games. But when it comes to some other teams we could have used a Samba type at times.

    Or could Bartley fill this gap in the future?

  • BobbyP

    I concur with Walter’s comments – while ball-playing defenders are preferable in the games against the big teams, or in ‘park-the-bus’ scenarios (when we need someone to provide the extra man), there are certain games (Stoke, Bolton, Blackburn away etc) where the option of an extra physical presence is required.

    Not sure whether spending £12-£15 million on a Samba/Cahill type player who isn’t first choice is the best use of funds, although I haven’t seen enough of Bartley to know whether he could fill the gap

    Phil, I’ve felt that our full-backs haven’t really provided enough in terms of attacking options over the last couple of years. They don’t seem to stretch other teams, the quality of crosses is often poor and they don’t create too many chances. Would you go along with that?

  • sahil

    This season Arsenal had 332 shots against their goal,the lowest in the league.That means our defenders are good.We conceded 43 goals and 23 of them were set pieces.Surely set pieces are our Achille’s heel.The problem as AW pointed out is our lack of height. So how do we solve it? Some fans say we need a beast of a defender. But would such a defender(lets say samba) fit in our high backline. I think the one defender we should go for is Jan Vertoghen.First of all he is 6’3″ with a good leap,that should help us in winning headers.Secondly he would easily fit in our system.He is technically good and Ajax play in a similar style like Arsenal.I really think this is the man aw should go for

  • sahil

    Although i do agree with walter that in some of the physical games like stoke samba could be really helpful.

  • Praaam

    my main problem with a big lump centre back is that..if we have consecutive games against stock blackburn wolves type of teams and the subsequent midweek we have a game against the barca game the ball players will have to come in but they would be without match practice which could harm us in the initial stages of that match. what i’m saying is that layers like sambha would be a liability in big matches even in the prem league..we need ball players who are good in set pieces…

  • chris


    We play far too much clever football in and around our own penalty area … and it has often cost us. The risk reward % of one twos deep in our own half is ridiculous and Wenger should be told so. . If a defender (including a big monster) does sometimes hoof upfield … the team has a brief respite in which to reorganise properly. Too often we lose the ball by overplaying in dangerous areas and then we really are exposed. Most of the fanbase wants a big central defender and a whole, drilled defensive unit …. to keep the ball out of out own net ….. not to display delightful ball playing skills !!!

  • Charlie

    I was always told “it’s not size that matters, it’s what you do with it”. Seriously though i think it’s the organisational side of the game that is lacking at set-pieces. Who from the back five (keeper included) would you choose to organise the defense to counter how the opposition line-up at a set-piece. The training ground is one thing but the key is how to deal with a specific situation on the pitch. You cannot repeat every set-piece permutation on the training ground and even if you do you can’t expect your players to remember what they were supposed to do. That organisation comes from a man on the pitch at that moment.

  • We need big fierce players, Cahill bring him on

  • Dark Prince

    I have to disagree with one point. And thats the pros and cons that you mentioned in differentiating Interceptions and Tacklings.

    In my view, the advantages of a tackling include – the opposition player being a bit more nervous to go against defenders who tackle hard, the biggest example being Arsenal player themselves who are sometimes too scared to go one on one against a defender on the thought of getting tackled hard and getting injured plus tackling is a sure shot way of stopping the player.

    The disadvantages of tackling, are as you mentioned, the ball spilling away as well as giving away free kicks if your tackle was on the player rather than the ball.

    But if we come to Interceptions, the biggest advantage of it is that as you said, you dont spill the ball, but there are other advantages as well, for eg, an intercepted ball can very easily start a swift counter attack plus there are few fouls being made as you dont touch the player like it is in a tackle.

    But Interceptions have some big drawbacks as well. The biggest being that, if you misjudge an interception, then the opposition player will be through on goal, one on one with the goalkeeper, the biggest example is Messi who normally finds a lot of one on one situations with our goalkeeper bcoz we jus misjudge our positioning which is an important part of Interceptions style of defence.

    So both Styles, Tackling and Interception, have its good points and bad points. So its upto Wenger to decide on what type of style he wants bcoz in Epl, you definately need more of Tackling style, and in European games i feel we need more of Interceptions.

    Plus i have to remind that all the trophies that we won under Wenger has been under a Tackling style of defence.

  • Charlie

    The EPL is known to be the fastest league in the world so what does this mean ? It means that players have very little time on the ball and need to move the ball around quickly. It would make sense therefore that successful defensive players in the EPL are adept at intercepting passes. In Spain players have time on the ball, skillful players who can pass the ball well thrive because they have space to run at defenders but their passes must be very precise because the defense are normally well positioned, they also have more time. If a pass is perfectly placed your only option is to tackle the player as he receives the ball but with the pace of the English game where it is so easy to be caught out of position it is not always prudent to rely on tackling the player when he receives the ball, better to rush the passer and hope that the pass isn’t entirely accurate so your teammate can intercept it. Barcelona and Arsenal have similar styles but Barcelona are a high tempo Spanish team and Arsenal are a technically talented English team.

  • Shard

    Chris and Dark Prince

    I disagree that it’s all down to Wenger. Wenger has influence on the training. He can train them to deal with different situations. But when the players are on the pitch, it is up to them as to what decisions they make. In fact it is one of the beautiful things about this game that it is not like the coach calls a time out and gives player instructions and get them to clear their heads, and then go back and execute his decisions. Sure he can make some tactical changes and instructions, but there is a delay in that, and the player has to know how to adapt his style while the game is on.

    I’m not sure what DP means that we won titles only by a tackling style of defense. I don’t know what that means really. Gilberto for one was not recognised as important since he used to provide the interceptions. It took his injury to make us all realise the importance of that.

    However, in my view why there has been a slight change in the sense that people don’t go in for hard tackles that much is because the game has moved on. It is tougher to tackle more skilful players cleanly. And more fouls conceded can cost you more cards (especially if you wear an Arsenal shirt). The players in the league have improved, thereby making the defense adapt. (and improve too I would argue)

  • Wrenny

    Great article Phil. One point though – I don’t think it’s that easy to pass around a team that presses us. This is a problem we have faced less often than the ‘parked bus’ but it can also be difficult for us. If the goalkeeper has the ball and our back four are all closely marked then the GK has no option but to hit it long, which obviously doesn’t play to our strengths. An option to get around that is to put on a big striker on to win more of those high balls, and if you can get him to go up against a diminutive full back then all the better. Wenger has done this often by putting Bendtner in a wider position, which of course leads to mass whining of “Bendtner ain’t a winger, OMFG!”

    But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The way Barca deal with the problem of having their centre-backs tightly marked by two forwards is they’ll get Busquets to drop into defence and create a back 3, which then facilitates them playing the ball out from the back as they regain the numerical advantage in that area.

  • Dark Prince

    Shard – i’ll disagree with you. When i said, its upto Wenger to decide, then it will be upto him itself. He’s the one teaching the players of their gameplay. And as you said, there aren’t time outs in football, so it isn’t that Wenger comes in and changes the style in between. Infact, to be honest, Wenger has never changed his style in any of the games in last season. None of his games has been dependant on tackling whichever opposition it might be. So it wouldn’t be surprising to know that Wenger even trains his players to play a tackling style bcoz simply we have never seen it recently, so i doubt he has ever trained in that style for our current defenders. Most probably bcoz, Wenger has gone completely towards passing and technicality in his team.

    Plus you took a poor example of Gilberto, bcoz he wasn’t a defender, he was a defensive midfielder. If you look at the defence of those days, the players all involved were hard tackling players, look at our defenders of those times, Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, even Ashley cole and Lauren were better at tackling than interceptions. Gilberto though was not a defender.

    Lastly, i agree that the physicality in EPL has gone down from Rugby days. But still EPL is by far the most physical footballing league in the world.

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    You’ve just undermined your own example. Without Gilberto making interceptions in front of your aforementioned tough tackling defenders, we shipped goals like crazy. So either they were a bunch of shit defenders or intercepting stray passes is very important to any defensive strategy.
    Also Keown & Adams used to get found out in Europe because refs wouldn’t let them play their natural game, now we have the same problem with EPL refs with that kind of game. In an Arsenal shirt even a defender as good as Vidic is a red card waiting to happen because of that.

  • Dark Prince

    @Woolwich Peripatetic- are you trying to say Gilberto alone was more important than the back 4??

    Gilberto, though one of the best defensive midfielders of all time, should not take credit of what our defenders did. Remember, Gilberto came to us in summer of 2002, but Arsenal won 2 of its 3 Epl trophies under Wenger without Gilberto in the squad. And that was only bcoz of some super solid hard tackling defenders.

    Let me bring in contrast to Song, who after Gilberto has been our best Defensive Midfielder, who too is as good at interceptions as he’s in tackling. So by your logic, the reason why our interception preferring defenders are looking poor now is only bcoz Song is playing badly??

    The issue is that though defensive midfielders are important in whole defensive role of a team, the defensive midfielder by no ways does the most important part of defending. The most important part of defence is the central defence…i dont think there can be any arguement to that.

  • Shard

    I think you’re forgetting ‘The Pact’ between the back 4 and Petit and Vieira. In any case, I don’t get this tackling style of defense vs. intercepting style of defense. Defense is defense. You can’t always intercept, and you can’t always tackle. A player has to decide whether he can reach the ball before the attacker, and if not, whether he should tackle him or just close him down. There is no ‘style’ in it. Some defenders are better at one thing and some at the other. But they have to do both. The manager can only train them to know when to do what.

  • Dark Prince

    Shard- i agree that a defender cant always intercept and cant always tackle, but yes, you also have to admit, that there is a style where a defender prefers or has been trained to do more of interceptions or tackles.

    For example, there are distinct styles of midfielders and strikers as well, for eg, midfielders like Cesc or Xavi will prefer and are well trained in the art of passing rather than shooting. On the other hand, midfielders like Scholes or Gerrard will prefer and are well trained in shooting from a distance, while there are midfielders like Nasri and Nani who prefer dribbling, but eventually all have to shoot and pass. Its jus the style of doing it that differs. And as we are more of a technical team now, we will prefer players who are more good technically. Thats Wenger prefers defenders who prefer more of interceptions. But i guess Wenger will change his defensive style now as buying players like Samba or Cahil will bring in more of tackling style to our defence.

    Regarding, the likes of Viera or Petit or Gilberto, i can only say that eventually the final line of defence lies on our back 4. You fail to see that Gilberto had a superb back 4 behind him, and hence even though being a master of interceptions, his mistakes would have been rectified by a tough back 4. Even till now, we had a player like Denilson, who is completly involved in interceptions, never came around bcoz the back 4 behind was never good enough to rectify his mistakes. Thats why a player like Wilshere, who prefers tackling, would be better suited to EPL than a Denilson. You can clearly see the difference between Wilshere and Denilson, and thats why our back 4 needs to be playing a tackling style like Wilshere rather than a interception style like Denilson to make a mark in a physically demanding league like EPL.

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    I’m not suggesting that Gilberto was more important than the back four but that without a decent interceptor operating in front of them they were nowhere near as effective.
    A good centreback partnership needs one player who attacks the first ball and one who attacks the second. A pro-active and re-active partnership as it were. We used to suffer in open play because all we had were the latter, then we signed TV. Both defenders need to be good at both tackling and intercepting the ball because they may find their positions reversed. ManUtd have a very elaborate defensive strategy to ensure that Vidic is not left trying to sweep up behind Ferdinand too often or allowed to go too far upfield where his shortcomings would be exposed. In our case Vermaelen is our Vidic but because he isn’t a liability on the ball he get’s too far forward and in this case Song for example needs to drop into his position, leaving Koscielny or Djourou to sweep up behind.

  • Dark Prince

    @Woolwich Peripatetic- yes, i agree with you. But then, as i mentioned b4, its the difference in styles we played during both these periods. Now, we’re completly in a technical style of play, and hence, its been kinda Wenger’s choice to make our defenders more good at interceptions than tackles. But hopefully, he’ll change and revert back to his tackling style, which is more suited in EPL.

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    @Dark Prince – I think we’re in agreement that there needs to be a balance struck between standing off your man (intercepting) and getting stuck in. Big Sol and King Kolo were a good partnership as Sol would attack the ball, with the intention of either winning the ball or forcing a pass which Kolo could sweep up. I think we lost that when substituting Gallas for Sol as neither player seemed to enjoy getting stuck in.
    Looking at the defensive records of EPL teams that finished lower than us, I don’t think are that many decent pro-active centre backs in the league as it is, that combined with the poor passing would make our defence even more porous.

  • Dark Prince

    @Woolwich Peripatetic- Completely agree with you. A balance in all departments is a must. And now, we’re a slightly heavy on the technical part, so some solid physicality will be perfect to compliment our technicality. But the balance that we are talking about has to be brought in every department, like the age our squad, the style, the formation….somewhat like what we did during the Invincible days and the years b4 it.

  • bob

    @Phil: I hope that in your next promised installment – on the offense – you will consider the conversion rate of our poacher goals to poacher shots in comparison to other teams. Sahil and I have been trying to sort out conversion rates. He’s far better than I am on this. I’ve been trying to get to a measure of “clinicality” (; this not to save the word “clinical,” but to focus on the idea and possible need for our far-better performance within the 6 yard line). Whether you address it qualitatively or quantitatively or both doesn’t matter to me. But I would request that you turn your analysis on this question as you turn to offense. Sahil and I have been discussing this at the end of your previous posting here:

  • Gouresh

    i will keep it simple and short: traditionally they were called defenders, now we have fancy names for them, wing backs, full backs etc. but their job is to defend. we don’t need a fancy passer at the back to start any moves. the defenders job is to get the ball and make a simple pass to his midfield and with the sort of moneis they earn, i think that they can do it. what walter says is true, but applicable on the continent. here all the teams still play the kick and run game and hence we need a tall, strong tackling central defender. did any1 of you see tony adams or martin keown make fancy passes from the back? no! they got the ball in what ever way they could and used to pass it to patrick or emmaunel or edu… we have lost the basic art of defending and trying to over complicate things at the back. all the teams baring tiny totts have only 1 game plan against us including manu mancity ie defend in numbers and kick a long ball up. also, they will try to get a foul anywhere within 30/40 yrs and our players are petrified of this. hence we need at least 1 big guy at the back.