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August 2021

Fitting new players in the system, a case study

By Walter Broeckx

Yesterday someone pointed me at a question that was put up on the social network twitter by a certain noisy person who is always slagging off the club. I don’t follow that person myself but let me say he is the somewhat self declared spokesman of you, me and every other gooner on this planet and on planet Zorch.  Not a pass can be without him  moaning about it.  So not really an Untold person one could say.

But the question he put was: who would you buy if you were Dick La? For some the name Dick Law might not ring a bell but Dick Law is the person who does a lot of the negotiations when Arsenal is doing transfer business. So I have been told.

Now the first thing that struck me is that this “spokesperson” puts the question as if this Mr. Law is the one who decides who will come. I rather think that Wenger tells the board who he would like to see as a new Arsenal player and that then the board sends out Mr. Law to do the talking. Maybe at some point in the negotiations Wenger himself will make an appearance but I really don’t think that Wenger will be doing all the paper work, making sure there is a . on every i and stuff like that.

But the question on who to buy is of course something that keeps us busy and makes us dream.  I think it is fair to say that when we think of buying players we usually look at the players that catch the headlines most of the time.

And one of those names that looks to be the subject of a lot of (possibly wet) dreams is Fellaini. He has been superb when playing for Everton this season. And he has been already very influential the seasons before but this season it is fair to say that half of the performances they deliver are down to him. A half-one man team one could say.

Now as Fellaini is from Belgium I know him a little bit as I saw him play in his early days in Belgium and so it is really impressive to see how he has developed. First he mostly played as a defensive midfielder in the early days but now he is playing in a much more advanced position on the field and half of the games he is some kind of target man upfront.

So when we ask the question who to buy his name comes up rather a lot. And in fact I really wouldn’t mind having him at Arsenal. But if we put the emotions aside a bit and look at the facts we have to ask ourselves the question : would he have the same impact at Arsenal as he has at Everton? Because we have to keep in mind that after all those years the current Everton team is party built around him. He is the most important person in their  team. He scores, he attacks, he defends when needed with his height.

The times I have seen Everton play I have noticed that many of their goals come from high balls up to Fellaini who scores himself or heads it further in the hope of a team mate getting to the ball first. Or he dribbles into the box to finish an attack himself. That dribbling is a combination of skill and force. And more on force than on skill in general. I’m not saying he has no skill as that would be an insult because most professional footballers have skill but his dribbles are not the Santi Cazorla type of dribbles where he can twist and turn to pass a defender but more the bang bang bang dribbles running past him or even running through a defender as if he wasn’t there.

Because if we bought him (and he will cost a lot of money) we really don’t know if he would be helpful to our football in general. First question would be: where would he play? Would he be played as a defensive midfielder?  Would we just put him in front of our defence and let him sit there? Personally I think the era of a pure defensive midfielder is over. So I don’t think he would be very useful in the Arteta role that Arteta is playing.

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Or do we put him a bit higher on the field?  He could be played in a Diaby role of course.  But I do think the difference between (a fit) Diaby and Fellaini is that Diaby is technically better and that Fellaini is more used to using his big strong body. But the problem I would have is that I don’t know if his passing range is good enough. Of course we only see the good passes on MOTD. And when Hansen or whoever is highlighting a player in MOTD they usually pick out the pieces to underline what they want to say. So they show the great ball from Fellaini in that match and show it from 7 angles and then put a few circles around players to show the movement, put a few dotted lines on the images to show the flight of the ball. And then look in the camera with the look of the real in the know.

But what they don’t show is the 10 misplaced passed that didn’t find anyone. What they don’t show are the balls that were over hit. Or under hit. The 10 times when not under pressure he loses the ball. They are not shown that because the message is to highlight the good of the player in that sequence.

I always remember how many times we have seen Hansen and the others on MOTD compile highlights of the biggest striker that ever graced the PL fields in the last 20 years: yes I’m talking about Emile Heskey.  Every time when he switched to a new team he usually scored on his début (his speciality one could say) and then Hansen came up with the highlights of Heskey in that game. Showing images about his movement, his ability to (whatever could be found), his “great positioning”, him scoring  a great goal.

But what he didn’t show was him mis-controlling the ball for the umpteenth time that he got the ball at his feet.  Him making the wrong pass.  Making the wrong decision. No you didn’t see that because the message they wanted to bring was: hail the most powerful striker in the PL Emile Heskey.  And the fact that he was a rather mediocre striker when you look at his overall goal scoring record. A good PL striker but surely not a top class striker.  But if you listened to Hansen you thought he was the new Pele.

So it is important to also look at those things and to remember that Fellaini does lose the ball a lot. And that is just the thing when we are rather vulnerable at times. And Fellaini is not the fastest person around to make up a lot of ground when faced with a fast counter attack.  So what could be a gained at first sight could be a loss in reality on the field. And that is the difference between Arteta and Fellaini. Arteta doesn’t lose the ball that much in a game compared to Fellaini.

Because we have to remember that Arsenal plays a much more open and attacking system than Everton does in general. I’m not saying Everton are a defensive team as they do try to attack when playing at home. But they are not playing as openly as we do and that is where we have to fit in Fellaini if we would buy him.

For those who say we should play him as a striker that is something that would only work if we would sell all our skilful players like Cazorla and Wilshere and reform the club to a hoof the ball high up and hope for the best tactic. We could turn ourselves in to a Stoke-light then maybe. Why don’t you also buy Shawcross then and we have a Stoke. Well rather not if you ask me.  But that is the way Everton use Fellaini when they push him up completely. Hoof the ball in his direction and hope for the best.

Now some could say that this would be the ideal plan B when our passing game doesn’t work. And that is fine with me if you want us to have such an option. But surely spending £25m for a plan B looks a bit over the top if you ask me.

Now I’m not saying that if we would buy Fellaini it wouldn’t work at all. After all I’m not a qualified manager and maybe a qualified manager will see things different and maybe he could fit in Fellaini in a way that we can still play our football and benefit from it.

But it is not a simple thing to take a player from a team and have the same player and the same return as he has in his current team. I think you can see enough examples of players who were shining in their lower placed team but when they came to a top team they didn’t produce the same thing and couldn’t reach the same level. I think Adams from Blackpool to Liverpool is such an example. And I remember a few others highly important players from lower placed teams moving to top teams who didn’t make it and now sit on the bench or are playing already at another lower placed team.

So if we want to spend something of £20-25m on a player we better be careful and see that the player will fit into the system and into the team.  Others might afford high price mistakes without paying the price, Arsenal not.

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25 comments to Fitting new players in the system, a case study

  • PRO’s for signing Fellaini:

    -he is a defensive midfielder we need ever since Gilberto Silva and Flamini left,

    -his fitness seems to be much, much, much better than Diaby’s,

    -his height would make us stronger in both attacking and defending set-pieces – just take a look at that corner against Bayern that had cost us a lot,

    -he might be used as Plan B-striker but also as Plan B-force in the middle when we can’t open our opponents’ defense.

    I disagree with your statement that signing Fellaini to play striker would make us similar to Orcs. We have signed Giroud who has played as our main central forward in almost every match this season (except when he was injured) but that hasn’t made us Stoke, has it?

  • Florian

    From what I’ve seen Fellaini and Giroud are quite different players. Giroud can play everything that Fellaini plays in attack, and on top of that has a much better touch, for both first touch and passes, and a better shot from distance. I don’t remember having seen Fellaini scoring from outside the box very recently. What Fellaini has over Giroud is a wider range of positioning options, but that can be a problem in disguise, as the team would need to adapt to each of those positions when he plays. Giroud needs to work on his decision making and mental focus when finishing, much like the one that shall not be named did, if he gets that sorted he’ll double his goal tally. Right now, he needs a bit over 7 shots to score a goal, if he gets to 4 (like Theo does now;) it would be fantastic.

  • @Florian – Fellaini scored against us from outside the box.

  • para

    OK i agree £25m for a plan b is probably crazy, but if we dont get a plan b soon and a plan c and d we are going to lose much more than £25m.
    I dont think Fellani is an AFC type player, but maybe he could be. Think he will end up at Chelsea though.
    AW has not given up his dream of AFC style of football, but he is neglecting the DEFENCE too much, while waiting for the players to get what he means.
    I think he should build the defence FIRST, play 4-3-2-1 until they can defend as a team, then attack when the oppurtunity arises.

  • TheSKAGooner

    Nice one, Walter.

    I agree…Fellaini has a certain set of skills, and for Everton, it works. I like the guy & enjoy watching him play.

    The problem is, WHERE do we put him (as you so excellently discussed above)? And, if he’s not quite what we need at any specific position or role on the pitch, £25m (or whatever Everton would rightly ask for him), it’s not the wisest spend of money at present.

    Our DM needs are there, but a DM in our system still needs to be quality on the ball and able to quickly transition interceptions into attacking advantage either through moving the ball himself or a VERY high completion rate with the outlet pass.

    If we play Fellaini farther up the pitch, pace, movement off the ball and quality of passing again are issues. And creativity as well.

    As a striker, he’d be a slower, less creative version of Giroud. The hunky Frenchman might not have RVP’s movement off the ball or ruthless goal scoring ability of say…a Suarez (wankerishness and diving cheatyness aside)…but he does link up very well, brings others into the attack and will see more goals as time goes on. So, Fellaini is not really an upgrade at this position either.

    And there we have the problem: Fellaini is a very good player, and in the Everton system, fits extremely well. But is he the right guy to bring in at The Arsenal? I’m not so sure, especially for the fees & wages we’d have to shell out.

  • Florian

    @Josif, My bad:)

  • Mandy Dodd

    Interesting article, showing the true dilemma of signings.
    Firstly, I would say that if Fellaini plyed for us, with the refs we get, such a player would not be on the pitch for very long.
    Is he the answer – he may well be in some games. We could certainly have done with such a player against Bayern…as we know, Arteta is far more than an pld fashioned DM.
    Many games this season, especially against better opposition suggest we certainly need something, our problems seem to be eroding confidence in the defence and the GK. Do we just need to defend better as a team? Does our possession and speed of passing have to improve denying other teams chances, or do we have to be more clinical? Should SB have more input? Sometimes, it is hard not to vent frustrations, but damned if I know the answer to any of this,unlike our self appointed (or appointed by someone else?)twitter leader.
    All I do know is we need something,so far, this season has not been great, we have at times lacked clinical finishing, have been at times more ponderous in MF and lacking confidence at the back. Plenty to think about during the summer, they are trying to play in such a way under instruction, but clearly are not quite there yet, but wenger for many probably good reasons clearly does not want them to slip into the comfort of a more defensive organised pattern of play…as you say,stoke light, so Fellaini may not be the player for him. Keep hearing MF is off to Chelsea anyway

  • Mick

    I do not think Fellaini or similar is the answer to our problems. In fact I do not see the so called lack of a physically imposing midfielder as a problem. We have supposedly not replaced the departed Alex Song in this position and are suffering as a result, but if we look at our defensive record as a whole this season we are performing much better than last season. It is all too easy to start believing the media bullshit about our so called defensive frailties. We have conceded 11 goals away from home in the league, the lowest of all teams, the problem has been at home where we have conceded 19. This suggests to me that the way we play at home and the way teams set their stall out at the Emirates is the cause of the problem rather than personnel. I think if we analysed the goals conceded at home a large number will have been from counter attacks which have caught our players upfield and unable to get back. More have been from corners and free kicks. Several have come from individual errors such as own goals, slipping over at a vital moment, poor clearances etc. Very few have come from the other team playing through us with good moves. If you factor in other things like nervousness caused by crowd reaction to mistakes and pressure on the defence caused by our attack being unable to convert enough of the numerous chances we have been creating then it becomes clear to me that bringing in any player solely because of his physical stature would be a mistake and would make very little difference. In a nutshell, to improve we need to convert more goal scoring chances and cut out the individual errors at the back.
    Isn’t it easy being an keyboard manager!!!

  • Mick

    sorry correction ‘a keyboard manager’.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Think you are right, crowd reaction does not always help. Interesting to hear Rafas recent comments on his own ver of the AAA, he pretty much said , amongst other things that, if they end up playing in the Europa cup next season, they will not be able to moan, as they will be partly responsible. He did also mention other…erm…problems at Chelsea.

  • Mick

    It is interesting to note that most of the players who have been developed or bought and groomed by Wenger to fit into his style of play rarely go on to impress when leaving the Gunners for pastures new. Think Hleb, Flamini, Adebayor, Nasri, Bentley and a host of others. It seems that they almost over perform for Wenger and are unable to repeat it under a new (lesser)manager. The idea that you can buy anyone, as the AAA seem to think, and they would succeed at your club is ridiculous. Wenger clearly looks for particular aspects of a potential targets play and character before deciding on whether to make a move.
    Chelsea’s version of the AAA are presumably CCC, what could that stand for do you think.

  • Mandy Dodd

    I would imagine some would apply a few choice C words to them , but as things have not been great for us this season, these guys could really help us by aiding their team to implode, so lots of positive C words may be applicable -charming, considerate, congenial, even charitable

  • Mandy Dodd

    but never “classy”…unfortunately…

  • AL

    Mick 3:10pm
    Absolutely agree with that, very few players taught by Wenger succeeded elsewhere. And you’re right in that just buying expensive players at random without any idea how they will fit with your system doesn’t work(a few expensive flops; Torres, Shevchenko, Berbatov, Veron, not sure Kaka has been a success at Madrid, but the list is long). Some of these buys actually cost the respective managers their jobs, even though it doesn’t seem it was actually the manager’s decision to make the purchase.

  • dan

    1 DM and 1 Striker and possibly a defender. Plenty will be happening this summer and not just at the Arsenal.

  • Vinay N

    Good article. Most of the fans think its as easy as playing FIFA 13 on your playstation. Just buy and sell. One point though, you say the era of the specialist defensive midfielder is over. I think, a specialist defensive midfielder is exactly what Arsenal need. Not brutes, but someone with great positioning, tackling and passing skills. A bit of strength wont go amiss. This is because Arsenal are a team built to attack. And when an attack breaks down, you need someone in the middle of the field to act a a barrier. Its like chess;if you have an element of control in the centre, you have a chance to attack and defend.

  • Mick

    I still don’t get this clamouring for a DFM. A DFM can only cover a small area on his own. If he is on the left and the attack comes down the right he is out of it. Far more important is for the whole of the midfield to bust a gut to get back and help defend collectively in my opinion.

  • mark

    Felliani is not really the player we need. He is not really a DM and in that role is too slow. The only think he would bring is that he is big and strong. He is not a fragile player. The defensive vulnerabilities of the gunners has more to do with team defending. The players go up in attack and then walk back to defend! They need to transition collectively to defend more quickly. Areteta is good at reading the game but his lack of pace puts him at a disadvantage on the fast counter attacks. What about moving Sagna to DM? He reads the game well, has pace, but also has some passing skills.

  • Gord

    I looked for the referee assignments until late Monday (I am in western Canada, it would have been Tuesday in the UK when I gave up). But, the EPL site insists this was published Monday. In any event, we get Clattenburg for Tottenham.

    > Saturday 2 March

    3pm unless stated

    Chelsea v West Bromwich Albion | #CHEWBA | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: K Friend; Assistants: J Flynn, M Scholes; Fourth official: P Dowd

    Everton v Reading | #EVERDG | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: A Taylor; Assistants: S Ledger, R Ganfield; Fourth official: L Probert

    Manchester United v Norwich City | #MUNNOR | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: N Swarbrick; Assistants: S Long, A Halliday; Fourth official: C Foy

    Southampton v Queens Park Rangers | #SOUQPR | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: H Webb; Assistants: M Mullarkey, M Wilkes; Fourth official: J Adcock

    Stoke City v West Ham United | #STKWHU | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: J Moss; Assistants: R West, P Bankes; Fourth official: S Attwell

    Sunderland v Fulham | #SUNFUL | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: M Halsey; Assistants: H Lennard, D Bryan; Fourth official: G Salisbury

    Swansea City v Newcastle United | #SWANEW | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: C Pawson; Assistants: A Garratt, S Child; Fourth official: M Dean

    5.30pm Wigan Athletic v Liverpool | #WIGLIV | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: M Atkinson; Assistants: P Kirkup, G Beswick; Fourth official: L Mason
    Sunday 3 March

    4pm Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal | #TOTARS | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: M Clattenburg; Assistants: D Cann, S Beck; Fourth official: A Marriner
    Monday 4 March

    8pm Aston Villa v Manchester City | #AVLMCI | Matchday Live >>

    Referee: M Dean; Assistants: J Collin, J Brooks; Fourth official: H Webb

  • Vinay N

    @Mick: I see your reasoning. But the DM has an important function; he restricts the ability of the ball carrier to pass or cut back into the middle of the field. He buys his midfield colleagues some time to get back and defend. Of course, if the midfield is horribly overrun, there is nothing you can do about it. Think back to how Gilberto used to play the role.

  • Vinay N

    @Mick: Thats why i maintain, the DM has to control the middle of the pitch effectively and not get pulled out of position. Goals are not scored from wide areas. They are scored from the middle of the pitch.

  • Weslee

    The article by Walter about Fellaini just highlights the problem of choosing players. We often criticize Wenger about players but never understand the reasoning behind his decisions. The example that i could advise Wenger’s critics to look at, is how a human resource department makes their decision in choosing a new employee. How many of us hate our co-workers that we work with? They went through a decision process but you think that they fall short in performance or lack the knowledge to do the job. Who is to blame for this ? You blame the manager of course. Even when the manager is doing a great job.

    The job of choosing a player has many levels of decision to it. Wenger has to look at their technical abilities, their maturity, their desire to improve, their understanding of the game, will they fit in,etc. One critical area where I wish that he would reconsider is where he plays a new player. Too many failures in the team are based on out of position playing. Give them their chance to play in their preferred position, then if they fail change them around. However, I have often found that Wenger uses his abilities with great efficiency. He has turned many mediocre players into world class players based on his understanding of how they play. He is now doing the right thing by training English players to be the future of The Arsenal. Not one of them will become homesick and not be considerate of the enormous amount of effort that went into training them. If they were in the army, they would have had no choice but to fight when commanded to do so. Wenger sees no benefit in keeping want aways and neither do I. Choosing a player is an art, once you get past their technical abilities. Major corporations uses many psychological trickery in their questions before hiring someone into a very high paying job. Still, they end up with failures that cost their organization enormous sums of money. It is an art and I believe that Wenger has the ability to choose correctly. You can criticize me all you want but I have worked too long in management, to not know the difference between a great manager and the impostor. Wenger is a great manager.

  • Gord



    You brought up Human Resources. Not at all related to Arsenal, but HR discriminates against people with Autism in many manners. Just the initial contact exposes discrimination.

    Finding good players, and keeping them is a problem. Having a good team and fitting in 1 or 2 new players is probably a worse problem. And transfer fees and salary don’t begin to address that.

    And why so many fans want to get into this “let’s buy X” without knowing how hard it is to find a new employee who works in your current system, boggles my mind.

    I know I have autism. I now know there are things I need to stay away from, and things I should expect a manager of mine to look out for. But, I only learned of having autism at 41. Far too late to have some reasonable career from.

  • duduspace

    Mr ‘Annoyance’ Piers Morgan can spout any rubbish he likes on twitter partly because he has self important morons like himself to egg him on there and mostly because he never has to give account or justify anything he says.
    The fact that he has advocated David Moyes and Martin O’Neill as better managers than Arsene tells me all I need to know.
    He is a loud mouth with no football knowledge who is always on the flavour of the moment train.