Herbert Chapman, the first exemplar of the modern manager, inventor of the W-M formation and Arsenal's early and visionary manager, famously decried the "senseless policy of running along the lines and centring just in front of the goalmouth, where the odds are nine to one on the defenders."
By this he meant wing play and cross-in. He rather preferred "inside passing," which he considered a "more deadly, if less spectacular, method."
Now, before I pursue this further, let me climb my soapbox.
The Senseless Winger
A football match is essentially 90 minutes dedicated to one cause: The combined effort of 11 men (or women) aimed at outwitting an equal number of opponents with the goal of putting a round leather ball into a designated target.
From this description you'd think 11 men should succeed in achieving this goal on a regular basis, but we all know this is not so.
Football can be fascinating when a side plays with deliberation and intelligence.
For example, when a side mounts an attack and realizes that the climax (the goal) would not come from this attack, what they do with the ball at this point can tell the viewer a lot about the team.
This scenario is what won Spain her first World Cup. They weren't the most spectacular team to watch, but they played with deliberation, retreating and regrouping patiently, making sure to retain possession.
Patience in possession led to Spain's success at 2010 World Cup
The point of all this is: An intelligent team ought not always to head towards the opponent's goal. Lack of this understanding is the reason why the smaller teams almost always succumb to the bigger teams.
It's my opinion that the dominance of the bigger teams is not always the result of difference in class and quality, but often the lack of effective use of possession on the part of the smaller teams.
When next you watch a football match, look out for the blind alley.
This is the situation that occurs too frequently in games where a player in possession sets off on a blind run into a well-marshaled corner, a scenario that is too frequently true of the less talented wingers.
You also see it in the 4-5-1 formation where the isolated striker charges forward with little regard to the fact that he is disadvantaged against five players.
True, the wingers or forwards do succeed sometimes, but that's why it's sometimes.
It's not an accident that the Peles, the Maradonas and the Messis are rare species. Even then, when they employ their runs without regard to obstacles in front of them, they end up surrendering possession.
Possession is King
Here's the point I want you to note from what I've said so far: Lesser wingers often take the ball down the line only to run into brick walls. You'd expect them to learn from their failed attempts, unfortunately, they never seem to.
The most important point I'll like to strike from all these, though, is the importance of possession. The idea that if you have the ball the opponent can't hurt you is almost becoming a cliche, but how many teams have you seen employing the strategy?
No sooner does a struggling team win possession than charges forward senselessly, only to toil for another five minutes to regain possession, and alas, repeat the process.
I'm not talking about counter-attacking, which is a different thing altogether. A team should by all means grab any and every counter-attacking opportunity. What I'm describing are not counter-attacking situations but plays that occur during the normal course of the game.
The isolated forwards should shield and protect the ball and wait for help. They can, of course, pass backwards towards the advancing help.
A winger can run along the line and should by all means take the opportunity to cross the ball if he can succeed in outwitting the intercepting defenders. A number of times, this is not possible. Please refer to the diagram below.
The diagram illustrates the scenario I've described above. The dash red arrow on the right designates a forward charge by a winger or a fullback in possession of the ball.
The box designates the next event in this particular play. Here, the winger is intercepted by three players from the opposing team.
Now, although the ball could be passed through the spaces towards the area the thick black arrow points to, the player himself may not be able to pass.
The intercepting defenders are likely to make sure he doesn't. So unless one of his own players is behind the intercepting defenders to receive the ball, it's useless to send the ball that way.
The winger could, of course, outmaneuver the intercepting defenders. In that case, he may naturally proceed to the byline and cross the ball, or he may proceed to the next feasible or probable play.
An Example of Wolves
I noted in my review of the Arsenal-Wolves match how Wolverhampton Wanderers decided to stifle the midfield in the first half, forcing Arsenal to pass to the flanks. In that article, I had noted that:
Wolves used pressure marking in the middle of the pitch to force Arsenal to play the ball to the flanks. This seems counter-intuitive, since the flanks can often serve to stretch the defense.
But this is true only if you are not working deliberately to cause exactly this to happen. If this is your purpose, then you know what the next step is—how to marshal your spaces and how to negate the "stretching effect" of the flanks.
After forcing Arsenal to pass to the flanks, what Wolves did next is illustrated in the diagram as highlighted by the box.
The next step was to cut off any advance down the byline towards their own first third.
Having marshaled this space, they forced Arsenal to pass inward, back into the midfield. Arsenal then tried to draw them out by sending the ball back to their central defenders to recommence the attack—a proper strategy.
In any case, it is this "next step" by Wolves that I'm talking about—the cutting off of space on the flank to arrest the winger or full-back in his flight.
It is this same cutting off that less intelligent wingers and full-backs encounter time and again, but persist in thinking that brute force can take them through the obstacle.
Brute force is often the victim of strategy and intelligence.
Please watch the 2010 World Cup Argentina-Germany quarterfinal highlights to see how brute force utterly fails in the face of strategy. How many times did Carlos Tevez and company charge forward as though individual skill was enough to overcome the stubborn Germans?
The Cutback and the Inside Pass
Back to the diagram.
The red arrows that point away from the player in the box illustrate what the intercepted player should do in the circumstance. He can pass backwards to ensure the retention of possession, having cut back, or he can pass inside (Chapman's inside passing) to any available player from his side.
Herbert Chapman, Arsenal's visionary manager of the 1920s
The two videos below illustrate the effects of these two strategies, but let's stick with the diagram a while longer (Dotted arrows, again, show movement of players while solid arrows show movement of the ball).
In the "inside passing" option, the receiving player makes the second of the two types of the diagonal runs of which I spoke in the review article referenced above. (Please, read it if you missed it. I believe you'll find it insightful.)
This run, as I observed in that article, whenever available, is always dangerous. But the point I want you to take is that, here, it results from a cutback from an intercepted (or blocked) wing play. The Winger "cuts back" and makes an "inside pass" that results in the said dangerous diagonal run.
See Yossi Benayoun and Andre Arshavin execute the two plays here. This is what informs the title of this article. The play is very intelligent, and if players are very alert to the opportunity it may present for scoring, then they can make it more and more part of a deliberate strategy.
In this case, the winger or the full-back deliberately looks for the block in order to distract and take out a few of the opposing defenders, freeing the receiving player as a result. See the video again.
The Lateral and Through Pass
The second play from the diagram is how Arsenal scored their goal against Wolves on Tuesday. Having been blocked, Tomas Rosicky cut back and passed laterally to Benayoun (see the diagram and the yellow arrows).
Tomas Rosicky was instrumental in Arsenal's goal against Wolves
Benayoun received the pass and advanced a little forward, then executed a perfectly weighted through pass. The play resulted in a goal.
Again, note that the eventual goal came about through wing play. In this second case, Rosicky received the ball deep in Arsenal's half.
What is important, however, is that he advanced towards the byline, and when he was blocked, he didn't attempt anything foolish but cut back and found support. See the video here.
The two examples from Arsenal are semi-counter-attacking situations, but the principle can work in other instances.
A few of you may find this article a little tedious since it seems to describe plays that are rather obvious and straightforward.
Here's the question though: If these were so obvious and straightforward, why don't teams do them as a matter of course, since they're apparently profitable?
Many of the strategies Barcelona employ are so simple, so much so that even the metaphoric caveman could do them, so why don't other teams do them?
I believe football tactics and strategies are not rocket science, but matters of common sense. Common sense is what sets the great managers apart from the rest.
In the light of this, therefore, I think my open plea to Arsene Wenger is relevant: Please, give us more of the cutbacks.