Thomas Vermealen—the Verminator as Arsenal fans like to call him—is a good study in what is good and bad in Arsenal, an exemplar of the tension that exists between orthodoxy and innovation in modern football. I examine this tension in the following.
After the booing incident on January 22 this year, when Arsene Wenger inexplicably subbed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the brightest spark in the match against Manchester United, and after he has just created the assist that enabled Arsenal to get back in the game, fans' discontent continued when Arsenal drew away at Bolton Wanderers.
For them, it was hardly the recovery they were looking for in the team. Vitriol poured out freely on the Internet. The word "dung" became a favorite catch word, appearing in its more trenchant forms.
I differed in my reaction and opinion to and of that match.
For, truth be told, Arsenal played reasonably well in that match, creating a host of chances. Their only problem was their impotence in front goal. Even Robin van Persie spurned some glorious opportunities to score and Theo Walcott shot straight at the goalkeeper in a one-on-one situation.
But this aside, this was hardly a bad performance. It was here I observed a tactical phenomenon the like of which I hadn't seen elsewhere, not in the exact manner—it's what I term the attacking center-back.
This involved Laurent Koscielny mostly, not the subject of this article, Thomas Vermaelen, to whom I'll return shortly.
For those still trapped in the dark ages of 4-4-2, this concept will be nothing short of anathema, such want a full-back to restrict his foray to the halfway line, with those overlapping type becoming a source of constant exasperation to them.
Similarly, the qualification "defensive" as applied to a midfielder means just that: a player who stays just in front of the four defenders and does not stray beyond the halfway line. Nor do these people fancy the situation where the most advanced striker falls deep to receive the ball.
To them, a striker stays upfront, expecting service from the midfield and the flanks.
The picture one sees is straight from the past, from the era of kick and follow. However, no top club (except perhaps Manchester United) plays that kind of football anymore. So clinging to such an understanding of formation and tactics points more to arid conservatism than anything else.
The tactical sophistication that now attends Europe's top clubs implies that no team worth its salt can survive on such tactical malnutrition.
Bolton and Tactics
At Bolton Wanderers, Koscielny (and to a lesser extent Vermaelen, who played as a full-back here) carried the ball forward, way beyond the halfway line into the final third, in the manner of a box-to-box midfielder.
If this wasn't the first time he had done this—it was this exact forward movement that gave Arsenal their second penalty against Aston Villa in the FA Cup where Arsenal came from two goals down at half time to win 3-2—it was the first time he did it with a deliberateness that suggested calculated intent.
The tactics were subtle but clear enough: When a team decides to cede possession to its opponent, to possessing teams like Arsenal, it tends not to bother with pressing when the latter team decides to build its attack from the back, especially when it does so patiently.
Here, the defending team leaves the ball to the opposition to collapse the space around its goal. With spaces thus shrunk, it becomes very difficult for the attacking team to find a way through.
In the case of the AC Milan-Arsenal match, Milan simply left the ball to Arsenal and retreated to their own half and then waited for Arsenal to make a mistake, at which time they tried to counter-attack quickly.
They did the same against Barcelona, but Barcelona being more assured in possession than Arsenal simply retreated to rebuild their attack. This, though, served Milan's purpose. With Chelsea, Barcelona were unlucky and fell victim to counterattacks.
At Bolton Wanderers, Bolton seldom pressed Arsenal when they attempted to build from the back, opting to retreat to their own half to close up the spaces in their first and second third.
This, in other words, meant they marked Arsenal midfielders and attacker tightly, with the understanding that possession high up in Arsenal's half is useless.
So how is this game plan defeated?
The Attacking Center-back
Arsenal counteracted this strategy by attempting to turn Bolton's gameplan on its head; to wit, being occupied by neutralizing Arsenal's midfielders and forwards, including full-backs, Bolton left two options uncounted for, the center-backs.
This is where the concept of the attacking center-back comes in. This happens when a center-back overlaps through the middle like a full-back, with the only difference being the part of the pitch this is done.
When this happens, confusion ensues: the opposition is unsure of what to do immediately. Should the players abandon their markers to challenge the advancing center-back or should they stick with them?
Either of the resultant decision opens up space for the attacking team. The knowledge of this fact, I suspect birthed Koscielny's forays forward both here and against Aston Villa.
Beside talking about this as a team at a tactical level, this option requires spontaneity and the ability from the center-back to gauge when an opportunity for such an overlap has arisen.
When Wenger talked about lack of spontaneity from his team in the Chelsea match at the Emirates, it may not have been unconnected to tactical situations such as this.
Variation at Barcelona
In a few matches before Eric Abidal's recent health setback, Barcelona have employed the disguised center-back to try to unlock dense defenses around the goal mouth.
The process required Eric Abidal to stray intentional offside—just as an incisive or an over-the-top ball is launched—as though being the intended target of the developing pass, but just as quickly the disguised Carles Puyol would step forward to receive the ball. The reverse of the situation often happened with the two players swapping places.
It is a neat way of beating the offside trap and getting behind the opposition's defense. This exact strategy yielded Abidal's goal in the last clasico at the Bernabéu.
This, though, differs from the case examined above.
Here, it happens toward the flank, at the fringes of the opposition's defense—we should note here that it was a similar strategy that yielded Vermaelen's winning goal against Newcastle United at the Emirates—whereas in the case studied here, the movement isn't disguised, rather, it is frontal and central.
The best team in the last three years and they play attacking football. Shaun Botterill/Getty Images.
Use of the Tactic
As the Abidal goal would show, and as Vermealen's against Newcastle demonstrates, when a cat proves too difficult to skin, innovation and trickery is in order.
In the Abidal-Puyol-Vermaelen scenario, the run or movement involves blindsiding the opponent. That is, the target player becomes active from a seemingly harmless position.
As I have observed in a recent article, lack of this kind of movement has severely hampered Barcelona in recent times. Whereas in the past, it was such movement that proved too difficult for opposing defenders to marshal.
It has led me to conclude that the absence of both David Villa and Eric Abidal has affected Barcelona in its last sequence of matches.
In the attacking center-back scenario, the movement begins when the opponent deems the attacking team's possession harmless, when the attempt to build from the back commences.
In this case one of the center-backs (Koscielny, often) drives forward with the ball into the space, which becomes available as a result of the opponent's attention on midfielders and forwards.
In some cases, the attacking center-back can reach as far as the opponent's penalty area before the opponent decides on what to do to arrest the situation. The Aston Villa penalty is an example of such an instant.
Against AC Milan and in the Bolton match, Koscielny executed a number of these movements.
It is a simple creation and use of space, and this is a good example of Total Football in play, where players are not simply glued to their respective spaces. It also involves fluid modulations.
Needless to say, I have been impressed when I have observed Arsenal doing this.
The implication of this sort of fluidity isn't difficult to discern, especially in the face of ultra defensive teams who seek and would seek to frustrate attacking sides.
This example is, of course, just one out of many strategies modern teams can employ in a bid to overcome their opponents. One other such strategies is the use of the deep-sitting playmaker.
Thomas Vermaelen strikes against Fulham having advanced forward to meet Theo Walcott's floated cross. Scott Heavey/Getty Images.
Thomas Vermaelen and Total Football
The fact that Thomas Vermaelen came to Arsenal from Ajax meant he brought with him at once a particular strength and weakness.
For on the one hand, it meant he is more dexterous than most, and on the other hand, it meant that he wasn't and isn't as defensively fastidious as your average center-back in the Premier League is, especially those from the English stock.
Michael Cox notes in a recent article how Mark Hughes, the QPR manager, was quick to identify Vermaelen's weakness as a defender when Hughes was still manager at Manchester City and when Vermaelen was still new at Arsenal.
Hughes had accurately pinpointed his major weakness – he flies up the pitch towards his man and leaves space in behind, which (then) William Gallas and (now) Laurent Koscielny has to cover.
In fact, having identified this as Vermaelen's weakness, Hughes proceeded to devise a strategy to explore this weakness in a 2009-10 season encounter between City and Arsenal, a match City won 4-2.
Cox notes that in this match "Vermaelen had a poor game against City that day, and has continued to concede goals when caught too high up the pitch."
What Cox is talking about and what Hughes has noted regarding Vermaelen was on full display in the first Arsenal-Fulham match this season, where on one occasion Bobby Zamora easily turned Vermaelen, with only Wojciech Szczęsny quick reflexes coming to Arsenal's rescue, and against QPR where Vermaelen had a torrid game against Zamora.
The precise situation is two-fold, the first is as stated by Cox, when Vermaelen is "caught too high up the pitch." The second is when an attacker man-marks him, that is, uses him as a point of orientation, what Zamora tends to do.
The second can only concern us here in passing and to the extent that Stoke City might employ it against Vermealen in the upcoming match. But this isn't our concern here.
The first is the reason why I stated in the beginning of this article that Vermaelen is an exemplar of what is good and bad in Arsenal.
For example, the spectacular collapse of the 2010-11 class owed to its lack of meticulous regard to defending, especially since every member of that class tended to be attack-minded to the detriment of defending.
But when one comes to think of it, it is this exact bias to attack that has made the current Barcelona team the best in the last three to four years. The same is also true of Wenger's earlier teams like the Invincibles.
Barcelona have succeeded where Arsenal have tended to fail in recent years by blurring the lines between defenders and attackers.
Barcelona's aggressive press means that the team is one giant unit of defense and attack, that is, they attack and defend together. It is why teams seldom breach them, despite their fierce attacking style of play.
It is this exact trait—albeit in an inchoate state—that is setting the current Arsenal team apart from its immediate predecessors. They are defending more as a unit than as different components of the team. I believe this is where modern football is headed, if the current Barcelona team is any indication of the future of football.
It would mean triumph to Total Football and such other schools that have emphasized this manner of playing football. Already we are witnessing more tactical sophistication in the English Premier League, which hasn't really been the case in the past.
Total football, of course, isn't without its weaknesses. Brazil's 1982 World Cup side is arguably one of the best attacking sides ever as was Holland's 1974 side, and yet these two teams had one thing in common: they were defeated by defensive and counter-attacking sides.
Chelsea's recent triumph over Barcelona admits the same weakness. But that Barcelona have, to a large extent, triumphed over their antitheses is a testimony to the superiority of this evolving style.
I say evolving because, although the recent victorious Spanish side has played a style informed by Barcelona's tiki-taka, it hasn't employed that style wholesale.
It has been a side that has succeeded in balancing attack and defense, being more patient and meticulous and less exciting than Barcelona in its approach. And, although I'm not really a fan of this style, it represents in theory how attack-minded sides could neutralize counter-attacking threats.
But like any other style, weaknesses cannot completely be eliminated.
It is why it is naive to want Arsenal to revert to the past and employ strict respect for defined roles in given formations.
A modulating team always retains elements of surprise, and surprise, more often than not, is the trump card for victory in a difficult match.
Vermaelen scores a match winning goal against Newcastle after sprinting forward from the back. Mike Hewitt/Getty Images.
It is why I'd rather have Vermaelen the way he is than change him to some unadventurous center-back who understands his role unimaginatively.
But again, that's just me.