The Growth of Arsenal: In Praise of Motion without the Ball

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The Growth of Arsenal: In Praise of Motion without the Ball
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal Football Club has been touted as employing a modern take on Johann Cryuff's Total Football, full of grace and progressive ball movement. 

While no one will claim Arsenal is the only club attempting this style, or even the foremost in its application, it's clear that Wenger and the club are determined to play in a certain fashion, and will sink or swim on their own terms.

As such, pundits to date have also defined this style as pass-happy and suggest its success is dependent on the originators of the passes: the play-makers and field generals like Cesc Fabregas, Patrick Vieira, and Dennis Bergkamp.

However, in reviewing the evolution of the team since the mid 1990s, one could argue that the success of the style, and thus of Arsenal, might lay more in the talents of those receiving the ball rather than in the flashy distribution. 

Bergkamp embodied this vision for passing flair.  While not the most gifted athlete, Bergie had excellent ball control and would routinely slip balls between defenders to feed the darting runs of players like Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, and most notably Thierry Henry. 

To be sure, most of these dynamic assaults would not have been possible without the skillful passing from Bergie and the rest, but it was the creative movement away from the ball that enabled these passes to even be an option: Pires and Ljunberg drifting from out wide to open space within the defense; Ashley Cole's crashing runs from the deep defensive third to apply more pressure and give midfielders options for moving the ball around. 

As these players moved around, quality shot opportunities would eventually open up and someone would invariably be good enough to capitalize.

Now fast forward as Arsenal transition to a new crop of players.  Two seasons ago Arsenal, with a lineup startlingly different from "The Invincibles" of 2004, made a surprising run for the EPL title—despite having just released offensive talisman Henry to make a big money move to Barcelona. 

Pundits tipped the Gunners to struggle, however, Cesc Fabregas emerged as a confident field general while Emmanuel Adebayor played like a revelation in Henry’s place.  A comparable level of flair and offensive potency remained though the names had changed.  Now the passes flowed from players named Hleb, Rosicky, van Persie, and a young Theo Walcott.  

Conventional wisdom suggested Arsenal had simply replaced capable ball handlers with more capable ball handlers, but there was more to it than that.

Defensive midfielder Mathieu Flamini did a masterful job patrolling the back line, working with William Gallas to maintain the ability of the defense to push forward in a way that contributed to the offensive flow.

The outside midfielders, then, were able to continue their integrated fluidity, making the type of runs that eventually freed space for Adebayor or others to take quality shots.

The next season (last season), however, Flamini and Hleb were no longer on the side and Rosicky succumbed to injury.  Samir Nasri was brought in to bolster the midfield and youngsters Denilson, Abou Diaby, and Alexandre Song were given more playing time.

Arsenal still retained players capable of making fine passes, however, the availability of more and better options to move the ball was absent because the players were not providing the same level of support, not making the same runs, or making the same moves to penetrate the defenses. 

Opposing teams would bottle the midfield and the inexperienced side would relinquish under pressure before a quality shot was available. 

Yes, injuries and player apathy contributed, but the telling sign that was both cause and effect of the weakened Arsenal game came in the form of less dynamic and aggressive movement by the players who didn’t have the ball.

Four games into this new season and it appears Arsenal are back playing the style desired.  Is this because Cesc and company have become better passers?  Hardly.  In fact I feel safe in asserting they could all readily pass the ball from point A to point B well enough years ago.

What’s apparent from these early games, however, is the level of movement by the attacking players and how that has afforded the ball handlers more options, especially more safe and/or aggressive options for pressing the attack. 

Andrey Arshavin and Eduardo da Silva are far more dynamic at the front than anything Adebayor could’ve hoped to provide, able to not only field a better first touch upon receiving the ball (and thus securing more passes as complete), but they move much faster and do more lateral movement to create space.

Denilson and Diaby's patience has grown immensely as well as their ability to make space with the ball. Biding time in possession while knowing the other players will eventually get open. 

Meanwhile, Song, Gallas, and new acquisition Thomas Vermaelen have done well to bond in the central defense and afford the midfielders more direct support, again providing more options for the ball handlers.

Yet the revelation about this hasn’t come from watching Arsenal, but rather from seeing the exact opposite in action in MLS.  I am very fond of this league and extremely proud of the progress being made in professional US soccer.  That being said, the disparity in talent is revealing, and it comes mainly in the movement off the ball.  Or in the case of many MLS players, the lack thereof. 

Watching three games from this past weekend revealed large stretches of play where players were guilty of standing, bunching around the ball, or simply not making the type of attacking runs that can really open up space.

Whether this can be attributed to flagging confidence levels, inexperience, or poor coaching I can’t say, but evidently the foremost difference between the levels of play can be seen within how players move without the ball and play with one another. 

MLS has many fine players who can juggle and pass as well as Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabregas, but without a fully capable, flowing team on the field the passing options differ and the potency of attack suffers.

Upon reflection this is quite understandable.  Those who’ve coached will affirm that learning how and where to move off the ball is one of the most difficult things to grasp. Traditional drills like the 3 vs. 1 “Fox in the Box” allow the players to see the small scale approach and affirm that everyone can do a wall pass.

But while players can perform those drills knowing how and when to put those into play during a live game is a wholly different set of skills.  It requires reading the flow of the game and knowing where to be in support/reaction of the play, and the younger the player the less likely they are to recognize how to get into the right positions. 

This is epitomized by how youth coaches are often found teaching their players to stay in position: “Brian you’re always behind Thomas, Thomas you should always be between Stephen and Robert…”

Something tells me Arsene Wenger has never done this.

So yes, Arsenal and other high quality teams have skilled players and passing schemes that emphasize the need and value for skilled ball handlers making crisp passes.  But I’ll contend the ultimate difference between success and struggle with these schemes rests primarily not in the talents of the ball handlers but in the ability of the supporting cast to understand and execute the movement off the ball needed to make those plays even possible. 

The test for this season will be for Arsenal to sustain this dynamism against those teams with the athletes to mark out attacking players, or teams that simply try to clog the midfield and limit passing opportunities. To date, however, Arsenal seem to have found a complement of players able to make this happen to a much better degree than last season.  Players who move well with the ball, and without.

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