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Enchanting Arsenal’s Role-Playing Relives Total Football

A few weeks ago, I felt I had made some astute observations, and upon realising this,  came to light with several pleasing issues I wish to transpire to my fellow readers.

Adjust yourself to two Saturdays ago when Arsenal traveled to Bolton for a league fixture; apologies for the delay but what follows is what I had written after the game: 

I came back from my local pub after watching the Bolton-Arsenal game a happy man.

You see, I had dreaded how this game might turn out.

With Arsenal’s abysmal history in the north-west, I had feared another boxing match from the area where Amir Khan hails.  

Thankfully, it was Arsenal who floated like a butterfly all over the pitch. And with the introduction of lightning-fast Walcott at the later stages of the game, they stung like a bee.

Having played Bolton’s neighbours Blackburn at Ewood Park (another ‘boxing ring’ for us) a week ago and ripping them apart (4-0), I had hoped Arsenal would be taking their magic spell with them across to the Reebok today.

And they did. 

The pace and tempo of Arsenal’s passing engulfed the two teams apart, to such an extent Bolton couldn’t see the other side. Intricate connections between players showcased why Arsenal were now sitting comfortably on top of the league tonight.

There was something different about this Arsenal side today. The desire was burning and evident; energetic enthusiasm was spread across the team and the vibe eventually dispelled Bolton in a performance I had never expected to see in Arsenal’s No. 1 bogey ground.

This team wasn’t strong as last year’s by comparison. Without the departed Hleb, and with Rosicky and Nasri injured, the left side was seriously flawed. Robin van Persie and the red-hot Theo Walcott were left on the bench making way for Bendtner to have another encouraging start.  

This led me to think that in hindsight, we had a weaker team today.

There was an air of Total Football in the sense that there were players playing ‘out of position’ throughout the match; as the game wore on, and after substitutions, I noticed the Arsenal players being played in different unfamiliar positions.

Allow me to venture my observations. 

Bar Eboue, Arsenal had a congested midfield of central midfield players.  

Alexandre Song (now a 21-year-old Cameroon international), whom I have high hopes and one that I see as a natural successor to Gilberto, played centre-midfield along with Cesc Fabregas. 

The right midfield slot was given to the ever-improving Denilson, who had risen in his role as Flamini’s ‘heir’, for want of a better word, in the previous games as partner to Spaniard Fabregas in the centre.

Denilson is a centre-midfielder, but I assume, due to his technique and ball-control skills, it was he who was drafted on to the right freeing space for the bull-like Song to play. 

However, the boy from Sao Paulo fitted in with Arsenal’s pattern of play seamlessly despite being played out wide. 

Bacary Sagna, an engine of a right-back, was pulled over to left back after a horror tackle by Kevin Davies disjointed Clichy, forcing him to miss the second half.

Admittedly, Sagna seemed nervous and lost at times in this temporary task.

Instead, Johan Djourou (an understudy centre-back) came on and played on the right.

With Nasri and Rosicky out, Eboue, formerly a right back and now converted right winger, played on the left flank for the first time (possibly ever).

Imagine Gary Neville or Wes Brown of Manchester United being asked to play on the left-wing; such a request is unthinkable!  

Now you can sense my appreciation of the complexity of Eboue’s task more don’t you?

Late in the game, due to Bendtner’s substitution for Walcott to roam as an out-and-out right winger, a change of formation switched Denilson back into his natural central role, forming a three-man triangle with Cesc and Song.

However, with Walcott giving serious license to kill, the supposedly 4-5-1 change was in essence, still a 4-4-2, with Walcott the link-man between the midfield and the now-lone striker Adebayor upfront.

This meant, though playing in the centre, Denilson was still often plying on the right, essentially still retaining the right-midfield position he played throughout the game.

Afterwards, Eboue was taken off and on came another centre-midfielder; the teenage Aaron Ramsey, though, tactically, this was a straight swap. Ramsey played on the left and if truth be told, did not look out of place.

They say that great players can play any where, because they know what should be done. It is a testament of the players’ all-around abilities and eventual versatilities.  

It certainly helps with Wenger’s one-route playing style. The education imparted from the Frenchman means that where you play is not necessarily important; the geometry of the pitch is the same, hence it is just a matter of continuation from one side to the other and into the net.

It was a victorious day for beautiful football; passing fluency triumphed over physical intimidation.

Interestingly, Arsene Wenger’s choice of player squad numbers is unorthodox; it spanks of Total Football, especially with the principle and theory behind the Dutch philosophy.   

I feel the numberings of players depicts the equality of the members of the team, and indeed, that there are no ‘I’ in TEAM.

Permit me to clarify.

Apart from Kolo Toure and Cesc Fabregas, on paper, the Arsenal 11 that started the game had weird numbers in unfamiliar positions.  

For instance, first choice keeper Almunia is No. 24, even though the No. 1 jersey is free to take.

At right-back Sagna wears No. 3, the number of a left-back. Now this is seriously unusual. The No. 3 is seldom worn by a player other than a left-back, through and through.

Like the left-back, the No. 2 is reserved for right-backs only. Yet at Arsenal, deft and crafty midfielder Abou Diaby wears that number. Here, it is reversal. 

The left-back Gael Clichy still adorns the No. 22.

At centre-back partnering Kolo is the captain William Gallas with the No. 10.

Yes, 10, the golden shirt of them all. The one reserved for ‘star’ players. The number Gunners’ legend Bergkamp wore, the number associated with all geniuses in the game; Maradona, Pele, Zidane, Ronaldinho, Platini and Baggio to name a few!

A centre-back donning the No. 10? Now that is eccentric!

The wing-back Eboue continues to bear No. 27, one that he has held for a few good years despite being an established regular of the side. 

Up front are Eboue’s number brothers 25 and 26, worn by the pairing of Adebayor and Bendtner.

The numberings demonstrate the disregard of player numbers; it also creates a kind of an illusion that these players are inferior, and somewhat comical.  

There is an environment of versatility and adaptability within the squad, that no-one actually has a concrete position; they all can switch roles with reasonable ease.

The point I make is that these players, despite being firm first-team players, their numberings do not range from 1-11, and instead plummets into numerical depths, giving an impression of them being ‘squad players’ only; as players ‘down the pecking order’. 

Such is the magnitude and flexibility of Arsenal’s aesthetic approach and Total Football attitude, that even team selection are transposable.

It is one thing for on-pitch Total Football, such as weavings by players with interchangeable roles that occur during games due to the fluidity of the side. But to actually be assigned to different roles in a game so effortlessly, is another.

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