Philippe Auclair has written a great old-fashioned piece in praise of Juan Mata. It’s ever so slightly dated (already) as it was written before Mourinho started playing him more regularly, but it’s spot-on. I really dislike Chelsea- the club is such a comprehensive metaphor for the decadent aspects of the modern game/business- but have found it impossible to dislike Mata. He’s a classy guy.
In the past couple seasons, there’s been a complaint about how Arsenal lacked a midfielder who could arrive late in the box and knock in a goal. It’s been Frank Lampard’s specialty for years: a well timed run to take advantage of an attack whose first wave has just crested. Arsenal’s attacking midfielders provided decent goal returns last year, but the deep lying players didn’t do much goal-wise beyond Mikel Arteta’s penalty kicks.
One of my major frustrations with the team last year was that transition to attack wasn’t fast enough. When the team eventually made it to the opposition’s 18, there was some pretty passing, but more often than not the time of maximum opportunity had already passed. A four man defense was suddenly five or six, and there wasn’t enough room for much finesse.
In order for a deep lying player to arrive “late,” the initial attack has to be fast, because he still needs space to run into. Otherwise, he’s just running into the opposing defensive midfielder. What I find most promising about Arsenal’s play early this season is the increased tempo of their counter attacks, which before the purchase of Özil must have been down to the team finally settling. Well, settling plus one player hitting outstanding form, and that’s Aaron Ramsey.
I’ve always liked him and I thought it was dumb and ugly when a section of fans turned against him early last season. I really don’t get how miserable some soccer fans are, actively hating members of the club they purportedly support- surely there must be a better mode of being a bleak, mopey bastard? Here’s a young guy, hailed as a brilliant prospect for the future- a guy we snatched out from under Alex Ferguson’s belligerent nose- who before his Shawcross-horror-leg-snap was seen as Wilshere’s equal and an able disciple of Fabregas. He was never nearly as bad as the haters said he was, and was always clearly working as hard as anyone on the team. Unlike Gervinho (and I really hesitated to make the comparison) the bile of the fans didn’t derail him entirely, and he progressed until he was centrally important to the late-season run that clinched a Champions League spot. At the the end of the season, opinion had turned and he was seen as a hard-working journeyman who would put everything he had into the game. Useful but not world-class, likeable. I still didn’t really think this was fair, as he was still really young and if he’d already become integral for his energy, why wouldn’t the next step be the further development of what had been in the past a very obvious talent?
So I had big hopes for him. I didn’t, however, expect to see him volleying in goals at the rate of an out-and-out striker. Praise has come pouring in for him from all quarters, and he’s more than earned his spot as a starter (which was his to begin with). The midfield is moving faster, in part due to his progress, and now he has the chance to be the guy arriving on the 18 to hammer home a beauty, as he did yesterday. The goal is being compared to one of Dennis Bergkamp’s, which is pretty much the best compliment an Arsenal player can get.
His success is also Arsene Wenger’s: without the coach’s faith in him, and belief in developing talent, he would’ve been left behind a year ago. Instead, he looks primed to be a standout player in the league and a cornerstone of the team.
It’s exciting because the attacking midfield is looking so good, and the option of someone coming from deep who can also score makes the team much more dynamic. It’ll be difficult enough to defend Cazorla and Özil, and their outlets Giroud and Walcott, but when you add Ramsey as well, the team’s ability to compete rises significantly. Özil, whose movement off the ball is superb, will make the team both faster and more unpredictable in attack, and he is very well served by having goal scorers both in front and behind him. It’s refreshing to see it moving in this direction: they’re going to be more an dmore fun to watch.
Now if only everyone could stay fit…
Michael Cox has gone in with both feet on retiring super-villain Mark van Bommel. It’s an interesting read; Cox is much more likely to highlight the nous of a playmaker or coach he admires than bring a player down like this. But he’s right. Van Bommel was bad news, and I don’t think many people will miss him. Some bullies are fun to watch, and emanate a kind of full-blooded zest for the game, like Gattuso, but it never really seemed like that with van Bommel. He managed to be both dour and histrionic, which is a shitty combo.
Colleague Ivancho pointed out this column out to me on Arsenal cult hero/villain Andrey Arshavin. He’s finally leaving the team, possibly for pastures new, possibly for retirement. In broad strokes, I think the piece gets it right, though I still haven’t watched the clips it insists upon. It’s an interesting assertion that a career could have such a particular turning point, such a distinct moment when someone’s talent and drive went off the rails. Does life work like that? Novels do.
I think most of the Gunner flock have a soft spot for this lovable misfit. And I mean, how couldn’t we? Lovable misfits are hard to come by in professional sports. I don’t really understand how he became so peripheral and apparently lost. The guy has boatloads of natural talent… and so the conversation veers into cliche: it’s as though we’re talking about a teenager who’s smoking too much pot. I suppose this sort of decline happens all the time, in all sorts of people, in all sorts of situations. He barely saw the ball this past season, but I remember one moment, though I suppose it might be a mismash of several moments, in a Cup game, how in midtsride he brought the ball down with a single touch, then let it bounce, and scored on a half-volley.
My friend V and I recently discussed what was going on with Juventus this summer: they appear to have feelers out for at least two offensive players in addition to Llorente, who they’ve already signed on a free transfer from Bilbao. They’re all high-profile players- the team seems to be serious about overcoming their current shortcomings in finishing. But it’s a bit strange to see such a front-heavy wishlist, and they’re apparently also tinkering with the defense. Conte might be contemplating switching from a quintessentially Italian back-3 to a 4-2-3-1, the current tactical trend across Europe.
V isn’t entirely happy with how it’s unfolding, and I thought his insight was interesting:
“My sense is that because tactical trends change over time, it’s not usually wise to chase the pack. There’s an analogy to financial markets. When everyone else is hot on gold, you want to be selling. When enthusiasm dampens, it’s time to buy. It’s called being counter-cyclical. There are a select number of people out there who fit really well in a 4-2-3-1 system; they’ll be highly valued if a lot of sides are trying to play that formation. That means there are people you can get at value who fit better in another system. For this to work full-stop, you have to believe that trends in formation are cyclical; but I think they are.”
I was thinking that a simple (probably simplistic) way of looking at soccer tactics is that it’s the art of deciding where to overload the pitch. You decide where your players need the maximum number of choices available to play the ball. Because you’re dealing with a finite number of players in a finite space, this comes down to where you try to produce one temporarily unmarked man. Since the opposing team is equipped to deal with you man-to-man it’s a kind of sleight of hand: momentarily one team has one more man than the other.
When a tactical trend becomes pervasive, the easiest or maybe just most conservative way to combat it is to buy in. This way, very roughly, your players will inhabit similar parts of the pitch as your opponents, and will be faced with similar challenges and choices. You win, then, by small tweaks: not via revolution or daring strategy or idiosyncrasy. A team as domestically dominant as Juventus might find the tactical traditions of its league burdensome when playing other continental teams: they don’t want their genius to have a big Italian asterisk. Maybe their current system, built around the aging Pirlo, is going to have be changed anyhow, and as it would be impossible to find a like-for-like replacement for magisterial Andrea, it’s come time to transition to what has recently worked tactically for other big teams.
I think the most interesting question here, however, is whether tactics are cyclical. It would be difficult to argue that they have been historically, at least in any macro way: there have been massive and irreversible changes in how the sport is played in the past century. But much of the difference between the modern game and the not-so-distant past is due to sports medicine, and before that, changes in the offside rule. I don’t think we’ll see any holistic shifts as large as these, and it doesn’t seem crazy to say that the game as a whole has stabilized. In “Inverting the Pyramid,” Jonathan Wilson says the sport has reached a “mature” stage, and that tactical innovation will likely be incremental from now on out. Maybe it will be cyclical. Maybe Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan will be like Hypercolor shirts.
Hypercolor is coming back, right?
One of the talking points that has come of Dortmund and Bayern’s Champions League victories has been the excellence of their holding midfielders, Illkay Gundogan for Dortmund and Javi Martinez for Bayern. Both were more influential than their counterparts, though no one is resting the Spanish failures on Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. In Alonso’s case, the main argument seems to be that Dortmund was so effective because they throttled his influence, and I’d say that speaks more to the genius of the individual player targeted, and the subsequent failure of the coach/rest of the team to protect him.
What’s interesting is how these players have overshadowed -at least in the past few days- their more glamorous attacking teammates. Gotze, Ronaldo, Ozil, Reus, Messi. As the audience for soccer has become more interested in tactics, there have been waves of obsession over positional quirks, and the way they evolve. For a couple years it was all about the false 9, Messi’s dominance, and the obsolescence of the traditional striker. Was the attacking game being remade before our eyes? Maybe.
Then, possibly with Pirlo’s brilliance in last year’s Euros, the fad position shifted to the holding midfielder, who didn’t need to be a Makelele-style destroyer, but could be the impetus in attack, and a team’s organizational mastermind. Of course this deep creative role wasn’t brand new, but it sure got a lot of attention. Kind of like Pirlo: he’d been amazing for a long time, and suddenly people seemed to open their eyes and say: he’s really amazing.Now everyone is talking about Gundogan. Maybe he’ll be the one to replace Alonso (by the way, does Alonso really need replacing?). (Stupid aside: For the past five or six months, Gundogan has been my favorite player on my iphone FIFA game and I haven’t sold him yet, though I did sell Lewandowski… the guy always comes to my rescue).
What I keep thinking about when I hear all this elevated talk about the deep lying players is how much I loved that space on the field when I was young. In Alabama, we played an outmoded diamond-shaped defense with a stopper and a sweeper; sometimes I played stopper, and I played pretty far ahead of the fullbacks. The field would was wide in front of me, with a palpable depth to it: there were layers and layers before me, and a layer behind. When we went forward, and I liked going forward, I felt like the game was moving forward from me, like I was radiating it. I was an engine.