Written by hahostolze on Sunday, 23 September 2012 10:27
If you would ask me what the biggest difference this season has been, compared to the last few seasons where we ultimately came up short, I would venture towards the influence of the fullbacks. These are early days, yes, but it feels to me like we are back to one of the oldest recipes for Wengerian success: that of the prominent fullback. This article will explore our past experiences with the fullback and the current rising level of two young, English backs playing week in, week out, and will see whether the offensive, and indeed defensive, contributions, might help swing the momentum in our favour.
What would you say are the best Arsenal teams of the last decade? Probably the Invincibles first, the 2001-2002 team second and then the 2007-2008 team, right? And what did these teams have in common? Well, the first two teams brought success to the hallowed halls of Highbury, and the third team very nearly won the league where others were vastly outspending us. But all of them, to me, were teams with similar core strengths. All of them had good (or great) defensive duo’s, effective screening of the midfield, and both the creativity and efficiency in the attacking part of the pitch to win matches. But running alongside all these factors, these teams also had excellent, if not better than excellent, fullbacks. And I think that role is severely overlooked.
In 2001-2002, the fullbacks were going through a transition. The great Lee Dixon was finally retiring, and young midfielder-turned-defender Lauren was his replacement. Learning from the great man will undoubtedly have helped him. On the other side, Sylvinho had been a class act for two seasons, but was being ousted by Ashley Cole and Cole’s new rival, the irrepressible Gio van Bronckhorst. Whilst neither Lauren nor Cole were close to their respective tops at that moment, their attacking instincts were so important to the overall ebb and flow of our play. Both were also strong in the tackle and good at positioning and had the great Patrick Vieira covering their positions whenever they needed (and don’t forget Edu. Actually, to this day I am staggered we won the double with such a thin midfield…) and that all contributed massively to the success of the team that season. Whilst Lauren was more of the overlapping type, making many runs without receiving the ball, Cole went inside more at times, and interchanged with midfielders more. It was a fabulously dangerous duo for such a defensive league and that helped unlock countless defences. Mercurial, untouchable players like Thierry Henry and Robert Pires could do their thing partly because of the space the tireless running from the fullbacks created. Much in the same way Patrice Evra’s deep runs created huge holes to be exploited by Rooney and fake Ronaldo during their later successes.
During the reign of the Invincibles (and the incredible near-miss the season before) the fullbacks were even more important. Part of that was down to the talent and refining of abilities on both Lauren and Cole’s parts, but it was also down to the invisible yet amazing screening job done by Gilberto Silva, which also allowed Vieira more space to play his famous long balls and make his powerful runs. During the Invincibles season the amount of times the fullbacks helped out the defence are plentiful, but the amount of times they helped the attack are abundant. The team, whilst very capable of doing the tippy tappy thing, were even more adept at charging counter attacks and the searing pace of Cole and Lauren certainly helped. Even though both had one or two individual errors, their general stability and added sharpness were what gave the team an added edge.
In 2007-2008, again the team relied heavily on the fullbacks. After a few years in the wilderness, with Eboue and Flamini and all kinds of temporary bit parts players filing in, the duo was suddenly established and performed very well. Both Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna had stellar seasons (with, for Clichy, one blemish that effected out entire moral) and I think the similarities to this season are quite big. Firstly, Clichy was about the same age as Gibbs is now. But to me, Gibbs is further in his development and whilst he isn’t as fast as Clichy, he has more potential. He doesn’t need to always use pace to cover for his mistakes, which means he is a smarter and more defensively capable player. Whilst the comparisons between Sagna and Jenkinson are few and far between, the role in the team can be said to be similar. In the 2007-2008 season, we often played in a 4-3-3 formation of sorts (although the multifunctionality of the team turned it into a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 at occasion) with Cesc mainly the creative midfielder in the Cazorla role. But to me the parallels between the Gilberto Silva and the Arteta roles are the most important. For large parts of that season, we played with either Flamini or Diaby as the box to box player, with Gilberto holding and Cesc creating. Yes, I know that at times we went 4-4-2, but to my recollection, the prevalent formation was more 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. In that formation, Gilberto would cover for the fullbacks and their runs. Flamini too would hold back if he saw the danger. Large parts of the success that season came from the attacking flair, the speed and the passing. That was down to the breadth given to the team by the charging fullbacks, because the nominal wingers, Hleb and Rosicky, hardly stayed out wide. And these charging fullbacks were given that role by the stability in midfield. Again, there are parallels with this season. Where now we have Arteta and Diaby (or Coquelin, so far) sitting a little deeper, we have Gibbs and Jenkinson charging forward at every opportunity. Both Sagna and Clichy had great individual, and team based, seasons in 2007-2008. The way the team played facilitated that, but the emergence of Theo Walcott (who tries but doesn’t really add cover), the lack of tracking back from people like Andrei Arshavin and the lack of real defensive discipline from our ‘holder’ Song, as well as a lack of discipline from charging defenders like Vermaelen, really nullified their roles at the club. For Sagna that was ok, for he is very stable as a defender and still will run his nuts off in attack. Clichy was less stable in defence and far more often caught in the wrong place, charging forward when it wasn’t his place to do so. The current setup has slowly but certainly gone back to that stable situation where the fullbacks can attack again. And it has shown.
So far this season Kieran Gibbs has two direct assists and his influence on that left side of attack, often playing as a wide LM in a 4-4-2, has been huge. With Podolski pulling inside a lot and with Gervinho or Giroud often interchanging, as well as Cazorla, this left a gap he was eager to exploit. Arteta, and to a lesser but still important extent, Diaby, have been very good at covering the runs. So has the heightened anticipation and reading of the game amongst the central defenders. Kieran Gibbs started his career as a left winger. At the moment, when not playing against the very biggest opponents, it seems he will have the chance to spend most of his time in that role again. And he is very good in that role. A better crossers, finisher and passer than Clichy, he gives us more creativity and more effective distribution in that area. Andre Santos, at the moment his backup for the LB spot, is an even better crosser and creator of chances, but at the moment his lack of defensive awareness means Wenger wants him to play second fiddle to Gibbs and fill in when Gibbs is tired. Whilst I love Andre Santos and his big smile and Samba style, I can only admire that decision.
Then we come to my favourite player this season. Carl Jenkinson. On twitter I have espoused the opinion quite a few times that we have a gem on our hands. Even if he never becomes a guaranteed starter or a 20m pound man (then again, if Jordan Henderson is….) he is a man who bleeds Arsenal all the way, who is fitter than any player at the club, who started playing for us at a young enough age to get the Wenger (and Bould) mentality drilled into him, whose technique allows him to swing in great crosses and give good free kicks, and who played in a number of positions as a youngster and can fill in all over the pitch, and all of that means we have what we have lacked for a while: an RB Romford Pele, a player who can fill in all over, do so adequately, but does have a main role and performs very well there. The same goes, down the line, for Nico Yennaris. Maybe he can oust Jenkinson and Sagna as a starter but he too is multifunctional, Arsenal through and through and a dedicated professional. You can never have too many of those.
And this season Carl Jenkinson has shown that he can actually, maybe, be more than that. His crossing ability is really superb, probably the best at the club (tin hat time) and his huge motor allows him constant running up and down the wing. Against Montpellier, with the Ox coming inside a lot as he does, he owned the right flank and gave a great assist, whilst also keeping his slate relatively clean against the tide of second half attacks. Last season he seemed a little bit too young, too immature and just unready. The contrast is remarkable. He has been excellent this season, dealing very well with the likes of Suarez and Sterling against Liverpool but also rising to the challenge of Ricky Lambert against Soton, the same Lambert who gave both MCFC and MUFC defences hell the weeks before. Whether it be pace and trickery or power and height, he seems capable of dealing with both. That makes him ready for the PL and even the CL to me. Now, I don’t want to see him start the rest of the season, and with Sagna back soon you think Sagna will reclaim his place. But having Jenkinson perform this well, with the knowledge he can improve under Bould and Wenger and by just gaining experience, is very, very reassuring.
Maybe my favourite team of the last decade was the ‘Theo van Nasregas’ team which could beat any team in Europe, like we showed vs Barca in February of 2011. However that team could never get a real title challenge going. Part of that may be because, when it comes to it, the influence of fullbacks in modern football is huge. The Italians, Barca and a few others are manipulating their formations so that fullbacks or wingbacks (the role Kieran Gibbs plays in my opinion) can thrive. Our team of 2009-2011/2012 never did that. The fullbacks weren’t important. Too many times we struggled to break down teams. Too often was it an Bendtner last minute goal or Vermaelen chipping in that gave us the edge, and that is not good enough, nor does it do much for consistency. These teams were better than their 2007-2008 counterparts if you look at the parts individually. But as a sum of their parts they weren’t. In that sense Arsenal have taken one step back this summer and taken two leaps forward. The team is a team again and you notice that defensive stability is back, both in the actual defence as well as in midfield. So is the roving influence of the fullback. When Sagna comes back I hope he works in his crossing, because when he does have a good run of good crosses (like in 2007-2008) no right back in the world is better, and in the current side, the fullback is very important again. This team is more consistent and for consistency a good performance from fullbacks is a necessity. And we seem to have hit that stride again.
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