The Forgotten Role Set For A Return?

Since the rise of the ‘flat back four’, the sweeper and more specifically, the libero role had all but disappeared from the footballing world for a number of reasons. In part, this was because the position itself was such a specialist one, which demands various abilities from those playing it: on a basic level, they needed both attacking and defensive prowess, while therein they require excellent reading of the game, strong passing both short and long range and vision that will allow the player to anticipate the movement of oncoming attackers as well as acting as their platform to trigger attacks and counterattacks alike for their own team. The origin of the sweeper came with the catenaccio philosophy and in that they were very much a fifth defender, who would then send the ball out wide for his side to claim their slim, but well-planned victory. The libero grew from this, sharing the same duties in defence but with far more importance placed on their attacking duties. The best in the position would be roaming across the pitch, being seen as a team’s hub, performing as a combination of primary playmaker and defensive organiser, with his positioning being vital to the rest of the team.

 

So why did the position become so outmoded? Well, as is evident, the ability needed to perform there is great and even with that rare combination of talents, it requires a system built to accomodate them, hence the need for other defenders who can work alongside a sweeper and a set of forward players who can work with their main creator operating from so deep. Beyond that, worldwide football has undergone a substantial ideological change. The desire from most corners now is to produce attacking football and even nations who suffer from the ignominy of the stereotype of being a ones with defence-based mentalities have adapted both to and with their fellows. From there, players are trained initially with going forward as their foremost ideal, so if they wish to become defenders they must almost retrain, so most significantly, many are not defenders trained in defending from an early age. Their retraining means they must develop a new way of thinking about football and they are not true defenders, coached in the so-called ‘art of defending’. Hence, to put it bluntly, defenders are not as good at defending as they were back in the heyday of the sweeper. Meanwhile, the shift in overall focus means that forward-going players are collectively (arguably) better than ever they have been, and even ‘defensive’ ones are more proficient in attack. The growth in the popularity of the ‘offside trap’ tactic also somewhat nullifies the sweeper, as it undermines the tactic completely, having one player operating behind the well-organised line. Most players are more complete in the modern game with regard to attacking but, as previously stated, weaker defensively.

 

This gave way to the rise of the defensive midfielder. Rather than have the last line of outfield defence being someone behind a main line which would struggle against an onslaught, the idea was to move that player forward and remove the pressure from the defenders, creating a further wall and line of defence. The standard job of the defensive midfielder is to break up play, recover possession and protect the defence. Here it is evident that there is not only no need for a sweeper, but that one would be detrimental, not giving the back four (or back three) the forward protection they require. Then the defensive midfield position evolved, incorporating both ‘destroyers’ and ‘registas’ or deep-lying playmakers. A strong, modern regista requires many of the attributes previously described for a good libero: some defensive awareness, good reading of the game, a large range of passing and the ability to dictate play. Though they generally lack the great defensive ability of a destroyer-type of defensive midfielder, who cover the rest of the list of required qualities (the more defensive side of them) of a libero. The role has gone forth and multiplied: it takes two players to do what one libero would, but they play in a more protective capacity to their predecessors. This is not an evolution of the libero role, though – if anything it is a devolution, there to make up for the fact that there are so few players left with the skill to play in the position, while reflecting that the level of modern defending has been and is receding.

This does not mean that the position is dead. On the contrary, a revival may well be due. The first mainstream resurrection of the sweeper came in World and European Champions Spain’s EURO 2012 group stage meeting with Italy. Azzuri boss Cesare Prandelli elected to choose Daniele De Rossi in a back three, alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, as a counter-tactic to Vicente del Bosque’s selection of Cesc Fabregas as a ‘false nine’. Overall, the tactic worked well; although Spain dominated possession, they made very few clear chances, capitalising on Italy’s sole defensive lapse. De Rossi, ordinarily a defensive midfielder shared creative duties with Andrea Pirlo, who epitomises the aforementioned regista role deep in midfield. In terms of attempting to start attacks, De Rossi attempted more long passes than any other play on the field (13), completing 8 overall, with 36 of his 53 attempted passes going forward. Where Pirlo dealt with the ball retention and creation in midfield and through the centre of the pitch, De Rossi (as shown here) aimed to start attacks down the wings. Defensively, he had a 100% tackle success rate (3/3) and made 5 interceptions, and he was instrumental in containing Spain as no team has in some time, even those who have beaten them. This game showed that the sweeper is far from dead or obsolete, but it reinforced just how much of a specialist role it is. De Rossi is a player with outstanding talent, but there are few comparable. He disrupted Fabregas greatly, near-man marking him; and while the former Arsenal man moved deeper in an attempt to bring him from his position and create further space behind him, the two Juventus centre halves alongside the Roma man were not so easily drawn in by Fabregas’ movement.

 

This is, in part, why teams find it so difficult to deal with Lionel Messi. Far beyond his superhuman footballing ability, his movement against flat back fours drags defenders from one side of the pitch to another, creating space for himself or his near-equally as talented teammates to utilise. Fabregas attempted to act in a similar way but the tracking of his movement by De Rossi made it extremely difficult for him.

 

De Rossi is not the only player around with the potential to play as a libero. The player who most exemplifies the characteristics is the controversial Sergio Busquets. On the pitch he personifies a lacking in morality with his constant diving and petulance, but these aspects of him unfortunately overshadow what a phenomenal footballer he is. He is one of the most complete and extraordinary players in the game. For most sides he would have far more of a creative presence, but at Barcelona, surrounded by Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi, Alexis Sanchez, et al, he is not needed to perform these duties. With Barcelona’s expert ball retention, their defence will often be perched on the opposing side’s halfway line, with Busquets sitting just in front, pulling the proverbial strings. His 86% long pass accuracy, coupled with his fantastic 91.5% short pass accuracy (with an average of 72 passes competed per game) shows his metronomic quality, but his goal and assist stats are relatively very low given that this service is not required of him (stats provided are almost exclusively from games in which he has played in defensive midfield). His defensive work often goes unnoticed, but his solid performances at centre half in both back fours and back threes over the past three years have demonstrated that he has the defensive and spacial awareness, as well as the passing ability and tremendous vision required to be a supreme libero, as well as playing in a team which could use this potential as a backup plan, to attempt to create from further back on the pitch, if all is not going their way. Javi Martinez of Athletic Bilbao is a similar case, though perhaps even more so, as he is so well-trained defensively, having spent the majority of this season playing in defence, despite naturally being a midfielder.

 

Where modern football appeared to have moved away from the libero, perhaps a return is on its way. The flurry of false nines mean that an effective tactic must be deployed against them, but not any team will be able to just implement a sweeper. As has been alluded to, the position needs such brilliant intelligence and ability that only a select few will be able to do it. These few could lead a tactical revolution. The forward threat a good libero can carry can be incredibly difficult to counteract for defending sides, while a well-performed sweeping job in the centre of a specifically trained defence can form a near-impenetrable defensive barrier. The possibilities could be endless, but before that they will need to re-begin.

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Who Will Be Arsenal’s Next Captain?

Another year, another (probably) departing Arsenal captain. It would be comparable to the changing of the seasons, but living in London, I’m not entirely sure that the seasons actually do change. But one thing on which you have been able to count in recent years, summer upon summer, is that whoever is captaining Arsenal will be strongly linked to a move away from North London by every newspaper, Twitter ‘ITK’, and sentient non-Arsenal organism in mainland Europe. Naturally, this summer has followed suit and, like the summer before it, the rumours have much in the way of substance.

Robin van Persie’s likely departure will mean many things for Arsenal: a slight change in style will be of the essence, as will a new goalscorer-in-chief and a new captain. Even if he does stay, he should be stripped of the captaincy after his statement. When the conversations start about who should take the armband from him arise, the same old jokes proclaiming ‘give it to Squillaci/Denilson/Vela/another-player-who-Arsenal-fans-want-sold’, but there is no real standout candidate for the role. By definition, almost, the captain must be a certified starter. Which brings the number of options down to just 11. At this point, with no van Persie, Arsenal’s strongest starting eleven would probably read: Szczesny; Sagna-Koscielny-Vermaelen-Santos*; Arteta-Song; Podolski*-Rosicky*-Walcott; Giroud (those marked with asterisks are debatable positions). Excluding those who are not assured of their places, there are Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Arteta, Song, Walcott and Giroud. Olivier Giroud can be immediately ruled out, given that he has just signed and the pressure of having to do some of van Persie’s job (at least, based on the squad at this point; I have no idea of incomings and outgoings) is probably enough to be getting on with at the moment.

Wojciech Szczesny: he has shown, in patches, that he has the potential to be an extraordinary goalkeeper. But he is just 21 years old and has only 73 first team appearances to his name for Arsenal. His character is one that would embrace captaincy; he has arrogance, certainly, but his attitude to pressure is extremely encouraging, from an Arsenal perspective. His first half of last season were quite outstanding, whereas the second was rather poor. He has massive potential but has a lot to learn. He is not ready to be the Arsenal captain, but he could become a worthy option in years to come.

Bacary Sagna: the Frenchman is an excellent right back and probably the most reliable member of this Arsenal side. Since joining in 2007 he has played 40 or more games in every season, with the exception of last season, wherein he suffered a broken leg. The 29 year old also has made 205 appearances for the Gunners and has won 32 French caps. He has always been overlooked in captaincy matters, rarely seeing the armband at any point in his Arsenal career. On the pitch, he would be an ideal captain, in some respects: consistent, measured and proficient, but he does not seem to be the ‘leadership type’, if you will. Then again, he has not been given the chance. A strong candidate.

Thomas Vermaelen: the current vice-captain looks most likely to take the job. He has demonstrated his aptitude for the role – he is a typical ‘leader’ in the defence. However, there must be worries over his discipline; his goalscoring has proved a valuable asset, but at times, it has been defensively damaging. He is better than his last season would suggest, but if a captain is supposed to ‘lead by example’, having him charging forward at any given opportunity is not exactly a fine example to set! This will be his fourth season at the club (though really his third, given his near-complete absence from the 10/11 season) and he has been playing Champions League football since his Ajax days, where he was captain. As things stand, he is both the most likely, and probably the best choice.

Laurent Koscielny: he is a centre half who has inspired much debate between those who have actually watched him and those who assume expertise based on the unfortunate incident in the Carling Cup final. As someone who watches him every week, he is exceptional, the best in his position Arsenal have had since Sol Campbell. But in only his fourth season in top level football, it is difficult to judge whether he is ‘captaincy material’. He showed the ability to retain sense while those around him crumbled into lunacy at many junctures last season. A very tough one to call, but with a lack of experience of being a captain, he does rank below his central defensive partner.

Mikel Arteta: Arteta is a similar case to Sagna. Vastly experienced (though obviously the bulk of that is with Everton) and extremely dependable. Its being only his second season at Arsenal is something of a sticking point, but their well-documented records with and without him speak for themselves about his importance to them. He was vice captain in his time on Merseyside but if Arsenal are to sign another defensive midfielder, he is not necessarily a guaranteed starter. Potentially perfect for the vice captaincy.

Alex Song: like Arteta, if Arsenal sign another defensive midfielder, he is not assured of a place in the first eleven every week. Although in every other respect, the uncapped Spaniard and he are highly different. Arteta is disciplined where Song is chaotic and far more aggressive. He is inconsistent but extremely talented. While he retains his unfocussed nature, he is not likely to become the captain any time soon.

Theo Walcott: he is another somewhat odd case to evaluate, given that he is in a similar situation to van Persie and may not be at the club next year, as he is entering the final year of his contract. He also suffers greatly on account of his inconsistency and he is a confidence player with a tendency to panic when things are going against him. He receives far more criticism than is warranted or fair but he does lack the maturity required to be the skipper.

Had Jack Wilshere not spent the last 10 months on the sidelines, he would have been an interesting choice. As a player who came through the youth system, possibly being handed the armband in his very, very early twenties, there would have been direct comparisons to Tony Adams, which worked out pretty well. But, of course, it has not worked out this way. In England, the importance of the role of captain can be very overstated, but to really evaluate who is the best choice is you have to see what van Persie did that made him the best Arsenal captain since Patrick Vieira: on the pitch, he led a team in disarray, dragging them to the Champions League, while off the pitch, he united a previously fractured dressing room.

With this in mind, I believe Vermaelen is the best man for the job, with Arteta as his deputy. Although he is not the most vocal, he is a strong leader and a well-respected member of the squad. Arsene Wenger always claims that he wants “11 captains” across the pitch. The slightly forced, slightly intended movement from signing younger players to older ones means that this vision is far more reality than once it was. With the captaincy no longer an issue, Arsenal must now look to replace the other things van Persie gave them: the goals.


Thoughts On Robin van Persie

Transfer season is well and truly upon us once more. If every new day did not start horribly enough with having to wake up in the single digit hours, the newspapers, short on filler material, inundate us all with whispers about potential incomings and outgoings. Then many Arsenal fans on Twitter take their (typically negative) bored scribblings for something much deeper and launch into a tirade or two about them, prompting a grand debate. Alternatively, Arsenal are mentioned in the same article or tweet as a player and all of a sudden he is set to sign. It is trying to follow it but as Twitter can be a fantastic news source for such things, it is worth persevering with, all the same.

It is usually easy enough to ignore the nonsense, but one unavoidable topic is the incessant talk surrounding the future of Robin van Persie. He has one year remaining on his current contract and Manchester City and Juventus are, if reports are to be believed, interested in him. Naturally, this is to the dismay and fear of almost all Arsenal supporters (and those who claim otherwise are probably lying). But, as I can tell you are all interested in the extreme in my opinion, I have decided to note down some thoughts on the Dutchman as a player and on the situation at hand.

‘Footballistically’, what would you expect me to say, as an Arsenal fan and an owner of two shirts with ‘van Persie’ emblazoned on the back? Especially given his magnificent last 18 months; he is an outstanding and unique footballer. He has perfected the ‘9 and a half’ role, managing to perform the duties of both a genuine ‘9’ and a ‘false 9′. His wonderfully intelligent off-the-ball movement enables his style and is instrumental to Arsenal’s own style: just watching him it is interesting to see how deep he drops to collect the ball, dragging defenders out of position and creating space behind them for the rest of the team. His 9 league assists and average of 2.4 key passes per game through 11/12 show his ability as a quasi-creator, while playing in the traditional centre forward position.

While making chances for others, he has become quite adept at taking his own goalscoring opportunities. He scored, as you will most likely be aware, 37 goals in 47 games in all competitions last season, with 30 of those coming in his 38 league appearances, as well as having joined the list of Arsenal centurions back in September, scoring his 100th goal against Bolton. He now stands as the 8th highest scorer in the club’s history. He carried the team at many points in his phenomenal last season and in the process gained recognition from his fellow professionals and the Football Writers’ Association, picking up both awards. He is nothing short of marvellous. At the start of the year, many questioned whether he would make a good captain; although the importance of the armband can be overstated (and is, here in England), he flourished with the added responsibility of leading a team slung together at the transfer windows’ end, while recovering from the losses of two extremely influential players, in Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri, and its horrendous start.

The ‘one man team’ argument is one that has been thrown at Arsenal an awful lot of late – well, I say argument; generally arguments are well constructed and logical, going beyond ‘he scores all your goals lol’ – and though it is obvious that he is the team’s best and most influential player, his experience with the Dutch national team should have been instructive for him. He has thrived as the ‘main man’ for the last season and a half in a system filled with players to get the best from him which, quite evidently, it does. He has had an idyll created for him in North London – one which he would not necessarily find elsewhere. He is an adaptable and highly intelligent player and the difficulties at EURO 2012 were not his own, so much as the squad’s as a whole. He is far too good not to be a highly successful player if he leaves, but it would be probably be unrealistic to expect a similar level of form immediately.

On the subject of the highly persistent ongoing speculation, there are a variety of possibilities. By far the most preferable option is that he signs a new contract, committing himself to the club. Another is that he sees out the last year of his contract, perhaps signing on later, perhaps leaving for nothing at its end. Then there is a far worse possibility of him potentially moving abroad, with holy grail of terrible possible eventualities coming in the form of a potential move to Manchester City. If he does not sign on this summer, Arsenal can either sell him in order to assure they get some sort of fee for him, or hold him to that final year with the vague chance he may re-commit during the season.

After having lost or sold so many players of note in recent years, adding van Persie to that list, especially given the season he has had, would send a terrible message from the club’s perspective, essentially confirming the jibe that they have become a ‘selling club’. In the long list of reasons to keep him, new contract or not, saving face, somewhat bizarrely, has to be quite high on the list. Losing him would paint a picture of a club going backwards, which most would agree Arsenal did last summer. And it would be one thing to lose him to an overseas team, hence not directly re-damaging the club by aiding their rivals, but to lose him to City would be catastrophic for their reputation and handing them their best player would be similarly disastrous for their attempts to climb back up towards the heights which City have purchased for themselves. They cannot let him go to City at any costs. Unless he is adamant he wants the move and will go to the same lengths as his predecessor of the role of captain to get it, Arsenal should not sell; it would be better to lose him on a free next year than to pick up £25,000,000 for him now, for the reasons previously stated. He does not come across as the kind of character who would strike in order to get his way, but then again, neither did Fàbregas, to many of us. He is so integral to Arsenal’s way of playing that they would need to adjust their system for his replacement, unless that replacement were Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski (the only other ‘9.5s’ which come to mind) or Lionel Messi which, let’s face it, are both quite far along on the ‘unlikely’ scale. If he does not sign but does stay the year ahead can be used to lay the foundations for the new side that must be created, allowing them time to prepare for a life without him.

At this stage, no one seems to know anything. Van Persie himself is on holiday, with talks set to resume upon his return. He has been a follower of Arsenal since childhood and has a family who appear to be very settled in London. His wife has spoken of her happiness in the capital and both his parents have said separately in interviews that they would prefer him to stay. If it is true he wants the club to show ambition, he is getting his wish: Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud have been signed and it is almost certain that others will follow suit. The club are doing what they can to convince him to stay. Now it is on him to decide.

He is not the perfect striker: he lead the table in most clear cut goalscoring opportunities missed for the 11/12, with 25, but he is about as close we will get before the ‘finished article’ himself comes along (Lionel Messi does not count as a striker, because he isn’t one). He does not owe Arsenal for sticking with him through his injury-stricken years, per se – a lot of that faith has been repaid over the last year. He does, however, owe Arsenal at least another year of service, as he signed up for it. And he owes Arsène Wenger for making him who he is. Unless his actions make selling the only viable avenue, they cannot let him go.

All stats via WhoScored.com