Is Vertonghen’s versatility the answer to Arsenal’s problems?

Despite their worst league start in 58 years, Arsenal's fate this season still lies in their own hands. With 2 games remaining, 2 wins will seal 3rd spot and guarantee them a place in next season's Champions League. In spite of this impressive turnaround, there are undoubtedly still issues at the club. Having already conceded more goals in the Premier League than ever before, defensive problems remain unsolved and an over reliance on star man Robin van Persie at the top end of the pitch has been highlighted during his recent dry run.  With the transfer window nearing, now seems as good a time as any to assess some of the issues at Arsenal and give an SFG rundown on how one of their supposed top targets, Jan Vertonghen, could go a long way towards solving them.

Balance at the back
For a while now it’s seemed that there’s an imbalance in the Arsenal defence, but due to the lack of fitness of the 4 preferred starters (which we’ll take to be Gibbs-Vermaelen-Koscielny-Sagna) it’s been difficult to examine. This fitness problem is certainly an issue in its own right – the defensive records of Liverpool and Newcastle early on this season being testament to the value of consistency at the back. Whilst this year has seen a long term injury to Sagna, there’s no suggestion of him suffering recurring problems, however, his left sided counterpart, Kieran Gibbs, has a worryingly extensive injury record for someone of his age. Vermaelen may not be nearing Gibbs’ level of fitness trouble yet, but the past 2 years haven’t been especially promising for him either.

Recently, all four have managed a sustained spell of fitness, making it possible to examine the unit as a whole. With Koscielny and Sagna, the right side is extremely strong defensively but doesn’t offer a great deal going forward. That’s not to say Sagna isn’t a vital part of Arsenal’s attacking set up as his effective short passing and ability to relieve pressure on the midfield and forwards is crucial in Arsenal’s approach, but in terms of actual goal threat and ability to play a final ball, he offers little. Gibbs and Vermaelen on the left both represent a superior threat in that respect, but this comes at the expense of defensive fragility. Arsenal’s loss away at QPR just over a month ago signified the end of a run of games stretching back to the 4-0 embarrassment in the San Siro in which all four first choice defenders had started. Throughout the spell, the only goal which came through the right side of defence* was the second Milan goal in that 4-0 loss and it should have been awarded offside anyway. Over the same period of games both Gibbs and Vermaelen were wrong-footed and caught out of position time and again leading to goals.

*Koscielny’s own goal at Anfield can be attributed as his fault, but had Vermaelen and Gibbs not been caught vastly out of position he’d not have needed to come across and attempt a wrong footed clearance to begin with.

Personally, I feel Vermaelen is often overrated as a defender. The goals he provides at the top end of the field wrongly cover up for those he’s at fault  for at the other end. A couple of the goals he was at fault for during the spell mentioned above were due to loss of footing, this could be coincidence but it could be a symptom of a problem of his – positioning, with him losing his footing as he struggled to make up for a poor starting position. The final point written in red in the  image to below (a snippet of Man City’s tactical target board prior to a league clash with them 2 years ago) highlights one of his main issues – that he’s easily drawn out of place, breaking the back line and leaving space in behind. It’s a weakness he still has today and one that any side can exploit.

It’s for this reason that Arsenal may perhaps be better off with Vermaelen playing as a fullback where the space he’d be leaving in behind would be wider out and thus reduce any immediate threat. However, as years of fielding Clichy at left back illustrated, misjudgement out wide can still be very costly and if Vermaelen’s not entirely comfortable there, as he’s expressed in the past, the weakness would still pose a large problem. Another factor acting against such a switch would be the potential reduction in Vermaelen’s threat going forward. The attacking threat he poses through the middle is mainly in his charging runs rather than in any ability on the ball allowing him to beat a man – out wide, this threat would be significantly reduced as he wouldn’t be able to get into the same positions. Overall, there’s little to suggest Vermaelen moving to fullback would solve the existing issues and it’s here that Jan Vertonghen comes in.

Is Jan the man?

Although the current Ajax captain operates predominantly as a centre back, he’s equally adept at playing at the base of midfield and out on the left. Despite the issues outlined above, Vermaelen’s leadership, strength, aerial presence, ability to spread the play from the back and significant goal threat still make him a top centre back. In he, Koscielny and Mertesacker, Arsenal already have 3 quality centre back options, none of whom would be happy dropping down the order. In midfield there’s also a problem of overcrowding – Alex Song has made himself into an almost irreplaceable figure and Wenger’s tendency to play a specialised passer alongside him would see the likes of Arteta preferred to Vertonghen anyway. Whilst his versatility could prove important in covering for Song in times of absence – whether that be through injury, suspension or Cup of Nations duty, the lack of guaranteed position would make the move unlikely. This just leaves the left back position. Both current options, Gibbs and Santos, offer extra attacking outlets but their defensive struggle with decision making and positioning makes it questionable whether the benefit they provide going forward is worth the sacrifice made at the back. When also factoring in the fitness issues both players suffer, they appear a lot more replaceable than the aforementioned options elsewhere in the side. The consistent, solid option Vertonghen could offer in that left-sided berth may provide the valuable balance Arsenal’s defence currently lacks.

Like Vermaelen, Vertonghen struggles to hold back from making charging runs up the pitch and whilst he’s not particularly slow, he’s not got a great deal of pace either. Another worry would arguably be his strength in the air – despite his height, he’s not all that dominant aerially and although that’s against strikers in the Eredivisie, there’s little to suggest this wouldn’t translate across and perhaps be more of a problem in the Premier League. It would however, only be a real problem if Arsenal were to use him centrally. Vertonghen’s main strengths seem to lie in his smart reading of the game and his footwork – the latter being particularly excellent. Just as Vermaelen’s threat may be reduced out wide, Vertonghen may suffer too. However, his superior footwork and ability to beat a man running with the ball should still help him pose a threat down the wing – Gibbs and particularly Santos have both shown this season that it’s not only their pace which makes them a danger from those wide areas.

It may be optimistic to expect Vertonghen to cover for Vermaelen’s tendency to get drawn out of defence, but he’s certainly more likely to than the likes of Gibbs or Santos and the general strength he’d add to the left side of defence would perhaps be enough for teams to reduce their attacking focus there – the extra freedom this’d give Vermaelen would only be  positive. When it comes to decision making and the charging runs, Vermaelen isn’t currently helped by having such an attacking fullback next to him – in being aware that the fullback is always going to be high up, there’s no clear time for him to push forward without leaving a massive gap on that left side. Whilst Vertonghen would undoubtedly be pushing forward himself, it wouldn’t be to the same extent as either of the current options, this should help provide more guidance for when to go forward. Vertonghen could also happily slot across and cover at the back during these quick attacks, something neither Gibbs or Santos are comfortable in doing.

A lesson from The Old Lady

A while ago when discussing how Wilshere will be used next season, I said I’d like to see Rosicky moved back to a deeper role and gave the comparison of Pirlo at Juventus. While the thought occurred to me at the time, due to Vermaelen’s reluctance to play out left and the subsequent shortness that’d create in the middle, I left it as a thought. However, if Arsenal were to buy Vertonghen I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say they could adapt themselves to function in a very similar way to Juventus next season. At the moment, any plan B Arsenal have revolves around substitutes coming on and being able to offer something new rather than any great tactical switch, but this often has little to no effect. Whilst its failure says more about the players available to bring on than it does anything else, having genuinely different set ups only serves to add variation and make Arsenal a more difficult side to face.

With months of drawn out speculation regarding a possible move for Lucas Podolski brought to an end last week as the deal was confirmed, there have already been murmurs of a potential return to some variant of 4-4-2, with the German fielded as a second striker. Wenger’s persistence with 4-2-3-1 makes this unlikely and Arsenal would probably primarily stick to 4-2-3-1 with Podolski taking the wide left position and 4-4-2 being a back-up option. It is however, questionable that this formational alteration would signify enough of a change to make any great effect on a game anyway. In that switch, the presumed change would be Podolski coming in off the wing to join Van Persie up top, with one of the central midfielders going off for a winger to take the vacant left wing position. Whilst this gives a slightly more attacking outlook, in order to help maintain possessional dominance in midfield and create chances, one of the strikers would be dropping off anyway and seeing as Van Persie and Podolski are very similar types of player, regardless of who’s dropping off, the team fielded would basically be a very similar set up to the one that started.

It’s here that the Juventus example can really be used. For those that haven’t followed them this season, Juve have switched between playing 4-4-3 and 3-5-2 with huge success. Their defensive solidity has seen them concede just 19 goals in the league which they’re set to win unbeaten. Arsenal may struggle to replicate that impressive defensive record, but there’s little doubt their attacking options outshine the Old Lady’s. The key player that Vertonghen would be comparable to in their set up is Chiellini – generally recognised as a CB, he’s spent a lot of time playing at LB in a back 4 and has resumed his normal role when a back 3 has been used. Whilst adding an extra CB may seem a defensive move, it lessens the fullbacks’ defensive responsibilities, allowing them to push up into midfield, to prevent overcrowding in midfield an extra man is added to the attack. Theoretically, this allows greater possessional dominance in midfield and more options going forward. In the example of switching to 4-4-2, one of the strikers would be dropping back, but in this system that’s not necessary and so should prove more of a problem to defend against.

It may seem a fairly drastic change for a side that currently does very little to vary its formation, but it could be effective. This approach may appear most useful when Arsenal are on top and wishing to add more to the attack, but it could also be used to get a grip on play and turn things around when there’s little being created – Juve’s 2-0 win over Inter a few weeks ago, having made a half time switch from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2, being a perfect example. This may be where it could be most useful for Arsenal, as this lack of a grip on games is something they’ve started to see more and more recently when it rarely used to be a problem.

Arsenal may not sign Vertonghen and even if they do they may not utilise the back three option he allows, but any suggestion of him being surplus to requirements is fairly unfounded as the solidity he’d offer could be the key to solving some defensive issues and the cover he could provide elsewhere may prove highly valuable. Ensuring that Van Persie signs a new contract and perhaps targeting a different option up front may be of greater importance this summer, but with a relatively small price tag, Vertonghen could make for a very shrewd acquisition.

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About Joe Kennedy (8 Articles)
Student of the beautiful game

2 Comments on Is Vertonghen’s versatility the answer to Arsenal’s problems?

  1. Very much doubt Arsenal will employ this formation. Cant see that fool Walcott playing as a wing back and surely Giroud is a starter? Cant understand how throughout the piece you slate by far Arsenals best defender Vermaelen whilst praising the likes of Koscielny who is average at best. The problem at the back for Arsenal lies with Koscielny and Gibbs/Santos who are liabilities. Wenger needs to sign some quality at the back such as Thiago Silva, Federico Balzaretti or Fabio Grosso. This is where the problem lies, thus rendering this article as pointless.

    • Cheers for reading and replying.

      Regarding Giroud as a starter – I wrote the piece nearly 2 months back when he hadn’t really been talked of with a great deal of sincerity, so I overlooked him for that reason rather than any perception of his quality/ability to fit into Arsenal’s set up. I’d argue he’s not a guaranteed starter by any means though, his comments in a recent interview suggest he’s been made no assurances of a place in the starting XI and should van Persie stay, there’s a good chance he’ll be used largely in rotation and to provide a different option if required. Van Persie could play off Giroud, dropping deep and creating more, but given how effective he’s been at the very top of Arsenal’s attack it seems unlikely Wenger would look to change how he deploys him.

      The Giroud signing does however, further signal intent at providing multiple quality attacking options (though admittedly van Persie could well be off soon). Signing such players to provide different options perhaps allows for less need to tinker formationally and with the Vertonghen trail having gone very quiet as he appears to be on his way to the white side of North London, any change to a back 3 seems increasingly less likely too.

      Personally, I’d still welcome Vertonghen’s addition and the trial of a back 3. Walcott as a wingback was indeed a ridiculous suggestion, it was more my way of illustrating a reluctance to field Sagna in the role. Now at 29 years old and having picked up another long term injury just days after I wrote the piece, I think there’s a real need to look for a long term replacement to bring through over the next couple of years – something that could be done with such formational changes in mind.

      Having thought back over the idea since writing the piece, I think a 3-4-3 would be better suited – Walcott could assume a slightly more central role from the outset, allowing him to be in better shooting positions when he makes those runs through opposing defences. Podolski, the presumed starter on the left side of attack, would also be slightly more central role than the left wingers have played for Arsenal this season, again, giving him better angles to shoot from should he break through. With just 2 men, the centre of midfield may appear open to exploitation, but with Vertonghen and Vermaelen happy to push forward, they could potentially alternate moving into the base of midfield, thus providing the truly defensive midfielder Arsenal are crying out for. This would go some way to satisfying their need to get forward whilst helping free up the other 2 players in the middle, whoever they may be, and would mean a 5 man midfield behind a 3 man attack when going forward that allows an easy transition into a back 3 or even back 5 when retreating – a pretty effective system that could work well with the current squad and the addition of a more attacking fullback on the right.

      I still completely disagree with your assessment of Vermaelen and Koscielny though. I go into detail in the article as to why I feel Vermaelen’s overrated and point out his weaknesses that have been exposed again and again, so branding him ‘by far Arsenal’s best defender’ without explaining why does little to change my mind. What does he do that Koscielny doesn’t? Or looking at it the other way round, what is it that Koscielny’s doing so wrong to make him ‘average at best’? He received much (in my opinion, undue) criticism in his first season but last year was widely regarded as one of the best centre backs in the league. The general bemusement at Blanc’s decision to opt for the experience of Rami and Mexes over the quality of Koscielny during the Euro’s also speaks volumes. He’s fast, intelligent, a fantastic reader of the game and thus great interceptor of the ball. When on the ball he’s also very composed; able to play the right pass into midfield with ease or even bring the ball forward himself, but crucially without over-committing in the way that Vermaelen does with such frequency.

      Whilst I can see the need to strengthen the defence, particularly the left side, should Arsenal stick with a back 4, I’d question the names you bring up as potential signings. Grosso turns 35 this year, Balzaretti’s price will be inflated off the back of the Euro’s and he turns 31 this year himself – neither of them are long term solutions in a role that requires a great deal of stamina and pace. That leaves the suggestion of Thiago Silva, arguably the best centre back in the world at the moment, he may well be an upgrade on what’s available but he’s not at all realistic. Surely Vertonghen, a player who can cover both of those defensive areas, who can provide a long term option and is financially viable would be a better choice?

      The article may well be pointless but I see that more as owing to the insignificance of my opinion rather than the focus on a switch to a back 3. It’s something that could, in theory, be done. Buying Thiago Silva isn’t. Some of the best football I’ve seen throughout the world this season, whether it be from Juve as mentioned in the article, from Barcelona or from Universidad de Chile has been played by building on the foundation of a back 3. This was perhaps more my personal indulgence of how it could be done at Arsenal rather than any expectation of what will happen but with the revision to a 3-4-3 that I outlined, I think it would be a really interesting prospect that requires very little spending and thus would be worth considering.

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