Balance at the backFor 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.