By Jon Shay
After avoiding embarrassment this past weekend, Hull manager Steve Bruce said that ''the problem with Arsenal is how do you set up against them? They're fluid in their movement and their interplay. They interchange positions... where does Jack Wilshere play? Where does Mesut Ozil play?"
He's not alone in this assessment. Commentator Tony Jones, speaking after the win over Cardiff, said, "it is one of the toughest tasks for the like of us to pin down this Arsenal midfield to a precise formation because there is a real fluidity and flexibility and quality". Not to be outdone, Bruce added that, "it's the movement where the play the interchange they've got this fantastic fluidity about them, where, you know the rotation the movement is very difficult to play against, plan against, um, you know,they play one striker, and they've got five other players who've just gotta, you know, a fluidity about them which makes it very difficult."
This first appeared on Woolwich 1886 in December 2013
In previous posts, I've tried to compare the attack to an atom, the nucleus of which would be the centre forward, around whom the midfielders orbit while the ball pings around incessantly. Even given the infinite variety of orbital paths that electrons can take, this analogy just doesn't do our squad justice.
After all, each electron is still following a path of some sort or another, and the nucleus is in a more or less fixed position - almost akin to a solar system in which the centre forward is the sun and the midfielders are planets. Again, too stable and predictable to encompass our "system", a term that implies far too much stability and predictability to do the attack justice. After all, Giroud doesn't just linger around the penalty area waiting for a cross to swing in. His movement and touch are key to the build-up, and his involvement is part of what gives the players behind him to much to work with. He's not a nucleus; he's part of the amoeba as well.
I'll set aside the scientific details. It's enough to say that our midfield, on its day, is formless and shapeless. Yes, certain players will be at certain positions when the whistle blows, but that is a mere formality. Once the ball is in play, all bets are off.
Against Hull, for example, Ozil lined up as the central midfielder, and Rosicky lined up right. Why, then, are we seeing Ozil foraying along the right sideline while Rosicky rampages down the left? Why, along similar lines, is Ramsey, a defensive midfielder, roaming ahead of Bendtner, the centre forward? It's the amoeba, a formless, shapeless entity that expands or contracts according to available space. Should an opposing side expose a weakness, the amoeba pours forward, exploiting and devouring the space. Each player, while moving and thinking independently, is constantly aware of where he is and wants to go while simultaneously adjusting to where his team-mates are and are going.
It's the amoeba, a formless, shapeless entity that expands or contracts according to available space. Should an opposing side expose a weakness, the amoeba pours forward, exploiting and devouring the space
As just the most recent evidence, look back to the goals against Hull, each of which came from just that kind of off-the-ball movement and apparently unconscious awareness of each other. In each case, Ramsey was the key as he made apparently blind, one-touch passes for team-mates who had run on, and in each case, each team-mate was ready, as if they just knew that the ball would arrive for them. Indeed, there have countless goals this year, as well as countless near misses, that have come from truly sublime ball and player movement, none quite as exquisite as the Norwich goal.
As the Hull match showed, it's not just from the starters that we see this. Five players rotated in - half of the field positions, mind you - and we still saw what this can look like when everyone is attuned. There have been times when rotation has undermined this element a bit, such as in the League Cup loss to Chelsea, and Hull are not Chelsea, of course, but that result suggests what the squad has to offer even from the bench.
Label it what you will - tiki-taka, totaalvoetbal, Wengerball - it's truly a sight to behold when it comes together. This style of play is not just attractive; it produces results. For as much as we've bemoaned the loss of key players, it's perhaps the loss of Fabregas that did the most damage as he was one of the few in the squad who could play to that aesthetic. Nasri had his moments, but he's more of a dribbler than anything else. Van Persie might have papered over our weaknesses through raw goalscoring ability. The signing of Ozil has reversed a trend, but, more importantly, it shows the value of finding and developing the right kind of players for Arsène's system. It's not just a matter of technical ability. There's a mindset that a player must have - or be willing to develop - before he can melt into the amoeba.
There's a mind-meld, then, that lies behind our success this year. This is the first season before which we didn't lose key players. Aside from the addition of Ozil, we came into the season with much the same squad that we've had for two or three seasons now, and the familiarity that this has bred is plain to say, whether it's silly photos of Poldi and Per on we see on Twitter or the telekinesis we see on the pitch.
"He's like a new signing," we've heard constantly when an injured player comes back. Much as we've groaned each time, this mindset is in itself "like a new signing". The understanding that the players share, whether it's Gibbs or Sagna pouring forward down the flank or Giroud dropping down to defend or any number of midfielders prowling and probing all over the pitch, it's a sight to behold.
The confidence, the understanding, the performance that have seen us to the top of the table both derive from and contribute to this system
Of course, it's easy to extol any system when you're top of the table; it's easy to confuse the cart and the horse, the method and the outcome. The next loss, whenever it comes, might turn all I've said to so much folderol. For now, though, the confidence, the understanding, the performance that have seen us to the top of the table both derive from and contribute to this system. That same confidence and understanding have seen us rebound from the few set-backs we have had thus far, and, what's more, look like they'll be there to do the same whenever the next set-back occurs.
It's been a long time coming, this kind of success and this kind of style, but I'd argue that it's been worth the wait.