Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Importance of Being Vermaelen

The 1st October 1996 was a great day for the Premier League and the development of the English Game, with Arsenal officially appointed Arsene Wenger as their new manager. Although he has not matched Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to win titles, no one can deny the impact Wenger has had on the development and marketability of the English Premier League. Within 2 years of taking the realms at Highbury, Wenger had turned an aging, underachieving Arsenal team into a formidable ‘Double’ winner, the first time Arsenal had achieved this feat in 27 years.

While the personnel of Arsenal have changed drastically over the 14 years, there is a familiar trend as to how Wenger and Arsenal work. The playmaking attacking midfielder has become a trademark of Arsenal after the introduction of Dennis Bergkamp, arguably the greatest foreign signing in the Premier League’s history  alongside Eric Cantona, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo. Nowadays we see the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Samri Nasri and Andrey Arshavin tormenting opposing defenders with ease and grace. Compound this with a series of commanding defensive midfielders such as Patrick Viera, Emmanuelle Petit and to a certain extent Alex Song and the strike force of Thierry Henry, Emmanuelle Adebayor and Robin Van Pierse, you would think Arsenal should be constant serious challengers for the title. However over the past 5 years, Arsenal has been the perennial 3rd placers and this comes down to the inability of Wenger to find a commanding centre back... until now.

Success during Arsene Wenger’s reign has been based upon a commanding centre back leading the team and providing stability and confidence. At their best, Arsenal had the likes of Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure leading the defensive line. After the former two moved on, and bearing in mind the decline of the latter, Arsenal has been without leadership at the back. All this has changed since the signing of Thomas Vermaelen in 2009. When Vermaelen plays, Arsenal become the team of old which dominated the Premier League. His reliability, ability to track the opponent and his aerial ability contributed to the good run of form during the 2009/10 season and his importance on the team was highlighted with the consecutive awarding of Arsenal’s ‘Player of the Month’ and the fan given nickname ‘Verminator’.

The loss of Vermaelen during the end of the 09/10 and the start of the current season to injury have once again shown the frailties of the Arsenal team; wonderful when going forward, but shockingly mediocre at the back. Saturday’s second half capitulation to arch rivals Tottenham highlighted the impact Vermaelen has on  the Arsenal team, one can only wonder what heights this current Arsenal team can reach with a fit Thomas  Vermaelen at the heart of the defence.

Lewis Richards is an Arsenal and Crystal Palace fan who is not particularly commanding in defence.

Ferguson's 4-2-3-1

Could the side played by Sir Alex Ferguson in low pressure games provide a view into the future of Machester United's tactics as well as personnel?

Throughout his 24 year reign at Manchester United the traditional 4-4-2 formation, featuring a strong central midfield duo and wingers capable of scoring as well as creating, has been Sir Alex Ferguson's favoured approach to matches. When not using a 4-4-2 United have played a more conservative and counterattacking 4-5-1 with a three man central midfield providing defensive screening for the back four and a platform from which attacks can be built. This approach was adopted for big games both domestically and in Europe after their defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the 2000 Champions League quarter final. The only other set up consistently used by United  was a 4-4-1-1 between 2001 and 2004 that saw Paul Scholes play as a second striker behind Ruud Van Nistelrooy. However, recent low pressure games have seen Ferguson send out sides that feature predominantly young attacking players in a fluid 4-2-3-1 system, giving us a glimpse into the future players and tactics of Manchester United.

I speak of a 4-2-3-1 not just in terms of where the United players stand in comparison to eachother during kickoff and goal kicks, but as an attacking system. The game against Wigan on Saturday is an excellent illustration of this system which has also seen use in the Carling Cup and League against Wolves, and the Champions League against Bursaspor at home. The system sees the two central midfielders, in this case Carrick and Fletcher, sitting deep and looking to get the ball to one of the three advanced midfielders, in the Wigan game Park, Obertan and Nani. Obertan in particular has seen the majority of his gametime this season for the first team, as well as a singificant proportion for United's reserve side, as the centre of the advanced midfield 3 in this system. Park and Nani flanked him, and throughout the first half Park, who has a penchant for dribbling through the middle and whose best position is arguably in a central attacking role, would intermittently swap positions with the Frenchman. Further to this Nani, who is comfortable on both flanks and also likes to cut into the centre, would switch places from time to time with whoever was the left. The result of this was an advanced midfield three that by the virtue of their adaptability swapped positions without any detriment to their performance and the team performance. Ahead of them was the young Italian striker Federico Macheda, who has seen all of his starts this season save the Premier League match at Sunderland come in this system. While this set up yielded a single goal by virtue of a Park cross from the right on the cusp of half time before the introduction of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez and a return to a 4-4-2 after the hour mark yielded a second, its continued use with more or less the same personnel points to the future set up of a United side that prizes control of the middle of the park and fluidity in the attacking third.

The way United started against Wigan

When the young members of the United squad are considered it can be seen that such a fluidity is not a happy mistake, instead being something that has been earmarked as the way forward by the club who have recruited and adapted their youth coaching in respect of this. Obertan has been playing right, left and through the centre for both the reserves and the United first team, and Nani is comfortable on either side. Tom Cleverley, highly rated by Ferguson and on loan at Wigan until January, has like Park and Obertan shown his proficiency in playing in any of the three advanced midfield positions. Anderson, whose performances in the last year have been subject to a great deal of scrutiny, has shown that he can operate both on the left flank and in the middle of an advanced midfield. Bebe and Welbeck while both strikers by trade have shown their proficiency on the flanks. Ravel Morrison who at 17 is one of the highest rated youth players at United likewise can operate on the left or in the centre. Such an adaptability is something that Sir Alex Ferguson has used to devastating effect in the past, with their 2007/2008 Premier League and Champions League winning side featuring in most matches a front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney that would interchange throughout matches to devastating effect.

Ferguson is tenatively introducing this young side and these tactics. After testing the waters during the 1-0 win against Bursaspor, whose record in the Champions League this season has been notoriously poor, he used it again a week later against Wolverhampton in the League Cup, this time yielding three goals. Buoyed by this he used the system again a week and a half later against the same side in the league, this time with a more makeshift team that saw John O'Shea in midfield and an Owen Hargreaves cameo. It's use against Wigan in the week just gone, the fourth win out of four using this system, sees the ongoing emergence of what could possibly be the last side that Ferguon builds. Just as the League Cup tie against Port Vale in 1994 marked the induction into the first team proper for many of 'Fergie's Fledglings', could one day these early 2010/2011 fixtures be seen as the first steps of Ferguson's next great side?

Anthony Durand is a Manchester United fan who has never heard of and has not spent most of his last two years at uni playing Football Manager.