From Satellites to Stars

Assifuah vs Chile

2 matches, 2 losses: Ghana’s start at this summer’s U-20 World Cup was far from ideal. The Class of 2009, triumphant at the first tournament to be held on African soil, loomed large over the Black Satellites. Within the camp there was “huge respect for what they achieved.” Ayew and company, exalted ever since as the benchmark that every subsequent group should aspire to reach, were meant to be the inspiration, the driving force for a repeat success this time out. Instead, expectation appeared to be getting the better of these young tyros, the pressure of emulating their predecessors seemingly permeating their every touch.

In a way, the two early losses – Ghana’s only group stage defeats at any U-20 World Cup – aided in channelling the squad’s focus. The defeats to France (1-3) and Spain (0-1), both pre-tournament favourites, meant that victory against the United States in the final game of the group was simply a must, and even if the desired result was achieved other scores would have to go their way to qualify as one of the four 3rd-best teams.

How refreshing it was, then, to see the ebullient adventure return to Ghana’s play. The shackles were well and truly cast aside as the Black Satellites poured forward in droves, overwhelming the opposition with 25 shots (17 of which were on target) and emerging 4-1 victors. The young Ghanaians had stared adversity square in the face and reacted in the best possible way. 48 hours later, with Egypt defeating England 2-0, progression to the Last 16 was finally confirmed. The first hurdle had been passed, but the tests would get no easier from here on in with that familiar foe adversity forever ready to rear its ugly head.

Portugal were to be Ghana’s next opponents, their main attraction Bruma already accumulating a host of scouting dossiers; impressing many with his electric brand of pace and trickery. His exploits certainly hadn’t escaped the notice of the Ghanaians who formulated a plan in an attempt to dampen the influence of the explosive winger. Captain Lawrence Lartey describes how they “tried to keep two players close to him, so that he couldn’t go for goal the way he likes.” Admittedly, the No.11 was still a threat to a porous defence that kept goalkeeper Eric Antwi more than occupied throughout the campaign, but with the match in its dying embers and extra-time looming Ghana were still very much in the mix with the score tied at 2 apiece. Then, a free-kick was won on the edge of the box, wide on the left, but a decent opportunity nonetheless to deliver what could be a telling cross.

Richmond Boakye-Yiadom – one of the few members of the squad already plying his trade in the football utopia that is Europe to most of these kids – had other ideas, however. The two-man wall that faced him was a minor barrier in his eyes. The Juventus youngster endured a rather indifferent tournament but this was as good a time as any to try his luck. And so he let fly, the pair in the wall cowardly parting as the ball careered past. It whistled by the inside of the near post; the net bulging despite a desperate dive from José Sá in the Portuguese goal. Fortune had favoured the brave. The Black Satellites were marching on to the Quarters.

"Take that, Adversity!"

“Take that, Adversity!”

There they would face Chile, whose mix of guile and potency was in no small part thanks to their devilish trio of Bryan Rabello, Nicolás Castillo and Ángelo Henríquez. They terrorized Ghana’s backline which had proved so resolute in the main stages of this year’s CAF U-20 Championship, with the impressive Antwi having to make yet more eye-catching saves. It was clear that the Ghanaians hadn’t heeded the warnings of previous matches. Rather, ‘fight fire with fire’ appeared to be the mantra that fuelled an incredible 41 shots over the 120 minutes of sweat and toil. Twice Ghana had been a goal down and twice they had cancelled the deficit; the mental resolve of the group so apparent once again.

So much so that it was barely a surprise when in stoppage time at the end of extra-time Ebenezer Assifuah leapt to meet a looping cross at the end of yet another forceful, driving run from Frank Acheampong. The header may have lacked power but that was more than made up for by the direction; the ball agonisingly squeezing in between the attempted clearances of Henríquez and Valber Huerta on La Roja’s line.

Another meeting with France was their reward for this timely comeback but sadly this would be a case of déjà vu rather than revanche for the Satellites. Bookings accrued over the tournament by centre-backs Lartey and Joseph Attamah, as well as composed midfielder Moses Odjer, the youngest of the squad at 16, would deprive Ghana of three of their key performers. The resulting reshuffle – which in part led to the mobile and diligent Seidu Salifu moving from his berth in front of the defence to right-back – weakened the spine and though things picked up after half-time the sprightly brilliance of Florian Thauvin was enough to mask the slightly laboured approach of his teammates. The momentum engendered by overcoming adversity time and again came to a shuddering halt. The benchmark of four years ago wouldn’t be reached. Not this time.

That was in no small part down to attitudes towards defending. As Attamah lamented during the tournament “it’s a little bit tough to be a defender in Ghana. Everyone back home always says that we just need strikers but we need to put the accent on defence too. As well as scoring goals, we need to defend well too.” The gaps that continually emerged as the players’ eagerness got the better of them are testament to this view. There was a lack of discipline at key times with the group short of the desire to function as exactly that; one group willing to attack and defend.

Coach Sellas Tetteh offered up the oft-used line that “we can battle and we’re passionate, but sometimes I get the impression that African players don’t have the same tactical instincts [as their European or South American counterparts].” Undoubtedly that’s a rather generalising statement although there is a touch of truth in his words. In all honesty, such a topic deserves an article all to itself but it seems the hint of overbearing individualism that frequents the ‘African game’ is hard to shake.

Sellas Tetteh looks on, proudly sporting his lucky shirt.

Sellas Tetteh proudly sporting his lucky shirt

Possession was also a factor when considering agents of the Black Satellites’ demise. According to FIFA.com, in no match did Ghana see more of the ball than the opposition, a fact not lost on forward Kennedy Ashia: “We need to work on keeping possession and putting our opponents under more pressure when we have the ball. Our coach always tells us that in modern football you win games if you know how to keep hold of the ball.”

Unfortunately, these good intentions didn’t wholly manifest into any sustained reality, though it must be said that some margins throughout the tournament were negligible. More important was the resulting pressure lost possession heaped upon an already creaking defence. It wasn’t just the backline that suffered, though; a lack of patience in attacking positions led to quite an astounding number of hopeful shots from outside the box when a more measured approach may have fashioned more presentable opportunities. This will be nothing new for those that follow Ghana, be it Stars or Satellites, but there comes a time when this inanely optimistic shoot-on-sight policy when within a 30 yard radius of the goal must cease.

Of course, it’s not all bad if you reach the semi-finals of a World Cup and Ghana can take a lot of heart from their performances this tournament, bouncing back from the devastating second loss to France to claim 3rd place, defeating a weary Iraq 3-0. The aforementioned resolve was present by the bucketload, spirit and stamina ensuring late goals remained a common theme in their quest for a common objective. There was an additional purpose, however; a by-product, if you will, of their determined exploits in Turkey. A tournament of such magnitude is a prime arena in which to showcase one’s talents and the chance of a move to Europe lay firmly in the forefront of the home-based Satellites’ minds.

Assifuah certainly did his chances no harm, claiming the Golden Boot with six goals. His tireless performances saw him endlessly chasing hopeful balls down channels, his pace posing a threat beyond opposition defences. He also displayed a willingness and capacity to drop deep at times, holding the ball up with his back to goal and linking with the midfield before spinning into action once more. Never shy to try his luck from any angle, defences could seldom rest with Ebenezer around but the sheer rawness in his game can’t be overlooked. Sure, it’s to be expected in a 20-year-old but calls for him to be called into the senior squad seem wildly premature. Fans only have to look at Dominic Adiyiah, for example, to see that goals and promise at this level are far from confirmation of future success.

The left flank duo of Rahman Baba and Acheampong combined well throughout the campaign. The former provided continuous thrust from full-back, motoring forward at every opportunity and displaying an intelligent sense of awareness and timing in both his runs and passing. As ever, going the other way there were some less good moments – a tendency to get too tight to his opposite man and dive in unnecessarily is something that will have to be ironed out as he develops – but supporters of the Black Stars will be hopeful that Baba may eventually be the one to solve the perpetual left-back debate once and for all.

Acheampong, meanwhile, was a constant livewire; a 5’6 bundle of trickery and dynamism. This guy only plays at one speed: fast. It was almost too fast at times and that may be his main weakness at present, with the unwillingness to slow the pace of the game meaning that shots were often taken when off-balance and better chances in counter-attacks missed as a result of a desire to go solo. His directness and ability in one-on-one situations were a constant source of chances, however, and more than anything his perseverance – no better illustrated than that run and cross against Chile – exemplified the Ghanaians’ never-say-die attitude.

Acheampong: A constant menace

To be frank, Acheampong was a menace

Moses Odjer and Clifford Aboagye were two others to create interest; “create” being the operative word as the pair served up a host of chances for their teammates. Diminutive in stature, but certainly not in character, they defy the stereotypical African midfielder identikit – the physical and domineering presence of centrefield – showing deft feints and sleight of touch to slip past opponents, dropping into pockets of space and showing a selflessness not seen in many others. Perhaps this is due to their relative youth; after all, they are two of the youngest in the squad, but it’s possibly also attributable to an innate tactical understanding, the very type that Tetteh says is generally lacking.

Regardless of the reasoning it was gratifying to see how well they held their own on the pitch, whether that was in central positions or wide, and though their influences varied from game to game, with inevitable lulls dispersed amongst the buzz of imaginative activity, the subtlety that laces their games is such a welcome change from the norm. It can’t be stressed how important the next few years are for the duo who, like the rest of the group – the third youngest at this year’s tournament with an average age of 19 years and two months – need time to mature at their own pace in an environment suited to their own specific talents.

Though confusion reigns over his complete ownership, it’s no surprise to see Aboagye – who claimed the Bronze Ball for third best player at the tournament – on the books at Udinese, a club with a decent track record when it comes to giving youngsters of African descent a chance. He won’t have to go too far for guidance on how to avoid the obstacles that have stunted the development of many a promising talent. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, a Zebrette man himself and a member of the victorious group of ’09, is one of seven players from that squad to have accumulated 10 or more caps for the seniors, with himself, Dédé Ayew and Samuel Inkoom racking up 40 or more in their relatively brief careers thus far.

This year’s squad went to Turkey with the hope of repeating the previous generation’s historic triumph. They may have fallen agonisingly short but the ultimate goal, their continued improvement on the laborious passage from Satellites to Stars, is far from accomplished. In fact, this is just the beginning.

@hazzaboy21

Gunning for the Top

Gibbs Arsenal

A sense of optimism abounded as hoards of fans filtered into the Emirates on the 5th of May 2009. Truth be told, this optimism was principally engineered by the very concept of fandom rather than, say, a fair chunk of logic, but it was extremely tangible regardless of its foundation. The plastic flags on each seat, previously, or rather still mocked by the swelling majority entering the ground, were waved fervently while the customary chants were belted out by all in red and white; crashing waves of noise reverberating as each stand started anew. This was an atmosphere befitting the occasion.

Manchester United were the visitors on this occasion – the 2nd leg of the Champions League semi-final – and Kieran Gibbs was, just like in the 1-0 1st leg defeat, detailed to mark the phenomenon of the moment: Cristiano Ronaldo, whose insatiable appetite for self-improvement would lead to him racking up some quite astonishing numbers in the years to come. This would be an onerous task for the most experienced of full-backs, those who had been immersed in the dark arts of defending their sentinel posts on the flanks from day one, let alone a youngster not only fresh to the team but to the position as well.

Admittedly, Gibbs’ lack of experience hadn’t been evident in the first leg. In fact, his performance was predominantly the antithesis of what was expected. While his more versed teammates were failing to reach the desired level required to overcome their Red Devil counterparts, Kieran’s performance encouraged fans with composure and enthusiasm alike. He had manned his duties admirably and must have had a reasonable spring in his step heading into this next duel with United’s No.7.

But then it happened.

Just an innocent slip; the type seen in every match nowadays as the unrelenting rise of over-watered pitches and plastic blades creates arenas resembling those more typically frequented with triple salchows than effective defensive clearances. Yet, after a mere 8 minutes, this slip virtually killed Arsenal’s chances of progressing in an instant. The flags waved no more, tossed to the ground with an all-too-common air of despair. The chants transformed to familiar curses and moans. The wonderfully naïve optimism that reigned supreme pre-match replaced with a shocking realism.

Gibbs wouldn’t emerge on the pitch for the second half, instead taking his place on the bench, substituted. There he sat for the remainder of the match – motionless, head bowed, shoulders slumped. His dream now a nightmare.

"Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."

“Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Weaker minds might have crumbled following such an ordeal and indeed, in the immediate aftermath, Gibbs recalls how he “really suffered, thinking I’d let the team down.” But he adds that “after a while you do start thinking about it differently – it wasn’t a technical mistake, a bad back pass or anything like that, it was something that could just have happened to anyone. In the end I had a choice: let it affect me, or get on with it.”

As Kieran himself puts it “there was only one option.” This attitude is intrinsic to his character; his rather shy demeanour even during in-house interviews belying a steely determination, a continued drive to better himself in the face of the adverse sequence of events that seek to deliver yet another hammer blow to both mind and body. But, as we’ve already seen, Gibbs knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity. Be it disproving the youth coaches who had doubts about his size or recovering from a seemingly endless series of debilitating injuries that threatened to ravage his career, he has met each and every mental test head on and emerged a stronger, more resolute individual.

When free of the shackles of injury Gibbs possesses all the qualities of the modern full-back. A midfielder in his youth, playing on his natural left side but also driving his club and country forward from the centre of the park, Kieran has never been fearful of venturing into advanced positions on the field. While others noted his valuable ability to repeat sprints up and down the pitch Arsène Wenger was the one man who really pushed for Gibbs’ “tremendous engine” and terrific recovery pace to be utilised from left-back. It’s a decision that is paying off rather nicely thus far.

Arsenal’s interplay on the left flank was much documented this past season with Gibbs’ pairing, first with Lukas Podolski, and then Santi Cazorla to a lesser extent in the latter half of the season, one of the most – if not the most – naturally cohesive going forward throughout the team. “Wengerball” is seen with decreasing frequency these days but these combinations are often the catalyst provoking its fleeting re-emergence.

"To Wengerball, and beyond!"

“To Wengerball, and beyond!”

Both of his regular partners-in-crime on the flank have a proclivity for cutting inside, looking for openings infield, and seeking goalscoring opportunities after one-twos with our central midfield trio. Gibbs’ continuous thrusts complement those traits perfectly, providing a constant option in the final third. Earlier in the season Gibbs spoke of Le Professeur’s instructions to him, laying out the importance of his selfless runs to the team:

“The boss is always telling me, ever since pre-season, to play high and wide and stretch the team, to let the midfielders have more room.”

His positioning, in part, also reduced the onus on Theo Walcott to replicate similar width on the opposite wing. This allowed the forward to become more of a goal threat, making a greater number of runs into central areas that though somewhat disruptive in an attacking sense during slower, more deliberate build-up play – and adding to the defensive burden a labouring Bacary Sagna had to bear this season – provided a refreshingly direct alternative on the rare occasions these penetrating dashes were spotted earlier on in moves.

Gibbs’ movement resulted in a number of goals from his own flank, too; the own goals chalked up by Southampton during their early trip to N5 a direct consequence of his dynamic surges up-field. His emphatic volley at the Liberty Stadium, at a time when the team was in dire need of a cutting edge, is another involvement that sticks in the mind and harks back to the occasional ferocious strike seen at Underhill in his Reserve team days.

Such events, however, are regrettably a break from the norm – up till now at least. One would certainly expect more productivity and expertise in the final third from a player that ventures into opposition territory so readily. Gibbs’ attempted crosses and cutbacks deliver a constant reminder that despite the abundant promise there is still ample work to do to become England’s finest. Injury once again deprived him of the chance to impress Roy Hodgson at close quarters earlier this year whilst in Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines there are sizeable obstacles (in terms of quality if not physical stature) to surmount.

Arsenal’s match against Everton at the Emirates nicely encapsulated the typical play of Gibbs and Baines. Though both full-backs enjoy attacking and therefore often receive the ball in advanced positions the former varies his movement more; not exclusively stationing himself on the touchline but also dashing into the box on occasion. Baines arguably plays a more orthodox role, getting plenty of chalk on his boots and delivering crosses for the Toffees’ lofty forwards.

Gibbs vs Baines - Received Passes

This height factor is certainly an important caveat to consider when contrasting the pair’s deliveries. With Marouane Fellaini often deployed in an advanced position and one or both of Nikica Jelavić and Victor Anichebe deployed on the  pitch at any given time, Baines has prominent targets at which to aim his delicious crosses. His accuracy of 33% in this game (marginally up from his season average of 30% and significantly greater than the league average that generally hovers just above 20%) is testament not only to Everton’s aerial strength but also his tireless practice which is evident every time a dead ball situation arises.

Gibbs, meanwhile, completed none of his attempted crosses that day despite manoeuvring himself into dangerous positions and his season average crossing accuracy of 17.7% pales in comparison. Though Arsenal have become increasingly at ease with using Giroud’s heading ability it’s still rather uncommon to see crosses from wide reach the bonce of the demonstrative Frenchman. This is borne out in the stats with Gibbs’ 0.6 accurate crosses per game just below Sagna’s 0.7. Both are left trailing in the wake of Baines (2.8 – the highest in the league) in this regard.

Gibbs vs Baines - Crosses

Closer to home, too, in Arsenal colours, a new challenger for the left-back berth emerged. Typical of Gibbs’ fortune – or lack thereof – the very same injury that denied him his England chance would add an extra layer of complexity to proceedings. Indeed, without it one could argue with some confidence that he wouldn’t have had another squad member to contend with, at least till next season. Wenger even admitted as much upon signing Nacho Monreal from Málaga on deadline day:

“We expected [Gibbs to be out for] two to three weeks, but it will be four to six, so we were in a position where we had to make a quick decision. That explains our buy.”

Monreal’s a technically-sound, dependable performer who despite early teething problems – certainly exacerbated by a limited grasp of English, adapting to a new culture, and some, quite frankly, baffling decisions from the club captain immediately to his right – has given the boss a genuinely difficult choice to make in the lead-up to each matchday. But Gibbs is no stranger to competition, having to bide his time playing second fiddle to Gaël Clichy upon his arrival to the first team setup.

By Kieran’s own admission, Clichy never really gave him a chance early on, the youngster left with little choice but to “watch him closely and learn the role through him.” That period of observation is apparent every time Gibbs robs an opponent with one of his perfectly-timed interceptions and having seen off the short-lived challenge of André Santos, he’d be wise to add some of the diligent marking and positional awareness that Monreal exhibits to his own ever-improving defensive skill set.

If he’s able to do so, along with refining his attacking nature, the 23-year-old will be some prospect for opposition teams to deal with. Winning his place back on a permanent basis will be his first priority, a regular run in the side the necessary tonic any player needs to reach the next level. He’ll be enthused by his late involvement during the run-in, being chosen for key crunch fixtures near the season’s end. After alternating the pair, using Monreal on travels away from North London and Gibbs on more familiar ground, Wenger selected the latter for 3 of the last 4 games, including the season-defining trip to St. James’ Park. Whether this carries on into the next campaign is, of course, an unknown for now, but it’s a decent indication of the current pecking order in Arsène’s mind.

Injuries and competition are part and parcel of being a footballer but Gibbs has had to deal with more of these inconveniences than most. Yet deal with them he has. The slip on that fateful spring night is a distant memory now; in its place that heroic last-ditch tackle at the Hawthorns – his worth to the team magnificently encapsulated in that moment. Few would be surprised to see that worth grow further in the years to come.

@hazzaboy21

Crossing stats calculated from WhoScored.com

If more Gibbs is what you want, you’re in luck. @CulannDavies has produced yet another magnificent compilation for your viewing pleasure, so dim the lights, grab the popcorn, and enjoy!

 

Ander takes the reins

Ander main image

In the centre he stands, arms outstretched beckoning the ball from teammates, head swivelling on its axis as he surveys his opposition, eyes scanning the field as he plots his next move. Give and go, collect and dictate; that’s Ander Herrera’s game. It’s a game based on immaculate technique, sprinkled with cheeky nutmegs and sharp, darting runs. Crowds marvel at his dainty flicks and pirouettes but these are not rolled out simply to entertain. Each deft touch has purpose; to evade yet another cynical lunge, to alter the game’s tempo, to direct play into a new promising avenue. Whether he’s orchestrating the next wave of attack or cajoling an extra ounce of effort from his fellow lions it’s abundantly clear that Ander runs the show.

When a match threatens to start a hurtling descent into chaos – and that’s an increasingly frequent occurrence when Athletic Club are concerned, with a confused game plan replacing the pre-existing frameworks that allowed a wonderful impulsivity – it’s invariably Ander that tries to quell the storm, taking little touches to prompt one-twos here or a rondo there that at least attempt to arrest the rapid turnover of possession. The Basque club are having to face up to life without El Rey León (Fernando Llorente, their Lion King) but Ander has shown he’s more than ready to take on the talismanic mantle.

He displayed some of this authority during the first season back in his hometown, though it sadly ended in frustrating circumstances – a persistent pubic bone injury hampering his movement through games near the season’s end, to such an extent that he was regularly hauled off before the hour mark once he had been wrung dry of what little creative juices he still possessed in that state. Then, he’d simply return to the medical room and start preparing to do it all again next Jornada, clearly in pain but determined to give everything he could muster for the cause.

Predictably, the absence of any real sufficient break from the weekly grind eventually wore Herrera down, with the injury keeping him out of the starting line-up for Athletic’s Copa del Rey final loss to Barcelona. Coming a fortnight after a hugely underwhelming performance in the Europa League final this was a tough pill for both Ander and the squad to swallow. A season in which they had made all of Europe sit up and take notice of their enterprising brand of slick interchanges had fizzled out at the most inopportune moment; their invigorating flame extinguished in an instant by the magnificence of Radamel Falcao.

So close, yet so far

So close, yet so far

Perhaps this trying period helped in hardening Ander’s will – perhaps not – but what is clear to regular onlookers is that behind the slight exterior lies a burning desire to win which fuelled immense leadership this campaign. Admittedly, this desire spilled over and clouded judgement at times leading to a couple of early baths that certainly did his side no favours, but these moments were the exception rather than rule. It’s commonly said that one discovers more about an individual in times of strife and that’s certainly been the case with Athletic’s No.21. In a poor season, one where Los Leones fell woefully short of the bar set in the last – certainly in the cups, while the turgid league displays seen last term became even more regular – Ander has been a constant point of reference to which others should aspire.

The Bilbao-born centrocampista is, quite literally, central to Athletic’s game; a fundamental cog without which life would be a lot harder still for the Basques. Infrequent viewers may look at the statistics columns, see his season total of 1 goal and 2 assists in La Liga and wonder what all the fuss is about. But delve deeper and one begins to contemplate why there isn’t more clamour for the artisan crafting inventive strokes on San Mamés’ fine canvas.

Ander completed the season in the league’s top ten for average number of passes per game with his tally of 66 (according to WhoScored.com) bettered only by a sextet of Barça tiki-takaholics and Rayo Vallecano’s Roberto Trashorras, predictably a product of La Masia. The top ten is his home when accurate through balls are concerned, too; his weight of pass reflecting the rest of his game – finely calibrated and majestic in form but with that intrinsic intention to drive the team forward forever apparent. And to top it all off his trickery and sheer willingness to assume responsibility made him the most fouled player in the league bar none.

Ander’s performance when Deportivo La Coruña came to town was typical of his role at the hub of this Athletic side, receiving the ball from all parts of the field before distributing with purpose, preferentially to the adventurous Andoni Iraola and Markel Susaeta on the right flank. He also attempts several through balls into the final third that, though mostly inaccurate on this occasion, show his intent in linking midfield and attack.

Ander - Passes received & attempted (all) vs Depor

His combative side is apparent in his work out of possession; constantly hounding the opposition to rack up the most tackles per game of any Athletic player, with many of them necessary, tactical fouls that aim to halt the progression of yet another fatal counter. In the same match Ander could be seen hurtling around, putting out fires all over the pitch, while his battling qualities and boundless desire saw him bound quite well here with the odds regularly overturned in the aerial duels stakes.

Ander - Tackles & Aerial Duels vs Depor

He aptly shares an apellido paterno (paternal surname) with Helenio Herrera, the inventor of catenaccio and revolutionary manager of la grande Inter of the 60s, who would pin motivational notes on the walls of his teams’ dressing rooms bearing such phrases as “He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team, plays for himself.” You’d be hard pushed to find a more ardent proponent of this dictum than Ander. This is a player who leaves it all out on the pitch. It’s just a shame when the other lions of the pride consistently fail to roar with the same conviction.

That said, there were a few teammates who, at times, helped drag Athletic back away from the relegation mire. Fernando Llorente’s unwillingness to sign a new contract with the Zurigorri further sought to fracture his already tenuous relationship with manager Marcelo Bielsa and the latter clearly saw this as an opportunity to go down a different path, ostracising Fer to such an extent that he did not start in La Liga until the aforementioned Depor game in late November. Nevertheless, Aritz Aduriz, who returned to the club from Valencia in the summer, took full advantage, registering 14 goals in the league while displaying intelligent movement, link-up play and a terrifically potent heading ability.

Praise must also go to the 19 year old Aymeric Laporte who started the season playing in Segunda B for Bilbao Athletic (the Reserve team) as well as the NextGen Series but quickly became a part of El Loco’s plans, taking the No.4 shirt shortly after his debut. The tall Agen youngster, who moved to Athletic’s cantera in Lezama at 16, was able to pounce when a string of errors, contractual disputes and the inevitable suspension hit the impetuous Fernando Amorebieta. It’s a testament to the imposing teenager that the Venezuelan’s ball-playing ability wasn’t missed as Laporte’s ease on the ball and growing confidence translated to more adventurous driven diagonals out to the flanks as each game passed.

The most pleasing aspect of Aymeric’s introduction, however, was in his dedication to his primary duty: defending. He brings a more composed and reserved style to Athletic’s backline, playing at centre-half in both a back four and a defensive triumvirate in addition to showing his versatility with a couple of stints at left-back. His ability on the turn is improving and though his inexperience brought a couple of dismissals before his season was abruptly cut short by a torn meniscus, fans can be genuinely excited at the prospect of his further growth at the heart of the defence.

Laporte: A rare glint of hope amid defensive disarray

Laporte: A rare glint of hope amid defensive disarray (graphic courtesy of @Experimental361)

Ibai Gómez, too, should be commended for outshining the more vaunted Iker Muniain. Ibai’s mix of alacrity, threatening set-piece delivery and smattering of spectacular goals, including a terrific volley against the enemy from San Sebastián, provided rare elation for the San Mamés faithful who largely endured rather than enjoyed their last season at their beloved Catedral. Bart will be back though – his talent is surely too abundant for him not to return next time with the familiar vigour of old – but this campaign should serve as a warning to not solely rely on innate ability.

Both the physical and, more significantly perhaps, mental hangover acquired from last year’s marathon rollercoaster were too often visible throughout the squad, but in none more so than the precocious Muniain. Legs that previously whirred into a blur were slowed; an increasingly heavy weight of expectation, in addition to the sheer volume of miles clocked, hindering the asphyxiating pressing that was the hallmark of his and Athletic’s rise to the brink of success last term. The enterprising movement synonymous with a Bielsa side became stale while intelligent interplay was replaced by crude and lazy tactics. Passes that were once short, crisp and accurate became progressively longer, delayed and misplaced.

Bielsa is a famously stubborn coach; unmoved from his purist ideology no matter what. His stance is admirable, but the argument proffered throughout his career – that such an inherently inflexible mindset is flawed – is valid once again. Let’s be clear, “inflexible” here certainly doesn’t refer to his attitude regarding team shape. He’s quick to maintain the numerical advantage his centre-backs possess over the strikers they come up against, regularly employing a “number of strikers + 1” rule and in his time at the club he used a variety of formations: initially flirting with the idea of utilising his exhilarating 3-3-1-3 before settling predominantly on a fluid 4-2-3-1 but also reverting to 4-3-3 and even 3-4-3 on the odd occasion.

Rather, it is specifically his defensive philosophy, the work of his team when out of possession, that never alters. He’s a fierce advocate of fervent pressing but the synchronised waves now resemble a disjointed rabble. There comes a point when not only results, but performances too, merit at least a slight venture from such quixotic thinking.

Crouching Bielsa, Hidden Points

Crouching Bielsa, Hidden Points

It might be wise, for example, to join the rest of Europe in looking in on Germany for inspiration; at Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund to be specific. This is another side with pressing at its core leaving numerous opponents dizzied by the black and yellow swarms that buzz around them. Yet tweaks to their Gegenpressing – the concept of recovering possession as soon and as high up the pitch as possible – have enhanced the sting of the beast, at least in Europe’s premier competition. Following BVB’s exit from the Champions League at the group stage last year Klopp came to an interesting conclusion that changed his own previously unwavering judgement:

“I have learned a statistic. Teams that run too much lose, and teams that press reduce their chances of winning the game. Now I know why [the exit] happened. We ran more than our opponents and we pressed them all over, as high as possible.”

It should be noted that the amicable German manager didn’t ditch his beloved pressing altogether; instead employing a half-press with the emphasis now on putting the opposition under sufficient duress as one compact unit, thus conserving energy and minimising the emergence of exploitable holes within the team structure. Now, there’s no guarantee that such a shift in work off-the-ball would do the same trick for Athletic, but there can surely be more method to the madness of El Loco’s current standpoint.

Not that he’ll be around to make those changes. Only this past weekend Josu Urrutia, the Athletic President, announced that the board have decided against renewing the studious tactician’s contract after a turbulent season in which Bielsa fought with them regarding the redevelopment of Lezama, fell out with high-profile figures within the squad and was unable to discover the elusive quality that is consistency. Given these factors the decision was a rather predictable one, so much so that the departing Argentine has championed the case of Bilbao Athletic’s current coach José Ángel Ziganda in recent weeks, detailing how Cuco’s team play “attacking football with good treatment of the ball and dynamism,” while both he and Ander have praised the work of another former player – Ernesto Valverde who so ably reinvigorated Valencia this past season.

Whoever is in charge come Athletic’s first league game in their new home has a huge task on their hands to help the club rediscover the zestful exuberance seen in Bielsa’s first season at the helm. Replacing Llorente’s goals is surely high on the list of priorities; the hope, at least in part, being that Susaeta, Muniain, Ibai and even Óscar De Marcos – whose perpetual verticality constantly gets him into fantastic positions only for composure to escape him at the critical moment – can step up and make a definitive impression on the scoring charts.

This group have already shown that they have the ability to accomplish great things but for too long now the basics have been strewn on the wayside and a consistently high standard of play eluded their grasp. Only the three relegated teams ended up with a goal difference worse than Athletic’s which says it all really – There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Bilbao and, as manfully as he tries, Ander can’t do it all. It’s time for Los Leones to roar as one again.

@hazzaboy21

Return of the Jack

The moment Jack Wilshere first received the ball against Queens Park Rangers was one many fans had been yearning for an age. The ripple of applause that greeted his first touch conveyed an immense sense of relief. Relief that such a promising youngster, one trained at our very own Hale End Academy, was again dictating play on the carpet-like turf at the Emirates. The sprightly runs were back; hips swaying as he waltzed through the opposition ranks. The characteristic poised tongue was back; moving this way and that, almost transfixing his opponent before the telling blow was delivered. The angelic left foot was back; capable of inflicting a rival’s demise with the most ethereal pass. Jack was back.

After the outpouring of relief came hope. In fact, hope was the foundation, the cornerstone, of the cheers that met his arrival back on the scene. Before the season began in earnest, before a ball was kicked in competitive anger, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 shirt. “So what?” you may ask. “Abou Diaby wears the No. 2. Bacary Sagna, a right back, wears No. 3. Heck, William Gallas used to hold the coveted No. 10 that Jack now proudly sports on his back.” True enough, but this shirt number selection was patently different. Arsène Wenger is clear in his vision that Jack is fundamental to his latest iteration. After the dark days of injury, his seemingly endless time on the sidelines, Wenger’s decision would be a huge boost and sign of the continued faith he the manager, as well as the fans, had in our homegrown maestro:

“I feel Jack will be one of the leaders of this club and by giving him the No 10 shirt I want to show I am confident he will be the one who will lead the team one day.”

That day, at least in terms of style, may come sooner than we all think. Already, a difference can be seen in his presence both on and off the pitch. Most obvious is the extra muscle his long days in the gym have generated. His “core and body-strength have probably improved more than 100 per cent” helping him to cope with the extreme rigours that the Premier League regularly deals out. Mentally, too, there’s a change. Parenthood seems to have had a profound effect on the kid we last saw on the pitch in ’11. In recent interviews there’s a definite calm, a sureness of mind, that wasn’t always the case before his 524 days away from competitive first team action. Archie, his son, has quelled the beast somewhat but importantly his company, removing other distractions, has made Jack even more focused than before.

Renewed focus for the task ahead.

That focus will be needed more than ever as Arsenal strive to swim against the tide and meet targets on all fronts this season. It’s hardly fair to expect so much from a man of only 20 years coming off an extended injury layoff and expectations should be tempered for this very reason. However, it’s hard not to be enticed by previous memories. The mind goes back to the duels with Barcelona; Jack going toe to toe with some of the greatest talents to ever grace the game, and doing so brilliantly. With added maturity it’s only natural for fans to hope (yes, there’s that word again) for a better future with Wilshere at the vanguard.

When fully fit, there’s so much Jack can add to Arsenal’s game. His quick, precise forward passes are vital in his position. He adds an extra link between defence and attack, constantly looking forward for new openings in enemy lines. Wilshere has a special ability to turn, go past a man with ease, and keep the ball circulating at a high tempo. His jinking runs up-field are a fresh break from the mundane ‘pass and not-so-much move’ structure that has contributed to our recent “illusionary domination”. Of course, in the hustle and bustle of centre-field, there’s a time and a place to do so but he generally chooses his moment wisely. In the prolonged and inevitable absence of Diaby and Rosický, two central midfielders fond of a sharp pivot of the feet before embarking on a burst towards the opposition’s goal, Wilshere’s attacking exuberance will be key to adding variety to our game.

Speaking of pivots, Wilshere’s progressive thinking has affected the shape of Arsenal’s midfield. The 2-1 structure we’ve become accustomed to in recent years has been supplanted by a 1-2 to some extent, with Mikel Arteta often providing lone cover in front of the defence. The triangle has been tilted once again.

Diaby (2) and Ramsey (16) both have an average position similar to Arteta (8) in matches away to Liverpool and West Ham respectively. They provide more of a double-pivot in front of the defence which allows Cazorla (19) to take up positions higher up the pitch.

Wilshere (10), however, takes up a noticeably more advanced position when compared to Arteta in matches away to Manchester United and Schalke. In both games he’s closer situated to Cazorla than our deepest lying midfielder. (Images courtesy of WhoScored)

Along with taking a more advanced role in possession, Wilshere’s return also brought about a slight change in Arsenal’s work off-the-ball. Against Q.P.R and Manchester United he would harry his opposite number at every opportunity, forcing errors higher up the pitch than we’d generally managed earlier in the season. Before Jack strode back onto the pitch, Arsenal had been consistent in defending with relatively deep and compact banks of four, especially away from home. His presence altered this approach to a degree and one could argue the change has had both positive and negative effects on the team. The useful aspect has already been mentioned; Wilshere adds another point of attack, one that can add urgency when our play threatens to induce slumber.

The detrimental aspect lies with the knock-on effect on Arteta’s role. The immaculately- coiffured midfield general is vital to initiating Arsenal’s moves. His use of the ball is often swift and accurate, helping to keep play moving at a decent lick to shift the opposition out of position. The change to the midfield shape has slightly hindered play, however, further isolating him in both attacking and defensive phases. Teams are becoming increasingly wise to this with players such as Oscar, Wayne Rooney and Lewis Holtby paying him very close attention in recent meetings. “Shut down Arteta and you shut down Arsenal” is the mantra being recited by rival coaches and it’s certainly one that carries some truth. Passes that once went forward are becoming more lateral; the tempo dropping to soporific levels at times; the joyful spontaneity, once a cardinal feature of our game, being stifled by crises of confidence and opposition plans alike.

Of course, one should not be averse to thinking Arteta could do more to lose his newly-acquired shackles but there’s certainly a school of thought that dictates Wilshere could share the load to a greater degree, dropping deeper to assist those transitions. In the defensive phase, too, work can be done. Jack isn’t the worst in this regard by any means but his occasional impetuous nature, again his downfall at Old Trafford, can land us in trouble. It can be argued that a lack of match practice contributed to his rash tackle on Patrice Evra; his loose touch immediately beforehand was unquestionably uncharacteristic of the man.

It is clear, however, that Wilshere’s left foot has a devilish side, an edge that shouldn’t necessarily be completely eradicated but rather smoothed out as he continues to develop. Whether his advanced positioning, leaving him having to race back, exacerbates these desperate lunges into the tackle is debatable but, on the whole, he’d be better off taking a leaf out of Arteta’s book; jockeying his opponent rather than going to ground and fully committing himself for better or worse, and it’s often the latter.

“You still have much to learn, my young Gunner.”

It must be said that these flaws are to be expected. It’s often forgotten, amongst all the hype, that Wilshere has only played a season and a half of competitive Premier League football. The scope for improvement and the time in which to do so, fitness permitting, is still vast. There are tackles to refine, a knack for goals (plentiful at youth level – 13 in 19 U18 appearances at the age of 15) to rediscover, and the stranger that is his right foot to befriend. The midfield cohesion, or lack thereof up till this point, is also to be expected. Gone are the shirts of Fàbregas, Song and Nasri, no longer hanging in the dressing room waiting to be donned before battle. In their place lie those of Cazorla, Arteta and Podolski; new players with new strengths and weaknesses, new wavelengths to attune.

The amount of effort expended in order to come back to something close to his former self was huge but our latest No.10 acknowledges that “the hard work is not over yet.” The boss purrs at the prospect of his development but adds a significant caveat: “Jack is a great player but he will only be great if the team is great.” For both the team and Wilshere himself, the arduous journey to greatness now truly begins.

@hazzaboy21

The Future’s Bright, the Future’s English?

February 14th 2005: The night Arsène Wenger failed to include a single English player in his squad to face Crystal Palace. It had been coming but nevertheless this was a rather unwanted first in the history of English football. It wouldn’t be the last occurrence either as over the following weeks, months and years many a team sheet would be handed to the referee completely composed of the names of footballers from a myriad of different countries overseas. The selections were predictably jumped on by all and sundry and though some reactions certainly had more than just a hint of hyperbole to them, the continued absence of any player with the potential of wearing the famous ‘Three Lions’ crest was a damning indictment of the quality of truly homegrown player coming through the ranks at Arsenal Football Club during that period.

Of course, there is no obligation for any manager to field players simply based on their nationality, even now with rules in place in the Premier League designating spaces for at least 8 homegrown players in a club’s 25 man squad for the season. These ‘homegrown’ players don’t even have to be English; merely training at an English-based club for 3 years before the age of 21 is enough. Simply put, if one wants success then it’s only logical to pick the best players available and often these have been plucked from foreign lands. Selection based on quality and attitude, not an individual’s passport is Wenger’s mantra and it’s an extremely valid one. The bar shouldn’t be lowered just to let English talent in. The aim for these youngsters should be to work hard on improving, reach that bar and then raise it further.

The summer transfer window just past saw the permanent departures of two players some hoped, possibly more than they genuinely thought, may be able to reach that bar: Kyle Bartley and Henri Lansbury. Both were members of the FA Youth Cup winning squad of 08/09 and their talents, especially those of the latter, were frequently showcased in matches for a wide range of England youth teams. After a while, Reserve team football was simply not testing them enough; their development had stalled and they craved the fresh impetus of regular competitive football. This meant embarking on a trip to the vortex that is the English loan system. In the best of cases it can be a brilliant exhibition of one’s ability. If conditions aren’t favourable, however, a youngster can spend what must seem like an eternity bouncing from one club to another, with the ultimate dream, making it back at the parent club, agonisingly slipping through their grasp.

It may well be the case that both did not possess the sufficient talent to break through at Arsenal and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better judge of talent than Arsène Wenger, but as with the careers of many a young footballer circumstance played its part. Being on loan, as well as having the potential to be a great boon to one’s development, can sometimes have unfortunate repercussions. Depending on injuries and suspensions in certain positions chances can arise and be given to those perhaps less talented or at an earlier stage in their development simply because they’re still physically present at the club.

The loan vortex strikes again.

Comparing the ability of players who play in different positions is always liable to some inaccuracy (ability itself can’t be quantified so there’s an immediate difficulty posed) but it can be argued that Lansbury is a more talented player than Craig Eastmond for example. Yet, due to injuries in defensive midfield and a plethora of squad options further forward, the latter acquired 10 appearances in the Premier League, League Cup and Champions League over the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons; a decent number for any young tyro while Lansbury, trying to prove his worth to the club from further afield, received less. After a youngster is given chances obviously they need to impress to make the subsequent permanent step up but being awarded these chances in the first place is a luxury only a select few are granted.

It’s these select few that have seen other English talents leave Arsenal for more regular opportunities. Luke Freeman, a talented left-sided forward, departed for Stevenage last January after he found chances, even to join first team training, hard to come by. His parting words carried more than a hint of frustration: “It is more difficult for English talent to come through at Arsenal at times. They have their favourites and stick with them.”

In a way it’s only natural that this should be the case. If a club spends more money bringing in a foreign import than they do on an individual homegrown talent there’s likely to be an immediate, conscious desire to give the bought-in talent more openings in an attempt to develop the player to the best of their ability and therefore benefit the club either by performance in the first team or by generating further profit. Hopes are especially high for the swashbuckling German Serge Gnabry who manages to combine pace, power and finesse while the elusive movement and delicate touches of Swede Kris Olsson certainly stir excitement in those who are keen followers of the club’s youth. These foreign talents are arguably the most talented in the youth ranks at present but the tide is turning, potentially leading to fewer acquisitions from abroad in the future.

Ultimately, to get the necessary game time to improve, the quality has to be there regardless of nationality and it’s being seen with increased regularity amongst the homegrown talents emerging from Arsenal’s academy at Hale End. Since its official birth in 1998 the academy has been the breeding ground for talents in and around the N5 area to hone their game and it seems that finally the sheer excellence of the facilities available to these youngsters and, most importantly, the standard of coaching they receive is starting to reap rewards. Benik Afobe, Chuks Aneke and Nico Yennaris are the latest gifted English prospects to have made the fabled trip from Hale End to the hallowed turf at London Colney, training and playing with the 1st team on occasion.

As has been the case with many a youngster, though, promise alone is not enough to make a career in the top flight, even more so at Arsenal, so caution is advised and excessive hype to be avoided. One only has to look to the aforementioned FA Youth Cup winning squad of 08/09 to see that talent is far from a guarantee in achieving what most can only imagine. From the 1st leg XI of that final (Shea; Eastmond, Bartley, Ayling, Cruise; Frimpong, Coquelin; Lansbury, Wilshere, Emmanuel-Thomas; Sunu) only Frimpong, Coquelin and Wilshere, the jewel of Hale End, are actually members of the current first team squad.

The David Rocastle Indoor Centre at Hale End: Where the magic happens.

The hope is that the English youngsters previously alluded to heed the warnings of their predecessors and it does seem that the key tools, namely the players’ mentality and technical attributes, are already firmly entrenched within their armoury. Whether they actually become fully embedded in the Gunners’ 1st team structure is up for debate, up to the players themselves and, of course, Arsène Wenger but the signs are promising.

Look further down the ladder and you see the likes of Chuba Akpom, an intelligent striker with an exciting skillset who has made tremendous strides in the last year befitting his rangy frame. His mature performances for Arsenal U21s this season have resulted in a call up for the England u19 squad at the tender age of 16 – certainly no mean feat. There’s Jack Jebb, a robust attacking midfielder with a useful penchant for the perfectly-weighted through-ball, and the versatile Isaac Hayden who you’ll either find at centre back bringing the ball forward with considerable ease or dominating the centre of midfield with an imposing presence and composed touch.

A cursory glance even further down the club’s youth system, at the U18s XI for their latest match, a 2-1 comeback victory at home to Everton, reveals an interesting fact: Of that starting XI (Vickers; Mugabo, Fagan, Hayden, Ormonde-Ottewill; Kamara, Jebb; Dawkins, Iwobi, Jeffrey; Lipman) all are England-eligible – A situation not often associated with Arsenal. Though not every member of that team will make the trip from Hale End to Colney and perform the subsequent 30 yard walk from the U21 team dressing room to that of the first team such numbers can only be seen as a positive when considering the future complexion of Arsenal XIs, from an English point of view at least.

This complexion is something that’s actually being reflected at 1st team level this season, though understandably to a somewhat lesser extent. Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were all on the pitch as the referee blew his whistle to mark the end of Arsenal’s recent match at Stoke. Building an English core is the aim now; or rather it always has been, just that this goal is far more achievable with the increased numbers of technically-proficient talents nationwide and within the club itself at the present time. With the structures now firmly in place there’s certainly optimism that, sooner rather than later, we’ll be able to watch a homegrown nucleus grow together with their love of the club almost as unconditional as that of the very fans that chant their names.

Wenger’s dream was “always to produce 60 per cent English and 40 per cent foreign young players” - a far cry from his team selection at Highbury on that night in 2005. Of course, actions speak louder than words but it’s looking increasingly like that dream may become a reality. Patience is still required and cases like Bartley and Lansbury are bound to arise year-on-year but it will be the upsurge of success stories, the kids that do make the grade, the Jack Wilshere’s of this world that will dictate the future of Arsenal and England. I, for one, hope it’s a bright future for both.

@hazzaboy21

This piece first appeared on England Football Blog

Clipped Wings

To many, symmetry is the blissful ideal in football. Be it two direct wingers or two pacy wing-backs the game is often taken to the opposition on the flanks. In an era where the centre of the park is frequently packed with players on opposing teams competing for superiority the expanses out wide are opportune spaces for the flair and skills of wide men in the game to translate into genuinely decisive, match-winning contributions. With teams across the globe implementing different strategies, however, symmetrical simplicity is not always the optimal route to take.

Quick, wide forwards are all well and good when facing a team holding a rather naïve high line yet when faced with one of many parked buses these forwards, sometimes lacking the speed of mind to go with their fleetness of foot, can come unstuck. This scenario is one that Arsenal fans will no doubt be very familiar with. One only has to look at the start to this season to see where the problems lie. Arsène Wenger, who it must be said selected the team himself, was relatively unimpressed after the opener against Sunderland:

The formula didn’t work with three strikers up front and we were not well balanced…we needed maybe one more creative player to be a bit more accurate in the final third. There was not a lot of space left to our strikers; everything had to be created from our midfield.”

Now, I should make it clear that the likes of Walcott and Gervinho certainly have a role to play in the squad. Their pace can be instrumental in matches, pinning back opposition fullbacks and creating more space for others in doing so. Provided the supply from midfield is in tune, their movement off the ball, spinning off their markers and making curved runs beyond defences can provide a very effective outlet. Theo’s technical ability and assurance on the ball, though still needing work, is improving apace helping him to retain the ball more frequently in tight situations and Gervinho’s unpredictable dribbling style can aid his beating of a man when one-on-one. Nonetheless, both would admit that their final balls could still do with some improvement which is why the issue of creativity looms large.

Playmakers are finding themselves on the flanks with increasing regularity in football and with this deployment the accuracy of pass in the final third and thus the quality of chances created is invariably enhanced. A higher proportion of quality chances naturally leads to a greater chance of a goal being scored so simple logic dictates that one should aim to maximise this. This precision of passing was certainly a factor Herbert Chapman, an iconic manager in the history of Arsenal Football Club, considered fundamental to his philosophy:

“Inside passing is more deadly, if less spectacular than the senseless policy of running along the lines and centring to just in front of the goalmouth, where the odds are nine to one on the defenders.”

Ever the innovator, Chapman’s views on wide play were in stark contrast to the rest of English football at the time and played a big part in his success during the 1920’s and 30’s. His use of Cliff Baston especially, though it must be noted he was not a playmaking type, was certainly different to that of other wingers of the age. In Chapman’s W-M (3-2-2-3) formation Bastin would stand in from his wing hoping to profit from the abundance of through-balls Alex James, an inside forward and creator-in-chief of the great Arsenal side of the 30’s, served up. His tremendous goalscoring record owed much to these factors and also to his subsequent cutting in from his already narrow position once the ball was received. On the rare occasions that a shot wasn’t on he could simply play a low pass inside, assisting the centre forward or winger cutting in from the opposite flank.

Chapman: One visionary now watches over another.

Football has changed since those days but, in truth, these rather basic aspects remain the same. A precise cutback or cute pass played on the edge of the box inside an opposition fullback is generally a far more successful tactic than an aimless ball played across the penalty area. Accurate inside passing is a key part of most wide playmakers’ repertoire, and is often lacking when direct options are used on both flanks. Completely replacing the hastily crossed balls oft-associated with the wide speed merchants of this world with more cerebral through-balls can make a team too predictable, though, so a variety of styles is a useful characteristic to possess in a team.

It’s certainly a trait Wenger has valued in his time on these shores, noticeably preferring either a more creative talent or tireless runner on one wing to balance a more attacking, direct option on the other. Think back to potent Wenger midfields past and you’ll see Parlour & Overmars, Pires & Ljungberg, Nasri & Walcott to name a few. More often than not, the balance has been there providing guile and pace in equal measure. Execution of pass is, of course, vital but that execution can be so more effective if the opposition have diverse threats to worry about.

Last season, after the early use of direct options on both wings, Wenger changed tact opting for more subtlety on one flank. The timing of the Africa Cup of Nations and squad options certainly played a part in this decision but one imagines Arsène wasn’t completely enamoured with our play at the time. Having dropped points over the busy Christmas and New Year schedule a different spark, an alternative source of ingenuity, was required. The calls for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be given a chance were undoubtedly premature last year but had been deafening ever since his early signs of promise in the Carling Cup. Eventually these calls were met with the desired answer and ‘The Ox’ had finally garnered enough trust from Wenger to gain the opportunity to bring his own youthful exuberance to the party.

In addition to the pace that had already been present out wide before his arrival in the first team, Oxlade-Chamberlain brought vision. When deployed on the left he could cut inside onto his favoured right foot and, possessing the mindset of a midfielder, play slide-rule passes behind the opposition defence. In theory at least, his presence would allow for even more possession yet with the option to take on fullbacks on their outside or inside shoulder. A more varied and unpredictable threat was Wenger’s hope and it certainly did have its moments; Alex’s brace in the 7-1 demolition of Blackburn at the Emirates surely springs to the forefront of most fans’ thoughts. As with any youngster, however, his youth led to inconsistent performances and his naïvety lost possession during a period of the season where mistakes simply could not be afforded. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s time will come and interestingly he’s played more centrally this preseason just past. The added maturity in his game since the Euro’s is noticeable and as a result he’s likely to perform more consistently when he’s next given a chance.

The burden of bringing balance to the flanks was then passed onto Yossi Benayoun. Along with his experience he brought work-rate, ball retention and cunning to the left flank. After several games either on the bench or even out of the whole match day squad altogether Yossi was determined to make an impact. On the face of it, the fact that he provided goals at key times was merely a welcome bonus as he brought much more to the team. Whether it was snapping at the heels of the opposition with remarkable regularity, covering his fullback, holding a narrow position to enable midfield compactness when the flow of the game was not in our favour or dropping deeper to allow Walcott more licence to join the central striker, the balance Benayoun brought was instrumental in the overhaul of our North London rivals and securing a Champions League place for the 15th consecutive season.

Yossi’s stay in N5 was only a temporary one, though, so Wenger must now take a different route to provide the creative balance in the final third he values so dearly. The acquisition of Santi Cazorla is a mouth-watering one and given his previous roles for Villarreal and Málaga he’s a tempting wide option, especially in big games where the significance of possession and technical quality is arguably greater than the norm. As has already been mentioned it’s not uncommon to see ‘wide playmakers’ cut in from their designated flank and deliver crucial assists under slightly less attention than they would expect if played in a central role. With the number of alternative, fit central options already present within the squad and the returns of Tomáš Rosický and Jack Wilshere to consider (bringing valuable tenacity in addition to a further point of creativity) the selection of Santi on the wing, even in the ‘lesser games’, may not be so unrealistic.

♫ Santi, Santi Cazorla runs down the wing for me? ♫

Of course, there will be some that won’t want Arsène to remove him from the centre, where he has the whole freedom of the pitch in which to roam, prompting at will. Cazorla’s a player we haven’t really had since Cesc. His appreciation of space is excellent and his delicately-played through-balls will no doubt result in a glut of assists. His success, at least in terms of chances created, in the opening weeks of the season will add further fuel to the thinking that he’s already too crucial to be moved wide. If that is indeed the case then there’s always the possibility Rosický will be moved back to a similar role in which he started his Arsenal career. As previously stated, with his increased maturity, Oxlade-Chamberlain could well make the position his own or Wenger may even repeat last season’s experiment of varying success where he played Ramsey wide. The beauty of these options is that they’re players who are relatively comfortable in either role, wide or central, and would have the potential to interchange freely, disrupting the marking of the opposition as they do so.

In addition to these choices, there’s always the option of using Lukas Podolski wide left as Wenger did at the Britannia. It’s a position he’s very comfortable in having played in that role for the majority of his 101 caps for Germany. The wide left berth may have been Podolski’s starting position but he was far from confined to this location. It was noticeable, in preseason too, how often he drifted centrally, playing one-twos with Cazorla and driving into the box before unleashing a rocket from that cannon of a left foot. This can cause issues with regards to width if the player on the opposite wing is also regularly cutting inside and, again, if that player is a direct type there’s a worry that there will be too big a burden on the central creator. In recent years we have had a tendency to become over-reliant on certain individuals. Regardless of the option Arsène eventually lands on, and there’s still the chance (albeit a very small one) that a last minute move may be made in the transfer window to address this area, it is imperative that doesn’t become the case this season.

Some may prefer the symmetrical, direct twin threat on the flanks but it’s been shown repeatedly in the past, especially at Arsenal, that taking the asymmetrical route can aid one’s search for the perfect balance. The final pass and general creativity in the final third is currently lacking and though the gelling of our new players over time should see an improvement in cohesion going forward, adding an additional creator on one of the wings should enable us to carry a more varied and potent threat. Having similarly direct threats on the flanks is clipping our wings. Hopefully, with an extra dose of artistry, we can find a way to soar again.

@hazzaboy21

The Games of the Golden Spikes

“I had already been into my professional career for six years and had not won an individual gold medal at the Olympics. There was a tremendous amount of pressure going into 1996 to get it done.” ~ Michael Johnson

So there I sat, on the floor of the living room, eyes wide and glued to the box waiting to see if the ‘man with the golden shoes’ could get it done. Athletics was a very innocent sport to the child sitting there, catching up with the events of the previous day in Atlanta on a recorded VHS tape. Little did I know of the ills of doping or the complexities of each event. Getting from A to B in the fastest time possible was all that crossed my naïve, youthful mind. That’s essentially all Michael Johnson had to do in both the 200m and 400m to complete his quest for a historic double but, of course, actions would be far harder to accomplish than words. He had won both a year previous, at the World Championships in Gothenburg, but no man had ever won over both distances at the same Olympic Games. This was unchartered territory; an attempt at Track & Field immortality. Despite the magnitude of the feat, the youngster sitting down on the living room floor, the whole United States of America and the rest of the world all expected…

First up was the 400m. Without this the pursuit of the historic double would come to a shockingly abrupt end. It’s often argued that the 400m is the toughest, most complex event on the track. As Michael himself states “there’s a lot of strategy to it.” Too long to be classed a true sprint, but too short to be grouped under the long distance umbrella. It’s a constant battle between body and mind. The mind focuses on keeping the leg speed and knee lifts high while the legs themselves are screaming for mercy. Go out too hard and it’s only a matter of time before the lactic acid produced by one’s anaerobic metabolism starts to accumulate in the muscles, making every further step an act of sheer anguish. On the other hand, if one takes the first half of the race too easily they’re invariably left with too much to do to catch those at the head of the field. A lingering feeling of what might have been is burdened with the individual. Certainly not a feeling many would like to carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Johnson, however, was the master of balancing these intricacies. He would habitually run similar splits for each half of the race and such was his dominance over the distance a victory was seen as a mere formality. With this expectation came great pressure, however, heaped on further by the Games being held in his home country. This pressure was completely absent from his face as he crouched onto the blocks, though. In its place, an expression of pure focus on the job in hand. He crouched down and settled into the blocks, his bespoke golden spikes* matching the gold chain hanging down from his neck. In the living room I too crouched in expectation of the starter’s gun… “Bang!” Off he went and as he did so did my eyes return to the screen. He quickly assumed his trademark running style, a unique style that many coaches would seek to change if it hadn’t produced such outstanding results. Back bolt upright, he possessed a relatively low knee lift but an incredible leg speed that was simply unmatched across the circuit. His limbs resembled the pistons of a well-oiled machine. After all, that is what he was – a machine.

“Superman”

An Olympic record time of 43.49s and, more importantly, the gold medal were the rewards awaiting Johnson at the finishing line. His winning margin a huge one at such an elite level. Britain’s Roger Black, forever in Michael’s shadow, claimed a laudable silver medal but finished in 44.41s, almost a whole second behind. These were athletes at the very peak of their ability but, quite frankly, they were made to look rather ordinary once they came up against Johnson. I remember jumping up and down for joy and holding my arms aloft to reproduce the scenes that had occurred in Atlanta. The first task had been accomplished emphatically. Focus would now turn to the highly anticipated 2oom.

The 200m would mean stepping out of the safer haven of the quarter mile for Johnson and into the macho zone of the proud 100m sprinters with their oft-used intimidation tactics both in the call room and on the start line. They would be more pumped than ever to halt Johnson’s attempt at history. It’s normal for a 100m runner to step up to the 200m but a 400m athlete stepping down to the distance was far less common. Doing so was almost like challenging the authority of the “pure sprinters” if you like; athletes with less speed endurance than Johnson but who compensated with an incredibly quick cadence. Following Donovan Bailey’s victory and world record in the 100m this would be their final shot at glory.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the efforts of Frankie Fredericks that season had added another exciting element to the event. The affable Namibian certainly didn’t match the stereotypical demeanour of the 100m runner. A smile seemingly forever graced his face and by all accounts he remains one of the nicest guys to have ever participated in Track & Field. After silver in Barcelona ’92 in both the 100m and 200m he was determined to prove that nice guys can win as well. Johnson, a friend since they had competed against each other on the college circuit, was very much the dominant rival on the track but Fredericks had been able to finally reverse the trend on a July evening in Lausanne.

Fredericks ran 19.82s that night, beating Johnson by 3 hundredths and in doing so bringing Michael’s 21-race unbeaten streak spanning 2 years to an end. ‘Superman’ had broken the world record earlier that season in the American trials, sealing his place in the US team for the event in the process, but there was now a chink in his previously impregnable armour. The times in Lausanne, into a headwind of 1.1m/s, meant Atlanta with its fast track would be a mouth-watering prospect. Could the world record be eclipsed again? More pertinently, though, could Fredericks prove to be Johnson’s kryptonite when it mattered most?

The rounds were easily negotiated by both men, with the exuberant Trinidadian bronze medallist in the 100m, Ato Boldon, also exhibiting good form. The scene was set for a cracker of a final. Once again, I set up my imaginary blocks and crouched down waiting for the starter and his pistol. “Set… BANG!” Johnson had stumbled slightly out of the blocks or what he calls “more of a misstep, a flinch” but thankfully it would not derail his race; quite the opposite in fact. His drive phase was electric, seemingly every sinew engaged as he strived to make his dream a reality. As he neared the end of the curve he had reached Fredericks.

He passed him as he transitioned into the straight and then simply kept on going, building a gap over the field that became greater at every stride. His golden spikes were no longer pounding the ground, but floating above it. He was completely dialled in, reaching heights (figuratively speaking) that no other individual had ever reached before. As he crossed the line he turned to the infield clock. 19.32s: a new world record and an astonishing chunk taken off the previous one (19.66s). Johnson’s jaw dropped in disbelief as the crowd roared and thousands of cameras flashed as they attempted to capture this historic moment. After the shock came the euphoria. He bounded across the track in jubilation just like the little boy back in the living room. Then, on the podium, came the realisation of what he had achieved. Tears of joy proving that this astonishing athlete was human after all. The magnificent double was complete.

“I am rarely shocked by my own performance. And I’m shocked.”

Fredericks in 19.68s and Boldon in 19.80s had finished 2nd and 3rd respectively but their positions and times were merely an afterthought amidst such athletic brilliance. Boldon summed up the victor’s run perfectly: “Nineteen-thirty two? That’s not a time. It sounds like my dad’s birth date.” It would be a time that would stay untouched until a certain Jamaican named Usain Bolt arrived on the scene. Johnson’s 400m world record, however, still remains. It’s a time that no-one has really come close to since and one suspects it will remain that way for a number of years.

At Atlanta, Michael Johnson proved himself to be an all-time great. A legend worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. He was an athlete with a unique style achieving a unique feat; one that will be incredibly difficult to match. Atlanta ’96 truly was the Games of the golden spikes.

~

* The spikes, tested extensively in the Nike Sports Research Lab, were made of Zytel, a material, in short, composed of nylon and varying amounts of fibreglass depending on the use. The aim was simple: make Johnson feel like he wasn’t wearing any spikes at all. They weighed approximately 90g. The left shoe was half a size smaller than the right so to fit Johnson’s feet characteristics and, according to Nike, they gave medial and lateral support respectively so to ease progress around the bends of the track. The initial prototype was silver in colour to give a mirror effect as he ran but there was only one thing on Johnson’s mind – the gold. So they were changed to meet his requests and 8 pairs (one for each round of both events) were made for his assault on the history books. Afterwards, his coach Clyde Hart would keep the right shoe of the final pair while Johnson kept the left. The rest were sold at auction with the proceeds going to charity.

N.B. Unfortunately the order in which the finals took place are reversed in this video but its quality is one of the best around so sit back and enjoy these moments of sporting excellence.

@hazzaboy21