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

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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