This is not a piece about the wrongs and rights of Arsene Wenger’s already infamous substitution in Sunday’s defeat to Manchester United. While Andrei Arshavin is awful and that is sad, this isn’t a piece about that either. And, while it’s always fun (as well as an easy way to fill up a column) to write about all the things a piece is not, this is not that piece either. Instead, this is a piece about football’s wide areas – with a few exploratory remarks on the strange way substitutions are analysed thrown in.
Jonathan Wilson, in his copious writings on football’s various tactical trends, repeats one truth: the history of tactics is the history of space. This has led Wilson, recently, to theorise on the increasing prevalence of the false-9 position and the possible (and in these pieces, redolent of crossed fingers and knocked-upon wood, the subconscious wish not to jinx it is almost palpable) return of the libero. For a long time, the period of football history coinciding with the careers of Roberto Carlos and Cafu, this tactically defining space was the full-back’s habitat.
Today, when 4-1-3-2 meets 4-1-3-1-1 meets 4-1-2-3-1, the 4-4-2 is one formation amongst many – unpopular, at the highest level at least, because of the numerical advantage it cedes in the centre of midfield. Just a few years ago, though, everyone was at (or its close cousin, the 4-4-1-1).
In that period, running roughly from the World Cups of 1994 to 2006 (the trend can be dated much earlier, but this is a set of tournaments notable for being won by the sides with the best performing full-backs: Branco and Aldair; Lizarazu and Thuram; Roberto Carlos and Cafu; Grosso and Zambrotta), midfield fours tended to meet midfield fours. This meant that, with two centre-backs being up against two centre-forwards (or a centre-forward and a withdrawn forward/advanced midfielder) and pairs of central midfielders matched up against their opposite numbers, full-backs and wide-midfield players contested the pitch’s only grey area. In other words, the wide areas were especially crucial to contests in this period because they held a battle which was, unlike that between two midfielders or between a striker and a defender, generally won by the player most effective when operating outside of the ordinary parameters of his position: a winger able to operate effectively as a defender could sway the balance in his team’s favour by checking the advances of a full-back ostensibly tasked with nullifying him and, vice-versa, an effective attacking full-back could decide games by providing extra attacking impetus.
To a large extent, in the modern environment of three man midfields and ‘high-intensity pressing’, this trend has faded. Or at least its deviation has become part of the norm. Today, both attacking and defensive wide-players are generally familiar with one another’s position, at least to the extent that your average winger is a proficient defender and your average full-back a reasonable winger.
This change has informed the opinions of fans and, as a result, their attitudes towards certain players. It is now expected, where it wasn’t before, that a wide-forward will ‘track back’ and that a full-back will be able to swing in a decent cross.
This takes us back to Arsenal. Gael Clichy’s departure to Manchester City solicited nothing like the opprobrium than did Samir Nasri’s and this can be partly explained by the relative merits of the two in the terms introduced above. One of the significant features of Nasri’s breakthrough season last year was his increased physicality and consequent ability to operate acceptably in defence. Similarly, Arsenal fans’ increasing impatience with Clichy was a result of his propensity to hammer crosses off the legs of the man in front of him.
And this brings us to Arshavin and the furor his introduction caused in the Emirates stands. The general dissatisfaction of Arsenal fans towards the Russian captain is in part caused by his apparent lack of interest in (and subsequently inadequate) defensive cover. This, it seemed, was exposed in Sunday’s game as Arshavin failed to prevent Antonio Valencia creating the chance from which Danny Wellbeck scored United’s winner. The fans’ unrest in understandable (though whether Oxlade-Chamberlain would have performed any better there is debatable) and blaming Arshavin, and by extension Wenger, for the goal fits neatly into the narrative of discontent (though it also excuses the risible attempts of, defender, Thomas Vermaelen to defend the attack – also a feature of Valencia’s goal). That narrative, at least in this instance, though, ignores another substitution made two minutes later.
Sir Alex Ferguson responded to Wenger’s change by replacing Rafael, a full-back and himself an earlier replacement for the injured Phil Jones, with Park Ji Sung, ostensibly (Park’s actually position is a post in itself), a winger. Wenger’s substitution was designed to win the game. It worked, remember, against Barcelona not too long ago. It was immediately countered, though, by Ferguson’s which ensured, first, that Arsenal’s attacking threat down that side was mitigated by Park’s incredible defensive abilities and, secondly, that his own side’s would be enhanced by the quality of Valencia’s crossing from full-back.
Ferguson, not always credited with much tactical acumen got the better of Wenger here. He did so by exploiting the extremes which defined an apparently passing tactical era: an uber defensive winger and a super attacking full-back (against Wenger’s newly introduced duo of super-attacking winger and uber defensive full-back). And, in so doing, illustrated how substitutions should be judged: not as objectively wrong or right decisions but as pragmatic reactions and, only, after the fact.