Total Football has inspired many coaches and managers, to varying success, though the biggest transformative effect on a side’s fortune is arguably not the tactics, but the presence of a star individual. Netherlands and Ajax had Johan Cruyff; AC Milan under Arrigo Sacchi had Marco van Basten; Barcelona have Lionel Messi; while the Invincibles were heavily reliant on Thierry Henry.
Total Football is about universality – having players who can perform a variety of functions with an understanding in all areas of the pitch. In that regards, Alex Iwobi is the perfect embodiment of that player – starting on the left-side, fittingly, as Cruyff did, of Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 system (more on that later) – with an ability to play across all the attacking positions. Arsene Wenger has been quick to spot Iwobi’s potential as a central player due to his in-game intelligence and he has translated that quality to the first-team in recent weeks.
“Alex is a guy who provokes in his game and provokes mistakes from the opponents with the vertical way he plays,” says Wenger. “That can be expressed on the flanks or through the middle. In fact, when he was a youth-team player, he only played on the flanks and I put him in the centre because I liked the way he read the game and the speed of his understanding of the game. That is why I would put him in the middle, but he can express his talent in every single offensive position.”
In Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Everton, Iwobi put in a man-of-the-match performance and scored his very first goal for the club. Darting onto a lobbed pass by Hector Bellerin, after starting a counter-attack deep in his own half, he outpaced the Everton centre-back, Ramiro Funes Mori, to slot the ball through the legs of the goalkeeper. He has come close to scoring in previous games, so it was encouraging that he broke his scoring duck early in his career.
Indeed, the whole team’s performance was very good and Iwobi’s presence in this side gives a balance that was badly needed. Crucially, he’s another ball-player – somebody who understands the touch-and-move style that Wenger preaches but, as the manager searched for more variety, increasingly excluded from his starting XIs. As such, Arsenal’s approach in recent seasons has been muddled and in certain (big) games, has been found out.
Against Everton, Arsenal were more fluid and in a first-half of possession v possession out-passed the Toffees 255 to 167. Thus, in the second-half, with a two-goal cushion, they were then able to sit back and soak the pressure, aided by the presence of two defensive marshals in front of the back four
. In fact the shape was closer to Wenger’s ideal – a 4-4-2, which he says is the “best way to occupy the field from a mathematical perspective, on length and width. In 4-4-2 you have 60 per cent of the players covering 60 per cent of the surface. And you have 40 per cent on the flanks, which is 40 per cent of the pitch.”
With Mesut Ozil playing behind Danny Welbeck, but at times making runs beyond him, it could be described as a “disguised 4-4-2”, determined by “how high or deep the second striker plays”. With Iwobi balancing the side by drifting inside from the left (and Welbeck drifting into the space he left behind) it allowed Arsenal to offset some of the structural deficiencies they have had this season when they deploy two wingers plus the no.10.
In previous games, they were too top-heavy (which Cruyff explains here) and that space behind the forwards was exposed most painfully when Manchester United defeated the Gunners 3-2. The wider issue, though, was the build-up where Arsenal often had to funnel their passes to the wings very early in the build-up because they failed to establish the numerical superiority in the centre.
However, with Iwobi in the side, and Alexis able to step in 5-10 yards off the right touchline, they were able to commit players between the lines at the right moments against Everton. Aaron Ramsey did that job earlier in the season but when he was injured, Arsenal relied a lot on Joel Campbell to open up the pitch and find combinations. It shouldn’t happen this way; when the ball is passed from the back, it should go to the midfielders first then to the flanks through the full-backs. Often it went to Hector Bellerin straight away.
On the other hand, that’s because teams tend to press with a 4-4-2 block and that means, Wenger says, you are forced to pass it through the full-backs. At the same time Arsenal don’t really rotate the midfield deep to collect the ball from the back, instead opting to play a different game where they try to lure the opponents to the press so that they can pass the ball through the middle. It works sporadically, with the early parts of the season seeing Arsenal reliant on Santi Cazorla to dribble his way through to open space.
With Mohamed Elneny now gracing the centre, there is not necessarily a more measured approach, because Cazorla was painstaking meticulous at times in trying to create space to get his foot on the ball (facing the goal), but it’s a more conventional way of getting out. What Elneny does so well is provoke the opponent with his first pass and then looking quickly looking for the return pass to turn defence into attack. That composure and awareness in possession allowed him to perform with such distinction at Camp Nou and White Hart Lane and now, alongside Francis Coquelin, the pair have stoked up a promising partnership at the base of midfield.
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Certainly it’s a platform that allows the attacking players to shine and interchange freely. They did that a lot at Goodison Park in the first-half, with Welbeck usually darting to the left once Iwobi vacated his position and Ozil feeding off the perpetual movement. Alexis, on the right, was forced to play more as a playmaker, using the side-step to evade the marker than looking to knock the ball past the opponent as he is wont to do on the left.
As Lewis Ambrose writes, his dribbling success numbers, albeit in the limited two games, has increased from 56% to 69%. Though to add, in the other game he played wide-right, v West Brom, Alexis complete an impressive 11/16 dribbles). The role seems to suit him and Arsenal because he’s confronted by more possibilities than the free, wide-striker role affords him on the other side. In that sense, the role reminds me of Fredrik Ljungberg’s – a hard runner with the ball, nippy and wiry too, a nice counter-balance to Iwobi’s space-searching. It’s perhaps too early to add that behind them is a base of the power that Vieira and Gilberto provided.
Danny Welbeck scored the opening goal, rounding Joel Robles in Everton’s goal, continuing the development into the striker we hope he will become. His movement is wirier than it was at the beginning of last season where he would often stand, waiting for the ball to come to him while he was far more effective on the flanks. You could argue deploying him in the wide positions has helped him develop his game, like Thierry Henry, helping him understand how to move better in tight spaces. Now he’s able to breathe more easily and with his few performances in the middle, has surely made the striker position his to lose.
The understanding Welbeck has with Iwobi is impressive, with the pair frequently alternating positions. Iwobi, in particular, is graceful to watch. With the current balance in the side, it brings us closer to Wenger’s ideal featuring lots of movement and speed though it’s also apprehensive to say that he has found the right formula. So often in the last few seasons we have seen false dawns, and that when the pressure is on again, that formula becomes exposed.
It’s become the time of the season where Wenger’s tenure has come to question, with suggestions his style of coaching has gone out of date. The Frenchman will of course, refute that and in a recent interview saying, “I’m inside my job so I keep my philosophy but as well I am an observer. I go through all the stats of the game like you, and I try to understand whether there’s something new, whether something different is happening which was not there before.”
Certainly, Wenger’s signing of Elneny seemingly backs up that willingness to embrace new ideas because he was alerted in part to the Egyptian due to his incredible stamina. The stats data flagged him up – and Wenger was probably looking for that type of player, somebody whose enormous fitness levels can eat up ground when Arsenal lose the ball. Indeed, in the recent games, Elneny’s hustle has been a standout, popping up in all areas of the pitch, picking up lose balls and instigating attacks. It’s also allowed Coquelin to concentrate more on his defensive game, which he is outstanding at, making 12 interceptions against Everton, a league game high for any player in the league this season.
With the season drawing to the close, Wenger might have stumbled upon a promising balance; perhaps the grass shoots of recovery, although it’s improbable to think they’ll end the season on a high, league table-wise.
To be ahead of Spurs though…