Wednesday, October 5, 2022

A Cultured Left Foot

When a club has the same manager for 20 years, inevitably, the manager in question has to build several iterations of his team. It wouldn’t do to ask Nigel Winterburn to play left-back for Arsenal in 2016 after all. As such, patterns emerge and the coach’s preferences become observable through repetition. We know that generally, Arsene likes one full-back to be more attacking than his colleague on the opposite flank for example.

We know that, broadly, he likes for one wide player to act more like a striker (Overmars, Ljungberg, Walcott) and for the other to operate as another central midfielder or playmaker (Pires, Nasri, Iwobi). When it comes to centre forwards, Arsene prefers for them to be mobile, but as the availability of strikers has narrowed, he has been prepared to work with what he finds.

Robin van Persie described his role as “a nine and a half”, Thierry Henry was a striker that often played like a winger, Alexis Sanchez is more of a false 9, whilst in Olivier Giroud and Emmanuel Adebayor, the manager has utilised the target man type of number 9 too. Prior to managing Arsenal, he coached a diverse coterie of forwards- Mark Hateley and George Weah are two of the most diametrically opposed strikers you can imagine.

As I have written before, in defensive midfield, Arsene does not seem to have a preferred style. Again, he appears content to work with what he finds. In Denilson and Arteta (and arguably Cazorla) he played small, technical passers at the base of the midfield to recycle possession. In Gilberto and Alex Song, he played converted centre halves. Coquelin is a destroyer, in Manu Petit and Granit Xhaka he has opted for deep lying playmakers.

The latter pair, Petit and Xhaka, reveal another of Wenger’s occasional preferences. A left footed passer at the heart of the Gunners’ engine room. Wenger brought Petit to the club to form a symbiotic partnership with Patrick Vieira in 1997. Once Petit flounced off to Barcelona, Arsene purchased Edu Gaspar from Brazil and, a year later, paid £8.5m for Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Petit, Edu, Bronckhorst and Xhaka are very similar in style.

All are combative to different degrees, but importantly, all offer an impressive range of passing. Wenger likes to have a left footed passer in the centre because it opens up the pitch. Petit, Xhaka, Edu and van Bronckhorst share(d) a penchant for cross-field passing. This is also very important because, as stated at the outset, Wenger likes for one of his wide men to lurch in field and act as a kind of playmaker and connect the midfield and the forwards.

Typically, he prefers for this to be the reserve of the left-winger, which means that his left sided midfielders are almost always right footed. Pires, Nasri, Iwobi, Arshavin, Overmars (though he was encouraged inside to shoot rather than create), Cazorla and Rosicky have all enjoyed prolonged stints on the left, with license to drift in-field. The anomalies during Arsene’s reign have been Jose Antonio Reyes and Lukas Podolski and neither player fulfilled their potential in the Arsenal attack.

Though not a left-footer, Gervinho was more of an orthodox winger that liked to go outside and his time at the club also saw him under deliver on his potential. With this slew of right footed, wandering playmakers on the left wing, having a left footer in midfield creates more angles for Arsenal and Arsene will certainly have contemplated this when he paid £35m for Granit Xkaha this summer.

It often goes unremembered that, for a six game stretch in the unbeaten 2003-04 season, Arsene moved Gilberto Silva to the right wing to accommodate his compatriot Edu in the heart of the midfield. However, the experiment ended when it became apparent that Arsenal were leaking too many goals in this period. (Gilberto’s return to central midfield heralded a hard fought 0-0 draw at St. James’ Park). Edu was unlucky to play in the abridging eras between Cesc Fabregas and Patrick Vieira, neither of whom were entirely suitable partners for him.

He likely would have made a lot more appearances in more recent reboots of the Arsenal midfield, especially now that three man midfields are so en vogue. van Bronckhorst proved to be an underwhelming signing, but he suffered a significant injury before he could really settle. It’s somewhat apt that he was sacrificed to Barcelona to assuage their complaints over the procurement of Cesc Fabregas.

The Dutchman spent the remainder of his career as a left-back. Though he was used there as a deputy for Ashley Cole, it was not the purpose for which he was bought. Xhaka’s signing has seen the rekindling of an old flame for the manager. The emergence of Cesc Fabregas as Arsenal’s chief playmaker reduced the need for another player, left footed or otherwise, in the midfield with a wide passing range.

Jack Wilshere, though left footed, is more of a dribbler, he carries the ball long distances as opposed to passing it long. Alex Song also demonstrated playmaking ability from the base of midfield in this pregnant pause between left footed playmakers. Thomas Vermaelen was capable of bringing the ball out of defence and switching play with his left peg.

Santi Cazorla arrived shortly after Fabregas left and the Spaniard’s ambidexterity meant that Arsenal effectively did have a left foot capable of opening angles and spraying the ball from left to right. Özil’s arrival also provided some balance between left and right footers. With Arsene’s preference for a “strikerish” wide player from the right, having a left footed distributor in a deep position is a worthy commodity.

I imagine Arsene would envisage Theo Walcott enjoying a steady supply line from Granit Xhaka for instance. He hinted as much following the 3-1 win over Watford in August, “Xhaka is a left-footer as well, so he can find Theo [Walcott] on the opposite side sometimes. He has a good long ball.” From the left side of central midfield, the likes of Xhaka and formerly Edu are able to exchange short passes and combine with the creative wide man on the left, whilst also offering the potential to switch play in an instant and search out a penetrative run from the right winger.

Ljungberg and Walcott are also analogous in this regard, as both have forged top level careers by making snaking runs between the opposition left-back and centre half. Now that Arsenal typically deploy Bellerin and Walcott on the right, the strategy is, loosely, for Arsenal to have possession on the left and space on the right. Channelling the build-up play through the left shifts the opposition over to that side, thus creating space for Walcott and Bellerin’s pace on the right.

With a left-foot like Xhaka’s in the engine room, there is the option to switch play swiftly from left to right and utilise that space. This is a tradition that arguably dates back to Liam Brady, whose wand of a left foot was just as capable of landing the ball on a six pence from fifty yards as it was of guiding the ball through a sea of players. With Petit, Edu and van Bronckhorst long since retired, Xhaka represents a blast from the past for Arsene. In a world lurching towards the far right, the acquisition of Granit Xhaka shows that Wenger still loves a lefty.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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