Playing styles, and what kind of forward might we need

I’d been mulling over writing this, after seeing Arsenal beat Spurs, and then saw the sad news that Theo is gone with a torn ACL.

I’m not a soccer expert, having been born too long ago in the United States (1951) to play much. I’m also one of the very rare breed whose favorite team is Arsenal and second favorite team is Spurs (Liverpool third). I don’t watch soccer except when my teams are involved, plus a little post-season MLS.

So my observations about playing styles derive more on my experience as a tabletop game designer (Wikipedia entries: "Lewis Pulsipher"; "Britannia (board game)"; "Archomental") than as a soccer player.

What struck me about the game against Spurs was that Arsenal played quite differently than they do with Giroud at center forward. With Theo the team was faster and more fluid, with players interchanging positions more. I’d read somewhere someone suggesting that neither Podolski nor Theo would be a good replacement for Giroud because the latter is a traditional center forward who is good at receiving the ball with his back to goal, controlling it, and laying it off to other players, whereas Podolski and Theo are not. But they could play a different style successfully with Theo.

I have a more general suggestion about playing styles. To me there are five offensive playing styles (in no particular order):

• getting in behind: beating the offside trap and getting behind the opposing defense
• penetration: taking on defenders and dribbling past them to cause chaos in the defense
• tiki-taka: passing your way through the defense with short passes and flicks
• shooting: really good shooters who can score from outside the penalty area
• aerial attack: crosses into the box where adept players head goals

Penetration requires players with speed, confidence, and good control of the ball. Remember, the object is not just push the defender back but to get past him. Not many players can do this, and far fewer have the confidence to try it consistently. On Arsenal Theo could do it but often didn’t seem to have the confidence, Ox can do it and seems to have the confidence but isn’t as fast as Theo, and Rosicky and sometimes Wilshire will do it from midfield but don’t have much speed - they are breaking past midfield markers, not the last line of defense. I suspect Gnabry can do it sometimes but may not yet have the confidence, and I don’t think he’s as fast as Theo, either.

Aerial attack tends to be the favorite tactic of teams that are not very good with the ball, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. This is what traditional center forwards do if the wide men are good at crossing. Many of the Arsenal players are in the latter category but few in the former (really Giroud and Bendtner, and a bit of Poldi and the center backs).

Tiki-taka is the favored tactic of teams that are very good with the ball, especially if they have Messi or someone else as brilliant at scoring in that style (and of course, no one other than Messi is that brilliant). Which hasn’t discouraged Arsenal from playing that style predominantly when Theo’s not in the lineup.

Getting in behind requires fast forwards and excellent passers in midfield, and when Theo is in the lineup this works very well for Arsenal, even when he plays center forward. rather than wing.

Shooting is not so much a style as something that only a few players can do consistently. I think of Gareth Bale who is a tremendous long-distance shooter aided by his speed and strength in finding an opening as he moves into the middle. Cristiano Ronaldo is probably another although I haven’t watched him enough to say for sure. This style requires players who are not only good shooters but who have the confidence to shoot. Most any player can occasionally get lucky and blast one in from a distance, but if that happens insufficiently often then it means his team loses possession too often, even if he has the confidence to keep plugging away despite a low percentage of success.

Arsenal’s best shooters are Podolski and Cazorla. As for any shooter they like to be more in the middle of the pitch when they shoot, though Podolski does pretty well on the wing. Cazorla doesn’t seem to shoot as often or as well when he’s playing wing although he was in the wide position when he scored against Spurs. Ox is another shooter on the team, and Rosicky and Arteta will also have an occasional go.

I remember particularly the Dutch national team at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, where they had a tremendous array of shooters and only lost the final (in extra time) because of "homer" referees.

A traditional center forward like Giroud can help the shooters by setting them up as he did Podolski against West Ham.

What do shooters do for you? They make the defense much more aware of the shooters and come out to closely mark the shooters, which provides more room for the center forward or wings and fullbacks trying to get behind the defense, and for tiki-taka moves.

Players are usually more adept at one style than another. Theo is really good at getting behind and has become not bad at shooting and penetration, but is unsuited to the aerial style as a forward although he can get room to make crosses. Giroud on the other hand is good at the aerial style and helps keep possession in the tiki-taka style even though he’s not an ideal center forward for the style as Messi is. Podolski is good at getting in crosses and is our best shooter. I read that he played #10 for Cologne, where he had a forward in front of him who could lay the ball off for his shooting, and in that case he tended to be in the center of the pitch to begin with rather than having to come in from the wing. But he’s not an ideal center forward. (One of the very few games I’ve missed this year was the one where he started at center forward, but I understand it wasn’t good.)

Now what does this have to do with a new forward?

With Theo gone we don’t really have the players for getting behind. Ox or Gnabry may be able to play that way consistently but we haven’t seen it yet. I watched Sanogo a fair bit at the recent U21/20 World Cup, and he appeared to be a traditional center forward. I think the team needs one forward able to get behind, but such players are hard to find.

I can see Arsenal getting away with the tiki-taka style and no traditional center forward ("false number nine") against weaker teams but perhaps not against the strongest ones.

I've not seen Jackson Martinez play, but the little I've read says he can play wing or CF. He's also at a team that may be persuaded to sell in January, unlike the teams of most targets mentioned for Arsenal. And he wants to come to Arsenal. His release clause is expensive, but will Porto require that much? It may be time for AW to risk money to have a strong chance to win the league. Last time we had that chance (to keep RVP for the last year of his contract) we gave up for a paltry 24M, and he won the league for Man U. This time, let's use the money Arsenal earns.

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