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Denilson: Pros, Cons and His Role

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Like his midfield partner Alex SongDenilson has come in for criticism over the last couple of seasons for his play. As with Alex Song, there are obvious pros and cons about his role; unlike Alex Song, he faces opposition to his role that leave some wondering whether he is expendable. 

 

Denilson's role, neither creator nor destroyer is one that is shared by Michael Carrick and Xabi Alonso. None of the previous 3 have the physical presence of the destroyers in their team (Alex Song, Darren Fletcher and Sami Khedira (and Javier Mascherano when Alonso was at Liverpool)). Zonal Marking did a whole article on this role at the end of last season, and so rather than make the same points that he already has, I'll try and show how Denilson is similar to one of the more famous central midfielders. 

First off, an explanation of the role Denilson plays. In 4-3-3/4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 formations, there is usually a creator, destroyer and passer/holder. The destroyer breaks up play through tackles and interceptions. He commits more fouls than other players, and thus, this type of player usually gets lots of bookings (Alex Song, Javier Mascherano, Darren Fletcher and Cheik Tiote all fit this role). The passer/holder stays deep as well, and the destroyer and holder can switch between them to decide who gets forward to support attacking play; this is what happens with Arsenal's midfield, as Jack Wilshere clearly says:

But since breaking into the side this term Wilshere has operated in a deep-lying role, often alongside Alex Song as the '2' in a 4-2-3-1 formation...
"Alex and I both know how it works and it doesn’t even need that much talking. If I go upfield, Alex is clever enough to see that he needs to stay and vice versa – if he goes I can see that I need to hold. And the centre-backs help us as well, they’re always talking because they can see what is happening in front of them. 

Of course, sometimes both get forward as we've seen this season, sometimes to devastating effect, sometimes with consequences, but that is for another article (though it's interesting to note that Arsenal don't really play with a designated destroyer anymore, instead, Song and Wilshere, or Song and Denilson take turns).

Because Denilson and Wilshere aren't natural destroyers (they lack the physicality), there role is one of passing and holding. Denilson is particularly skilled at this role: two seasons ago he was second in interceptions (Gael Clichy was first), and as Zonal Marking said in his article, 

Therefore, intercepting is the new tackling. It’s not as spectacular, not as obvious, it won’t get the supporters on their feet (nowhere traditionally cheers a crunching tackle as much as English football terraces), but it’s just as useful. More so, in fact: by intercepting a pass to the player you’re marking, rather than tackling him when he gets the ball, you’re not risking a free-kick or a booking. You’re immediately in possession, whereas after a tackle, the ball can run away to an opponent. And there’s more chance of launching a quick counter-attack, and transforming defence into attack swiftly.


 

That's where Denilson's passing ability comes into play: As one of the better passers at Arsenal, he can easily find a teammate that can start an attack. 

Denilson's passing is usually the first part of any criticism against him: He passes the ball sideways and backwards. So too does Xabi Alonso, and here is a comparison from two Champions League games that show some passing statistics

Name

Total

Passes

Completed

%

Square

Percent

Back

Percent

Denilson

108

94

87

36

33

15

13.9

Alonso

94

81

86.2

28

30

10

10.6

 

All of the above are similar, and within 5 percent of each other, which is understandable with a small sample size. 

Alonso is a player that most Arsenal fans wanted before the 2008/09 season, and one that most agree would've helped Arsenal possibly win the league last season. If Denilson is similar, why does he get so much criticism?

What Denilson does is intercept, pass and receive. He keeps possession extremely well and he rarely gives the ball away. He doesn't make as many passes forward, but it's not his, nor Xabi Alonso's; job to do so. Jack Wilshere gets forward more often because Jack Wilshere is a naturally inclined forward moving player; until this year he was not a deep midfielder. Wilshere offers greater attacking threat, but Denilson offers better defensive cover, and against Manchester City, and against Tottenham in the first half, he did this, and, in the first leg against Barcelona last year, he completed the most passes out of any Arsenal player, and given the pressure Arsenal were under, retaining possession was extremely important. 

He is, admittedly, often caught on the counter attack, and that is because he is not the quickest player, which begs the question: why is he last man back? Neither he, nor Wilshere, is a great tackler either, but they make up for it with intelligent positioning, and they are getting better at tackling. 

But to conclude with Denilson, his best attributes are his passing and intercepting, and although he doesn't pass the ball forward, his ability to retain possession, which is becoming more important in the modern game, makes him a good fit in a midfield. The problem that arose yesterday for the first 20 minutes was that the midfield did not give the defence cover, but that had more to do with Diaby and Rosicky being stranded up front; once Wilshere came on, the team settled down, and, began to retain possession through the midfield. He can complement the buccaneering style of Alex Song by remaining deep, intercepting and passing to transition defence to attack, (one of Song's best games came Denilson partnered him), and he is a valuable squad player whose role is a quiet one because he maintains position rather than bombing forward, and with Sagna, Clichy, Song, Fabregas, Nasri and Walcott there to provide forward options, he doesn't need to as he usually plays the ball to them as Arsenal attacks build.