I had this whole article idea about how there are foils and epees and how they look the same in theory but in practice they are very different. The difference between the two doesn’t make the one better than the other, just different.
Foils and epees look the same but they are used in different ways. In foil fencing only the tip of the sword scores and only the torso of the opponent is a target. There are also rules about “right of way” in foil which are meant to even out the odds between differently sized opponents. In epee it’s much more “anything goes”: there are no right of way rules and everything is a target. They look the same but are used in vastly different ways.
I got this idea watching Giroud and Walcott. Both play center forward for Arsenal and yet are used in vastly different ways. So, I figured that they were like foil and epee. I also figured that I could explain the entire team this way. So that at left back we have Nacho (foil) and Gibbs (epee), at right back Bellerin and Debuchy, in the center mid roles there’s Cazorla and Ramsey or Coquelin and Arteta, and on the right you’ve got Ramsey and Ox.
It was going to be a masterpiece of insight and analogy, a 7am-instant classic. Except one little problem, some of the backup players (whisper it) aren’t real good.
In a cursory examination of Bellerin v. Debuchy I saw that Debuchy was really good in the air. I thought I’d make that my angle: Debuchy’s good in the air and a decent defender. He is the boring ole foil to the Bellerin epee.
I forgot to mention that in fencing there is a third blade, the sabre. Sabre looks like a mini version of a mini version of a cutlass or what we would normally associate with cavalry men wielding swords. The fighting style is taken from cavalry and not only is the blade different, you can score with a slashing motion and anything above the waist is a target. These duels tend to be very fast paced and much more akin to what we think of as sword fighting. The problem is that Bellerin is no ordinary epee, he’s so good that he’s a sabre.
Bellerin has such a fantastic engine that he acts as a wing-back in Arsenal’s system, providing width to the midfield and a scary fast attack combined with his usual hustle on defense. His assist for Özil’s goal against Bayern Munich was classic Bellerin: after a full 90 minutes of dealing with Costa, he raced down the pitch, beat his marker with a dribble, and beat Manuel Neuer with a waist high cross to Özil at the far post.
It’s difficult to compare the two because Debuchy had only played in 12 League games for Arsenal (yep, total). But if we look at Debuchy’s 10 matches from last season and compare them to Bellerin’s 10 matches this season we get a picture:
Bellerin excels at going forward and his 1.1 key passes per game are the best Arsenal have seen from a fullback since Kieran Gibbs in 2012/2013 and his 1.8 successful dribbles per game and 69% success rate makes him a good dribbler in almost any position.
Despite getting forward so much, he still puts up impressive tackling and interceptions numbers. Tackling a lot is a tricky stat because it can mean that the player was out of position or that he’s being targeted by the opposition so, what I look for instead of totals is a percent: you want him making 70% or more and that’s the case with Bellerin.
Debuchy on the other hand is.. exceptionally strong in the air. He’s not good going forward. At all. To illustrate, he hasn’t completed a single cross for Arsenal (in any of the competitions that I have stats for — Premier League and Champions League, he is 0 for 33) and has just 3 key passes in 15 games. He’s also a poor dribbler with 12/21 in all competitions.
What Debuchy offers Arsenal is fairly solid defending: he’s a great tackler and strong in the air. But he needs to focus on his strengths of defending and let the forwards take the responsibility for attacking.
Debuchy isn’t terrible, he’s basic. Debuchy is a foil: small attack area, lots of defense, all kinds of rules about who gets to attack and when. But Bellerin… wow. That kid is all sabre. He’s up on his horse, racing around the pitch, chopping down the footsoldiers below.
My only concern is that the demands of him playing in that sort-of wing-back position will wear him down as the season goes on. As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting the Pyramid playing with a true wing-back is almost impossible in modern football because the demands to run up and down the pitch are so great that even the best athletes will eventually break.
I guess to make the analogy correct, Bellerin is not just Arsenal’s sabre, he’s like a one man Charge of the Light Brigade.