By Naveen Maliakkal
Under Gary Monk, Swansea have undergone quite an identity change. Compared to the sides managed by Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers, and Michael Laudrup, Monk’s Swansea have much more of a preference for operating as a deep-defending side and hitting teams on the counter. Last season, Swansea spent 25% of their matches in their opposition half, while spending 28% of the game in their own half. This season, Swansea have only spent 18% of their matches in their opponent’s half, while spending 33% of the match in their own half.
After a period of residing close around the top of the English Premier League in terms of possession and pass completion, they sit 10th in possession (50.1%) and 7th in pass completion (84.0%). Last season, Swansea averaged 17.7 tackles per game, 16.9 interceptions per game, and 9.9 fouls per game, for a rate of about 3.5 T+I/foul per game. This season, Swansea have averaged 16.7 tackles per game, 16.2 interceptions per game, and 12.1 fouls per game, for a rate of 2.7 T+I/foul per game.
This increased emphasis on frustrating opponents rather than controlling matches with possession has also shown up in the shot numbers. Last season, Swansea averaged about 13.0 shots per game, while conceding 12.7 shots per game. This season, Swansea attempt 9.3 shots per game, while conceding 15 shots per game. That represents an amazing shift, and they may have had some luck in conversion to earn their 15 points from 10 games.
Swansea have only taken 2% of their shots from inside the 6 yard box (18th in the EPL). They have taken 48% of their shots inside the 18 yard box (6th), and 49% of their shots come from outside of the box (6th). Defensively, 7% of the shots they have conceded have come from inside the 6 yard box (13th), though only 45% of their shots conceded come from inside the 18 yard box (5th fewest) and 48% from outside the box (5th most…which is a good thing). Based on this evidence, it seems that Swansea will not sustain a 1.5 points per game rate.
However, against Arsenal, their approach could cause Arsenal plenty of problems. Lining up in a kind of 4-2-3-1 formation, defensively, they will probably look like a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 or maybe a 4-5-1. Whether Swansea employ the former structure or the latter will come down to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s role in defense. If Swansea adopt a less proactive, more patient defensive approach, Sigurdsson will form a midfield trio with Tom Carroll and Ki Sung-Yeung behind him, with Swansea looking to press once the ball makes it into Arsenal’s midfielders. If Swansea have a greater desire to press Arsenal’s center backs, Sigurdsson will join Wilfred Bony in the defensive front, looking to close down Arsenal’s back line.
In midfield, Swansea will look to defend the space in front of the back four with two midfielders, Ki Sung-Yeung and Tom Carroll. Having these two in the middle will limit the amount of space that players like Alexis Sanchez have to dribble into, in the center of the pitch. If Arsenal wish to find some success in penetrating Swansea’s midfield line, they should probably look to attack the space between the wide players and the two central midfielders (attack the half-spaces). Against this type of side, a player with the off-ball intelligence of Mesut Ozil (as long as you give him the freedom to express that intelligence by not creating a tragedy of the midfield commons) would likely serve as the decisive factor in the match, with respect to Arsenal consistently finding ways to break down the opposition.
Once Swansea win the ball, either Carroll or Ki will look to move the ball wide to either Nathan Dyer, Wayne Routledge, or Jefferson Montero, depending on which two play. Using their speed and dribbling, these wide men will look to advance the ball into the space Arsenal’s fullbacks will likely leave behind, as they go forward to provide width and crosses.
They may also look to play the ball into Wilfried Bony, who operates in a role similar to the one Olivier Giroud has performed for Arsenal. He can serve as a target man, either inside the box or outside the box, but his more likely role will involve him playing the role of a central hub. Particularly when Swansea build their attacks from the back, Bony will drop into the space in front of the opponent’s back line to receive the ball. From there, he will look to play in Swansea’s wide attackers or play a through ball for the runs of Sigurdsson or Ki, those from deeper central midfield areas.
Everyone Defends, Everyone Attacks: The Case for Dynamic Specialization Rather than Specialists
Specialization has plenty of virtues, especially outside of the football pitch. As David Ricardo pointed out, specialization allows for individuals to exploit their comparative advantages, in addition to providing the answer to the question, “Who should specialize?” Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, described how the division of labor increases productivity. Not only does it allow individuals to focus on a particular task, but that focus allows them to engage in more trial-error-feedback loops with that particular task. This increases their ability to find ways to do the task better, in addition to incentivizing the discovery of new ways to complete a task.
However, as Adam Smith pointed out, there exists a limit on specialization in a particular place, at a particular time. Essentially, beneficial specialization is limited by the extent to which individuals can economically interact.
Therefore, in football, it seems that creating a team of specialists, with a sub-team of attackers and a sub-team of defenders, serves to shoot a team in the foot at the very start of a match. If I have five players who focus on defending and five players who focus on attacking¹, then I only have a maximum of five players interacting with one another in possession and another five interacting when the team does not have possession. Not only does this limit the amount of resources I have allocated to a particular phase of play at a particular moment in time, it makes my team more predictable², and it also limits the ability for my players to divide the defensive/attacking roles among them; the team’s ability to beneficially specialize decreases.
Also, in football, there exists a major obstacle for the eleven players on the pitch to interact—the opposition. Unlike the production of a good/service, the individuals involved in producing a desired footballing outcome for the team have a second party that antagonizes them, in an effort to prevent them from doing what they want to do. Therefore, if one fields a team of specialists, then the opponent will look to isolate these specialists from one another. If these players cannot interact, then how much good does their specialized skill set do for the team?
For example, if I field a team with five specialist defenders and five specialist attackers, then I have made it easier for the opponent to prevent the ball from moving from the five defenders to the five attackers. It is too easy to disrupt the flow on the most valuable resource—the ball.
First, these five specialist defenders are incapable of moving themselves and the ball with quickness of mind and action. Therefore, they lack the ability to consistently and quickly move the ball from the back of the team to the front. Also, since the opponent knows about the ineptitude of the five defenders in possession³, they can either ignore the five specialist defenders and defend the five specialist attackers, essentially giving them five spare men with which to defend, or they can look to put those specialist defenders under pressure, force turnovers high up the pitch, and create goal-scoring opportunities at will. This seems like a hyperbole, but watch Liverpool with Skrtel and Sakho (and even Glen Johnson when they go to that strange back three). Some smart teams will literally ignore those players in possession and focus on eliminating the forward passing lanes with the spare men they have. This is why possession-based sides need to have all their players who know how to play with the ball at their feet. That way they can increase the amount of uncertainty they impose on their opponent, preventing their opponent from concentrating their defensive resources in certain areas, allowing them to outnumber and stifle the attack. So, even though the attackers have specialized in their roles, the inability for the ball to move to the attackers prevents the team from enjoying the benefits of such specialization.
I have also made the dynamic resource allocation problem easier for my opposition in attack. If I have specialist attackers who not do play much, or any role, in defense, then the opponent has greater certainty about the costs and benefits of particular actions; they can successfully base their possession in a particular area of the pitch; they have a greater ability to outnumber the opponent in an area of the pitch, at a particular moment in time. Watch Germany eviscerate the Netherlands in Euro 2012, behind an excellent performance from Mesut Ozil, for an example of how a team with four specialists in attack and a back six can easily be torn apart, even though they have six player devoted to defending4.
Given my problem with specialists, it should not come as a surprise that I do not want to see a limited defensive specialist play in midfield for Arsenal. By having a player with such a limited skill set and a fixed role, Arsenal reduce the degree to which the members of the XI can interact in possession. They essentially play a man down in possession (granted, they already do that when Flamini is on the pitch, but I do not think they want to make a habit of it), making it easier for the opposition to defend them. They reduce the possibilities in possession, their ability to move the ball quickly, and their ability to maintain control over a match in possession.
Also, a specialist defensive midfielder has little value for Arsenal if such a player gives the players ahead of him the feeling that they do not have to work hard or intelligently in defense. In a kind of Peltzman Effect on the football pitch, the lower perceived cost of laziness or stupidity could incentivize the players in front of this defensive specialist to shirk their defensive responsibilities. What happens is that there exists a lack of negative feedback as the super defender cleans up the mess the advanced player created, but that player does not realize that the near catastrophe was his fault. Thus, decreasing the number of players who interact with one another when Arsenal do not have the ball. In this case, the defensive specialist adds less defensive value to the team than one would expect, given his quality.
To be clear, I am not against specialization on the football pitch. Specialization is a necessary component of any team; however, fixed specialization creates some pretty obvious flaws, even if they may not be exploited except against the best competition. A team should defend as an XI and attack as an XI. In this way, a team has the maximum number of players interacting with each other at all times, allowing for them to specialize with greater benefit. Depending on the location of the ball, the game situation, the positioning of the players, etc. everyone has a role they should play, regardless of whether the team has the ball or does not have the ball. Therefore, the ideal role that a player plays in a match changes, throughout a match and between matches. Specialization must be dynamic.
This has some consequences on how Arsenal probably need to grow as a club. For example, instead of purchasing a specialist defensive midfielder, Arsenal first need to defend as a unit, holding all players accountable when they do not have possession. This means that all players have a role to stop counter-attacks, to defend prime real estate on the pitch, etc. This means shield the back of the defense, not with one or two players, but with the rest of the team; “activating” the back line defenders should serve as a last resort.
And Arsenal seen to be moving in the direction of greater interaction among the entire XI, in attack and defense. They signed Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, two front players who offer work rate and intelligence in defense. They have signed a player like Calum Chambers, who I believe will take over for Per Metresacker at right center back, giving them a player who can defend in a higher line and do more in possession, allowing for greater interaction among Arsenal players defensively and offensively.
In some ways, it is not surprising that Arsenal’s best two-way players and most intelligent players tend to come from outside of the youth set-up. Danny Welbeck had his upbringing at Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez really grew as a player at Barcelona, and Calum Chambers learned his craft at Southampton. What will be interesting to see over this season and over the next few years is how the Arsenal-trained players develop and how the youth system changes to meet Arsenal’s new needs, if Arsenal want to move towards a more Dutch style of football. A dynamic specialization style of football.
¹ I am ignoring goalkeepers but having a goalkeeper who can play with the ball at his feet, cover tons of ground defensively, understands how to position himself in possession, etc. is highly valuable as it increases the amount of interaction of the players of a team in both attack and defense. For me, the skill of shot-stopping is overrated, and there may not even exists much of a marginal difference from keeper to keeper.
²If I know the five players that will defend/attack then I can have greater certainty as to the strengths of the players in defense/attack, their weaknesses, how the opponent will allocate their resources, etc. That greater certainty allows me to more easily create a game plan to beat them.
³Better scouting may have contributed to the movement towards greater universality. If I have too many fixed roles in my team back in the 1960s, I have a greater chance of getting away with it because my opponent has less knowledge about my team. Nowadays, teams know each other more and therefore have a better ability to exploit teams that have more fixed roles in their XI.
England really lacks teams that work as an XI either in attack or in defense, let alone both. That may be one of the reasons that English clubs have recently struggled so mightily in the Champions League, except when they try to defend deep, counter, and hope that they do not concede too many shots and/or the first goal.
I have probably linked this interview with Jonker
too many times, but I think his role at the club will play a large role in Arsenal’s ability to reach the top of European football and see my rather long comment on the Sunderland preview
for more on Arsenal becoming more Dutch.