07 August 2014

Alexis, Chambers, Debuchy and the decline of "positions"

Caught up in the hype and optimism of new signings and the suggestion of new signings to come, we've asked certain, specific questions: is Alexis a striker? Will Chambers become a right-back, centre-back, or defensive midfielder? Should we pursue a box-to-box sort of DM or more of a holding midfielder? These questions come together to beg one larger question, one whose answers might inspire or terrify, depending on where you stand on things. That larger question: could Arsenal play without defined positions? Before you laugh it off, think about it. In the current squad, we have a fair few players flexible enough in their skill-sets and preferred roles that naming or assigning them a position becomes difficult, if not impossible.

For the last few seasons, we've centered our offense around a striker, someone who offers himself as a central target and who delivers the bulk of the goals (van Persie) or who does his level-best to hold up play until midfielders can run off of him (Giroud). In the first instance, everything goes through one player and we live or die by his production. Once he left, we seemed to move to a more "egalitarian" approach, enabled by Giroud's famed work-rate and made-necessary by his poor finishing, both of which encouraged more contributions from other scorers.

However, Giroud's role has made us more-predictable in many ways. Deny passes into Giroud, dispossess him once he has it, or let him shoot, and in each case the defense wins. With the introduction of Alexis as a striker, we might be forced to move away from funneling offense through the centre, which offers us the freedom to attack in more-varied ways. Is Alexis an out-and-striker? Arsène has suggested as much. However, he won't be playing the same role that Giroud has tried to play. Instead, he's likely to move around across the front of our attack, and the flexibility this offers would allow him to exchange "positions" with Walcott or Cazorla or Özil or anyone else who has started the game in the midfield, with the result producing a constantly shifting attacking formation that might see Alexis occupying the CAM role, Walcott on the left, Cazorla as the striker, and Özil on the right. Permutations are endless.

And that's before we look at the defensive midfield. We've seen and thrilled at how Ramsey bombs forward and gets back to defended; offering similar skills and mindets are Wilshere, the Ox, Diaby, Rosický. As a result, we've wondered whether we should a more-conservative holding midfielder who can shield the defense as Arteta and Flamini have done. However, our pursuit of Khedira suggests that we might see the addition of yet another player with a more flexible and creative conception of his role. A "DM" like Khedira, who looks to get up the pitch, could further destabize the ideas of formation and position. Would we then see Alexis dropping down to defend while Khedira becomes the striker? Perhaps, if only for a few minutes. It's about as outlandish as asking a lumbering Mertesacker get forward for corner-kicks. However, Khedira is a hypothetical. We could get a holding midfielder like Carvalho. We could get no one. 

Let's set aside the hypothetical-who's to consider who we do have. Debuchy started his career as a midfielder, a deep-lying playmaker, but has become a right-back. Of course, we already depend on our wide defenders to get forward to provide width, but Debuchy's background suggests that his skill-set and mentality are more of the creative variety, and he'd be comfortable mixing around, trading places with Flamini or Ramsey for short spells (each of whom has played as needed in the defense, for what that's worth). We also have Chambers, whose position and role are yet to be sorted. Is he meant to be a right-back, a centre-back, or a defensive midfielder? This, to circle back, seems to beg the bigger question that we started with. Set aside the idea of a position; envision a future in which he trades places/roles with several other players. Could we end up seeing Chambers attacking down the left side while Cazorla tries his hand at right-back? Unlikely. I'm not calling for a complete inversion to the formation; I'm suggesting that we could see an XI that flummoxes opponents and transcends names.

Players would still have to mind their roles and responsibilities, not to mention their opponents' intentions and strategy. The risk is that, without a defined shape or clear sense of who should be where, we end up on the wrong end of a six-goal scoreline. It's happened before. Indeed, against "superior" opponents, we would likely have to commit to a more conservative approach—unless, that is, there actually is something to this flexible formation. After all, some of our most-dynamic, dominating teams didn't score from long stretches of possession; they hit on quick, devastating counter-attacks. Perhaps, instead of trying to thread intricate passess through a thicket of eight or ten foosball-playing defenders and getting caught too high up the pitch, we're the ones soaking up a bit of pressure in order to unleash those counter-attack, with the attacks consisting of those most likely to get up the pitch fastest. So Walcott's the one who wins the ball in our third, is it? All the better for Gibbs or Chambers to get up on the weak side to receive a pass from Koscielny, who received it from Walcott, and Alexis is there to finish.

It's all a bit fantastical and far-fetched, I'll admit. However, the additions to our squad suggest that Arsène is looking to build a squad that is made up of the kind of players who can play in that kind of "system," players who bring technique, pace, sense of space, quick decision-making, and the confidence to put it all together so that playing out of position becomes an outdated notion, even if only in brief but breathtaking bursts. I don't think I go too far out on a limb to suggest it...