This is a continuation of my series about Arsene and dispelling some of the myths ingrained in arguments that people constantly make against him to highlight some imaginary incompetence that only exists in their thought processes. People make a really big deal about “square pegs in round holes” in terms of players being played out of position and even use it as another reason to claim Arsene isn’t a great manager. What people seem unwilling to accept is that players can thrive in positions other than what they’re advertised or well known as playing in. Look at the likes of Gilberto Silva and Emmanuel Petit, both have played as CBs for their national teams and were converted into outstanding defensive minded midfielders here (and as rumours have it, this was our intention when pursuing Vertonghen as well).
Here are 4 examples from the greatest team English football has ever seen. Seems square pegs do fit rather well into round holes when they mould themselves to that role and arguably end up as better players than they ever could have been in their originally intended role.
Growing up, wanted to be a striker and played the role at the youth levels, but at the age of 20 became the starting left back for us and one of the best we’ve had in our history despite the acrimonious departure and soured relations with the fans since that time — Ashley Cole
Signed as a player who could provide cover in defensive midfield and was transformed into Lee Dixon’s successor at right back — Lauren
Left winger while developing at the youth level, flopped at the same role in Italy and then moved to Arsenal where he was converted into a striker, arguably the greatest of the Premier League era — Henry
A promising young player who had grown up playing attacking midfield and striker he was first signed to be a versatile utility player, filling in at defensive midfielder and then right back before converting into his final role as an Invincibles center back – Kolo Toure
What this indicates to me, and should to most, is that players with a certain skillset CAN be moulded into a completely different kind of role that benefits the team. One non-Arsenal example for this is Carles Puyol who started his career as goalkeeper, switched to defensive midfield due to injury and then ended up as a right back and finally his position that we all know him famously for, center back. This is similar to the path followed by Lauren and the move to center back from the right is one that could be envisioned for someone like Sagna in the current team too.
I think what people don’t realize is that players adapt and learn constantly, especially when younger. They also need to realize that players are bought based on their potential ability to fit into the system and formation that we play here and not necessarily what they play elsewhere. What matters is the adaptation and the willingness of the player to learn and do what the team requires him to do. One example that came up during a recent twitter discussion was Carlos Vela, whom we tried to mould into a left sided wide forward. There are many arguments that were made during his time here regarding the chances he got here as a striker and what his best position was. However, if anyone has followed his performances in Spain before and after his time at Arsenal, you would notice that he has thrived on the left and not through the middle as many (allegedly including the player himself) have insisted. What was seemingly missing during his time here was the very willingness that he somehow shows in Spain. A similar argument could also be made about Bendtner who was played out wide to help develop him further but it was something that the player himself was unwilling to learn from.
In terms of the current team, there are people who insist that the following players being allegedly out of position and hence not doing their jobs as they should.
a. Arteta is not a defensive midfielder – This makes several assumptions, one is that we need a pure DM (I blame Makelele for leaving a lasting image in people’s heads that all DMs need to be like him) and another that Arteta doesn’t do the job that a DM is supposed to do. I find this extremely odd considering he played this position growing up and his style, based on keeping it simple and distributing the ball when maintaining possession and intelligent positioning when defending, is very similar to what Gilberto did for our Invincibles team. Our system with a 3 man midfield alternates between 2 in front of the back line when defending and just one when going forward and Arteta does this very well. He has been exposed at times this season due to the lack of an ideal partner to help him out in the absence of Diaby (the bridge man as is highlighted in this excellent piece). To highlight just what Arteta has done well, he’s proven to be one of the top 5 midfielders in the league in terms of tackles and interceptions per game and is the best distributor of the ball in the league, the two things that you most expect from his role in our system.
b. Podolski is not a left winger – again I feel it is necessary to mention that we don’t have pure wingers in our system and haven’t had one since Overmars as we play wide attacking midfielders (like Pires or Nasri or Arshavin have done) or wide forwards (like Podolski and Theo in the current system or Reyes in the past). The other thing that people seem to forget is that Podolski has over 100 caps for Germany playing in the very role he plays for us and almost all of his excellent production of goals and assists in his first season has come from starts on the left. This isn’t even a case of Arsene moulding a player into a different role to what he’s used to but rather Arsene putting him into a position that brings out the best of his abilities in the current system. People even argue that Podolski doesn’t do enough defensively on the left but I say these people haven’t seen him play enough with a left back who works well with him. The two examples I give here are his Euro performance against Netherlands and his game against Liverpool at Anfield. The first game he was subdued offensively but also vital in helping subdue Robben on the right flank while the second, heat maps on Arsenal.com reveal rather startlingly that his average position was deeper on the left than Gibbs, thus putting to rest the myth that he doesn’t belong on the left side.
c. Ramsey isn’t a winger – he isn’t, but neither was Benayoun last season and again I must repeat that we don’t play pure wingers. However the sort of work ethic, possession and desire to help to the fullback that Benayoun provided in the 2nd half of last season was what was expected of Ramsey when played out wide. There have been games where he has excelled at it, the most significant one being the away draw at City when he was one of our best players. Playing him out wide also served an even more important purpose, improving his decision making and composure on the ball and you could argue that the same sort of development cycle occurred with Diaby when he frequently played out wide when people couldn’t comprehend the thinking behind it. All this improvement is clearly in evidence in these last few games when Ramsey has again been one of our best players in midfield (and even when slotting in as a part time right back) .I can go into details about how playing on the wings helps that, but it is better explained in Auclair’s book on Henry – “Lonely at the Top”.
d. Arshavin should have played through the middle – this one I’ve saved for last as people believe Arshavin would have been better for us playing CAM behind the striker. He is definitely very good in that role however some points do get in the way of saying we misused him. His best and worst seasons for us have both been as a free roaming left sided wide attacking midfielder for us. So I don’t see how playing him there hasn’t got the best out of him – especially considering his first 2.5 seasons contributed 58 goals/assists in 82 appearances, essentially proving that he contributed a goal or an assist at least in every other game. Another key point is, if you ever actively look at Arshavin playing through the middle (or dig up old Zenit games) you’ll find that he thrives on a free roaming role and the majority of his best moves happen when he drifts out to the left (the position we played him in). The best example is from last year’s Euro game against the Czech Republic where he was quite an influential player, his heat map from that conclusively proves that even if starting through the middle, his main areas of contribution are in the very areas that we played him in (and gave him a free role for)
These are again but a few examples of players who have been played out of position for their own benefit or for the benefit of the team and there are several others who do come to mind as doing excellent jobs in their “out of position” roles such as Flamini playing LB for most of our tremendous Champions’ League run without conceding. The point is that, this is yet another accusation against Arsene that is well off the mark and even if the benefits of the move aren’t visible instantly or even comprehensible at first glance to some, Arsene knows what he’s doing by putting a player in a specific role whether it is to develop their skills or benefit the team tactically or both.
So Arsene Wenger, is he clueless to play certain players out of position as he is often accused? Or is he a visionary to develop certain skills or to mould a player into something special in a position you wouldn’t have expected?