I’ve just spent the last couple of hours having the ‘pleasure’ of watching Roy Hodgson metamorphose from ‘incompetent buffoon’ into ‘tactical god’, all because of a move he should have made before a game even started.
Watching England play over the last year was actually enjoyable, at least in an attacking sense. Yet as soon as these European Championships started, Hodgson reverted to a very conservative 4-3-3 with Wayne Rooney doing a barely passable impression of a central midfielder.
Hodgson continued in this vein on Thursday, keeping with a conservative set-up that was ill-fitting with the players that he was playing in it. At one point, Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling were all playing as in the number 10 role behind Harry Kane.
At half-time, once it was painfully clear that this system wasn’t working, Hodgson took off Kane and Sterling, and brought on two strikers in Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge. Then, with fifteen minutes to, Marcus Rashford was introduced to the fold as yet another striker.
There was plenty of intent to score a winner, but very little of what could be called a plan.
It was as if it was left up to the players to figure it out.
If it doesn’t, it should, because what we saw from England today was in essence how Arsenal have approached games since changing to 4-2-3-1 in 2007. Players are shoehorned into positions they don’t feel completely comfortable in, and when faced with a losing position, every striker on the bench gets thrown onto the field in a desperate attempt to score.
Does it work sometimes? Yes, as it did for England on Thursday, but if there has been one lesson that needs to be learned from last season, it’s that tactical flexibility is crucial to a team’s success, and that whatever tactics are played are fine-tuned to maximise the strengths of the players using them.
Talent alone isn’t enough to carry a team to success any more.
The best example of this, was, strangely enough, Real Madrid.
No, not Leicester City or Atletico Madrid, because they are two teams who are happy to sit deep, concede possession of the ball and counter-attack.
Real Madrid, just like Arsenal, are not as inclined to give up the ball.
Madrid would set-up as 4-2-3-1, with Toni Kroos and Luca Modric sitting in midfield and James Rodriguez in the #10 role, shunting Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale out wide. All five are wonderful players, but only James was playing in his optimal position and role. Madrid were average at best for the first half of the season, and Rafa Benitez got the sack.
Enter Zinedine Zidane.
Did he revolutionise the footballing world with a dazzling tactical plan? No. He just played a system that suited the players he had.
Out went James, in came Casemiro and Madrid changed to 4-1-4-1 with Kroos and Modric now able to roam in midfield without having to worry about the other being behind them at all times, whilst Ronaldo and Bale were in essence told to play behind the striker instead of out wide. The result? Played 27 games, won 22, drew 3, lost 2.
And a Champions League win.
Arsenal’s biggest problem for years now has been their reluctance to change tactics unless it’s absolutely necessary, like they have in recent times when playing a big team away from home.
But with everyone fit, we regularly have players playing in positions that they aren’t in a position to be effective in.
Andrei Arshavin was never a left winger, neither was Santi Cazorla.
Aaron Ramsey isn’t a right winger, nor is Jack Wilshere.
Remember when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain nearly beat A.C Milan by himself in centre-midfield, then never played there again?
Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to change his tactics to accommodate his squad has been a minor problem for a couple of years, as it’s hard to justify a change when the current set-up benefited his two best attacking players, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez.
But we’ve just spent £30m on a player who can control a game like this:
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) June 15, 2016
It would be a criminal waste of Xhaka’s skill set to just slot him in where either Francis Coquelin or Mohammed Elneny have played, and playing just one of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey in midfield beside him is an immense waste of resources.
It is now time to do what we did with Cesc Fabregas, and rework our tactics to suit who we have in the squad.
There is no way to fit Wilshere, Xhaka, Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil into one team, but if Arsenal play either 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-3-1-2, they could get four of them in at once.
With Arsenal’s propensity for injuries, it’d be rare for there to be too many occasions where they’ll all be available.
Let Alexis play up front like he does for Chile, and Ramsey could even play up front behind him, like he plays for Wales. The options are limitless.
We’ve seen for years how playing players out of position has hurt both them and Arsenal. Just ask Theo Walcott.
There is now an opportunity to reset and build from scratch, and those don’t come around too often.
We’ve spent years asking for Arsenal to develop a plan B.
It’s time to work on Plan A again.