Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How Manchester United and Arsenal are kings of the counter attack

(click pic to enlarge)

There is an upsurge in counter-attacking goals and Manchester United and Arsenal both broke at pace to score in breakaway fashion on Sunday. At Hull, United turned defence into attack in five seconds for Dimitar Berbatov to take advantage of Wayne Rooney's brilliance, and Cesc Fabregas finished a seven-second burst for Arsenal against Aston Villa.

The creation of doubt in a defender's head and the consequent creation of space: this may sound like an all-too theoretical explanation for the increase in counter-attacking football of the sort illustrated with such sharpness by Cesc Fabregas and Wayne Rooney on Sunday, but it is theory derived from practice.

It is true that Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson are long-standing practitioners of high-risk, attacking football, but their core beliefs have been aided by recent rule changes.
Part of Ferguson's longevity is his willingness to adapt on and off the pitch and he has acknowledged that in the past few seasons Manchester United's style, particularly in Europe, has evolved into what the former Roma manager Luca Spalletti called 'more Italian than the Italians'.

As Ferguson said before last season's European Cup semi-final against Arsenal, which United won in part due to breakaway goals in the second leg in north London: 'Counter-attacking is part of modern football and something that has really developed in the European game in the last six or seven years.

'We had a spell after we won the European Cup in 1999, when we were disappointing and had to change our thinking. We lost to PSV Eindhoven and Anderlecht away and there were some others, all on the counter-attack.'

Statistical analysis of games at international, Champions League and senior professional level over the past 10 years shows that there has been an increase in counter-attacking football; or, to put it another way, attacks which start in the defensive third or middle third of the pitch.

There are two main reasons for this: firstly, there is the change in the offside rule in 2003 and its interpretation of active/passive; secondly, there has been the gradual refereeing clampdown to the point of near elimination of the tackle from behind.
Put those two factors together and there is more attacking space.

Defences are defending deeper because the interpretation has placed doubt in defenders' heads. They still know when a forward behind them is deemed inactive but they don't know if that will still be the interpretation two passes later.

Now add other factors at the top level such as increased fitness and better technique and you see why that space ceded in front of the defence is exploited by attacking midfielders or by forwards who drop off.

The rhythm of matches has changed. Given this, oddly, we have seen the rise of the non-typical No 9 centre forward. Arsenal began with Andrey Arshavin up front against Villa and - in Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov - United have a pair who contrast with the traditional values that Didier Drogba brings to Chelsea.

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