The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Andre Santos adds a different dimension to Arsenal’s attack

When hoping to get a glossary commissioned translating Anglo-French football terms, journalist Philippe Auclair realised just how under-developed England’s vocabulary was when it came to the beautiful game. Writing in the biography Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King, he says; “The French (and indeed, the Spaniards, the Italians and, believe it or not, the Germans) had at their disposal an arsenal of descriptive words and phrases which my English press-box colleagues had yet to coin.” To highlight his point, he says any piece of skill would generally be referred to as a “flick” whilst “nutmeg” springs to mind as perhaps the only skill to have been baptised.

The English lexicon is similarly unrefined in regards to football positions: a striker is a striker even if in a 4-4-2, one of those strikers drops deep to pick up the ball. Likewise, players are often strictly defined by their roles. For example, the common argument you hear today is that Alex Song cannot get forward because he is a holding midfielder. And indeed, that’s the same argument used against Andre Santos, who has been unfairly criticised for constantly looking to get forward to support the attack.

To be fair to Santos, he had rarely played at full-back for his club side, Fenerbahce, before signing (although he did for Brazil) so his enthusiasm to join the attack may have partly stemmed from that. However, in saying that, his forays forward have been selective and they only have the look of reckless abandon because when he does get forward, he tends to do so with the aim of maximising from the opportunity. Yet, the misgivings about his excursions up the pitch say more about the tactical sophistications of the English game than about Andre Santos’s deficiencies.

In Brazil, the full-back is known as the “lateral” which is perhaps misleading as although it gives the notion of width; it could just as well be misconstrued for the English definition of the full-back whose primary purpose is as a defender who defends across the back-four. However, in Brazil, the full-back is an integral part of attack and the term “lateral” indicates “a wide player, but not necessarily a defensive one,” writes Jonathan Wilson. This idea can be further elaborated by José Thadeu Gonçalves who, writing in the book, Principles of Brazilian Soccer (1998), highlights just how important the full-back is as an attacking capacity.

“One of the most effective ways to penetrate into the offensive zone during the game is utilizing the lateral parts of the field. Because of the excessive development of defensive tactics and the tremendous physical power of many teams, the only way to identify an open space in that zone by moving the attackers and the outside midfielders inside, carrying their marks, and opening space to the full-back moving forward to become the attacker responsible for the crossing.”

The quote has particular resonance to the scenarios Arsenal frequently face and you don’t need to go further than the last fixture against Fulham to see how The Gunners are often faced with deep-lying teams. Thus the attacking thrust of Santos becomes more significant and towards the end of the 1-1 draw with Fulham, he nearly created the winner.

Arsenal failed to get enough from their full-backs last season, particularly on the left. Gael Clichy’s performances, while not the disaster some fans have made out, didn’t really rise above the average. Defensively he was generally solid and particular when Arsenal pressed, he was magnificent but he tended to handle pressure badly and suffered from a lack of concentration which sometimes led to him giving away dangerous opportunities. In attack, though, he was not very effective and as a result, Arsenal suffered when breaking down defensive sides. It proved crucial towards the end of the season as a lack of creativity proved to be the downfall of their title challenge.

In defence, Santos is not the liability he’s made out to be. In seven matches in the league, he averages 4.9 tackles per game – the highest at the club – and makes the most interceptions too at 3.4 per game. The notion that he dives into tackles far too much is fair – as he can commit a lot of fouls – but it’s also a key part of Arsenal’s game. With every ball he wins back quickly, he’s initiating another attack, in a sense, similar to Alex Song who also commits his fair share of fouls but makes even more successful tackles. Risk comes with reward might be the mantra but as intelligent players, they are being selective also. Nevertheless, Santos has shown a composure on one-on-ones that is essential to Arsenal, especially playing on the left side as he does. And that’s because Arsenal have a bias to the right-hand side; 34% of their attacks start on that side as opposed to 31% on the left and that figure increases to 37% at home matches. The reason for the tendency to build up towards that side may be that Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey, two of the three central midfielders, are attracted the to the right whilst Theo Walcott is given a box-to-box role on the flanks. Gervinho, on the other hand – and on the other side – is afforded more freedom and generally stays up the pitch. Bearing that in mind, you might want to forgive Andre Santos if he ever does complain about the lack of protection he gets.

That difference can be shown by their chalkboards in the game against West Bromwich Albion; Santos had more of the ball deeper as generally he was isolated while Carl Jenkinson was allowed to get forward more easily due to more options around him. As a result, his passes are less frequent and involve a lot of “give-and-goes” while Santos often has to go inside for options and use his drive to influence higher up the pitch. Full-backs are generally the only players “free” on the pitch and Santos’ bursts down the left can leave the defence unaware just as when he did scoring against Chelsea and Olympiakos.

In the game against Fulham, however, and that may be the trend in the coming games as Arsenal are to play without a recognised right-back, Santos was expected to provide more of the width. Johan Djourou’s distribution was understandable more simplistic for a player in a make-shift position and as such, most of Arsenal’s play came on the opposite side.

Andre Santos, though, realises the differences between the English and Brazilian games and is learning quickly in order to improve the defensive side of his game. Arséne Wenger, however, signed Santos for his attacking capabilities and is not going to let the English game’s restrictive linguistics hold him back: “For me, having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning,” he said. “Take the Brazilian national team, the ones who have won trophies anyway, you will see that there is always two good full-backs. With two average full-backs they would not have won.” Arsenal already have one outstanding attacking full-back and it’s a shame Bacary Sagna can’t join him due to injury.

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18 Responses to “Andre Santos adds a different dimension to Arsenal’s attack”

  1. Tee Song says:

    I think it’s safe to say that you and I are in agreement regarding Santos’ abilities, the quality, both in attack and in defense, he brings to the team and the average British pundits limited and rather rigid understanding of the modern game. I have to admit that I knew very little of Andre Santos prior to his transfer but I imagined that since he’s firstly, Brazilian, and second, that he’s good enough to start for Brazil, we were getting a very good attacking fullback. His play thus far has confirmed my optimism concerning his transfer. Going forward, I think Santos will be a major contributor to any positive results Arsenal have this season.

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  2. H. says:

    Really enjoyed this piece, Column. Santos has been getting a lot of stick for “not being able to defend” (some deservedly perhaps) but I’m glad to see how more and more are starting to recognize him.

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  3. slugboy says:

    Not as good a defender as Clichy, but adds so much more in attack. Has already scored more than Clichy did in his whole time with Arsenal.

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  4. Kayode says:

    Good piece matey, tbf to Andre he wasnt meant to be invoved as quickly as he did due to being unfit. Keiran Gibb’s injury meant he had to play sooner than expected. His lack of fitness contributed to his poor earlier performances, I also think any player that comes from overseas needs time to adjust and alamatise to the english game; Andre Santos is blending in quicker than expected. He has started to lose some of the extra weight and is becoming a better player already. I actually think he will be a lot better than Gail Clichy was defensively, as he is a better tackler. He has already proved that he his better than Clichy attackingwise(like wenger says). I think he is a brilliant summer acquisition.

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  5. liaogz82 says:

    among all the 5 so called panic signings, this player is the 2nd most satisfied player after mikel. I dont understand the big fuss about him.

    And about gael, there are 2 interesting article…

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  6. Eurazian says:

    You make a good point about Song as well, in terms of the criticism he gets based on the simplistic label “holding midfielder”. Song could score hat tricks in every game and yet some would still condemn him for venturing further forward than the centre circle.

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  7. david seago says:

    yeah good signing.

    I feel he’s still getting used to the pace of the game and probably won’t look completely comfortable for a month or so yet, but he’s getting there.
    I think after 10 Premier league games he’ll be flying.

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    david seago Reply:

    @david seago,

    his injury has come at a bad time for him personally and the team as a whole. really starting to gel with him in there.

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  8. Anon says:

    Top article column. With Santos, Gibbs and the forehead in our ranks teams like Stoke will find that defending narrow will not work any more. Another good Wenger signing.

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  9. Tee Song says:

    For those that continue to express concerns over Santos’ defensive shortcomings, I would ask what EXACTLY those doubts are? Are there concerns over his physical attributes such as strength, stamina or pace? He strikes me as distinctly average, maybe slightly above average in the physical qualities required of a left back. In other words, he has enough speed, stamina and strength to do the job but isn’t outstanding in his physical attributes. He has a decent short burst which combined with his exquisite on the ball skills enables him to beat players pretty easily but he’s not going to overpower or outrun players like Micah Richards.

    Are there concerns over his defensive skill set such as positioning in one v one duels, tackling ability or focus and anticipation? In that respect, I think he’s very capable and very aggressive. He certainly likes to dispossess the opponent and this is where he sometimes gets into trouble. If he misjudges an interception attempt or, more likely, a tackle, he leaves himself and the team open. Against Chelski, Santos was openly critical of his play in the first half and a big part of that poor performance was his mistimed challenges which allowe Chelski players way too much time and space. He improved in the second half and game by game since. I think his initial problems were down to three factors. He lacked match fitness and sharpness initially, having participated in the Copa America over the summer. And the step up in both the pace of the game and quality of players from the Turkish league to the BPL is pretty huge and he needed to acclimatize to that. The nature of his defensive aggressiveness means that if we cheer every time he wins the ball, we should mute our jeers if he occasionally fails.

    Finally, are these concerns over his attacking forays and the resultant space he leaves in the back? If fans are concerned over that, I think they’re missing the point of this article and his role in the team. For Arsenal, fullbacks, just like midfielders, are expected to contribute offensively. When Andre bombs forward, he’s not abandoning his defensive responsibilities. Instead, he’s fulfilling his offensive duties. And if a team successfully attacks the space he has left, fans’ ire should be directed not at Santos but at the failure of Arsenal’s defenders and midfielders to properly rotate and cover for him. I can’t remember the specific game but there was an instance recently in which Theo had tracked back to cover a counter and was a temporary left back after Santos was caught up high up the pitch. The commentators appropriately praised Walcott but then proceeded to castigate Santos for not defending properly. Now I don’t expect Theo to cover for Santos routinely but this showed the essence of defending as team and a great example of total football. Since Santos can contribute significantly to our attack, he should push forward and someone needs to cover him.

    In the previous column on the Fulham game, a great point is made about Djourou and how his reluctance to push forward actually gave Fulham, though Clint Dempsey’s positioning, an avenue of attack. By not moving forward when we had possession, Djourou freed Dempsey of any defensive responsibilities. For a possession oriented, attacking team like Arsenal, playing with a more defensive minded right back actually gave us a structural defensive weakness to exploit.

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    Dave Reply:

    @Tee Song, Indeed, as Wenger himself states all too often “Attack is by far and away the best defence”. Brazilian’s actually don’t have an understanding of a defensive “full-back”. All of the wing players in Brazil must be able to comfortably fullfill attacking and defending responsibilities. The prospect of Sagna coming back from injury is a mouth watering one, as I feel his best season for us was his first one, when he had an attacking understanding with Clichy. I fear for Gibbs however, I just don’t see his attacking abilities and in really tight defensive games, often it’s the backs that score you gols.

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    Tee Song Reply:

    @Dave, Regarding Gibbs, I think that he offers much more in attack than Clichy. It’s probably why Arsene let Gael go without too much fuss. While Kieran doesn’t offer as much in the attacking third as Santos yet, there’s still time for him to learn the attacking side of the game and perhaps even pick up few of Andre’s tricks. The competition between the two is only good for the team.

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  10. cryer says:

    Santos is brilliant in attack but like most brazilians is a touch suspect in defense. great prose though.
    Found an interesting piece on Arsenal tactics, check it out;

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  11. Alican says:

    Andre Santos almost always played as full back for Fenerbahçe, except for a handful of games in the first few months.

    He was given more freedom to overlap in Fenerbahçe’s 4-2-3-1, and got many goals (rockets) and assists. However, he was often criticised there because of losing his man in defence and his general lack of defensive work rate.

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  12. VanP says:

    clichy pros – agile/light, stamina, fast, pass
    cons – bad positioning, bad tackles, bad crosses, cant score goals

    santos pros – technical, dribbling, ball control, pass, physical, can score goals
    cons – slow.

    unlike clichy, santos is a player that can create miracles while attacking.

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  13. franco says:

    Santos is much better than clichy cuz he doesnt falter when under pressure.he is a treat to wauch when on the ball.And he scores goals.

    Clichy kinda was well with his distribution but even then it wasnt as attack-minded as santos’

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  14. aneesh says:

    I think Santos is going to be a lot better than Gael ( if he’s not already),primarily because of what he adds to our attack.He wasn’t supposed to be starting games so early,but because of Gibbs injury,he had to,which is why he had a couple of bad games in the starting.He’s much better under pressure than Gael who commited a lot of costly errors.Hopefully,we are seeing the making of an arsenal legend!
    his signing shows that Arsene Knows.

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  15. Smudger says:

    Excellent, excellent writing. Fantastic analysis and a brilliant read.

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