Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Who should start as centre forward in Van Persie's absence?

Source: Press Association Images
So once again Robin van Persie is out injured at a crucial period during Arsenal's season. His absence means that progression through to the Champions League quarter finals will be an uphill struggle, and in the FA Cup a daunting game at Old Trafford awaits the Gunners should they advance past Leyton Orient in their 5th round replay tonight. On the positive side he will only miss 2 Premier League games should his recovery go to plan, with Arsene Wenger estimating that the Dutchman will be out for at least 3 weeks.

Robin van Persie is of course a top class player, but his effect on Arsenal's system extends far beyond his own individual contributions. His appreciation for space, intelligence in his movement, and ability to retain and distribute the ball high up the pitch, all make him the ideal candidate to act as the "false 9" within Arsenal's attack. His presence brings the best out of the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott, players who thrive on the space that van Persie creates for them in behind defences.

Van Persie's injury last year saw Arsenal transform from free-scoring high-fliers to a team that ended up limping, trophyless, over the finishing line in May. It was clear that his injury disrupted the team's attacking flow, and although Wenger experimented with several different players in the centre forward roles (Bendtner, Eduardo, and more radically Arshavin), none of them were able to replicate the influence of the Dutchman.

With Wenger looking unlikely to stray from his 4-2-3-1 setup this season, it's important that whoever fills in for van Persie is as similar as possible in terms of style of play. Step forward Marouane Chamakh. The Morroccan was signed on a free from Bordeaux last summer, and although he's struggled for form since December (not surprising given his lack of starts since the return of van Persie), his performances in the first few months of the season were excellent. Although lacking the creative talent and individual goalscoring game of van Persie, Chamakh was an effective deputy because vitally, he was able to replicate the intelligent movement and the hold-up play of the Dutchman, which is so vital in dragging markers out of position and facilitating the other attacking players in breaking into space.

The following table shows the overall team's attacking performance as well as individual goals/assists stats of the players who have started as centre forward since Arsenal switched to a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 at the start of last season*. Realistically Arshavin will not be playing in the middle again this season, but his stats are shown for reference.

(*Only Premier League and Champions League proper games have been included, as other competitions tend to include weakened teams. Further breakdown of home/away performances as well as game-by-game stats are available by clicking on the other tabs at the bottom.)

What's evident is that the team scores at an amazing rate with van Persie as starting centre forward (obviously), but despite appearing to be individually the weakest of the club's 3 centre forwards, Chamakh does a much better job than Bendtner in preserving the attacking flow and goal average. The Morroccan lacks movement into goalscoring positions, directness, and killer instinct, but he more than makes up for it with his teamplay and overall positive effect on the team's ability to ripple the back of the net.

Source: Getty Images
I have speculated previously on the reason behind Bendtner's apparent negative effect on team performance despite seeming to do well on an individual level. I believe that the role of the centre forward in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 should first and foremost be to aid the flow of the attack and to create space for the 3/4 players behind him. The individual goalscoring/assists performance of the centre forward comes secondary to the team's overall attacking performance. In that respect, van Persie and Chamakh do a far better job than Bendtner, who seems to stifle the team's fluidity with his (relatively) poor touch and movement. This trend is evidenced by the superior team performances when the centre forward role was occupied last season by Andrei Arshavin. The Russian, a natural attacking midfielder, contributed next to nothing in terms of goals/assists but enabled the team to score at an average of 2 goals per game, highlighting the importance of having a player who can drift about, take passes in his stride and keep the ball moving within the final 3rd.

One of the arguments in favour of Bendtner is that he very often pops up with vital goals and assists (this was particularly true from February onwards last season). However, you could say that Bendtner's ability to provide important match-saving contributions is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By making the system less geared towards fluidity and interchanging of positions, and more geared towards serving an orthodox no.9 (relative to other Arsenal centre forwards), the team's goal output is decreased, but the likelihood of Bendtner being the one to score or assist increases. And therefore he appears to be bailing Arsenal out, when in fact his presence was probably the root cause of Arsenal struggling in the first place.

In fact, the only game where Arsenal have scored more than 3 team goals with Bendtner as starting centre forward, was the 5-0 win over Porto. Bendtner was surprisingly clinical that game, netting a hattrick from 2 predatory finishes and a penalty. A system with Nicklas Bendtner as the single centre forward would only work in the long term if he could improve his finishing. In a more orthodox attacking system, less chances are created, and it therefore becomes vital that the focal point inside the box (i.e. Bendtner) makes the most of the chances that come his way. Unfortunately this has rarely been the case in the past.


Unless Wenger switches to a 4-4-2 or another formation that facilitates 2 centre forwards, Marouane Chamakh remains the ideal candidate to take over van Persie's false 9 role. The Morroccan was given his chance at the start of the year and proved that he was able to fill the void that would otherwise have cost Arsenal a chance at the title, as it did the previous season. Nicklas Bendtner remains a decent plan B, but Chamakh's qualities are more in tune in with Arsenal's plan A.