The Short Corner: How Denilson would have improved Arsenal at Anfield

AFCB’s new tactics guru Andrew Enloe gets the chalkboards out for the very first edition of ‘The Short Corner’…

In the world of Arsenal blogging, it seems the tactical side gets put on the back burner with most articles focused on team spirit and Arsene Wenger’s much-vaunted “mental strength.”

This has its place of course, but I also believe it is incredibly important to look at how the manager’s tactical approach affects how the team plays.

So we start the season off with a belter at Anfield.

Missing Denilson

What stuck with me from this match was the midfield setup.

Wenger’s preferred midfield lineup is Song, Denilson, and Cesc and with good reason; those players provide the balance in midfield required to disrupt the opposition, start attacks, and hold possession.

In this first game of the season, they were replaced with Diaby, Wilshere and Nasri respectively.

Few would argue that Diaby is a very effective defensive player, but Nasri looks like he could nail down a regular first-team spot this season. The final midfield spot remains unclear.

Most would agree that Song and Cesc are undoubtedly first-choice players. Denilson, though, is a bit of an enigma, with many struggling to find out what he actually does.

A lot of people would prefer to see Diaby, Wilshere or Ramsey in that remaining midfield spot.  But the truth is that neither of those players can match up with Denilson’s passing completion rate.

I hear you say, “but they’re all sideways and none of them are killer passes.” That’s not the point.

When the best players are available, Arsenal’s style of play emulates the tiki-taka of Barcelona and Spain.

Essentially, tiki-taka is using possession as a means of defense; if you have the ball, the opposition can’t hurt you.

When you don’t have the ball, you aggressively press high up the pitch to force misplaced passes (remember how the team did this in the first games of last season).  So possession is key.

For all Diaby’s skill, he takes too many touches before releasing the ball, allowing opponents to settle, thereby nullifying the purpose of moving the ball around.  Wilshere showed on Sunday that he doesn’t have the discipline to function consistently in such a system as of yet.

And while Denilson doesn’t quite have the best positional discipline when defending, that’s a complaint you could probably level at the entire team (that will surely come in a later installment.  I’m looking at you, Andrey).

Denilson allows the move to continue ticking over.  He allows the team to patiently wear down opponents, which is actually one of the team’s great strengths.

Wilshere doesn’t have the passing ability that Denilson does. We missed Denilson’s easy passes on Sunday, with a few players (Diaby and Nasri in particular) taking too many touches before releasing the ball.

The introduction of the more direct Rosicky helped, but I’m convinced that Denilson’s composure would have made a considerable difference.

For all the supposed predictability of Denilson’s passing range, it is interesting to compare Diaby’s passing map with Denilson’s in last season’s first fixture, away at Everton (Diaby on top, Denilson on bottom):

What I’m most curious to see this season is whether Wenger will decide to play a 4-2-3-1 (as we saw at Anfield) with Song and Denilson as the two defensive midfield players or a more direct 4-1-2-3 with Nasri and Cesc in more attacking roles.

Most likely Wenger will use Nasri in home games against the lesser lights of the league, while Denilson will feature in the tougher fixtures.

Short Corners

  • One of my favorite sights from last season was William Gallas bombing forward.  We won’t see that this time around, but it looks like Thomas Vermaelen is more than willing to take up that mantle.
  • Koscielny looks a better reader of the game than his Belgian partner, who often goes to the ball too quickly and leaves space behind him.
  • Marouane Chamakh is a much more classic No 9 than Van Persie.  While I don’t think he can play the deep role Van Persie does consistently, I can see him in home games against weaker opposition if Wenger wants to give the classic 4-4-2 a go.
  • I have to say I’m OK with missing out on Joe Cole.  He wasn’t good enough when he was on the pitch and Liverpool only started to play well when he was sent off and Gerrard took a little bit more of an advanced role. Look at what Tomas Rosicky, who would have been one of Joe Cole’s rivals in the team, accomplished in his short time on the pitch (Joe Cole on top, Rosicky on bottom):

  • Both Kuyt and Jovanovic had very good defensive performances.  One of the reasons Arsenal struggled to break down Liverpool was down to those wingers keeping Sagna and Clichy from getting on the ball in wide areas.
  • The good news from this game is that we’re not going to encounter many defensive performances as good as Liverpool’s was on Sunday and it’s probably impossible that we’ll run into a defensive midfielder as good as Mascherano was.
  • Going to Anfield with a midfield comprising players I would describe as second-choice and subsequently dominating possession is no bad thing either.

Have your say on Andrew’s tactical analysis of Arsenal v Liverpool by leaving a comment.



  1. Good analysis. Specially the point you raised about TV5 leaving space behind him is spot on. I reckon that’s the only flaw in his game.
    But do you think Denilson is effective in shielding the back 4 when the team is on the back foot? We have seen him quite a number of times conceding possession in dangerous areas.

  2. You got the Joe Cole and Rosicky diagrams mixed up.

    Otherwise, good article. You make some good points, but don’t be surprised when all the Denilson haters start calling you crazy. He seems to get a lot of slack.

  3. Very good summery, It just goes to show how much Denilson gives to the team structure and balance.

  4. Love that you have written an article on this, I agree 100% with you.
    The truth is, we have enough players that can take people on, and denilson is the link up player between song and the rest of the midfield.
    I think another underrated aspect of his game are his interceptions, where he will quickly win the ball and then pass it off to a more creative player.
    There is a reason he has been captain for Brazil in all the youth teams, and barring injury i can see him becoming very good.

  5. Denilson better than Wilshere for Arsenal… are you nuts?! both Wilshere and Ramsey can play that third midfield role far better than Denilson, and Diaby could probably do so as well. Ramsey proved as much last season before… well, you know what. Denilson is too lazy for that role, I dont think ive ever seen him bust his gut to get back into position or to retrieve the ball when the team lose the ball. It wouldnt annoy me so much if he simply didnt have the pace but tried to help defend, but this isnt the case is it? Completed passes stats mean nothing whatsoever when they are smashed at your team mates either, this is something else he does all to often. Dont get me wrong, I actually like Denilson apart from these facts, however I dont think he’s good enough to get into our current team and probably shouldnt be there… or at least he wouldnt be if I were manager. Providing everyone was fit I would pick Fabregas, Wilshere, and Song, with Ramsey, Diaby and Frimpong as the back ups for each position. No place for the Brazillian. But then what do I know? Wenger picks the team so he must see something that the majority of us dont. I just hope he turns out to be another of his revelations this season if he is going to play Denilson. And Diaby for the defensive dutys… I dont know about you but I would much rather see Diaby play further forward if he is to play. He’s better there on his day and you just lose too much of that when he has to think about defending. Nice article besides.

  6. Absolute rubbish. Pure conjecture. Trying to compare Everton and Liverpool are a complete nonsense. The fact is Cesc and RVP won that game not Denilson. You can’t make a blog out of taking the most absurd notion. Are you American?

    In fact we dominated every game where Ramsey played instead of Denilson. When a 18 year old who has minor experience of the lower leagues comes and completely outshines you is the real point. Wilshere did better than Denilson ever could. Denilson is taking a position on the roster. And I know Arsene has been looking for buyers for Denilson. There a 100 players who can do what Denilson does in Europe. And much better than him.

  7. You make some good points but I couldn’t agree less about Denilson. He’s a liability in the big games giving up possession then going missing. Your map from last seasons first fixture was taken from a game we dominated from start to finish against weak opponents. Where’s the map from the Chavski and Manure games?

  8. Totlly disagree. Denilson is tougher games?! When we lost 3-1 to Manure last year, Denilson was involved in all the goals we conceeded. As mark says, Ramsey is a much better alternative than denilson. He can pass, move, and tackle, kinda what a midfielder should be doing. You said that about keeping the ball moving….well thats kinda what cecs and ramsey do anyway. At least Cesc woulda played on Sunday had he not reported back late. I do not rate denilson, and if you are a fan, make the most of him now coz he wont be at arsenal for long term future!

  9. Mark you talk nonsense. You obviously have never played football before. Anyone that criticises Denilson does not have a clue about football. Can you watch the Barcelona home game from last season? The only reason we got anything from that game was because Denilson came on at half time. He was the only person comfortable in possession including the fans beloved Fabregas. Denilson is one of the best players keeping the ball for Arsenal. Diaby and Arshavin are the worst. How long can Arshavin continue to play at this level without getting criticised or dropped!

  10. @mark I would say you are the american; rash, arrogant and bigoted. This is a good article because it gives an insight to arsenes thinking. We all know he likes the pass completion stats but the idea denilson is in the team to wear down the team is one that I have not heard before and understand.

    Diaby was poor on sunday, he took far too many touches and his final ball was non existent. Though denilson does not have that final ball, too many touches can never be attributed to him.

    And if you think wilshere did better than denilson ever could I suggest you get your head checked because he was ‘poop’. He would have been far more effective by keeping it simple, a la denilson.

  11. A very interesting article and at last somewhere to get away from the pro and anti wenger bickering.
    While I find the moaning at Denilson largely unproductive and unfair I suspect that to take the next step forward we will need a defensive midfielder of a higher standard – such as mascherano. For me his biggest problem is a lack of pace and physical strength in a team of relatively small players.
    An interesting question will be should we play Gibbs as a left winger against the smaller teams at home. It could be that a left side of midfield with Gibbs and Clichy would offer greater defensive solidity than Clichy and Arsharvin.

  12. @ Mark / Josh – What does anyone being American have anything to do with anything?

    Careful with those sort of remarks, they will not be tolerated going forward on AFCB.

  13. On a more constructive note, I personally enjoyed Andrew’s article.

    I’ve never been a huge supporter of Denilson – I still think that for all of his quick ball movement he has a tendency to put other players under pressure with his passing and his tracking back at times last season was atrocious – but this does firmly underline his good points.

    And I do agree that having him in the side on Sunday would have helped in just the same way having Fabregas or Song would have helped.

    Personally I still feel Arsenal’s first-choice (and best) midfield combination is Song as the defensive midfielder, Cesc as the creator/passer and Diaby as the unpredictable attacking-midfielder, with Denilson and Nasri just behind those three.

    Some depth though!

  14. Well said Andrew, there were some very border line comments coming out up there. Just wanted to say also that this is a great addition to the blog, this article was very well written and an enjoyable read.

  15. denielson is useless….. he just cannot fit into the team… screw the stats…

    he lacks defensive awareness… his tackling is very average…. he is too slow and lacks commitment….. diaby is better than him…… how ever both should not be play in the first team…..

    wngers tactics are totally screwed up…. he brought chamak who is very good in the air and no one who can cross the ball to him….

    arsavin who plays on our left plank like to play the ball at the players feet and and hardly ever crosses the ball same goes for robin

    wished he played a good lft footed left winger in the team who knows how to cross the ball….(etherington is a player who would fit perfectly into our team…..his crosses are too good).

    we dont have a commanding goliee and a tall defender who can win the ball in the air….

    during the liverpool game cross were just flying across our defence…..

    there is lot to be done in order for us to win trophies……

  16. Andrew,

    While i appreciate your time and thoughtfulness in writing and creation this piece, there are one massive obvious point. Your obessiveness with stat’s, prozone info and mathamatic are completely wasted and mmm, what the phrase. A load of absolute bollocks. I have some advice my friend. Down load two games from from last season. Arsenal v Man United. Watch lego head stroll back for united second goal when a hungry and determined Roonry busted a gut to score his goal. It was pifull.What was even more shocking to watch the ref out run your best mate to keep up with play for the third. A 45 over weight ref out spring a 21 year old professional football who plays for the Arsenal. Our so called defensive midfield player. For that display, fergie and the special one ( hated him you may,but his record is second to none ) would never allow that player to wear shirt again. Finally, down load Stoke away in FA cup and watch him “try and track back” for Stoke second goal that killed our F A cup campaign.

    In conclusion andrew, stop hiding behind stats and open you f**king eye ‘s my friend.

  17. Sorry Andy I have to disagree with your analysis about Denilson completion rate, his easy passing is not efficient if you want to emulate Barcelona pass-move triangle 1-2s. Barcelona mix up their formation, they easily switch from 3 in midfield to a diamond especially with Keita in the side, and alves/abidal pushing up as wingers. Arsenal seems to have the rigid 4-3-3 formation every game last season.

    Sorry, have to agree with Mark here, what he does is not better than Song/Diaby/Ramsey or Wilshere, even Cattermole does the same thing. I suggest looking at videos of M.Diarra and Essien when they were at Lyon, those two demonstrate how to effectively play the two holding midfielder role. Juninho(cesc role) would always be free to roam whenever/wherever.

    If Deni keep on passing backwards to control the tempo the chance of launching a fast counter is negligible because play is concentrated only in the middle, meaning Arsenal have to start passing again to him when the ball is lost to the opponent. The thought of Deni controlling the tempo of the game could make me go to sleep within the first 15minutes 😛

    The nearest example of Tiki-Taka is Brazil of the 70s which had Falcao/Socrates and co. Tiki-taka is definitely useful if the players are superbly adapt with each other and if Arsenal is leading a game. For Tiki-taka to be efficient the players have to be mobile, frankly which of Deni/diaby/song is as mobile as iniesta/xavi, even Busquuets knows how to pass-move into space, and Busquest is supposed to sit back.

    Our wingbacks dont stretch the play untill the byline, the graph you put up explicitly shows that, they stop at the edge of the penalty box. I have seen numerous times how abidal/alves stretch it untill the byline. If clichy goes to the byline the rb or cb have to shadow him leaving space for ashavin to move into the penalty box. You know what I mean, Ashley Cole and Pires did this for so many seasons.

    Barcelona midfielders are fast, out of Diaby/cesc/nasri/song/denilson, who can sprint on the ball as well as play 1-2s(I mean forward passes 1-2s), none, maybe Rosicky or Shava but Shava is wasted on the left. Barcelona have Iniesta(fast) Keita(fast and tenacious tackler), and Busquets knows how to bomb forward to pull the opposing holding mid to him for either messi/xavi/iniesta to penetrate the final third.

    Tiki taka’s usefullness depends on a lot of variables. Firstly the closing down speed in the epl is a notch higher than la liga. Secondly for tiki taka to be efficient, the players have to release the ball after two touches(better still 1 touch all the way) as you mentioned, to draw the opponent to you allowing your midfield partner to move into the opponents space, and the process repeats again untill a decisive(through) pass in the final third happens.

    I don’t have a problem with Denilson but to suggest that he is the player we are missing seems a bit far fetched. Deni is a good enough squad player that I want to see stay at Arsenal. I agree Liverpool controlled our wingbacks but at the same time their crosses had been mediocore, not just this game but over the course of a few seasons. I feel the team just have to find their own way of play and stop try too hard to emulate Barca/Spain, and we would be on our way to the top spot with ease. For now the balance is not there coupled with injuries/gk issues. Once everything is solved, exciting times will come.

  18. hello Andrew,
    nice analysis but problem was that the physical nature of the team is subjected to questioning cos i don’t understand kind of physical training giving to them by the trainers and Arsene continue to watch this team suffer from physical structure to match other team in premiership and champion’s league respectively. i suggest that the team work more on gym rather than to sliming their stature and instance look at the chelsea squad strong and mobile.
    please help us tell wenger to heed the call of the fans cos he had one of the most talented team in world but but they are not that strong physically.

  19. WOW

    I thought myself and Weneger were the only ones who see something in Denilson

    Well written mate , unlike the emotional rants on the responses u actually have some factual stats to prove your point. i think he is the best at breaking up plays , Barca didnt see sh*t when he came on in the first leg. and lets not forget he scored some pretty important goals for us and is our leader in free kicks scored over the last 2-3 seasons

  20. There is a clip of Denilson apparently sauntering back as ManU broke towards goal but that was just a couple of weeks after coming back from a spinal fracture and somehow Clichy who really should have been the one covering was not even in the picture.

    As pointed out above, he was the only reason we ever got the ball against Barca.

    I like Ramsey and Wilshere a lot but neither of them is a patch on Denilson defensively. I thought Diaby actually did quite well as a defensive midfielder on Sunday but he does hold onto the ball too long and he has rarely been as consistent as that. He had a reasonable world cup for a French player so maybe this will be the season he lives up to the potential. I think the passing will improve if Arshavin wakes up or he has Nasri or Rosicky and Cesc to pass to instead.

  21. Well, for starters, the writer is comparing Denilson to Diaby specifically, not commenting on the value of Denilson for every match. I agree that Denilson would have been much better than Diaby on Sunday, and I don’t even like Denilson.

  22. Hello all. Thanks for the comments.

    When I mentioned Denilson’s “positional discipline when defending” I’m referring to games like that spanking we got from Man United. It’s easy to say that he’s responsible for Arsenal getting hit on the counterattack – and believe me I was screaming at my television at the time – but the whole defense was all over the place that day. He did look worryingly lazy, but that’s not the point of this piece.

    And I also think it’s easy to criticize him for those things because he’s on the fringe of the squad and there are more obviously skillful alternatives. If Song or Vermaelen went through bad patches I’m sure they’d have people defending them because the alternatives in their positions don’t fill everyone with confidence.

    In the end the point of this piece isn’t to discuss how much certain players care. I don’t do player ratings. It’s about looking at how the game flows objectively, and that requires statistics and looking at the performance dispassionately. That can be tough when you’re writing about the team you love, but it keeps me honest and adds another dimension to watching football. And it made this past World Cup really enjoyable.

  23. I think ramsey was playing and improving with every game last season, then he got injured i pray he comes back the same ala eduardo. On diaby this is his 6th season at arsenal he should be more advance than he is, it appears that he is not learning how much time does he need and denielson has been at arsenal 5 seasons but his improvement has stalled should be a better player
    Am very worried by the length of time the young players take to develop at arsenal, If a player comes to the club a 20 by 23 he should be much better player look at barca their youngsters are fantastic at 20 and 21. When you have players who are at the club 5 and 6 years and show minimal improvement that’s a problem
    On the positive The club has produced some good ones ramsey, merida, wilshire, gibbs, and of course then king cesc
    The fact remains that football is a short profession and you cant have players spending five years and not developing there will be always people with money in the game who can buy a new team but if you want to build a team the team must improve every season and am afarid that has not been the case with arsenal since 2005/06

  24. The interesting part of this analysis is that the complaints leveled at Denilson were ones leveled at Makelele in the latter portion of his RMadrid career. Many people wondered what exactly was it that he did and why did he always go for the easy passes. Florentino Perez went as far as saying “We are changing from a midfielder that passes the ball 5 yards with a midfielder that passes the ball 50 yards” when asked if Beckham was a direct replacement for Makelele. But it has come to pass that the world has now named it the Makelele role in midfield, and that is exactly where Denilson fits in. More than anything he is an interceptor that focuses on retention. I agree, we missed him on sunday.

  25. Some individual responses:

    @ Manu – Denilson’s main flaw as far as I can tell is a lack of concentration when we lose the ball. If he gets back in time he’s very effective with his interceptions and takes on a bit of a Gilberto role. But as many have pointed out he doesn’t always get back in time.

    @ Raul – Exactly. There are a lot of contradictions when people talk about Denilson, and I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of understanding when it comes to just how much concentration Arsenal’s style demands. The past World Cup hopefully got people more interested in tactics.

    @ Mark – I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to compare the opening game of this season (against a team that ended up in 7th) with the opening game of last season (against a team that finished two points behind in 8th). I do like Ramsey, though I prefer him in more open matches where he can use his direct running to greater effect. When the midfield is congested, I would always take Denilson.

    And I like singing Toby Keith on karaoke nights, if that helps you at all.

  26. Denilson should only be in the team (4-3-3) if Nasri or Diaby/Wilshere are unavailable, assuming Song and FABs both are.

    Is it only me or why do i need to be re-writing my name and email over and over again and stuff?

  27. Brilliant. Enjoyed that and soooooooooo nice to read positive things about Denilson. well done

  28. I apreciate what youv done Andrew but I disagree with your point about Denilson not making it back because of his timing, its not that its because he has no drive or desire when hes not in possession of the ball….Rooney exposed that last season long after Id done months of whinging about it.
    Aswel with those passing diagrams…..liking the idea but, from a readers point of view, you dont know which way were playin in each half, I mean all those passes could have been backways and sideways depending on what way we were playing at the time….sorry if it looks like im nitpicking but maybe theres a way you could have a different colour for a forward pass or position our keeper so we know what way we were going.
    One more observation I have of those diagrams is that out of all the passes shown by Diaby, Denilson and Ros that only 3 went into the danger area….from Rosicky….thats pretty bad by any standard

  29. This is a superb part of the blog!! Congratulations!!! As you rightly say, very few blogs provide tactical analysis. I’m not great on tactics so for me it’s an education. Nice one and please keep this up!

  30. i like the fact that the author articulate his thoughts and views into a detailed analysis, without making a huge statement such as “Jack is so much better”. Good read, and your view is widely shared as Denilson, as when he is fit he provides a better balance to the midfield. I used to loathe Denilson until a fellow Gunner took the time to explain Denilson’s role and compare it to Makelele. Strange thing is, he’s not a big fan of Denilson but at least he can appreciate the fact that Denilson is doing the Makelele way better than his Arsenal team mates. After his comments, i sat down and looked at Denilson play and compare it with the statistics. He won the midfield, not by tackling but by reading the game and intercepting the pass, covering the man whom the passing is intended to just so the opposition team will tend to mispass or pass the ball back, allowing the Arsenal defenders a valuable additional second to reorganize themselves.
    That role is famously named Makelele in recognition to the master of the art. In Arsenal we call it Gilberto. Pity Gilberto left too early as i feel having him around for 1 more season would have made Denilson a better player.

    i hope the author does not take too much into the rubbish comments of his peers. In fact those comments made me laugh as i recall my naivety of the game in the past, as i listened to media hype and believing it without understanding the game. Ignore them as they are rubbish because instead of looking it from your point of view, trying to understand why of all people, you decide Denilson was a better fit in that team vs Liverpool, they go out and bash your article without so much of a thought with (Insert Name) is better than Denilson, or degrading comments. I would love to see them contribute positively instead of just mouthing of words in comments. Opps, they cant because thats all what they are capable of.

    We need more Gunners like you, thinking functioning Gunners who love the game because of the game. I look forward to your articles in the future.

  31. Once again, thanks for all the comments. Good to know that people enjoy the piece.

    Anyway, about the Makelele talk. While I do like Makelele, I consider Denilson to be a bit more of a Gilberto type; he always makes himself available for a pass and breaks up attacks not with tackles (In that way I’d say Song is more like Makelele), but by intercepting passes. He still hasn’t matched the invisible wall, but he’s the best we have in the squad when it comes to that.

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