Specificity and Versatility: Compatible or Antithesis?

Arteta dreams of specificity but raves about versatility. Are the two compatible or opposites?

It’s a new week, it’s North London Derby week and finally the break is coming to a close.

Last week, I was so impressed by Tomiyasu’s performance for Japan after playing few competitive minutes for Arsenal, and as a left center back to boot. It’s not a completely foreign position to Tomiyasu, but to step in, make it look as effortless as he did and have the outcome be that clean and technical of a performance as it was, is an incredible skill. It got me thinking about the make up of Arsenal’s squad offering a balance between versatility and the end-goal vision Arteta has spoken of achieving complete specificity within each position.

At face value, pairing two feels contradictory. Juxtaposing views, one almost the antithesis of the other.

Specificity: the quality of belonging or relating uniquely to a particular subject.

Versatility: the ability to adapt or be adapted to many different functions or activities.

Many will remember there was a press conference early in Arteta’s tenure about the team lacking the personnel and specificity needed to play his desired 4-3-3 formation.

“We want to move to a 4-3-3 but for that, you need a lot of specificity in every position but now in five or six positions, we don’t have it.”

At the time some were frustrated, even angry, that the statement suggested this team was so far from playing good football. Yet, today we have an overhauled side starting to achieve levels of football we haven’t seen since Wenger which makes the statement and process hard to argue with.

Today, many are familiar with the term “Positional Play”. For those that aren’t, Positional Play is a style of play where the football pitch is divided into zones and each player is “assigned” to a zone. Each zone has a different role which means that each player has a different task to execute. The goal of Positional Play is that the zones and the tasks within them can be occupied and used by different players in order to keep a side fluid, dangerous, structured, and superior.

To try and break that down to the studs, while attempting to avoid being even more reductive than this explanation is: it’s about getting specific players into specific areas of the pitch where they will have a superiority over the opposition and their skills will allow them to create team success.

It’s a style of play used by some of the best coaches and, unsurprisingly, Arteta’s mentor Pep Guardiola. If you’ve ever commented on Manchester City feeling like a fluid machine, I personally believe this is why. Positional Play, when executed correctly feesl like a highly-structured yet liquidious machine beautifully orchestrated for football domination.

In order to effectively do this, a team has to have a highly intelligent and technical side filled with player profiles that fit the manager’s specific vision for building-up play, progressive structures, defensive shapes and pressing structures. It’s important to understand this to make it easy to see why specificity is so critical to success.

However, when you look at Arsenal’s squad and purchases, even when you look at the analysis surrounding those purchases, the team is often praised for the versatility their buys offer them. How many times have you heard it discussed the number of different positions the likes of Tomiyasu, White, Zinchenko, Vieira, or Smith Rowe can compete for? Probably tons.

Earlier this month, Arteta had this say about Ben White and Tomiyasu: “Both can play as central defenders as well,” he said in a pre-match press conference.

“Tomi has been playing left centre back for his national team Japan. When you look at the games, he can play as a left back too, because you cannot tell me if he’s a left or right-footed player.

“So we have the options there, and we have to utilise them in the best possible way. Especially with the number of minutes we are going to have in the next few weeks, and it’s great that players are comfortable doing more than one position.” 

On Fabio Vieira, Arteta once said: “With Fabio his versatility is something that caught our eye and we believe he’s going to give us a lot of options.”

Finally, on Zinchenko, the manager has stated this: “That versatility is something that is going to be important to the team because we have players in that position [Left back] who are more specific full backs so I’m really happy.”

It’s clear to see that Arteta openly acknowledges the versatility his players offer him, but how does that work in conjunction with his vision of “specificity in each position”, and not fly in the face of it?

Versatile Specificity in Harmony

In order to succeed with a Positional Play philosophy, the team has to understand each other and the system if they are to coordinate in real-time and move in accordance with the desired rules of positional play.

The system itself can be mistaken as rigid, however, when we saw a rigid system that lacked creativity early in Arteta’s time, some of that was because the system was being installed and learned, some of it likely to try and shore up the weak links that lacked the specificity to execute. Seeing the fine-line nuances between a pro and a con is as simple as understanding the difference between ‘rigid’ and ‘structured’. Some might say semantics, but to me, structure is there to help players get the ball up the field in a variety of different ways that set them up for success, while rigidity means there is one way ‘right’ to play and the players are expected to do that every time.

It’s obvious that there is room for versatile players to deliver value in a positional play system like Arsenals without harming the importance of specific player profiles and skillsets. However, it’s probably fair and important to point out that there are some roles in which versatility feels less than ideal.

To me, Arteta seems dialed into the vision of what his lone, holding midfielder has to be capable of offering, and Arsenal’s system has to change in little, unideal ways when Partey isn’t available. Likewise, there seemed to be a few key boxes the Gunner’s striker had to be capable of checking off in order to fulfill Arteta’s vision. Finally, I think it’s fair to say there is very little option for altering the skillset Arteta needs for his goalkeeper. It may be a little extreme to say so, but shot stopping is almost their second duty behind distribution in this side.

But when it comes to Arsenal’s recruitment, Arsenal have found a real groove in how they identify talents on the rise and highly technical players capable of offering the specificity in skillsets needed for multiple positions. For example, Tomiyasu and Ben White both have shown the ability to get up the pitch, help sustain pressure, maintain possession, distribute, and defend in Arsenal’s middle layer of their attacking 2-3-5 shape. In the same breath, both are capable of sliding into the center of the defense to clean up anything that leaks through or transitions through the midfield line, help distribute the ball, and hit the pass the breaks the lines.

What it comes down to is specificity in scoping out what profile is needed for different roles and then going out and finding talents that offer overlapping skillsets. Now, that is a statement far easier said than done, but I believe that is what makes this Arsenal side exciting. Early in this season, it has felt like the system is in place and comfortable for key players, there is more specificity than ever before, and the technical skills and intelligence of these young prospective stars are able to shine through and .

Their specificity, to keep using that word, allows Arteta to consider the structure and deploy the 4-3-3 on a regular basis. The versatility that we see in key figures, allows Arteta to adjust and tweak the system to create a strategy that caters to elevating Arsenal’s players while exploiting potential weaknesses in the opposition’s side. After all, football is a “weak link” sport, as in, you’re only as good as your weakest links. While stars can change the game, football teams can’t depend on their stars the same way a team can in, say, basketball.

As Arsenal continue to move forward with this project, and are far less dependent on major summer transfer windows in which they spread their spend across five or six positions, it’s likely that we begin to see larger amounts of spend going toward very specific, key figures. Off the top of my head, it’s likely we see Partey and Xhaka replaced in the near future, simply to find both better fits and age profiles to match the rest of our squad.

The whole team is a growing compatibility. A living thing. Fitting considering the project is filled with vibes of “victory through harmony”.

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