Cesc Fabregas tries to explain how to be a playmaker to Samir Nasri.
This preseason, Arsene Wenger has taken to playing Samir Nasri in a number 10 role, giving some credence to the suggestion that Nasri will sign a new contract if he's given the keys to Arsenal attack. There are, however, two problems with that rumour. First off, it seems unlikely that Arsene Wenger would held with the proverbial gun to his head by one of his player's demands, and, perhaps more seriously, Nasri isn't very good in the number 10 role, looking far more comfortable on the right of Arsenal's attack, a role that saw him score 12 goals in the first half of last season.
On the face of it, Nasri should be the perfect replacement for Fabregas. An excellent dribbler and passer, he played behind the striker for Marseilles and also has done so on occasion for France post Raymond Domenech. But for someone labelled, perhaps unfairly, the new Zinedine Zidane, Nasri surprisingly lacks the nous of Cesc Fabregas' role. The statistics back up this assumption: In the recent Emirates Cup tournament, Nasri only made 28 passes in the final third, and created 0 chances (his opposite number, Riquelme, only made 15 passes in the final third, but created 3 chances), while on the second day, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey created 4 chances between them (3 for Rosicky, 1 for Ramsey), while making over 100 passes each. Furthermore, when Nasri has played in the number 10 role for Arsenal, the Gunners haven't had success, with Nasri failing to pull the strings against West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn and Sunderland, and also not impressing in preseason.
One of the reasons that makes Cesc Fabregas such a good playmaker is his intelligence, with the ball and without the ball. As Aaron Ramsey recently said:
[Fabregas] sees passes before other people see them
which allows Fabregas to play those quick long balls over the top, catching out the opposition defence. Samir Nasri has rarely done that, and because of that, he isn't able to control the midfield from deep, unlike Fabregas. The perfect example of Fabregas having this sort of performance is away to Blackpool, where Fabregas controlled the midfield superbly, dropping deep and pinging long balls over the top for Robin van Persie. Nasri doesn't do this. As this video by BackwardsGooner indicates, Nasri has problems rotating; when he drops deep, he does it at inopportune moments, or, because he rarely makes a long pass, he'll slow the play down. This means Nasri often fails to control the midfield, and thus, won't spend as much time in the deeper areas of the midfield as Cesc Fabregas and Aaron Ramsey (see Figure 1). Furthermore, the ways Fabregas and Nasri make their runs are very different. Nasri tends to make early runs to get into goal scoring positions, which served him so well at the beginning of the season. The problem with doing that from the middle though, is that it takes Nasri out of the move, and then forces another player to take on the distribution role. With Nasri serving as the chief creator in the side when he's number 10, it causes a breakdown in the midfield and makes it harder for Arsenal to create chances. Finally, because Nasri's rotational play is poor, it becomes difficult for someone like Andrey Arshavin to come into the middle to dictate play without blocking up the centre of the park. Fabregas, on the other hand, doesn't do this. When he makes forward runs into the box, he times them so that they come at the end of moves, often playing one twos with over midfielders before getting into goal-scoring positions. One of the best examples of this is Fabregas' goal against Burnley in March 2010. There, instead of breaking forward, he stays deeper, continuing the move before playing one-two with Samir Nasri, breaking into the box and scoring. It's the perfect example of how to make goalscoring runs as a number 10, and the type of run that Samir Nasri does not understand how to do.
Aaron Ramsey, on the other hand, understands the number 10 role. While he may not play as advanced as Fabregas, turning the 4-2-3-1 into a 4-1-2-3, he understands the forward runs a number 10 has to make better than Samir Nasri does, and has a better range of passing, enabling him to control the midfield from deep, as shown in Figure 2. In Ramsey, Arsenal have the closest thing to a like for like replacement for Fabregas, and they will be better off using him in the playmaking role than Samir Nasri. Furthermore, Ramsey, by playing deeper than Fabregas, allows for better midfield rotation. Throughout preseason, Jack Wilshere has gotten forward more regularly than he did last year, making Arsenal's formation look more like the 4-1-2-3 that was so successful in the beginning of the 2009/10 season. That season, until Robin van Persie got injured, Arsenal were more fluid, and less dependent on a single playmaker, like Cesc Fabregas, because the two advanced midfielders were deeper, meaning more space was available in the midfield. If Fabregas can still play in it, and stays, a 4-1-2-3 formation will be better at home against weaker sides. If he goes, Aaron Ramsey should replace him in a 4-1-2-3. Samir Nasri may prefer the glamour of the central role, but a return to the flanks and to his goalscoring form a year ago will bring more glamour and recognition and bring Arsenal closer to the silverware he claims he craves.