The Foxtrot, The Pause And The Defensive Metronome

By The Other Geoff (@Hollefreund)

When I was in elementary school we used to get herded into the gym on occasion to be taught how to dance. It would typically be without any type of advanced warning (as anti-dance fever would strike us all on a predetermined dance day) and did not involve any type of dances recognizable from the previous half century. There was no “Lock & Pop,” “Moonwalking,” or even “Mr. Roboto.”

Mercifully, touching was completely minimized with your dance partner. There is nothing quite as awkward as being 10 years old and having to grip a member of the opposite sex for an hour while you learn to waltz.

Aside from square dancing, which is about as relevant to real life as advanced trigonometry, the dance most practiced was the Foxtrot. Let me give you some quick notes on how this dance goes: the boy would have to start off by making two steps forward slowly while the girl would back-up two steps. Then at a slightly quicker tempo, both step sideways together and let the trailing leg reset to the start position – at which point there is an ever-so-brief pause before repeating. Sounds simple enough, right?

Back to front in two steps, side to side, and a tactical pause. Put together correctly and with more grace than any gangly 10 year old Canadian boy can do justice to; the Foxtrot can paint a grand flowing picture of movement, elegance, and talent.

There are two lessons I learned from those forced get-togethers. One, under no circumstances should you try and avoid picking a female partner – quite the opposite in fact – this should be done as soon as you know its dance day. This rule stems from a simple equation which showed that the class was 2/3rds male and any hesitation would mean you’d be dancing with one of your buddies, or worse, the teacher.

And two, if you wanted to do it right, and I mean really right, the key to the whole move was the final step in the sequence – the reset and subsequent pause. It’s this step that lets you draw a deep breath, take in your surroundings, and adjust the tempo before restarting at the top of the order.

There’s a similar notion in football. Argentinians call it “la pausa:” the pause. The basic premise is that with the ball, you intentionally pause in order for teammates to reach a better position on the field to receive the ball.

The very best players are able to do this without thinking about it. They can see the moving pieces on the field and know instinctively when to slow play down. It confirms a level of footballing intelligence that cannot be taught.

In Argentinian folklore, the most famous player to perfect this technique is Ricardo Bochini; a player who was idolized by Diego Maradona himself. If you want to read more on Bochini, and “la pausa”, I would highly recommend this excellent piece by Jonathan Wilson from the Guardian.

The way Bochini describes those critical moments while everything happens is nothing short of genius in that article: “None of this is something that you can teach; I believe it comes in the moment, it depends on the inspiration of your players. You have to know how to make “la pausa and another has to know that while the team-mate is making “la pausa, he’s also watching who’s going to make the proper movement in order to surprise the opposition. “La pausawithout a team-mate that collaborates is just holding the ball until, perhaps, you get fouled and waste some time, if you need to waste time.”

As Arsenal fans, we’ve been treated to our own footballing geniuses. From Thierry Henry to Liam Brady, we’ve feasted on supreme skill like Luis Suarez at an all you can eat Italian restaurant. Above all of the supremely-intelligent players to wear our red and white, there stands one whose footballing IQ was beyond reproach:

Dennis could do it all couldn’t he? From deftly finished goals to sublime touches, he is our best 10 ever. I say this with no disrespect to the other players that have worn that number for the Arsenal, but surely there can be no argument. Dennis Bergkamp was on a different level, in a different game, on a different planet, in a different universe.

Dennis knew the pause too.

December 4th, 2001. It’s the Champions League versus Juventus at Highbury. We’re up 2-1 and it’s the 87th minute; Freddie surged forward from our own half and laid the ball to Dennis on the right. What happened next is pure, unadulterated football porn. Freddie didn’t immediately realize what was happening. Dennis did. He held the ball and waited before delivering what can only be described as the most beautiful assist you will ever see. You can watch it here from minute 4:11.

Thierry Henry describes that moment as his favourite Dennis Bergkamp assist in Dennis’ book, Stillness and Speed: “It’s perfect. For me that’s his best assist [because] Dennis waits. That’s Dennis Bergkamp. Any other player would have played the ball first touch and then screamed about it: ‘Hey! You didn’t move!’ But Dennis sees the player isn’t moving, so he waits and he’s toying with all the defenders around him and he’s like ‘Come on Freddie….’ Aaaaah, it’s so beautiful….!”

The pause is such an offensive weapon. The best players at the pause, Dennis and Bochini included, occupy the number 10 for their respective teams. Of course it’s not only the 10, but also wingers and centre forwards when they need to hold up play to allow others to join the attack. Here’s the thing though, the pause doesn’t exist without the other movements on the field.

Think back to the Foxtrot. The Foxtrot is not the Foxtrot without all four steps. Without the preceding three steps, the reset and the pause are utterly meaningless.

So too, in the grand dance that is football. Without moving the ball from back to front, without the intelligence of the runners, without the sideways glance to check the timing, the pause is futile – it’s a moment of nothingness without the footballing context.

The World Cup has coughed up some absolutely scintillating personal performances. James Rodriguez, Joel Campbell, and Guillermo Ochoa have been so exciting to watch – especially in the group stages where goals were the absolute currency of choice.

One of the performances I found particularly fascinating was that of Andrea Pirlo against England. He was imperious as he glided around the pitch, his beard glistening in the Manuas evening air. Yes, I’m aware of the Pirlo hipster fanboy club, but honestly I don’t care. He has undeniable quality and at 35 years old, it is unfortunate that we’ll likely never see him again on the world stage.

He occupied the deep lying playmaker role and he owned this position for the full 90 minutes. As the playmaker, he rarely passed the ball sideways or backwards. I was mesmerized by this. Every time he picked the ball up, he found a team mate in an advanced position. He moved the ball forward quickly and precisely and only reserved the sideways pass for the purpose of retention; it was an act of disdain.

This type of ball movement allowed him to simultaneously control the tempo and destabilize the defensive unit of England; all the while subtly bringing players higher up the field into the game.  He was the metronome, keeping time for the ebb and flow of the surrounding football match – he was taking the two steps forward; one player, playing intelligent balls from back to front in a calculated way.

Pirlo was breathing life into the footballing Foxtrot right in front of my eyes; just as Dennis and Ricardo Bochini had embodied the pause, Pirlo was laying out the two steps forward for all that dared to watch.

As I stared at the television in front of me, captivated by the caliber of passing by the Italian, it struck me that this was a dimension of play that Arsenal should be looking for in that fabled centre defensive midfielder position. It wouldn’t be enough to be strong in the tackle, to be defensive minded, to cover our fullbacks when they get forward, to intimidate other teams with their physical presence. Whoever we’re after, and I do believe we’ll fill this position in this transfer window, needs to contribute offensively as well.

The way Arsenal play, and the pace at which the Premier League is played at, mean that we don’t have the luxury of fielding passengers. Each man, from Szczęsny to Giroud, has both an offensive and defensive role to play when they take to the field. The same must be said about a centre defensive midfielder – especially if we want to compliment the box-to-box style of Ramsey and the attacking verve of Mesut.

We need that metronome, someone to take the first two steps of the Foxtrot before handing it over to our supremely talented attackers; strong in the tackle but equally talented in passing through a team. We need the hybrid defensive midfielder and deep-lying playmaker. This suits our game when we play with an emphasis on defensive solidarity and quick counter attacking football; which was a common trait in our tactics in the first half of last season.

That role is so crucial to the way we play and the offensive contribution of a defensive midfielder shouldn’t be overlooked. Moving the ball from back to front provides new purpose to the attractive brand of football we play. It gives meaning to the little moments of footballing genius that players like Özil and Santi give us over the course of a game. It’s attacking football in four steps.

When orchestrated by the most gifted of dancers, attacking football can be the Foxtrot: that flowing picture of movement, elegance, and talent performed with timing, precision, and skill.

By all accounts we’re assembling those dancers in this transfer window. We aren’t far off. In fact we might just be a defensive metronome away from witnessing a new era of on field success – all while producing the stunningly beautiful football we’ve been associated with in the past.


The Other Geoff

You can follow him on twitter : (@Hollefreund)

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