As Arsenal continue to struggle with finding momentum this season, all sorts of supporters and pundits are looking all over the place for those at fault. It’s Wenger’s inability to get a DM or defensive cover, or it’s Mesut Özil “nicking a living at Arsenal.” Take your pick, there’s a reason for everyone. In most cases it’s an impassioned look at why this club that was so high after last season and before this season kicked off has failed yet to pay any dividends.
There may be many reasons why and the reasons most supporters seem frustrated about may be part of the problem. For me the problem is varied but significance has to be given to the move from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-4-1. Before anyone says anything, the move to the 4-1-4-1 wasn’t due to Wenger’s desire to find a way to play Ramsey and Wilshere together.
No, it was more a response to how often Arsenal were frustrated last season. Last season with no speed up top teams employed a high line to negate any effect of Olivier Giroud. While his net tally was okay in most standards it likely suffered because of his less than mobile ability. Once that was negated, all teams had to do was systematically press Arsenal, especially in the midfield and disrupt their passing rhythm and channels.
Against lesser opposition, Arsenal merely had to wait for the team to tire and then get a chance. The talent on the ball, far exceeding the opposition’s ability to press for sustained periods of time. But with a team that were able to press effectively and for long periods of time, Arsenal suffered.
The move to a 4-1-4-1 is a logical evolution from the 4-2-3-1. In fact, it only requires a slight adjustment for a team to go back to the original formation from the new formation. The 4-1-4-1, was first utilized with success by Spain in Euro 2008. When Villa went down injured, Spain replaced him with Fabregas and forced the side into a 4-1-4-1. The move may not have been intended to have the effect it did but it resulted in a 3-0 win over Russia and 1-0 win over Germany. The success for Spain was the solidity of the midfield three of the 4-1-4-1.
In 2010 Löw’s Germay tried implementing the 4-1-4-1 with varying degrees of disaster and success. With Özil and Kroos working the dual CAM roles in front of Bastian Schweinsteiger in the single pivot role, the Germans enjoyed success. When it was Özil and Goetze in the dual CAM roles, the team was overrun by the Swiss.
The newest Champion of the formation is Pep Guardiola. When he first took control of Bayern, the 4-1-4-1 was seen early in the pre-season.
Bayern and Pep are blessed with the best all-around midfielder in Bastian Schweinsteiger. His ability to act as the single pivot in Pep’s 4-1-4-1. The strength of the 4-1-4-1 is built on Schweinsteiger’s ability to switch from a deep lying role in front of the back four to one linking play effectively to the dual CAMs. He’s that strong and it is the foundation for the success of the formation at Bayern.
So why have Arsenal moved to it? It’s clear Wenger sees it working to some effect in the afore mentioned examples. However, is there a more practical reason for it?
The formation allows for a team to have a strong foundation building up from the back whilst maintaining creativity and shape. Unlike the 4-2-3-1 the centerbacks are no longer the quarter backs of the field and required to bring the ball forward, now they can sit back and focus on defending. Having an “all around” player similar to what Schweinsteiger’s role at Bayern in the single pivot is a way to counter deep opposition pressing.
In theory the back line should be shifting and moving hopefully making it difficult for an opposition forward to press effectively. If they do, a simple pass out wide or to the dual CAMs from the pivot finds space and should in theory open up options to the additional attackers up front.
The problem for Arsenal seems to be that they are learning this formation on the fly so to speak. The 4-2-3-1 has been good for so long with the CBs as the start of play. Their ability to advance and support attacks as needed is central to the Arsenal style of play. The problem may simply be that the team does not have a keen understanding of how it is supposed to work and therefore the formation seems lethargic and ineffective. It shouldn’t be, it should be fast with the ability to create chances and multiple 1 v 1 scenarios that Arsenal’s skill players can exploit.
But the team looks lost right now. The questions are a plenty:
1.Are the players really comfortable with this way of playing and does it get the best out of the talent we have assembled?
2.Was the move to the 4-1-4-1 worked on prior to heading into the Community Shield when we first saw it
3.If we are to persist with the 4-1-4-1 are we using the right players in the right roles
4.If it isn’t working why does their seem to be a reluctance to go back to where Arsenal are comfortable – the 4-2-3-1.
For question one, the evidence so far seems to suggest that they are not comfortable playing this. The biggest area of concern is our defense. I watch them play and the poise from which they played most of last season seems gone. Now it looks like pandemonium reigns and it is evident in all players slotting in the back 5 (I am including the keeper). If we are to build from the back and the back is uncertain about its role now, then the whole team will be off kilter.
I can’t freely answer question 2. No one knows for sure when this system was introduced. The only thing that looks certain is based on the misunderstandings happening on the pitch, it really does look like we are learning on the fly, which frankly is a scary proposition. Wenger is a notorious individual trainer. He is similar in the mindset of Cruyff in developing players to fit the system he wants and then letting their natural creativity and time on the ball dictate play. Wenger is not so much a tactical systems manager. At least it’s not the impression I’ve ever got – he always approaches matches from a “if we play the way we want to play we’ll do well” rather than working on systems to set up against opposition.
To me that suggests that we may not be fully working on the system rather than working on an individual’s role in the system. Again a scary proposition.
As for question 3 this is the biggest one if you ask me. I am not sure we are currently using our talent to its best ability and part of that may be because they’d be better suited for the 4-2-3-1. But let’s for a minute suppose that 4-1-4-1 is here to stay then how do Arsenal adapt and make it functional.
If we’re frank, the first change has to be the player who can employ the single pivot role. Mikel Arteta has been great at this club but the evidence is growing that he simply may not be able to continue in a primary role for much longer. Assuming that he can’t, Ramsey is the best all-around player Arsenal have that can fill that role. He is strong defensively. His positional awareness is sound and since he has grown into his own, his overall play is uncanny. Add to it, effective passing and ability to bring the ball forward he seems ability capable of filling a similar role to Schweinsteiger at Bayern.
Some will argue it limits Ramsey. But as Aidan Gibson contends here in his recent piece for SB Nation, having Ramsey link with Özil again with Özil in front of the Welshman may be as effective in the 4-1-4-1 as it is in the 4-2-3-1. With his range and strength, having him as the ultimate creator seems to me at least to be the logical choice. It also allows Özil to come back into the middle as part of the dual CAMS alongside Wilshere who also likes to get forward and creative and provides a nice inverted midfield triangle, capable of bossing games.
Finally, by moving Özil inside, the speed demons can sit outside and take lovely passes all day long from the likes of Özil and Wilshere.
The last question is harder to answer. Wenger as we all know is a stubborn man. If he has his mind set on one thing, he tends to stay with it, regardless of effect. It is the sign of someone who knows what they want and won’t stop until they get it. It can be maddening at times but if and when it comes off it will look like a stroke of genius (or madness if it fails.)
I truly believe that the move to the 4-1-4-1 was Wenger’s way of defeating teams who though the way to control Arsenal’s passing game was to press them. He saw what the examples did and saw the success offensively and felt it was a natural evolution from the 4-2-3-1.
But here’s the thing, I want and wish for Wenger to be more flexible. I want him to understand that at times, like last night against Dortmund, a game sometimes requires a tactical change. To paraphrase from Star Trek “persistence is futile” especially in light of diminishing returns.
The second half against City clearly showed that the 4-1-4-1 can work but when it doesn’t Wenger cannot be afraid or stubborn enough to change it.