In the end, they did it. After 38 games and a...
Coming up with Arsenal’s “Plan B”
Rehashing the issues besetting Arsenal right now is irrelevant. You can go to any media site that covers the Premier League and any Arsenal related blog and read about it ad nauseum. Don’t get me wrong we’ll explore them further I am sure, but today I want to continue on a theme that I picked up from Dan Cowan over at NorthLondonIsRed.co.uk.
In a post about how Arsenal could win versus Manchester United he suggested that one of the reasons that Fergie has continually gotten the best of Wenger in the last few years is predictability on the pitch. Regardless of the talent Arsene has at his disposal his current Arsenal squads all play to the style he wants – without change. This consistent, predictable style of play allows Fergie time to gameplan ahead and for the most part get the best of his former nemesis. (Yes, I said former). The results since 2005 are telling (EPL 4W 7L 3T – add in other competitions and it’s 4W 11L 3T.)
The point Dan was trying to make was it was time for Arsene to go into Old Trafford and add some unpredictability to set up by rolling out a 4-4-2 or even the 4-1-3-2 that saw so much success for Arsenal in the 2001-2005 seasons.
So grabbing on that I’d like to add my wholehearted support to Wenger going back to that vaunted 4-1-3-2. For those of that may not know much about the formation, it’s a variation of the 4-4-2 diamond. It is an attack-oriented formation (not surprising) but it hinges on a strong positionally aware defensive midfielder. Teams like Arsenal who strive to dominate the final third of the field, benefit by using this formation by having 3 attacking midfielders in front of the DM and compacting the middle to support the forwards.
So how do we make the case for the 4-1-3-2? First, I am not saying you have to move away from the 4-3-3. The good thing about the 4-1-3-2 is that the same personnel can easily slip into a 4-3-3 or it can be changed with the addition of one player.
Let’s look at the 4-1-3-2 by focusing on each core area of play – the defense, the midfield, and finally the forwards. By looking at these areas we’ll also recommend starters for each section.
The key to the defense here is having comfortable players in their positions. Take for instance the full backs. Fullbacks in the 4-1-3-2 have to be strong in 1 v1 situations because of possible overloads and lack of direct cover in front. For the center backs, being positionally sound is paramount to success in this formation. Without cover from the fullbacks at times, a CB caught out of position in the 4-1-3-2 will obviously lead to dangerous 1 v 1s with the goal keeper.
Additionally, for the fullbacks you have to possess players who can offer offensive threats as well. Without natural width from the 4-4-2 or the 4-3-3, the fullbacks have to be able to effectively switch from offense to defense and have the mentality and skill to know when to stay focused on one or the other when needed.
For the centerbacks besides exceptional situational play, the CBs have to complement each other and understand how to partner their defending teammate. Positional play though is the most important. Arsenal would have to limit the marauding runs of its CBs in this formation. Again, without cover from the wings, if a CB is out of position trouble ensues.
In looking at the requirements, the players I think best fit this back four would be – Sagna and Gibbs as the full backs. Sagna on his day is one the best RBs in Europe. He has speed, his 1 v 1 is exceptional and while has been prone to a mistake or two, he is consistent and solid both offensively and defensively.
Gibbs is the question mark I know. And while he has been applauded for his offensive abilities, I’ve been really impressed with his defensive qualities. He has speed, he offers a solid wide option and his crossing continues to improve.
For the centre backs, I am going with – Mertesacker and Koscielny. I’m still not convinced that Koscielny’s form is anything other than lack of playing time. His reading of the game is impressive. When playing week in and week out he can control many of Europe’s best attackers. Ask Lionel Messi.
Mertesacker is slow. There are no ands, ifs or buts about it. But what he doesn’t have in speed he makes up for in spades with exceptional positional play and an ability to read the game that puts him in the right place at the right, pretty much all the time.
I’ve not opted for Vermaelen here. This might have been a controversial choice but I am placing Vermaelen at the root of our defensive issues. He just has not handled the responsibility of captain well at all. However, there is also a practical reason. His over aggressive style of play would likely pull him out of position. He just doesn’t seem to have the ability to sit tight and read the game.
So there you go for our 4-1-3-2 our back four would be Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs.
The midfield 4 is both an attacking and defending beast but the focus is on attacking with a strong midfield 3 who are comfortable on the ball in front of DM who provides needed cover to the defense.
Like the CBs the DM has to be a player who is positionally disciplined. This is not a formation for the likes Alex Song if he were still with the team. It has to be someone who sits back, and communicates well. They provide the cover to the CBs by cutting off any through balls or any plays into the strikers feet. This also has to be someone who can handle the rigours of covering a lot of ground because they will also provide additional support for the defense if the FBs have gone forward. And while passing isn’t the key for them, they do need to be exact in their short passes to the midfield three.
The quandary with who plays this position in our 4-1-3-2 is that right now I am not sure we have a natural DM in the squad. I have considered Vermaelen but for the same reason he isn’t in the defense, he can’t play Dm, he simply can’t be trusted to not get out of position.
That means we have to turn to our current “DM” – Mikel Arteta. Not a natural for this position he has done exceptionally well sitting back deep and acting as cover. He’s had a couple of poor games but for the most part he’s been reliable cover, he’s a solid passer, and he can cover a lot of ground with ill-effect.
For the midfield three, the fulcrum is the CAM. This has to be someone who is exceptional at exploiting space, using speed to not only identify open space but to get into it to create attacking runs. With the roles of the forwards (which we will discuss later), late runs into the box are vital here. And then when the need to play defense arises the CAM must be able to muster the right and left MFs to provide support as a unit. The obvious answer here is Santi Cazorla.
He provides all of the aforementioned qualities as well as the creative spark to drive an attack oriented formation forward. He also is very comfortable on the ball and can work wonders at finding the right channels to get at a defense. His experience and overall quality lend themselves to his fitting in naturally to the role well.
As for the left and right central midfielders, once again, positional awareness is key to the success of the 4-1-3-2. It’s essential these midfielders sit tight with the CAM and not venture too far and create a disconnection within the attacking nature of the formation. If one of the CMs get spread the midfield wide, defenders (who naturally are attracted to the ball) will close down on the CAM and cut off the attack.
The midfield three have to be able to work hard together, stay tight when attacking and defending and pass and move with confidence. Should any one venture out too wide, it increases the risk of pass interception and restricts the fullbacks from coming forward to participate in the attack.
For the RCM I am going with Wilshere. He’s strong on the ball and disciplined enough to know and understand his role in the system. I also like the possibility of being able to switch him and Santi from CAM to RCM as may dictate.
For the LCM role I am going with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He already shows a comfort on the ball well beyond his years. His awareness of play and how he handles game decisions and situations show a maturity that have propelled his role in the first team and targeted him for early stardom. Again, though his discipline and comfort on the ball will lend itself to the 3 attacking midfielders for the successful 4-1-3-2.
To recap our midfield for our 4-1-3-2 is:
Arteta (DM), Wilshere (RCM), Cazorla (CAM) and Ox (LCM)
For our strikers we need variety as well. One of the players up front has to have speed and be able to make runs off the ball that exploit any open channels in the box. The other striker has to be comfortable coming back to receive the ball and bringing the midfield 3 into the attack.
The options here are simple. Olivier Giroud has shown all the qualities of a striker has the strength to hold the ball up, allowing the midfield to come into the play and fill the space he leaves behind when he comes into play. While his finishing is still taking some time to come along in the Premier League, his distribution skills are evident and getting the ball to a streaking Theo Walcott as he uses his speed and new found scoring success to complete the up front attack.
Our full squad (without keeper) is:
Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs
Wilshere – Cazorla – Oxlade-Chamaberlain
Giroud – Walcott
Like any formation though there are risks to the 4-1-3-2. First and foremost opposition with fast wingers and strong passing abilities can overwhelm a club playing 4–1–3–2 by utilizing the wings before the three offensive midfielders rotate back to provide defensive cover.
Additionally, the focus on positional discipline can’t be overstressed. If for instance any of the midfielders get pulled out of the compact nature of the formation it leaves exposed channels of play and ultimately break downs of play that may result in counter-attack and an inability to recover.
That being said, the current 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 we seem to be running with right now hasn’t been overly effective and as Dan mentioned, it’s become predictable and I think the defenses we are seeing are prepared for it. Let’s not forget it was designed around the skill and play of a Spanish midfielder who is no longer here and while Santi Cazorla has shown himself to be an able replacement (of sorts) the formation doesn’t suit the rest of the talent around him.
Something has to be considered. Why not this?
Until next time. Stay Goonerish!