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Talking Tactics: Arsenal Formations

Why is it that every football fan is a master tactician? We all seem to know precisely how our respective club should line up on the pitch; how to best utilize target men, defensive midfielders and wingers and when to make that crucial substitution. We’re also loquacious critics when things don’t go our way; why did the manager start so-and-so? Why didn’t he rest our star player for such a trivial game? Why, oh WHY is Squillaci starting?!?!

Yes, we Gooners are possibly the guiltiest group of misanthropes when it comes to being armchair managers. For the better part of 16 years we’ve been fed with a silver spoon and yet here we are, entrenched in the lull of another summer and left questioning both Arsene Wenger and the board as to why we are still parched by a trophy drought.

Every Arsenal supporter has the answer – just ask him/her. Each will tell you who they would off-load, who they would buy with our seemingly endless transfer kitty and how they would quietly take Squillaci out back and put him out of his misery. However, the most basic answer to the problem seems to be staring us right in the face: our formation.

The formative years under Arsene Wenger were played using a modified version of the 4-4-2 that catered to our use of two holding midfielders and two strikers. In the late ‘90s this helped to not only address the growing physicality of the Premiership, but also the influx of foreign players who introduced a new dynamic that was previously unseen on the domestic stage.

Gone were the days when a central midfielder was just that; a marauding brute who nutmegged at will and rarely got forward. The advent of the ‘creative’ midfielder saw an increase of flair and skill in the middle of the pitch while forwards were encouraged to drift out wide to provide an alternative in attack. Supplemental to this was the fact that a decent holding midfielder knew how to make a crucial tackle and immediately move into position for the counter attack. No player exemplified this more so than Patrick Viera.

The Frenchman was an integral ingredient to how Arsenal played their game during the late ‘90s; a constant presence in front of the back four, yet capable of brilliant bursts of speed that provided both service to the striker and some beautiful individual goals.

Our full backs were also a key feature to Arsenal’s successes. During the Invincible season of 2003/2004 , both Ashley Cole and Lauren were the quintessential models of their respective positions. Anchored by Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure in the centre, Cole and Lauren were able to drive up the wings with blistering pace and were more than capable of tracking back when needed. The holding midfield duo of Viera and Gilberto Silva provided defensive support when needed, but both were also creative players who delivered offense in spades.

As oligarchs and sheiks began to pump ludicrous amounts of cash into the game both in England and the continent, the landscape of player/club relations began to make a tectonic shift. Agents jumped at the chance to make as much money as possible and players were enticed by the pomp and luxury being offered in the form of excessive wages and signing-on fees. As such, clubs like Arsenal were forced to adhere to a more modest pay structure which meant dealing with player departures by replacing them with relative unknowns. One of the only reasons this philosophy worked was the fact that both Arsene Wenger and Arsenal’s scouting system possessed a capable eye for raw talent that promised potential.

The intrinsic problem with the way Arsenal is structured today is that the magical combination of experience and youth has become a polarized gamble. More often than not, attracting experienced players from other leagues means breaking from the clubs wage structure – something that we’re only now seeing. Perhaps this has been the caveat for the last six seasons, but a look at our current formation tells the tale of a team built for attack and attack only.

While Arsenal does deploy a holding midfielder, the lack of depth in both this position and the inability to defend as a team has proved to be an Achilles heel. That’s really the crux of the issue; if you look at the team structure prior to 2004, you will see a squad who played as a single, fluid unit. Each player moved into position to cover another who had pressed forward to compliment the attack, yet each was cognisant of the counter and was able to track back and defend as one. While this universal quality should be present in every club, it’s a presence of mind that only comes when the team is insular, unified and cooperative.

For the first time in a long while, the future looks bright for Arsenal. The summer is young and the club have already conducted some massive pieces of business. The whispers have begun anew, and with a little luck and some intelligent deals, this could be the beginning of something beautiful once again.

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