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The predictability of Arsenal – it’s all in the formation

I never thought I’d say this but it was genuinely interesting to hear Gary Neville explain the merits of the 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation during the half time interval at one of the recent meaningless Internationals. His rationale for many teams adopting this formation is to avoid being over-run in the middle of the park against top quality sides. Neville gave the example of playing against Brazil as the point in case, although I can’t remember England faring too well against Brazil in recent years.

by Marco Bilello

Editor’s Note: I am always looking for different writers to come to YAMA and ply their wares with us. I do tend be selective but I believe I stumbled on a great one for the readers. This is Marco Bilello. He and I had been discussing tactics alot when I asked him about writing something for us. The result is a very well thought out and articulated look at Arsenal, their move to the 4-3-3 (or 4-5-1). I enjoyed reading it I know you will too. – DAG

I never thought I’d say this but it was genuinely interesting to hear Gary Neville explain the merits of the 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation during the half time interval at one of the recent meaningless Internationals. His rationale for many teams adopting this formation is to avoid being over-run in the middle of the park against top quality sides. Neville gave the example of  playing against Brazil as the point in case, although I can’t remember England faring too well against Brazil in recent years. 

I am about to simplify his rationale somewhat but in short, he felt that it was better to over-crowd the midfield with bodies to starve teams with flair players any space and cut the gaps that can appear between defence, midfield and attack. And, when the play breaks down, it should theoretically be easier to break with numbers in attack. That was his theory anyway.

So, what’s all that guff got to do with Arsenal? We’ve been at The Emirates since 2006 and pretty much since the day we moved from Highbury, we have played 4-5-1 / 4-3-3, depending on how you perceive the system. In that time, we have won nothing.

Yet, one of Arsene Wenger’s first acts when he joined the Club in 1996 was to ditch the 5-3-2 formation he inherited from Bruce Rioch into a more expansive 4-4-2 formation.

So, why did Wenger change that philosophy, almost immediately when we moved to the Emirates? I go back to Mr Neville’s comments on why teams adopt the 4-5-1 / 3-4-3 formation; to try to pack the midfield out with bodies to prevent more talented teams any space. Are we therefore a team that is set out to stop the good ones from playing and exploit the lesser teams by over-running them and capitalising on their mistakes

It’s very easy to think that way. Wenger didn’t need to cram the midfield with the great teams of the Highbury era. Yes, the pitch was smaller so we could condense play and break quickly, fluidly turning a functional 4-4-2 into either a 4-3-3 or even 4-2-4 formation when the wide players broke. We basically had better players back then and could exert our own game on the opposition knowing we had options all over the park where goals would come from. You can generously count on one hand the number of players in our current team that would get into any of those pre-Emirates sides. You can count even less that will give you 15-plus goals per season!

Those were also the days where we rarely – if ever – started with just one lone central striker too. A far cry from the team today, with RvP running the line on his own, marshaled by four defenders. More on that in a moment though.

These days the side starts the game in what is effectively a 4-5-1 formation (it’s not 4-3-3; look at the positions the wide players adopt) with one lone striker (usually RvP) expected to do a huge amount of donkey work, running the channels, chasing the ball and offering himself whenever we attack as what is often the only option as an available forward pass. When that pass isn’t on, most of the time we can only go sideways or backwards, pass after pass until play breaks down, often with us surrendering possession with a crap hopeful and over-hit cross into the box.

Don’t be fooled by the possession stats. Yes, we dominate possession and play some neat patterns but teams have wisened onto this and let us have the ball. They know full-well that if they zonally mark the space and put bodies between our midfield and our striker that it’s difficult for us to find a forward pass. In those instances, the likelihood is that the move will peter out at some point without their goalkeeper being put under any threat. If I had a penny for every time I’d seen that this season, I may have cobbled together enough cash to pay my season ticket next season. Yes, 6%, you are having a laugh

The strangest thing about the system we have implemented over the past few seasons is that it doesn’t compliment the strength of our players. The back four aside, many of the players are shoe-horned into positions to fit the system rather than it being the other way around. The biggest joke of all is that we do not have one natural wide player at the club. Take Theo out of the side and we are also lacking any sort of pace in the final third; something which was a hallmark of Wenger’s Highbury sides. Look at the names of players who have played on the flanks this season and see if you think any of these fit the bill:

  1. Nasri: One of our most consistent players this season but considerably more comfortable as an attacking central midfielder and produced his best performances when playing in Cesc’s role.
  2. Walcott: Has the pace, but does not have the guile or the ability to deliver crosses when out wide. On the rare occasions that he does put in a good ball, there is usually nobody in the box to get on the end of it
  3. Arshavin: Similar to Nasri but a lazy version who lacks vision to play centrally, so the best place for him is out wide, where he can often hide and disappear from games
  4. Bendtner: Not his biggest fan, but he will never be a winger. Have to feel sympathy for the guy as whenever he comes on, he’s forced to play out wide
  5. Chamakh: A decent target man, who signed as Bordeaux’s player of the year having spent the whole season as a striker. Holds the ball well but is arguably the slowest attacker Wenger has ever signed (that includes Davor Suker) and doesn’t have the final ball to play wide
  6. Diaby: A central midfielder (when fit)
  7. Rosicky: Similar to Nasri in his prime but the injuries have taken their toll 
  8. Ramsey: Quite why he played out wide against West Brom, I will never know
  9. Vela: Remember him? The man signed on the back of his striking exploits for Mexico in the 2005 FIFA U17s World Championship, regularly takes up the left wing slot when he has a rare cameo appearance
  10. Denilson: Oh dear

Given Gary Neville’s rationale, it’s easy to see why Wenger wants three players in the middle of midfield. With the technique of our players, it should enable us to dominate possession and when we don’t have the ball, have enough bodies to nick it back. Also, by having one holding midfielder, our susceptible centre halves should be more protected from any breaking runners

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t play 4-5-1 / 4-3-3, but when the system isn’t working and we’re going sideways, struggling to test the opposition keeper, surely it makes more sense to change the formation, rather than just swap personnel like-for-like?

We’ve only done that a handful of times this season; away at Man Utd in the FA Cup, away at West Brom, away at Stoke and at home to Aston Villa, In all of those games, we were behind and chasing the game. So, what does that say about our current group of players and the 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 system? More importantly, what does it say about the 4-4-2 system? We seem to only revert to it at the last resort when we are chasing games, which in its own right suggests that it is a more attacking system.

I’ve been impressed when we’ve played 4-4-2 this season. We’ve certainly not had any less possession; in fact we’ve probably had more of the ball. In those games listed above, we’ve also been more threatening and created more chances with two central strikers. And, the Man Utd game apart, we’ve also scored goals when we’ve switched.

The biggest problem I have with the way we play the 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation is the way we use the central striker, or more appropriately, the player we use for that role. In spite of his astonishing goals to games ratio this season (21 goals in 32 games) RvP is not your typical number 9 and not particularly suited to playing the lone striker role. He doesn’t have the pace to play on the shoulder of the centre back and make runs behind the opposition back four. Therefore, teams know they can drop deep and force us to play directly in front of them without too much fear of being turned.

Furthermore, because of his technical ability, RvP often drops deep or wide to receive the ball. When he does try to hold the line, he often finds himself moving between markers along the opposition back four. He also rarely challenges for any 50-50 aerial balls.

Yet, the more I have seen of him this season, the more I am convinced that his best position is playing off a main striker in the Bergkamp mould. He has the vision, touch and technique to link play and this season, he has also proved that he can consistently score goals. As an attacking force, it would have been nice to have seen us give opposing teams more to think about by playing a main striker – whether that be Chamakh or Bendtner – with RvP playing behind. We’ll never know if it would have made any difference to our fortunes but when teams have come to park the proverbial bus, we have the personnel to change the tactics rather than keep banging our heads against a brick wall using the same system.

It just seems so obvious. It remains to be seen if Wenger will stick with 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 next season. I guess a lot will depend on what happens with transfer movement this summer. Will Clichy, Cesc and Nasri leave? What deadwood can we actually get rid of? Will we buy the players we so desperately need; a solid centre half, some true wide players and an out-and-out goal scorer? We’ll find out soon enough but one thing I do believe will be addressed is that we will not be so predictable next season.

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