The fluid 4-4-2 has been synonymous with Arsenal under Arsene Wenger but there are greater subtleties beneath the mere physical arrangement of players.
Season 2008/09 was a one-off. Yes, the Gunners have under-performed in recent years but the fluid 4-4-2 so synonymous with Arsenal under Wenger was replaced by a functional 4-2-3-1 system (although the 4-5-1 has been commonly used in Europe). Arsene Wenger admits it was a disjointed campaign and the next season will be better; he will play the formation and system that most suits the players and the balance of the team, most likely the 4-4-2.
But things aren’t as simple as the mere physical arrangement of players. Ask Fabio Cappello, who would like to do away with the notion with sticking strictly to formations. “In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1,” he says which means teams must defend and attack as a team. Slaven Bilic agrees: “Systems are dying,” said the Croatian manager. “Like 4-5-1, what does it mean? It’s only for journalists or at the beginning of each half. When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now.” Which is all true of Arsenal, as when you see the average touch positions of the team during a match day, it more likely resembles a 2-4-4. And it is this fluidity which allows Arsenal to play a technical and free flowing game.
Arsene Wenger feels the 4-4-2 is the formation which covers the greatest area of the pitch. Indeed the modern game is about controlling space and therefore by the simple rearranging of players, the 4-2-3-1 has become the formation of choice among the many top coaches in Europe. Wenger constantly looks to refine his system in some way, big or small and players capable of performing in different positions makes this more easier. “I think 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases,” says Arsene. “In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space.”
Dominating, play-making and quick passing
In his book ‘Teambuiding: The Road to Success’, Rinus Michels states the best teams play a brand of football which is all about dominating possession and having all players capable of creating chances, knowing when to release the ball. (It should also be noted, the best teams can alter the style of play to a counter attack style and switch back seamlessly).
In order for Arsenal to play their quick passing football there must not be a player who retards the process, not even the goalkeeper. Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski are highly rated because of their decision making abilities, sweeping any danger and also being calm in their distribution. Full backs must push forward to provide support while wingers are not traditional wingers. Wenger likes his creative wingers to be able to not only dribble but also create chances and carry a goal threat.“I like to have one behind the striker, and one or two on the flanks who come inside. I always feel that if you have players who can deliver the decisive ball in all areas of the pitch, you have many more chances of being creative. If it’s only focused on one central part, where it’s usually more concentrated, you have more space on the flanks to create.”
The importance of mobility
Perhaps the greatest significance of the Arsenal style has been the importance of the midfield partner to Cesc Fabregas. In fact in previous Arsene Wenger teams, the central midfield was a shared role consisting usually of two disciplined midfielders capable of performing both an attacking and defensive role. Especially regarding the Invincibles, this was made more possible because of the increased dynamism and creativity in the side, with Dennis Bergkamp performing the bulk of the link up by operating just between midfield and attack. One of the central midfielders could then push up and their late running was often a great threat as it meant entering danger areas unmarked. This tactic also worked for Fabregas in the early stages of the 2007/08 season bagging more than ten goals that campaign.
The expansive style Arsenal want to play will inevitably put greater demands on the defensive players especially if Fabregas pushes up. Certainly Arsenal had relied on him a lot early on last season after losing Hleb and Rosicky who helped share the burden of creativity and allow a greater passing game. With crucial players back next season, the Gunners should be able to play their fluid possession game from the off. “We are a team who wants to play in a mobile game so you have to give them freedom to go where they feel they will be dangerous,” Wenger says. “We have no forbidden ways for our creative players as long as they respect when we lose the ball that they share the job well.”
Possession is also a form of defence as it denies pressure on the back line but to keep Arsenal play a flowing game the defenders must must be mobile, technical and read the game well, looking to push up to create a high line so the ball can be continuously circulated. The role of the defensive midfielder as it is now, could not be more importance as they must keep the shape hence the impact of Mathieu Flamini in 2007/08.
“The transition from defence to build-up must be executed very quickly,” says Rinus Michels. “The team tactical manpower in the centre of the field (central defenders, midfielders and striker) is of great importance. During the build up, the tactical coherence between the central defenders who must be thinking of playing the ball forward, the attacking midfielders and the central striker is very precise work. When possession is lost, it starts in the opposite direction. Good ball circulation puts high demands on the quality of the positional play, the mastering of the tempo and the speed of action.”
It has been argued that Arsenal can be overrun in the centre of midfield. However with Van Persie dropping back, the Dutchman makes the extra man but also his positioning in between midfield and attack, as with Bergkamp creates pressure and denies the opposition from being to pass the ball out as freely. Many teams deploy the deep play-maker or indeed just try to to play the ball out and by operating in this area and his willingness to get back is crucial in making sure the Gunners reverse what is expected to be the disadvantage. Indeed it is the whole team’s job to pressure the opponents; at times you can hear Pat Rice barking at his forwards to keep closing down.