The subtleties of Arsenal’s 4-4-2 formation

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.

Scientifically proven

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.”

Forward Pressure

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.


18 thoughts on “The subtleties of Arsenal’s 4-4-2 formation

  1. Great post. Insightful and you bring up some very interesting points. I’ve always thought though, that we could work better as a 4-3-3, however, it could also be said that a 4-2-3-1 is just a defensive 4-3-3. Either way, I think whatever formation we play, we need wide players. We’re not like Chelsea or AC Milan who play narrow, relying on fullbacks for width.

    Personally, I would like to see a 4-3-3, with our standard back 4, Fabregas, Rosicky, and a holding midfielder, and Arshavin, Adebayor, and RVP up front. Having said that, I am aware that it’s not simply a matter of just putting them in those positions, but I think that its an appropriate formation given that that the great era of Ajax used that formation, and Wenger seems to want to replicate that sort of football.

    1. I’m dubious that 4-2-3-1 is a defensive 4-3-3. It’s a defensive 4-2-4. And 4-2-4 is what our 4-4-2 becomes in attack very often.

      The goal of the “2” in a 4-2-4 is to block off counter attacks. The goal of the Middle “3” in a 4-3-3 is to clog the centre of the park and create diagonal channels for passing. Mourinho’s Chelsea used a holding midfielder as one of the “3” who was essentially a 3rd centre back, and the 2 wingers in the front three were counter-attacking outlets.

      I am personally quite dubious about the 4-3-3 for Arsenal with this set of players because 1) it failed miserably when we tried it at the tail end of last season 2) a Barcelona or Ajax style 4-3-3 involving an Arsenal team spread wider and higher up the field would leave us more open to the hoofed ball, and more dependent on the fitness and form of the 2 central defenders. 3) This squad wasnt built for 4-3-3, and even if we can find an 11 to execute it well, I am not sure our entire squad can play it.

      The 4-4-2, apart from being the formation for which this squad was built, has the added benefit of allowing us to morph into 4-5-1 (with the 2nd striker dropping into central midfield) or into a 4-2-3-1 with the 2nd striker becoming a part of the “3” along with the two wide men. In our case the wide men are people who would thrive in the free role, and would make hay high up the field playing off a main striker.

      To put it concretely, I’d prefer Rosicky, RVP & Arshavin playing in the opposition final 3rd with the freedom to roam into central and wide positions, combining with each other, and the main striker, than having them in central midfield in a 4-3-3 acting as water carriers who can create.

      I think 4-4-2 is the obvious choice for Arsenal, with the option of 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1.

  2. The problem with 442 with our current team is that it completely lacks balance. Arshavin and Theo are essentially strikers playing on the wings, and simply don’t do enough defensive work or know how to defend properly as midfielders. Wenger said himself that Theo is not a midfielder, so when he plays him he needs to find other ways to balance out the team. It doesn’t matter who we get as a DM. One man can’t do the defensive work of 4.

    1. Walcott he feels is essentially a wide forward therefore is inclined to play a three man midfield in some way. It can be done, and has so a few times.
      Arshavin’s problem is not tracking back; he has done that but actually understanding how to play out wide regularly as he hasn’t done this.
      People don’t realise just how good a full pre-season can be to the team’s chemistry and balance. Cesc missed last years therefore didn’t really strike up a partnership with Denilson. Whoever does play DM will have a lot of work to do but the understanding is better to be started from the beginning.
      RVP said this during pre-season two years ago against Inter: “It was quite funny because during the game Cesc and I were smiling at each other because we liked the fact that we were playing so well. Everyone was smiling during the game. If we play the same way or even less, we will have a big chance at least to fight for the title”

  3. Balance is the key, no matter what formation a team plays. The purpose of the game, the type the game, .. etc. Home or away, EPL game or CL game.

    Arsenal does not have the depth in their squad to always balance the team to fit the type of the game and the opponent. Arsenal have some great players, and smart staff around them. This is why, one week Arsenal beats Chelsea in Stanford Bridge, but loses to Hull the next day.

    Wenger said before that he plays Ebou as part of balancing the team defensively. thought I cant see playing a RB or LB in midfield can solve the problem.

    Looking at Arsenal’s flow, we lack strong Center Backs to demand and Organize the back. I think then a CM (Defensive) can be useful. 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, players are players are players. Can revert easily by asking certain player to play in a way. ie. RVP, to drop to mid. Ask, Cesce to play holding, …. I think Arsenal need a better Center Forward that can hold the ball and keep possession when needed, but also tenacious and can take any opportunity. Ade does not 100% fit this. But he is an ok player (in a different style team).

    So my guess, in Arsenal we need “Power” in CB, CDM, CF… The 3 central positions.

    I am just a youth coach !!!

    1. Well, Fares Kolo Toure has to be one of the physically strongest people in football. By all accounts he has immense strength. What do you mean we don’t have strong central backs? And what has strength got to do with organisation?

  4. i have been screaming this point in my brain for so long through all our last games of the campaign i think that this formation cost us cups in fa cup semi-chelsea league chelsea champ league both legs manu when we play this stupid 4 5 1 against strong opposition maybe against weak yes.when4 5 1 is played if we have the ball we have to play and walk through the opositions midfield which we are soposed to do as we are arsenal but now we play 4 5 1 there is no one up front to to act as a diversion so that our players can walkthrough or cause hesitation thus easeir attack and opo defenders can mob the one attacker and he has no one to pass to except back.all leads to defencesive play as the opposition have have no wory that a ball can be played through the defence to striker to score because there 4 against one and it can hardly ever be done.when the opposition get the ball it is hard to defend as we are so crowded in midfield you find 3 people running for one ball as with more of anything it takes time to calculate and in football their is none so thus 3 peolple runing to the ball making mistakes leaving holes or constantly taking to much time to takle or run and close down or judge if they or their team mate should close the opposition thus making us a sitting duck for a good shooter as u have seen .in the chelsea league game at emirates di you not realise as soon as we brought ade on and chaned from 451 to 4 4 2we were terrorising them and they were scare and even thought we could beat them in a few mins from 4 1 down.ade is class and to if people wonder why he doesnt run around loads because when ur playing up fron by your self u need to be on the last man all the time because nearly only way with the team can score with this stupid formation is to latch on to a great ball through or over the defense and to do this you must be rready 100%or near to to sprint and if you have just sprinted to try and win a no cause or sprinted to get back help team defend or just some times win the ball u are not ready to get on to the ball i know im a talented striker let me know if any one aggrees because sometimes i feel everyones blind or doesnt agree 4 4 2 is the best and only for me but suppport any we choose none the less

    1. A full stop!!! Please for the love of anything that you may hold sacred, use a FULL STOP. Somewhere. Anywhere!

      I got about a third of the way down before I developed a migraine!! If I carried on it I’m pretty sure it could have been a stroke!

      Seriously though, I have no idea what this piece says.

  5. As Capello has said in the modern game formations are largely unimportant. What is important and what imparts success is attacking and defending as a unit. At Arsenal we attack fairly we but as we are underpowered in midfield we do not defend well as a team. We can move and pass, yes very well, but we cannot control space.

    We have demonstrated time and again that we can be pressured and lose our shape as we become a midfield quagmire with little end product just dead end final balls. What vieira and petit could do, our lads cannot do, impose themselves and control space. When have you seen our lads shoulder off opponents while retaining possession, vieira could hold off two players and dribble away to deliver a killer pass. Will we ever see his like again?

    So, success at arsenal depends of unit cohesion, speed and mobility of course, but the vital missing component is power.

  6. Another good, rational and relevant post, well done again sir. Logically, the 4-4-2 is still the Arsenal default formation, and with the younger players like Alexandre Song-Denilson-Fabregas-Diaby all a year older and more physically defined, the less temptation to ensure more players are put in midfield to mask physical inadequacies. Until Vieira and Edu left, we rarely saw a 5 man midfield as a genuine option, since then we have had less physically developed players, now Fabregas and Song can hold their own against other teams physically.

    I have been able to speak to a few Arsenal players, tactics aren’t exactly high on the agenda in training, as they all try conform to the Arsenal passing style and then impose it on others. Tentatively, in the 4-4-2 next season, 1 flank will be manned by a playmaker ‘Rosicky or Nasri’, the other by a quicker player ‘Arshavin or Walcott’. Nasri is also slated for a move centrally, so keep an eye out for that.

    As for the importance of pre-season, i wrote a blog on it a month ago, check it out if you want:

    1. The big miss of pre-season will be Cesc Fabregas. He seems disgruntled more than anyone of the perceived lack of security behind him. Would like to see Nasri as back-up to Cesc at times rather than a DM position although his awareness looks very good.
      Like you say, one flanked will be manned by a quicker player like Walcott but as the season progresses I wouldn’t be surprised to see those creative players as the main wide men cutting in.

  7. Great post and some insightful comments as well.
    Johan Cruyff had recently remarked (in context of the present Dutch team) that a withdrawn playmaker who has the field spread in front of him can often be the most critical piece in orchestrating the attacks. Case in point: Pep Guardiola in the Barca team of mid 90s. he used to be positioned like a defenseive medio but was the main person in initiating attacks from the back.
    Coming to the present Arsenal team, we have seen that Cesc is much more comfortable when he has the midfield spaced in front of him, rather than him playing as the ‘striker in hole’- the position Gerrard plays in Liverpool and Zidane played in WC 2006.
    In my opinion, Cesc can be much more effective in one of the 2 withdrawn midfield positions (the other one of course being the elusive Vieira-esque defensive medio). He will have at least 3 midfield positions preferably Rosicky, Arshavin and Nasri to coordinate the attacks. THe key point here would be to keep the three central midfielders close together in the center of the pitch and gain width by fullbacks, Clichy and Sagna, who I still think are two of the best wing backs in the premiership at this moment. The advantage this will provide is to crowd the midfield and to prevent gaping holes for counter attacks.
    Unlike the French team in WC 2006 (who IMO had probably the best 4-2-3-1 formation in recent memory), we do not have the luxury of having Vieira and Makelele in the central midfield, nor can we see wide forwards like Ribery and Malouda. In achieving width through the 3 attacking mids, we might run the risk of exposing the center of defense to sharp counter attacks.
    I would agree with some of the readers that the current team is not well suited for a classic Dutch 74 WC style 4-3-3. This is again primarily because Arshavin, RVP, Ade etc. are all center of pitch players, more than wingers. Also the central midfield is not in a position to boss over the opponent using just 3 players. In the Dutch team of WC 74, Rensenbrink and Johnny Rep provided the much needed width, and Neeskens and Wim Jansen could cut off the opposition presence in the center of the pitch. This left William Van Hanegem to create chances from midfield and the peerless Johann Cruyff to oscillate from the center of the pitch to wings and back creating more scoring opportunities. Barca have done the 4-3-3 successfully because Yaya Toure gives them enough steel to complement Xavi and Iniesta’s brilliance. Chelsea does that reasonably well, because Michael Essien is the classical midfield enforcer. But right now we do not see a chance to put up a midfield like that, unless someone like Miguel Veloso or Gokhan Inler comes up to complement Cesc.

  8. Although it may seem like ‘systems are dying’ the stats particularly those tracking player motion suggest that teams do have a specific structure.

    It’s important to not be too rigid. The Invincibles with Henry, Pires, Bergkamp would wander all over the place when Arsenal had the ball.

    But off the ball systems definitely exist

  9. Well, the Ajax of the 90’s and the Dutch of the 70’s played with 2 holding midfielders in their 4-3-3 and Barca plays with 1 holding midfielder in theirs. So 4-3-3 can be so much..
    And where is the big difference in a 4-3-3 with 2 holding midfielders and a 4-2-3-1…? And also, a 4-2-3-1 is more or less a 4-4-2 with a withdrawn striker.
    As a long time admirer of Arsenals style of play under Wenger I am sure they are not suited to a Barca kind of 4-3-3.
    More so to a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1/4-4-2 with a witdrawn striker or whatever you want to see it as.
    Offensively it’s not to much difference as it’s better to describe how they pressure without the ball as a team

  10. please arsenal show learn on how to shoot especially when getting closer to goal post especially when playing with a big team like Manchester united, Chelsea, barca

  11. came accross this article. and yes 16 months later problems still exist with our benign formation policy

    5 years later and we still havent won anything and dont even look close. the 4-3-3 formation we adopted is simply ineffective in the league and especially against any top 10 oposition. can you actually believe that in 2010 teams like west brom come to the emirates stadium and actually outplay and defeat us?

    something has to change, either wenger goes back to his winning ways and football philosphies which also include buying the right type of players for the 4-4-2 formation in the transfer market. or he admits that he has taken arsenal as far as he can and admits defeat cos quite frankly hes pissing all over his legacy

  12. i suggest the 4-4-2 formation if the game is all about controlling the soace and possesion is a form of defence space should be reduced hence balance on both the sides the two attackers will provide a good stricking system.

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