Arsenal: young, slick and a love for all things passing

As Arsenal’s football becomes more fluid and pass orientated, the demands become greater especially against the changing nature of the modern game.

It was only a pre-season friendly but with Arsene Wenger anxiously pacing the touchline during a match against third-place Hungarian outfits Szombathelyi Haladás, it showed just how crucial next season will be. He seemed satisfied with the cohesion and application shown in the end by the Gunners as they came out comfortable 5-0 winners.

Interestingly, four goals were scored in the first half yet the second half was the more impressive.

The opening period saw Arsenal line up in a 4-3-3 formation with Song the deepest midfielder and Denilson and Ramsey to the right and left of him respectively. It was blue collar stuff; hard-working and unfashionable at most times but then Arsenal committed white-collar robbery – two quick breaks, one headed in by Bendtner and the other fantastically finished by Eduardo, while the Croatian also scored a free-kick to make it three. Haladás played better than the scoreline suggested and although the fourth goal was a thing of beauty the more functional Arsenal showed their superior class.

In the second half, Arsenal played in a 4-4-2 with Senderos holding and the forward players playing with much more flexibility than the first. One goal was scored but the Gunners pushed Haladás back for much of the game and kept the ball almost monopolistically.

That Arsenal were the more impressive so why is it then that they found it more difficult to score in the second half?

Arsenal consumed by their success

Indeed, Arsenal have always played a similar brand of football but in the years between the Invincibles last one a title and now, the Gunners have only won one trophy. In an article for Four Four Two, Paul Simpson attempts to explain Arsenal’s four year demise by referring to business writer Danny Miller’s Icarus Paradox.

The theory argues that once a business (or in this case, team) taste success, they contribute to their own downfall through their own strengths by devoting more time and resources to what made them successful. Therefore what made Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal – youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and confidence in possession – have effectively taken over the team and other factors such as organisation, strength and ruthlessness have almost been swept under the carpet.

That is however, slightly unfair on the club – Arsene Wenger didn’t choose the direction of youth voluntarily, more as a result of the move to the Emirates. “The decision was to go for more youth when we decided to build a new stadium because we are not in a position where we could spend £30m or £40m on players,” said Wenger. “Whether people accept it or not is one thing but, today, we have a good side, we make profit and we pay our debtors back. People are scandalised when banks lose money but I’m scandalised when football clubs lose money. For me it’s the same process. I’m not against spending money; I’m against losing money.”

The interesting point regards organisation. As a side’s football becomes more about flexibility and freedom, the more difficult it is to maintain the shape. Coupled with the fact that the physical development of the game means it has become harder for teams to play such an expansive passing style as opponents pack the centre. Transitions and set-pieces have also become ever more important but ultimately it is all about controlling space; Carlo Ancelotti is about to embark on his Chelsea journey playing in a 4-4-2 diamond because it allows him to “put more zonal pressing” and this is something which the ‘Invincibles’ did very well.

Controlling Zones

With a combination of either Edu/Gilberto and Vieira in the centre and Bergkamp in the ‘hole’, the adaptable formation was  argued to be a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-2-4. With such ‘between the lines’ players’ Arsenal could control operational areas that are considered key in unlocking the opposition’s defence.

Mattheiu Flamini had a fantastic year in 2007/08 because of his mobility and positional awareness, patrolling the area between defence and midfield expertly. Arsenal’s game has always been about fluidity and possession and if the Gunners lost or indeed had the ball, he kept the shape.

Therefore going back to the 5-0 against Szombathelyi Haladás, it was obvious Arsenal were more comfortable in the 4-4-2. Although only one goal was scored, on another day that could have been more while they were less troubled by the Hungarian’s as opposed to the tense first half. The most noteworthy point of the match was the performance of Philipe Senderos who remained disciplined in the centre of midfield and allowed the forward players to sustain the pressure.

Although the Swiss is not a realistic candidate for the spot, his positional awareness and strength allowed him to control the zone better against ultimately inferior opposition. If a defender could operate the zone so well then what’s to say a new midfielder is needed especially with the talent at Arsenal’s disposal already? Arsenal have always excelled in a 4-4-2 although with Cesc Fabregas, it is always him plus one meaning his partner has had to be very mobile. Defensive responsibility is bound to the team as a whole and it will take that understanding to bring back the balance in midfield.

When asked a question about Steven Gerrard when Real Madrid director during the Galactico era, former AC Milan coach and master tactician Arrigo Sacchi had this to say about the Liverpool midfielder. “We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry. But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision-making. They lacked positioning. They didn’t have that subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective.

“You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team, and, by doing this, making both you and the team greater. So, situations like that, I just have to say, he’s a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player.”

Fast forward to Wednesday, and Arsenal completed their fourth pre-season game against Hannover 96 coming out 1-0 winners. Arsene Wenger stuck with the 4-3-3 once again but this time had the luxury of calling up Cesc Fabregas, one of the most intelligent players in world football and a master of dictating play.

Arsenal were better in the match than against Haladás using the same formation but with the departure of Fabregas at half time, were not the same threat. Song’s positional play became suspect and the formation was shown to be more rigid. Work still needs to be done with this set-up but the thinking remains that this formation will give greater control of zones while allowing more or less the same fluidity.

Time will tell, but the conundrum for Wenger will be whether to stick with the 4-3-3 which is the more orthodox or return to the 4-4-2 which suits Arsenal passing game but could be the more difficult to organise. You can’t help but feel all there needs is a little understanding……


24 thoughts on “Arsenal: young, slick and a love for all things passing

  1. 4-3-3 when attacking, 4-5-1 when defending….looked pretty good to me vs Hanover 96 (first half)….most of the issues right now are fitness, and sharpness: when you play a precise passing game sharpness is required at a higher degree…lumping the ball forward (ie Bolton) requires no sharpness.

    This could look like AC Milan of a few years ago in a 3 man CMF:
    Pirlo (Cesc), Gattuso (Song) and Ambrosini (Denilson)…maybe wishful thinking!

  2. Good insightful post!

    1st half against Hannover was alot better than the 2nd..though I felt that Arshavin seemed to be a bit laid back(maybe it’s just preseason). Van Persie needs to clear his head, after all he was the captain in the second half when he kinda lost his cool abit. I think we’re good for the season although not title contenders.

    p.s.: why does Arsene play Bendtner on the wings??

    1. Personally, i think that his 1st touch under-pressure or in tight space isnt good enough to play 2nd striker/in-the-hole while i also dont think he has enough pace to play as the main striker on the shoulder of last defence.

      So with his lack of effectiveness for those 2 role, AW puts him on the flanks, also Wenger is trying to improve his dribbling & tempo by playing on the flanks.

  3. Bendtner works quite well as a wing-forward, as he is direct and has intelligent movement.

    However, i feel we need him as the focal point of our attacking trio – nobody else has the physicality or hold-up play to do so.

    Even in friendlies, Van Persie has struggled in that role due to his lack of strength, and when Eduardo came on as sub, he was no better.

    As such Bendtner is a prerequisite if we are to challenge – unless of course, another striker with the same or improved qualities can be purchased.

  4. Good post. The balance between flexibility and organisation is so often a crucial factor. The question is 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, but I think the answer might be 4-2-3-1. With Fabregas dictating play from deep alongside a strong holding player (surely not Vieira again?) there is a foundation for lots of creativity and movement from the likes of Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri, van Persie and Eduardo. Of course I think it gets even better if some of them are able to play between the lines.
    Off topic, I think Wenger has done some marvellous business with City.

    1. AW was only forced into selling Ade bcuz his position with the fans had become untenable with fans during home games BUT Kolo was sold bcuz he has regressed, absolutely awful in the air, positioning was getting worse by the year, while his 1v1 duels win% last season was very poor.

  5. Gallas holding mid field player ????????????? !!!!!!!!!! Is anyone else thinking the same wish someone would let AW know

  6. Not often do you read a post about Arsenal written with such intelligence and clarity. Pre season is all about trying different ideas and formations. Barcelona (admittedley playing in a more technical league) found a 4-3-3 very accomodating for their passing style, maybe the same could be said about Arsenal come May.

  7. The trade-off between fluidity (or flexibility if you will) and organisation is to be resolved in effectiveness. If you’re good at being fluid, and devastating in creating play, you won’t suffer so much the relative lack of organisation. The problem is if you’re fluid (and flexible) but not incisive.

  8. Hello the brain. I am a new visitor to this blog. I went through the editorials and I am astounded to say the least. I feel arsenal can play a 433 this season with the midfield 3 being diaby denilson and Fabregas. Fab will have more freedom to roam around. As Arsenal do not have that ultimate DM, diaby and denilson can combine. The front 3 can keep interchanging.

    What is your opinion on diaby? Do you think he can do the job in DM?
    Please do reply, I am a great fan of this site.

    1. Hi. Firstly, I do want to make clear, if people are getting the wrong impression, that I wrote an article regarding Barcelona’s 4-3-3 and whether we can implement it. But that is not to say I ruled it out. Many fans have been clamoring for it and I was just pointing out the subtleties of it.

      Anyway, a 4-3-3 is a good possibility. It all boils down to effectiveness and organisation. A designated DM is a must just understanding with the defenders and security.

      Ultimately Fabregas will be the main man but the times Arsenal have used this formation the wide men just haven’t done enough, especially in linking with the forward.

      Maybe they are not suited to the formation as they are essential creative players except Walcott while Arshavin still needs to get used to his new role. Wenger is trying to get Rosicky and Nasri to dribble a bit more than they do which will better the system. While RVP is suited to the second striker role and not as a lone forward but that is another area Wenger is working on.

      I rate Diaby highly and the French set up do also. His biggest criticism is that he tends to dwell on the ball and looks to use his strength to bail himself out. However that itself can be eradicated as it’s a matter of decsion making and understanding rather than technique of which his is quite good. Can pass short well and in tight situations and is developing his power going forward.

    2. Thanks a lot for the quick reply! My 433 will look like this:
      Ususal 4

      ………………….Fab 4…………………..


      According to me, diaby and denilson can sit back and defend while fabregas will get the reedom to roam around giving through balls to everyone. He can take control of the game.
      He is like the creator of triangles. One with diaby and denilson and the other with the three strikers. But the system may fail if fabregas gets marked out. so the players must keep interchanging their roles. It is like combining total football. Even the 3 strikers must keep interchanging their roles.

      Do you thgink Diaby will make it as a DM? what is his natural position? Which current player do you think has the most potential out of the current crop? Do you think we need a DM or a CB? If yes who is the right man according to you? It is exciting to be discussing with a person of your calibre!

      1. I believe Fabregas is more effective when he plays deeper. He can control the game much better there. I really dont support playing 2 CDMs. Fabregas is a complete midfielder and staying deep he gives us another option in attack. I think too much focus has been given that Fab HAS to attack. I dont think pushing him more forward will increase his effectiveness.

        1. The point of having 2 DM is that it allows both the L and R backs more freedom and it gives fabregas space and freedom to roam around. A player without defensive duties will fell less pressure and when we need to attack, nasri(the cm alongside diaby/denilson/song) can assist Fabregas. When you combine total football with this, you can be sure someone to stay back and defend. My ideas are not always right, you are free to comment against it

          1. I think this line of thought has merely arised from the need/want of taking the maximum of Fabregas. The point that I am making is that we dont need to have excessive cover to see him at his best. He was his best when he had in the midfield Flamini, Rosicky and Hleb around him. And only Flamini was a DM among them. With 2 DMs even though are defense is supposedly stronger. It effectively gives us one less player to attack.

            Dont misunderstand me. I would love to see Arsenal play a 4-3-3 formation. Just the thought of having 2 DMs and that to have them to help Fabregas doesnt seem right. Just my opinion.

            1. Alan, I completely agree with you. But with the current DMs that we have, I think they are not good enough to play there alone. If we buy an accomplished midfielder like Rossi yeah. If you see the latter part of the season, the wing backs became slightly defensive. If you ask me, their attacking play is vital to the teams balance. If we play with Diaby and Denilson, it would be perfect for the team balance imo.
              Anyway, what formation did arsenal play yesterday? I missed it.

  9. brain, have you seen the recent emirates cup match against atletico?

    that was typical arsenal – dominating possession and chances – but not getting a goal until they started being more efficient. you’re right about the icarus paradox in that arsenal haven’t been as multidimensional as the situation calls.

    i think that arsenal need to get the ball back better. at times during the game, players would make great tackles and then immediately lose the ball after dribbling forward.

    i also htink that a lot of our defensive woes have to do with players getting out of position and getting caught on the counter. on one atletico fast break – clichy was nowhere to be found and there was in effect a back three. denilson was in a more advanced position and did not track back fast enough to defend the advancing madrid strikers. our defense gave them space and we could have paid the price as we have so many times in the past.

  10. Hi John. Yes, I watched the game and you’re definitely right about the part about getting caught out. Because we are so elaborate we may require more resources when getting forward hence Gallas’ attacking contribution in the game with his passes and Manonne having to sweep balls up.
    Sometimes also Denilson is isolated too much as what happened today although Fabregas could have pressured the Athletico player and that was what Wenger was steaming about after.

    Regarding being efficient; Arshavin has the knack of not doing too much but then delivering a assist or a goal. He still has getting used to the wide position but when he does his dynamism should make us that more clinical.

    @kv: I think Diaby can make it as a DM. If Wenger gave him a disciplined role then he has got the attributes to do it. I think his natural position is CM although once his build up play and positioning improves Mr. Wenger will trust him more there.
    There are many talented players at Arsenal and I can’t put them in order of talent but the best are probably Wilshere, Vela, Diaby, Nasri, Walcott (out wide), Ramsey, Djourou and there are quite a few coming through too.
    I’m not too sure we need another player if looking at potential but at current level it will help. Vermaelen looks very good while if a signing was made it should be in midfield and maybe even attack. M. Diarra of Madrid had been criticised by the Spanish press for not being technical enough and was replaced in the end by Gago after injuries. But the guy improves their performances very much when he plays. Similar to Essien and would do well.
    You can email me using the email on the about page. Remember I know no more than you do about football!

  11. Hi Brain! The match was pretty good and I was particularly impressed with Merida and Wilshere. Merida looks stronger than before and I guess even Wilshere has bulked up a little. I agree with John about loosing the ball to often and early. As we play a very high defensive line, we need really quick defenders who are good readers of the game. But in the premier league, the teams will use long balls but I guess Verminator is good at dealing with them. What formation do you think we played today?

    And another point, I think someone needs to support denilson in the role. Probably it is time for Diaby to step in. I think he is better than Matuidi. I think we need to sign Eden Hazard and Neven Subotic. Both are great talents and I am particularly impressed with Neven Subotic.

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