What’s different about Arsenal’s new-look 4-3-3 system?

Arsene Wenger has traded the 4-4-2 with the 4-3-3 for the new season in order to reinvigorate his side but what is different about the new system?

The problem facing Chris Barnard, the first surgeon to successfully perform a human-to-human heart transplant was rejection – whether the patient’s body would accept the new organ.

He had no other choice for the situation was necessary and for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger switching to the 4-3-3 will have posed a similar question (though to a lesser significance). The Gunners were ordinary last campaign and much to the risk of becoming stale, Wenger was forced to abandon his customary 4-4-2 for a fluid 4-3-3 this season. “We will play the formation and system that most suits the players and the balance of the team,” he says. “That means it’s not rigid. It can evolve throughout the season, depending on circumstances and personnel.”

At first glance that 4-3-3 can look like a 4-2-3-1 and at other times, when Arshavin moves closer to the striker it can look like a 4-4-2. Indeed that is the thinking behind the system change – it gives the fluidity and the freedom that Arsenal’s pass-and-move game so greatly desires. There are more triangles in the pass, an added bonus of having the left-footed Vermaelen at centre back while the three pronged attack allows greater pressure in the final third. “I wanted to play high up the pitch and it can change in some games,” said Wenger. “But overall I believe we can play high up and we can bring the threat to the opponents half very early in the game.”

Different Bodily Functions

The key to the early success has been the players willingness and attitude, which can bring different interpretations of their roles. Taking the matches against Celtic and Everton as the example, it was Alex Song who played the most deepest with Denilson to the left of him and Cesc Fabregas higher but towards the right. Here each have their own and subtly different functions.

Fabregas is the dictator and is seen as the one to create chances in the final third while Denilson provides the double back with Song and also has the duty of covering the area on the left which Arshavin vacates. Indeed at Portsmouth it was Diaby who had this role and because of the tireless manner in which he went about his job, it seemed like Fabregas was the deeper midfielder when in fact it allowed him to dictate more easily.

Rebels or Robots?

What is important to realise is that for a team like Arsenal, players should not be governed by the mere physical arrangements of players. It helps explain the shape especially from a defensive viewpoint but difficulty arrives when comparing the two different systems of Liverpool and Arsenal (both said 4-2-3-1’s yet Benitez may argue different especially as he describes Gerrard as a striker).

That is particularly true of Andrei Arshavin who is a second striker by trade and the freedom Wenger gives him on the ball cannot be stuck to the left or right touchline. Eduardo was the player furthest to the left against Portsmouth and instantly the Croatian had a better performance in that position than he has had before. The idea here is for that midfielder to play as a loose forward starting from the left and cutting in to support the forward. This in turn poses great questions to the opposing full back; whether he should remain tight particularly as the space can be used by the left central midfielder or the surging left back.

And on the other side is Nicklas Bendtner, who is the more direct threat but his height presenting the full back with an altogether different proposition. In Rinus Michels’ book Teambuilding, he suggests that the build-up to an attack “needs to create situations to be able to play the ball deep as quickly as possible.” Wenger is experimenting this season with one creative wide player and the other more direct, to allow greater variety and that outlet to get the ball forward quickly.

He has the option of Bendtner, or Walcott to get in behind quickly or he can opt for the double creative ploy using Samir Nasri because as Martin O’Neill says ” the more creativity you have in your side the better chance you will have.” (Before his injury, Nasri looked likely to play as the second central midfielder with Walcott on the left).

The Universal Striker

It was the former Brazil manager, Carlos Alberto who predicted that the tactic of the future may see no fixed striker. And it was Roma, then Manchester United who brought the ‘strikerless’ formation to the forefront and now it seems Robin van Persie is playing such a role for Arsenal.

Much has been made of the goals, or rather a lack of goals from the forwards but recent developments of fitness and movement means goalscoring is to be shared. “It can get a little bit lonely for him (van Persie), but that depends how quick and how massive the support is we give him,” says Wenger. “I believe that we work on that, you know? That he gets quick support and he needs people around him because he’s a combination player, more than a physical player. That’s why the distances within our side are important, that he’s not isolated.”

The manager feels his Dutch forward can fulfill two roles; one as a provider and the other as a more orthodox striker once he further develops that part although at the same time he knows he also has the option of Eduardo to provide a more higher threat.

One can see the importance of the midfielders in the new system, with it revitalising the attitude and application of such players. Pep Guardiola talks about the ‘llegada’ (arrival), a late arriver into the box who can progress beyond the forward unmarked, causing much surprise to the opposition defence and such a tactic is now a vital part in Arsenal’s game. “I feel we create good space for our midfielders to run in and to go into the box,” Wenger says. “On that front we look more dangerous. If you analyse our goals at the moment our strikers provide more than they score. That is maybe down to the way we play as well.”

And perhaps that is the new system’s greatest strength – the fluidity and flexibility in turn asking much greater questions to the opposition.

The 4-3-3 system as used against Celtic and Everton.

NB: I’ve decided to cave in to consumer demand and accept this is a 4-3-3 as Wenger has actually confirmed this. However the beauty of the system is that it allows much fluidity and interchange and can look like a 4-2-3-1 to allow Fabregas to operate more ‘between the lines’.


39 thoughts on “What’s different about Arsenal’s new-look 4-3-3 system?

  1. It’s 4-3-3 as has been specifically stated by Wenger himself.

    Denilson didn’t sit deep as you have in your formation against Celtic & Everton. He got forward as much as Cesc did.

    It’s Song sitting deep covering, whilst Denilson & Cesc interchange in attack, with the free front men interchaning positions from LW/ST/RW.

    It is very much the same system that Barca play with the closing down to go with it.

    1. i couldnt agree more. i’m a bit surprised that this site still insist that the formation is 4231. even the picture on the article suggests that it was 433 (or 41221).

      4231 was what we employed in the later stage of last season when wenger said that fabregas is not fit enough to play in a deeper position, thus he employed fab4 in zidane role as a playmaker.

  2. Further more the system we were playing at the back end of last season is completely different to the system we’ve started this season with.

  3. Just a theoretical question, if Eduardo was fully fit, who would you drop? Would you drop someone at all? Where would you put him on your front line?

    1. Hi. I’m not sure whether it will be best to play him wide if one assumes RVP remains in the 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 is still open and Wenger will play it at some point this season. In a 4-3-3, Eduardo could play anywhere in the front three although at top would be his best while he is capable as the left forward.

      1. Hi, thanks for the answer. I was a bit surprised to see Eduardo on the left against Portsmouth. Given the state they are in it was a good game to experiment with things, so didn’t read much into it. I’d really like to see him leading the pack in harder games. He’s a natural finisher and best utilized in and around the box.

  4. That an interesting view that you have taken on the new formation but time is the ultimate revealer of all things and with that we will see if it all comes together on the pitch.

  5. It really doesn’t matter if it is a 4231 or a 433, the shape depends on the movements of the players on the pitch (basically the movement of the midfielders). For me, the most important things are:

    – Song seems to be the defensive midfielder, the stopper. Is he good enough for Arsenal? That is a key position.

    – Robin Van Persie and Arshavin are key to the system: without their play the system would not flow that much, but movement is needed for creating space.

    – Bendtner is key as well: he is the only one upfront strong enough to hold the ball and give time for his teammates to come up (very similar situation to what Ibrahimovic gives to the new Barça).

    I will follow Arsenal very closely this season: I love what Arsene Wenger is trying to do, but I don’t know if he really has good enough players to do so (for sure RVP, Arshavin and Cesc are wonderful for the system. Nasri and possibly Rosicki as well, but what about the others?….).

    As usual, excuse me for my English, hopefully I will keep improving it.

  6. another great post that is true in every detail. you make this site a cut above the rest. it is 4-2-3-1 . people with less knowledge could mistake it for 4 -3-3.

    anothing thing which i have thought is as bendnter is playing on the wing at first this puzzled me. but after he destroyed baines it made me realise the logic behind this.
    wing backs are generally smaller in size and not as strong aerially.
    so a target man would have more success against baines then against say lescott. it makes sense if you think about it

      1. I believe if THeo is fit he can be used to provide a different dimension to the angle of attack due to his speed. I mean, Theo, or even Wilshere can be used against bigger, slower fullbacks or for fullbacks that move up, and stay up the pitch alot to take advantage of the deep space created behind. I think the flexibility on the right wing is excellent.

        I do sure hope that Theo improves his decision-making and shooting. His shooting looks too nervous to me – he swipes and snaps at the ball all too often. Maybe Eduardo can teach him how to be composed.

    1. i’m not sure about mistakes made by less knowledge people. i’ve been wathing football for about 15 years now. and the 4231 formation requires a pure playmaker or what the italian said as the “trequartista”, a player that operates in the final third of the pitch, such as zidane,platini,totti,or diego these days.

      our current system didnt deploy such player, fabregas has been played deep in the midfield. if anytihing we were emulating barca’s system with no targetman as the difference.

  7. just too nice an experiment so far. let’s just c how effective and sustaining it’s gonna go but i don’t think it’s rigid, why because it’s got to do with the available fit players on ground 4 a particular match day. all da same, in ARSENE i’ve always trusted. much love 2 all ma gunner faithfuls. i love you all da gunner chicks.

  8. great post, brain!
    i think bendtner has been making it difficult for arsene to keep him on the bench. his directness and ability to hold the ball is reminiscent of adebayor, but he has better link up play and dribbling in my opinion. i think of him as “adebayor pre-beyonce”. he has soo much talent. i am really pulling for him to do well season.
    i am not concerned abt vpersie not scoring. i think we should have been worried when we had to rely on vpersie to score for us, like the time he took over our game with chelsea last season . . .

  9. Really interesting analysis Brain – it is only loosely a 4-3-3 formation but the movement of the players is such that your graphic illustrates the reality of what happens on the pitch much better. It will be interesting to see whether Arsene is tempted to switch to 4-4-2 in the absence of Cesc as he has said the new formation is not set in stone.

    1. I agree, our formation is a 4-1-2-3 which is perfectly suited to the players we have as cesc and denilson play much higher up the pitch than song. To be honest though, it doesn’t matter what the exact formation is, the biggest difference has been the change of team ethic this season with everyone prepared to chase down the ball when we don’t have it. All the players seem to be working together as well which is a far cry from last season with all the inhouse politics between toure/gallas and adebayor/bendtner. long may it continue. p.s. hope the new rumours about us stepping up the interest in matuidi are true as we will need cover for Song when he goes to ACN. Denilson is better in an advanced position and Diaby can’t tackle for sh*t!

  10. All a bit technical for me, in my day we played 2-3-5 the wingers running the touch line and crossing the ball rarely taking it in.
    Johnny Haynes of Fulham would lie deep for an inside forward and could split a defence with pin point accuracy. I was privleged to play along side him in a pre season match and I can tell you he had the ball on a string.Matthews attracted players like a magnet and the wing belonged to him. With three players attending to him it left holes in the middle and didn`t Stanley find them. But that was then before we had computer assist. I`ll just sit back and enjoy the slick one two passes of Arsenal and leave all the high tech stuff to those who seem to know what they`re doing.

  11. ‘is song good enough’

    what kind of question is that. over the last 6 months he’s been one of our top 5 players easily. he’s usually been one of our top 3 or 4 players in every game and at the start of the season he’s been arguably the best player on the pitch in both of the games he’s played.

    on the topic of the formation you make a good analysis

  12. I agree with renegadebison. I think song has been absolutely phenomenal. I’m thinking what a waste it would have been to sign Felipe Melo and to lose out on Eboue as part of that signing when you have a stellar holding midfielder in Song. What a performance he put on against Celtic. I haven’t seen a better performance by an Arsenal Def M’fielder since Gilberto against Villareal in the champions league semifinals in the 2005.

  13. I think I like the system.It brings out the beauty of Arsenal free-flowing game.Diaby’s 1st goal sequentially involved all but 2 players-that epitomised the proximity and the fluidity of the system.Song has to perform week-in,week-out,stay injury-free and remain diciplined.Can he do it for the season-long?-the answer is no,not for his ability,but he’s human.So we need a cover for him.Cesc,Denilson,Diaby,Ramsey,Nasri,Rocsik are all too similar and forward looking.Another ball winner is needed.I have no doubt that the offensive players will deliver.I always have palpitations whenever international break looms.Lets hope we have all of them back intact.I have always trust Wenger unlike a few of my friends.

  14. btw this is hu i would play:


    sagna gallas vermaelen clichy


    fabregas rosicky/nasri

    arshavin/walcott eduardo van persie

  15. Good article; although – and sorry to repeat this ad nauseam – I still feel we lack sufficient strength up-front.

    I think you make a good point about the need for close proximity between the players to allow for increased interchange and quick play, but Wenger himself points out Van Persie is not a physical player, which I worry will be his downfall against more tenacious, physical sides.

    Furthermore, when teams look to park the proverbial bus, who’s going to act as the focal point for our attacks?
    This is why I hope we sign Chamakh.

    It’s also worth noting that this system, once again, leaves our full-backs a touch exposed.
    I guess the same could be said of the opposition, but I just don’t want to see defensive frailties slip back into our game.

    1. Hi. Good points about the forwards. It seems Wenger has acknowledge the fact van Persie still needs work on holding the ball up and getting behind the defence to complement his creative play. That is getting better but he has great trust in Eduardo this year to play that role if things are not going to plan.

      Losing Adebayor means no Plan B as such although Bendtner could do a similar job. So far, the team is more ruthless and quicker on the counter meaning greater variety.

      I wish I put something on the weakness because yes, the full back area still needs some work.

  16. “The problem facing Chris Barnard, the first surgeon to successfully perform a human-to-human heart transplant was rejection – whether the patient’s body would accept the new organ.” Nice touch, did you see it on the BBC Documentary a few weeks back? Trial and error and eventually they got it right, from using animal organs to reducing body temperature etc!

    If we use the same analogy, we have found some answers to the problems encountered last year, namely balance in defence and attack, but also in a clear identity and belief on what we are trying to do, namely get to goal in the quickest route possible and keeping the opposition far away from our goal.

    As you’ve said in other posts, ‘formations are becoming irrelevant’ in terms of numbers and configurations, what is becoming more important is the idea in what the team wants to achieve. If we compare this years attitude and last year, there was no belief in trying to hold fort and also be objective in scoring, this year the belief is there so far, as well as playing our abundant resource, i.e. central midfielders in central midfield.

    So far, it’s working, although we probably need a backup plan as well when we face a team that blows a storm such as Chelsea so we can hold on and break with confidence.

    1. Hi. Unfortunately I missed the documentary but is something I have been reading on. You’ve applied the analogy better than I did and it does seem like the attitude is much better this season. There is more variety in the side but the true test is coming up against United and later Chelsea to see how we cope with the superior threat of these clubs.

  17. it is a good formation that works well but i think our strongest would be
    sagna gallas vermaelen clichy
    walcott arshavin
    van persie
    and if any of the 3 attackers are injured eduardo could replace any of them

  18. My theory is that when Cesc-Song-Denilson play together, the difference between Cesc and Denilson is not position but what they do. With Song sitting in the deepest in midfield, the two constantly interchange positions. We have seen them both score/shoot at one box or tackle at the other when the other covers the middle of the pitch. In other words, I agree with the chart of this article, only adding a bit of details by discussing the role of Denilson in this sytem.

    What Denilson does NOT do as often as Cesc is attempts at the unpredictable killer passes. His passes are most often made right after we just won the ball back, when maintaining possession and engaging more players to attack is priority. What we see from Denilson are passes to teammates no longer than 10 yards away – simple but crucial because they release ball away from position under heavy pressure to players who can stand upright and have time to make decisions. What we also see from Denilson is his ability to stop opponents, with stunning efficiency, from doing this seemingly easy task.

    We all love the lovely assists that Cesc launches. What we often don’t notice as much is the pass TO him right before he sets off those killers. They are short passes across midfield that set him free from his markers and they often come from Denilson.

  19. Eduardo is the key to the 433 or 4-3-2-1 as I would like to see it played. Last year in a MU match Ferdinan fouled Adebayor from behind every time he touched the ball. Because this is English football of course nothing was called. Needless to say Adebayor did nothing. He was replaced by Eduardo who promptly elbowed Ferdinan in the solarplexes so hard to put him on the ground. No foul was called and Ferdinan no longer fouled Eduardo when he was trapping the ball with his back to the goal. He was very effective.

    Long story short is Eduardo is the best Arsenal player with his back to the goal and his asendency to the striker position will be a primary factor in the sucess of this team. Has he recovered?

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