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.
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’.