Robin van Persie’s new role at the tip of the Arsenal front three is sought to bring more variety to the side’s attacking play.
Few would have had Thomas Vermaelen as Arsenal’s top scorer in the early stages of the season, not least because he is a defender but the Belgian had also yet to kick a ball in the Premier League before his £10million move from Ajax and who others decided against signing because of his height. And while it would have been surprising to him also, Arsène Wenger will argue it was all part of his master plan all along.
Wenger had been preparing for this current campaign towards the end of last season by switching the formation to a 4-2-3-1, one born out of necessity after the Gunners faltering title challenge but also allowing him to experiment from within. Games against Chelsea and Villarreal at home saw his side pressuring up the pitch at a high tempo; Alex Song and Samir Nasri dropped deeper while he was preparing for life after Emmanuel Adebayor by opting not to go with the Togolese striker for the final two games of the season.
But rather than go like-for-like with Nicklas Bendtner or “fox-in-the-box” Eduardo, his replacement was to be Robin Van Persie, the forward who had found his best work to be as the second striker. But in that the Dutchman had also found what was his most productive season, (largely because of staying injury free of course) making 10 Premier League assists and scoring 20 goals in all competitions. However it wasn’t a case of exaggerating his star performer’s skills but rather an attempt to make his fluid, attacking side more effective.
Arsenal had just gone through a frustrating season with teams like Stoke and Bolton knowing that men behind the ball could seriously disrupt their play. They were fully aware that Arsenal would only play one way and that was to play through them therefore all they had to do was to sit deep and stay focused for the full ninety in the hope of getting at least a result.
In anticipation of a potential repeat, Arsène Wenger has looked to alter the way his team works but still retaining the one-touch, pass and move style of build up. The switch to a 4-3-3 is more than just a means to accommodate the plethora of central midfielders in the side. It allows his team to pressure high up the pitch, bring the game early to opposition and allows more angles in the pass to keep the ball moving.
Robin Van Persie’s role as the central forward is key to this style. Fabio Capello says that “in the modern game, the only formation is 9-1,” which means teams must defend and attack as a team but also acknowledging the importance of the forward as a base which to build play around.
In this position the Dutchman is not necessarily inhibited by playing a role that he is not used but rather allowing him to do the things he is best at. He can drop deep, drag defenders out and make space for others to run into. There is so much space a team can deny behind you which invariably means conceding greater space in front. And with players like Fabregas who thrive on having the ball in such areas and the chance for others to interchange the potential danger becomes unexpectedly larger.
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. “It can get a little bit lonely for him (van Persie),” says Wenger. “But that depends how quick and how massive the support is we give him. 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 unpredictability gives greater depth to attacks and makes it hard to mark players. In more than a couple of instances against Wigan, van Persie dropped into the centre circle and instantly Eduardo and Eboue darted in from the flanks and sought to take advantage of the space left behind. Late arriving midfielders is still a ploy which many teams find hard to deal, giving an element of surprise to attacks and more goals.
And as fitness improves, so do the demands of players therefore the next evolution in football is likely to be how the different players interpret their roles (maybe the return of the sweeper is on the cards?). For example Cristiano Ronaldo played on the left of a fluid 4-4-2 in Man United’s 2007/08 triumph but was expected to carry the same goalscoring duties of a striker while on the other side, Park Ji Sung despite playing in the same position per se, was more defensive, tracking back and pressuring but also expected to get in the box. We can see in the centre of midfield, while still a diamond in the rough, Diaby’s importance, as defensively he covers for the left forward and makes tackles for the team while his strong, late running is considered one of the best by Wenger.
Other subtle changes to the Arsenal set-up can sometimes see Alex Song drop back almost as the third centre back. The application and desire has improved among the ranks and the Cameroon ace has certainly shown the necessary advances to become a vital part of the team, stopping counter attacks by reading the game well. The full backs look to be more aware of transitions and are expected to squeeze the space against wingers and pin them back. And after having been criticised at the start of the season for lacking size, the Gunners have notched seven goals from free-kicks and corners as Wenger has realised the value of set-pieces and has fielded some of his tallest sides in recent seasons.
The French manager has also talked about the importance of distances and Arsenal need to make sure they are not being too stretched defensively. That means pressuring high and squeezing the space by pushing up. This is the area where Arshavin may be key as although his fitness levels are not the highest, the Russian puts in a hardworking shift closing down early on while his dynamism adds balance. “When you play with Arshavin you are never on your own, when you play with Theo Walcott you are never on your own,” Wenger told The Daily Telegraph. “Playing with strikers depends on the support you will get from the rest of the team. I wanted to see how it works because we have many offensive players and maybe we have to tighten up a bit in midfield to keep balance between offence and defence and I wanted to see how it works. I am quite happy with it.”
There is still much work to be done for the tactic to be a success in the long run with van Persie acknowledging there is still room for improvements in his all round game. And there will be days when things fail to click therefore Bendtner’s and Eduardo’s more orthodox manner will be called upon more centrally. But with 25 goals scored in eight matches (not including Carling Cup) and a hat full chances that could have gone either way in Manchester there’s every chance that Arsène Wenger has this time found the right formula.