Roaming Robin the focal point in Wenger’s master plan

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.

23 thoughts on “Roaming Robin the focal point in Wenger’s master plan

  1. BOMB analysis homie. Excellent interpretation and explanation of the new system we employ. Give it a few more games, and RVP will start hitting the back of the net on aregular. So much offensive power we got.

  2. Good article and more or less on the money regarding RvP’s importance in that role. You alluded to Bentdners role towards the end. If his hold up and link up play improves I can see Robin being moved about and Bentdner offering more as the fulcrum of the attack. That said there is still alot of refining required in his game.

    Hopefully Diaby can provide that balance that you say he already does, because right now he does not. Clearly he has the necessary attributes but I find that the majority of his tackles are clumsy and end up surrendering free-kicks and possession.

    1. totally agree. van persie plays great as a wide man in a front three for Holland so why not for us?
      also diaby needs to up his work rate and stop losing concentration.

  3. Excellent analysis!

    I guess you could almost say our system is a variation of Roma’s 4-6-0.

    We don’t have any natural players to lead the line, but in Van Persie, with have an ‘in-between-the-lines’ creative focal point – the same role Totti plays – with wing-forwards looking to get in behind and exploit the space.

    Where I feel we will have an advantage over Roma in this respect however, is our ability to adapt and overcome the losses of key players.

    When Totti is injured, Roma have often been forced to play the likes of Baptista in such a role, which disrupts their fluency in the final third, due to his inability to fit such a role.

    When Van Persie is injured however, the likes of Eduardo and Bendtner can comfortably assume the creative role up front.

    It’s worth noting this isn’t the first time Wenger has attempted such a system.
    I’m reading Wenger’s biography by Myles Palmer currently, and it’s interesting looking back at the games from years gone by – he effectively reviews each season in detail, as opposed to analysing what’s more pertinent to Wenger’s career, if I’m honest – with a greater understanding of the game.
    When Wiltord was brought to the club, Wenger seemingly intended to partner him with Henry. However, due to their tendencies to drift to the right and left flank respectively, the balance wasn’t right.

    When Bergkamp entered the frame, the front 3 worked in a way similar to what we are seeing now, with the Dutchman helping to bring the two wide-forwards into the game.

    Similarly, whilst this may have been largely forced by injury, in the FA Cup final in 2005, we saw two wing-forwards playing off Bergkamp; although as we all know, this didn’t work out so effectively.

    At first, I couldn’t see the logic in playing Van Persie up-front, and whilst I feel he has flaws, in-time, I feel it will become more and more apparent he has found his best position in our system.

    1. Mr. Wenger is a big fan of having one striker playing off and two creative wingers. It was surprising to see him change; perhaps, like the case with Wiltord as you allude to, the balance isn’t right and the team isn’t quite ready to play the way he prefers.

  4. Interesting you mention the return of the sweeper, I remember commenting on one of your pieces a while back about the role of Dossena at Udinese, as I think I said then, the development of tactics happens in italy, then many follow. The 3 man defence is on the way, many teams employ in Italy, from Udinese to Napoli, to probably the best exponent at the moment, Genoa. Having their 3-4-3/3-5-2/3-1-3-1-2 scheme is allowing those teams to defend stoutly, but also attack relentlessly, they have also had the likes of Bocchetti, Zapater and until recently Santacroce to push into midfield. Could Arsenal emulate this? Maybe with more tactical work, but it is a very refreshing tactic I’ve observed for the last two years. Just like many clubs copied the Roma blueprint, teams will follow the 3 man defence blueprint soon.

    As for the positioning of Van Persie, I am still not convinced of him there. He isn’t a killer in front of goal, if he is kept far away from goal and marked tightly, he can be negated from the match. in the key matches when Arsenal need a consummate finisher there, I am not convinced Van Persie will fit the billing. It also seems as if Wenger has to accommodate Van Persie somehow, this leads to Eduardo and Bendtner being sifted out of position at his expense. This also means we don’t have the option of the piercing through ball for his runs in on goal or relying on his positioning in the box for an incoming pass.

    It also relies on the support being clinical around him, Fabregas is improving on this end, but I’m not sure Nasri will be as prolific for the next season and a half whilst he matures fully, a problem he has had since his Marseilles days. Sometimes, I wonder why can’t Arsenal be more simple in their playing and tactical outlook, we have good finishers like Vela and Eduardo and play them wide, we have very good advanced playmakers like Rosicky and Nasri and don’t deploy them there. I don’t think Arsenal is good enough to be married to one style of play and hope for success.

    1. Here’s why RVP will play in the centre. It’s either him or Eduardo or Bendtner. It’s either him or one of those two.

      I won’t ask for Bendtner to play centre while RVP is shifted wide. Why? Because RVP is a more proven goalscorer than Bendtner, and better and bringing in other players into attacking play. Think about it. What sense does it make to move RVP to the wings where he’s never done well, so Bendtner can play centre? Bendtner has 2 choices: Play wide or play backup (on the bench).

      The case for Eduardo is stronger. He’s a pure goalscorer. I would almost say he’s more goalscorer than striker. And therein is the point. In terms of general team play, physical presence and aerial ability, RVP would get the nod.

      Unless you think RVP shouldn’t be playing for Arsenal, then his place in our 4-3-3 is as the main striker.

    2. It’s a fair comment. Wenger trusts RVP to develop in this position and at the moment while he’s good at dropping off needs work holding the ball with his back to goal. The potential is there but there is a niggling thought that he can get frustrated alone up front.

  5. Are you trying to say that we are playing a 4-6-0?
    IMO, Thomas Vermaelen/Gallas act as sweepers considering that teams play a 4231 and there is only 1 striker to mark. We need to beef up our defence and develop a lethal counter attack. This is where having walcott and arshavin on either flanks will help.
    In the future we need to play a midfield trio of diaby denilson and Fabregas. Song will be a quality cb. As you said, diaby will provide the driving force in the middle for the late runs.

  6. Having Diaby in the team has its negatives. He is known to be a decent dribbler of the ball. But he keeps drifting in and out of the game, looses concentration and looses the ball. But I must say that he is a great link player. On his day, he can be deadly.
    Next year, we will get another “player” CB in Nordtveit. He is good at dribbling the ball out of the defence and has a good header. Then our team will have vermaelen, bendtner, gallas, song, diaby(has the height)and song, who all can head the ball. If we play walcott, it injects pace to the team. We will have varieties…

    1. All players have negatives. Cesc does not defend very well and is slow. And we haven’t seen him at his fired up best since March 2008.

      If you focus on diaby’s negatives, you’ll so easily miss the fantastic positives.

      If you focused on Cesc’s negatives, you’ll probably say he gives the ball away a lot since he is often trying the killer pass.

      Don’t get me wrong, Diaby is a frustrating player as any. If he’d just keep it simple, he’ll win people over. But he has everything, and I mean everything to be a world class player. Fast, dribbles, tackles, good in the air, powerful, strong and seems to be overcoming injuries that have never seen him have a run of 10 games in the Arsenal 1st team.

      His ability, to win the ball, and power upfront is a fantastic ability from a tactical perspective. Being a midfielder, he can carry the ball up faster, and counter faster, almost risk free with most of our players behind him. That’s important in the modern game.

      It’s not like he contributes nothing. He wins the ball a lot, tracks back a whole lot, he’s scoring goals and he’s making assists.

      Some fans seem to need players to dislike. Not necessarily talking about you.

  7. 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.

    Some of us get criticised for banging on about and quoting statistics, but I just have to point out that Arsenal scored the most goals from set pieces last season. We are very good on set pieces.

    It’s not a new phenomenon. The season before the last we were also one of the best at set-piece goals.

    That’s why we quote boring stats. Conventional wisdom always leads to misdiagnoses of the problem, and can turn fans against a thinking manager.

    The fact that we’re so good on set pieces shows that it’s not a lack of height that’s the problem in defending. We’ve bought a “dominant centre-half” but we’re conceding more stupid goals than last season (we’ve barely conceded a genuine goal not a result of some stupid basic error).

    So, sometimes, everyone is screaming at Wenger about something they have no clue whatsoever about.

    1. man u is the shortest side interms of height officially yet they finished completing a hatrick of premeir league titles this year

  8. RVP is the COMPLETE offensive player according to his goals and assists mentioned above and lifting the team in the absence of cesc was an example of responsiblity he shares. so for rvp its a matter of atopting to this role not good enough or ineffective

  9. I’m thinking, with the players we’re having we could occasionally play with 2 orthodox strikers (RvP-Bendtner or Bendtner-Eduardo or RvP-Eduardo) by pushing Denilson/Diaby to the wing in a traditional 4-4-2 formation.

    That we’re playing 4-3-3 is mainly to get the best of Cesc by reducing his defensive workload. It has looked solid defensively, at least when both Denilson and Song are on the field, but created a dilemma when Arsene wanted to switch the offense up a level. In occasion when we need to score the next goal of the game, playing with only one striker seems insufficient. The dilemma is how to get 2 strikers in without wagging our defensive tail up. With Theo coming back and Bendtner gaining more confidence, the temptation for Arsene to play 2 strikers will return.

    Here is where our “non-star” players can be extremely handful. In Diaby/Denilson/Eboue we have players who can play on the wings while reinforcing the spine of the team defensively. They can retrieve and hold on to the ball and and they are great in interchanging positions with other players when called for.

    So I’m saying 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 has not been dead with Arsenal yet. I personally would love to see the day when we could pair Theo-RvP or RvP-Bendtner up front.

    1. Hi. The Roma formation is really a 4-3-3 but with Totti dropping deep to make space for others behind and around him. They have wingers who like to get behind and cut in and midfielders like Perotta who makes as good runs as Lampard while deep playmakers allow them to circulate the ball. The full backs defend as standard but attack quickly, late and unmarked with plenty of dynamism.

      It’s worth noting they don’t play this anymore as they don’t have the required personnel.

      1. Thank you. I assume they are playing the diamond formation.
        Did you watch the fulham game? Mannone was a masterclass. Arsenal hung on pretty well though. Hangeland played quite well I must say. He has a good technique.

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