Andrey Arshavin is likely to start on the left of Arsenal’s attack which opens up many possibilities on how the Gunners may line up next season.
In the summer of 1997, the back pages of the national papers were adorned with the photographs of Arsène Wenger’s and his two new signings for the club – Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit. They looked like European pop music producers but that was not to underplay their importance to Arsenal for the coming seasons as their arrival signalled a tactical change for the club. In the previous campaign, Wenger’s had delayed the first step of his revolution – or at least the revolution on the playing field – as he persisted with his players’ preference of sticking to the rigid 3-5-2. The signings of Overmars and Petit, however, gave Wenger the appropriate tools to implement his vision.
Petit was moved from centre-back to defensive midfield and Overmars, an archetypical winger in the Dutch 4-3-3, was given a loose role on the left. With Patrick Vieira in the middle also, Arsenal played with a “double-six” which had the same capability of halting attacks as it did the ability to springboard the side’s own. It was the perfect launch pad for the team. But perhaps it was Ray Parlour who was Arsenal’s most important player as his job on the right of midfield allowed the Gunners to move from the 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, affording Marc Overmars to freedom join the attack. “Look at his medals. It tells you he is one of the biggest-ever players for Arsenal,” said Wenger on Parlour’s contribution. “He is better in the last minute than the first. Ray’s an engine that never stops.”
Since then, the 4-4-2 in it’s different guises has remained synonymous with Arsenal until last season when Arsène Wenger finally decided it was time to move to the 4-3-3. The question is, with the signing of Marouane Chamakh, does the option of returning to the 4-4-2 present itself once again to Arsenal? Indeed, if that is the case, it is more likely it would be closer to the 1997 version rather than the “Invincibles” model because of the various strengths of the players. (Although like the 2003-04 model, the formation is likely to change to a 4-4-1-1 in the defensive phase to allow for the more efficient covering of space). Robin van Persie has found his true position higher up the pitch while no one forward is capable of filling – apart from Andrey Arshavin – Dennis Bergkamp’s number 10 role. Nevertheless Wenger is adamant that Arshavin’s best position for the team is on the left of the forward attack. “I just love Arshavin as a footballer because he has things that are just down to him,” he says. “He is intelligent and he looks like he is a shrewd street-player because he creates something always in unexpected situations. He has a low centre of gravity, great pace and tricky dribble. He uses all that he has in the locker in an intelligent way and don’t forget he is a winner as well.” However after a stint as the central striker last season Wenger added: “But I do not deny as well that our plan in the future is to put him back where he was – playing on the left.”
The question in a 4-4-2 is, however, whether the forward line would be too top-heavy. Can Andrey Arshavin fulfil his defensive duties while at the same time not inhibiting his freedom to create? That best answer in such a system is to give him a “Marc Overmars” role and deploy a more defensive wide man on the other side (Nasri or Eboue) to balance the side out.
<Figure 1> A possible 4-4-2 for next season. Andrey Arshavin is given the freedom to join the attack so a balancing midfeilder on the right, in this case Samir Nasri may be required to tuck in to retain shape and compactness. Robin van Persie or Marouane Chamakh must start the pressing game after which one drops back to control zones better.
Of course, as underlined by recent trends in the modern game, the 4-4-2 is becoming hard to play in it’s most simplest form. The team must have subtleties underneath to avoid the opposition from revelling in between-the-lines while at the same time not to have two similar strikers up front. The “Invincibles” and before played with a 2double six” – two controlling central midfielders – and indeed two forward thinking midfielders in the middle is suicidal and one of the reasons Wenger thought suit to let Patrick Vieira go. “When Cesc Fabregas was 18, 19, I would play him in a 4-4-2 with Patrick Vieira and I saw it did not work,” said Wenger. “Then I had the decision to make about letting Patrick go, because Gilberto Silva and Vieira worked, Fabregas and Silva worked, but I could not play Fabregas and Vieira.”
Because pre-season is yet to get underway, there are no immediate signs as to where Wenger wants to go although if last season is anything to go by, continuing on from the relative successes of the 4-3-3 is the most obvious option. Experiments at the end of the season can also be used to gauge Wenger’s thinking for the coming campaign and it was particularly interesting to see the manager try to instil a greater defensive efficiency in the side in the trip to Blackburn and the 4-0 win against Fulham. Eboue and Nasri played to the side of the holding midfielder rather than both in different bands so, in all likelihood, we should see a continuation of the 4-3-3. Abou Diaby had a stint as the deepest midfielder so the Frenchman can improve his speed in the pass and tactical acumen indicating a more prominent role for him next season (an article on that soon). Chamakh will surely be embedded in slowly on the right hand side of a three-pronged attack or as a sub, Johan Djourou should partner Thomas Vermaelen at centre-back and youngsters Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere will want to push on for a place in the match day eighteen. Andrey Arshavin should still be afforded the opportunity to roam inside as the best wingers in the world are being afforded nowadays and that will be balanced out by a more conservative right-sided option.