After Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Marseille, Arsene Wenger attempted to explain Theo Walcott’s form in front of goal as “cyclic. You have cycles where everything goes for you and after every game where it’s a bit less,” he said. The same can be said of most things in football: of the success of club sides and nations, and similarly, formations and tactics.
For a large period of the 2000s, 4-2-3-1 was the favoured approach replacing 4-4-2 as the default way of playing. And while there tends to be more variations of play these days – hinting at football moving onto its next cycle – the 4-2-3-1 still remains the most popular approach. The reason behind this is simple: the 4-2-3-1 affords coaches the most even way to distribute players across the pitch. It’s not infallible, however, and as interpretations of players’ roles change, gaps have been exploited in recent times.
On Wednesday night on Matchday 1 of the Champions League, both Marseille and Arsenal played with 4-2-3-1 formations and although for the majority of the match it played out a stalemate, the different interpretations of the system ensured an interesting encounter.
Marseille’s formation was more standard with two holding midfielders playing behind a number 10 and two fairly orthodox wingers although Andre Ayew did tend to drift infield a few times. Arsenal’s, on the other hand, was more fluid, with Jack Wilshere playing narrow on the left and Theo Walcott stationed high up the pitch, almost as a striker. All eyes, however, were on the two playmakers, Mathieu Valbuena and Mesut Ozil, and instantly both were involved heavily. Valbuena attempted a couple of long-range efforts while Ozil put through Walcott for a header, and was snuffed out when he tried to find Walcott again later. But Ozil’s influence soon began to wane while Valbuena’s increased. That’s because Marseille’s 4-2-3-1 was better equipped at disrupting Arsenal’s passing, with the two holders, Imbuna and Romao, frequently breaking up play.
Valbuena, though, kept on influencing, not necessarily directly as he created zero chances in the game, but with the pass before. And that, in an effect, highlighted why he’s so important to Marseille because in this set-up, he’s their only real link-man. The wide players stick wide and stretch the pitch, therefore what Valbuena does so well is drift to those flanks and combine with them. In a sense, he’s just doing what’s natural to him having played the majority of his professional career as a wide-player. Yet, he’s also clever enough to understand that that’s where the space is in today’s game because most teams play with two holding midfielders denying the space in front of the defence. Indeed, for a while, orthodox No.10s were in danger of becoming extinct due to the proliferation of 4-2-3-1, but they’ve since had to evolve and become accustomed to lateral movement, or even further or deeper on the pitch to evade their markers. “The word enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,”says Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganchetoday must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.”
Roaming laterally is what Ozil loves to do too, acting as both a playmaker and auxiliary winger due to the intelligent runs he makes. He was fantastic at exploiting this space on his debut against Sunderland but against Marseille’s flat 4-2-3-1, his root to the channels was blocked. It was different to Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 where Aaron Ramsey frequently pushed forward and as such, Mathieu Flamini essentially had to cover the spaces on his own. Perhaps on another day, Arsenal might have been exposed but then again, they can because they rely heavily on their astronomical fitness levels to get back, running on average 11.3k km in the match, while Marseille only managed 10.3k km.
Arsenal, however, were more effective going forward because their creativity was plural. Jack Wilshere had a particularly strong first-half drifting off the left-flank and his movement highlighted the other way in which the 4-2-3-1 can be exposed. Because by drifting infield, it asks a lot of the opposing winger to remain alert to track his movement, or if the full-back follows him, slot back into the defence. It’s significant that Arsenal’s opening goal came from such an attack, with Kieran Gibbs taking advantage of this vacant space to cross, and with a little bit of help from Morel, Walcott volleyed home. However, the drawback to Wilshere constantly moving inside was that it horribly exposed Kieran Gibbs; nonetheless he performed admirably with little to no help.
By Wilshere also moving infield, it created an overload in the midfield and thus gave Arsenal a numerical advantage where previously it was stalemate. Indeed, it’s a tactic a lot of top sides are using nowadays, abandoning one flank – usually the left – and then having someone stationed high up the pitch on the other side for a quick switch of emphasis (e.g. Manchester United with Kagawa and Valencia). For some teams, there isn’t a higher tactical purpose for playing an attacking midfielder wide other than a way of fitting all those creative players in (for example, Brendan Rodgers, who christened the clunky term “false 7”, plans to move Coutinho back to the number 10 position as soon as he gets a proper left winger). However, for Arsenal, the benefit is that it gives them a numerical advantage whenever teams pack the middle and encourages the type of combination play that makes them so deadly.
The final say, though, went to Aaron Ramsey, not Ozil or Wilshere, despite conceding a last minute penalty. And in a sense, it was logical. The other two playmakers started much closer to the two holders but Ramsey’s positioning, by playing 10 metres or so deeper, meant he had more time and space to assess the game, to measure his passes and crucially, time his runs into the box. When Gibbs played the ball up to Ramsey with five minutes to go, he had three players around him. But by the time they could react, Ramsey had already made up ground against them and was able to fire the goal that gave Arsenal the three points.