The days of Arsene Wenger’s revolutionary fluid 4-4-2 are all but gone and the manager’s decision to move to a more Barcelona-like 4-3-3 has been the biggest shift in tactics in his 13-year tenure at Arsenal.
But does it actually work? And is it the best fit for this group of players?
To answer these questions it is worth investigating the success of the implementation of the 4-3-3 last season, identify the weaknesses of its application and identify how things have been addressed for this season.
In an attacking sense, the switch to 4-3-3 at the start of last season allowed Cesc Fabregas to finally emerge as a world-class attacking midfielder and cleverly shifted the attacking focal point from Robin van Persie in the middle to Nicklas Bendtner on the right whenever both players were available. This deliberate change allowed van Persie to flourish as a ‘False 9’, interchanging with Bendtner on the right and allowing the likes of Andrey Arshavin, Abou Diaby and Fabregas to find space in the central areas to weave their fleet-footed magic.
Arsenal’s biggest problem with the 4-3-3 last season was that after simultaneous injuries to van Persie and Bendtner left Arshavin as the team’s only focal point, the pressing in the final third that had been so prevalent in the early stages of the season disappeared. Other injuries added to the decimation the squad, Wenger simply didn’t have the options to rotate his players to maintain the level of freshness required to maintain the pressing and it hurt us defensively.
With the pressure gone, opposing defenders were able to work their way out from the back more often, apply their own pressure on what was, on paper, a very decent back four, and score goals against us. Far too many goals for a team with realistic aspirations to win the Premier League.
A good example of the change in the success of the 4-3-3 last season were the two results against Everton. With a full squad on the opening day of the season we were able to dish out a 6-1 thrashing at Goodison Park but in the return leg at a snowy Emirates Stadium, we were lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw against an Everton side that outworked and outplayed us. At the time I called it a point gained, a remarkable statement given the result in the first game and an indication of just how badly a lack of energy to press had damaged the effectiveness of our formation.
Another, slightly lesser problem that hurt the 4-3-3 last season was a lack of defensive intelligence in the heart of the midfield. Diaby and Denilson were the arguably the biggest culprits and the midfield looked at its best when Aaron Ramsey made his breakthrough to the starting team, sitting slightly deeper than the creative Fabregas and applying his superb natural understanding of the game alongside Alex Song. Along with Ramsey’s injury being one of the cruelest moments of last season emotionally, from a tactical perspective it hurt us even more badly as Wenger struggled in vain to find a midfield with the same balance.
The key question is whether the problems of the 4-3-3 last season, understandable given the sheer number of injuries and the fact that it was a new system for these players, have been considered and addressed. The answer, it is rather satisfying to say, is ‘yes’.
In fact, Wenger’s attempt to buy Marouane Chamakh from Bordeaux midway through last season revealed the fact that he new his system was failing under difficult circumstances. He knew Arshavin was unhappy, he knew attackers were thin on the ground and he wanted to bring in Chamakh to add another body and provide an immediate stopgap in the absence of van Persie and Bendtner. Alas, it wasn’t to be as Bordeaux held onto their man, if only temporarily.
With Chamakh now an integrated member of the squad one of the biggest problems with the 4-3-3 has been solved. The proof is in the pudding: van Persie and Bendtner are both out injured at the moment and Chamakh is right where Wenger had hoped he could have been last season, keeping Arshavin happy on the left and allowing Theo Walcott to enjoy an excellent run of form on the right. Just how well would Theo be playing if Eduardo was currently spearheading our attack, I wonder?
The second major concern, creating a midfield with the balance to rival the Song-Fabregas-Ramsey triangle from last season, also appears to have been addressed by Wenger. And the answer has come in a change in role for the tall, gangly anti-Patrick Vieira by the name of Abou Diaby.
Last season Diaby’s performances ranged from sensational to sloppy, from bamboozling to brain-dead. But a very simple correlation emerged: when Diaby was restricted to a more defensive role he was an accident waiting to happen. His tendency to hold onto the ball became more pronounced, his decisions looked more dopey and he took over the mantle as Arsenal’s most polarising player from Nicklas Bendtner.
When Diaby was allowed to roam forward and play more instinctively, however, he became one of our strongest attacking weapons. He is the only genuinely different type of attacking midfielder in our squad, a unique combination of power, technique and outrageous unpredictability that provides a vital contrast to the pass-and-move tendencies of the rest of our midfield. He needs responsible, intelligent, organised players behind him to clear his mind but when he does, he becomes dangerously effective.
It finally appears that Wenger has realised this how to best use Diaby and more importantly, looks willing to play Fabregas slightly deeper to accommodate him. Our last match against Blackburn may have been only one game, but Diaby’s tendency to start level with Fabregas when Blackburn were in possession and push forward as he pleased made him the game’s outstanding player.
Baring all this in mind I really believe the 4-3-3 will be better utilised and better maintained this season, something that will probably only show in the latter part of the season. With Chamakh in the squad we have more depth up front and should be fresher and more able to pressure high up on the pitch more often.
Meanwhile, Wenger’s accommodation of Diaby as an attacking player gives our midfield a balance which is even stronger than the Song-Fabregas-Ramsey triangle from last season. Add this to the fact that the squad has had an entire season to adjust to the formation and I think it bodes well for an improvement in the general organisation and defensive performance of the team.
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