Do Arsenal’s real problems simply lie with their formation?
The level of praise aimed at Arsenal following their two most recent wins in the league and Champions League indicates that maybe there is hope to be had from a formation that was adopted to suit Cesc Fabregas. But while this is a team whose mental fragility regularly comes to the fore, you have to ask how much good any group of players can do – no matter their quality – in a system that isn’t set up for them.
It doesn’t help when the players aren’t properly prepared to carry out the orders of a specific formation. Wanting to replicate Barcelona is ok – because who wouldn’t encourage that style of play? But doing it lazily and with only half the conviction amounts to results that we regularly see at the Emirates. Yes, there is a great deal of importance laid at the quality of players in the team, but it’s very much the willingness to work that transforms a good team on paper to a very good team on the pitch.
There’s been a lot said about the lack of a real defensive midfielder, a powerhouse of a player who knows how to break up opposition play and who has the discipline to protect the back line. That much is true, in that without the pressure high up the pitch from the forwards, a stronger body is essential to sit in front of the defence.
The frustration is that this Arsenal team is capable of producing performances which complement the formation and helps to produce results. Wins against Chelsea, Milan, Tottenham, and Barcelona has given plenty of evidence that working for 90 minutes is in this team, where Arsenal have outscored those four teams over four games by a combined total of 13-4. It’s not that the defence were always particularly outstanding, but it’s that the opposition hardly had a consistent run at the Arsenal back line due to the pressure put on by Wenger’s side high up the pitch. That is, of course, with the exception of the win over Barcelona at the Emirates.
Yet even the 2-1 win over Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona showed that the collective is capable of brilliance. It once again comes down to tactical preparation and a desire to win, rather than surrendering the fight long before it’s over. Arsenal were never going to see more of the ball in that game, yet victory was achieved because the players understood and carried out what was needed for that formation to be a success.
The most recent set of Arsenal wins are unlikely to have been won with players like Arshavin in the line-up. As talented as the Russian is, he has regularly shown a lack of willingness to play the defensive side of the game. Players like Aaron Ramsey, on the other hand, never seem to shy away, even when poor displays frustrate and anger supporters.
We’ve seen recently that the 4-3-3 formation, or any variation of it, can be a success when used with a deep defensive line. What we can take from those wins is that real tactical preparation is a must. Sending out clear instructions to each set of players is essential. Barcelona had problems with underperforming players, but the root cause of their recent troubles is that Jordi Roura is nothing of a coach compared to either Guardiola or Tito Vilanova.
This current formation for Arsenal clearly isn’t best for what Wenger has in his squad. By now, it’s clear this group of players do not have it in them to churn out high-pressure performances each week. There isn’t too much wrong with the formation and how it affects the defence. It’s about defending high up the pitch as a unit, and the problem is that these players are not good enough mentally to perform in a manner that Barcelona or Dortmund do.
Yes, the focus has been shifted now to the defensive aspect of the formation, where even the result against Sunderland showed that this team are capable of digging deep. But it’s losses against Tottenham, Bayern, and allowing a late goal against Swansea when Kieran Gibbs’ effort was enough to seal the win that highlights the inconsistency.
The formation can work, but it needs one of two things to be far more successful than Arsenal currently are: either a natural defensive midfielder, or the pressing game that has become a constant at both Barcelona and Dortmund – but preferably both. When the manager doesn’t demand the work ethic that’s required from all over the pitch, the defence ultimately suffers.