Arsene Wenger’s use of a fluid attacking 4-4-3 formation at Arsenal has certainly produced some exciting football for the fans at the Emirates to salivate over. However, its success has been tempered by a defensive fragility that has cost the Gunners dear in crucial matches.
Wenger’s 4-3-3 formation is designed to create more passing angles in attack and more options for the player in possession. Wenger has set his midfield up with one defensive midfielder, alongside one centre midfielder and one playmaker. Arsenal’s creativity is a result of the free roles given to Fabregas in the playmaker role and the two wide players who play off the main striker. The tendency of the Arsenal wide players to drift infield puts extra onus on the full-backs to provide width on the flanks.
Arsenal’s game, particularly at home is reliant on playing high up the pitch putting pressure on their deep-lying opponents to surrender possession. However, with the full-backs high up the pitch, Arsenal are susceptible to a swift counter attack as a result of the space left behind by the full-backs. With the full-backs operating mainly in the opposition half, it leaves only the two centre backs and Alex Song, the defensive midfielder as protection against a potential counter attack.
Another main weakness in Arsenal’s formation is the effectiveness of their pressing and the over reliance on Robin van Persie as the central striker. At the beginning of the season, Arsenal’s pressing was good, with van Persie pressing the opposition defenders high up the pitch, limiting their time on the ball. Following an injury to van Persie, the intensity of Arsenal’s pressing dropped off dramatically as Arsenal struggled to replace van Persie’s industry as the season wore on.
Unlike Barcelona who manage to stifle the opposition by pressing collectively as a team, Arsenal usually press in isolation leaving the opposition player on the ball enough time to spring a decisive pass to exploit the space left by the Arsenal players up the field.
As a result of their formation, Arsenal are often vulnerable to conceding from moments of transition when they lose the ball high up the pitch and are subjected to a quick counter attack from the opposition without the opportunity to re-organise the defence. The fragility of Arsenal’s defence to a transitional attack is best seen during last season’s defeat to Manchester United at the Emirates. With Arsenal 1-0 down and chasing an equaliser, Manchester United sprung a deadly counter attack to score their second goal and end Arsenal’s hopes of gaining a result.
Rooney’s goal (beginning at 0:33 in the video) required only three passes to carve Arsenal wide open and expose their defensive frailties. Park collected the ball and played it into Rooney. Rooney saw the flying Nani to his left and duly fed the Portuguese winger the ball. Rooney then darted off in front of Nani with Park in support. Arsenal players, stunned from conceding possession failed to track both Park and Rooney’s runs, with Denilson particularly at fault for allowing Rooney to gallop onto Nani’s through ball and fire past Almunia.
United’s third and final goal (1:19 on the video) is another example of Arsenal’s defensive problems when facing a quick transitional counter attack. Carrick played a one-two with Rooney and with defensive midfielder Alex Song and centre-back Thomas Vermaelen attracted to Rooney in an attempt to intercept the ball, Park is afforded the freedom of the Emirates to run on to Carrick’s through ball and slot the ball home.
While Arsenal’s defensive problems can be attributed to the formation, lapses in concentration and individual errors have also cost the club dear. The key for Arsenal in the upcoming season is to eliminate those errors if they have aspirations of challenging for the Premier League.