Football FanCast columnist Kris Wilcox wonders if Arsenal are set to benefit from a change in formation.
One weekend can make a big difference in football. As an Arsenal fan watching the Emirates Cup it has certainly been a weekend that has given us a lot of answers about where Arsenal are at this moment in time. The previous friendlies we've had have shown us very little as they've either been against seriously sub-standard opposition or have marked player's first competitive games since the summer break. I think it's fair to say though that the Emirates Cup has shown us a huge amount, particularly and most importantly with regard to our formation.
I know a couple of blogs have looked at what Wenger has been doing as a ‘new' formation, but, in reality, this is the same formation that Wenger has explored since our Champions League run in 2006. Call it a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-2-1 or even a 4-1-2-2-1 or perhaps even a 4-2-2-1-1. Sounds almost as varied as a Claudio Ranieri's rotational policy doesn't it, but these are all really the same formation. Wenger is going to be playing four at the back, as normal. We will then see three central midfielders, whose role will vary throughout the match. It may be that one holds the midfield, whilst the other two push forward, or that two hang back whilst one plays in the role that Fabregas and Diaby were employed in last year, further up the pitch. In attack it will essentially be a mixture between a lone striker and a front three. Van Persie looks like he will share the loan striker role with Eduardo, whilst a mixture of Bendtner, Arshavin, Walcott, Nasri, Rosicky, Vela and Wilshere (who we'll mention later) will fill the remaining two positions on the wing. I think the only part of this we can be completely clear about, at this still early stage, is that we can wave goodbye to the 4-4-2.
So what do I think about this formation? For me there are several notable aspects to it, some positive and some negative.
To first look at the positive points:
1) This is the kind of formation top teams should be playing. The four four two is being phased out by all the top managers to be replaced by this, with one central striker and two supporting wingers with goal scoring ability. Chelsea, certainly under Scolari and also under Hiddink, were reluctant to ever play Drogba and Anelka in the same team but when they did it was to use Anelka replacing either Kalou or Malouda as the two wide players to supplement Drogba. Liverpool play a front three that relies on Torres as a lone striker with players like Kuyt and Babel wide, whilst Gerrard attacks centrally. United, prior to this year, played a front three of interchangeable players either wide or centrally in Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney as well as Berbatov who only played in the middle. It's also inconceivable, given their attacking talents, that Manchester City are going to do anything other than play three of Robinho, Tevez, Adebayor and Santa Cruz at once. European champions, Barcelona, formerly played this formation using Henry and Messi wide with Eto'o in the centre, the only danger of which was that they could not compete aerially – hence why Ibrahimovic has come in, in place of Eto'o. What we will play this year, and what we actually played for large portions of last season, is simply the modern football formation, adopted by most managers.
2) The main reason this is good is that from an attacking point of view this formation suits the kind of players we have. Players like Arshavin, Walcott, Vela, Wilshere and to a lesser extent Rosicky and Nasri have no real role in a 4-4-2. Arshavin, we all recognise, isn't quite a striker, and would rather be playing in behind either one or two players. However, we can't play him in behind one player as it would leave that striker too isolated given how the modern game works. Equally we can't play him behind two strikers as Fabregas's role in the team, from a forward point of view, would be too limited. Playing him in the role of a goal scoring winger therefore solves this problem. The same can be said of Rosicky and Nasri, neither of whom ever looked comfortable in a left midfield role but, like Arshavin, can't really be moved into an attacking central role without essentially taking Fabregas's place. This development is perhaps most important where the roles of Walcott and Vela are concerned. For both players Wenger has repeatedly said that he sees them both as strikers. Yet Walcott has spent almost his whole career playing in right midfield, whilst Vela was shipped out on loan for two seasons where, on both occasions, he played as a left winger. The roles Wenger creates in this formation allow Walcott to play in a more attacking way than he previously has whilst it might allow Vela to actually get some game time on the pitch. Another big bonus of this formation could well be the development of Jack Wilshere. I don't want to rave too much about how brilliant his two performances were purely due to the benefit of history. All our pre-seasons to date have shown some fantastic performances from youngsters who often haven't either had the first team opportunities once the season has begun, or have had them and failed to make an impact. Indeed this exact statement can be applied to Wilshire last year, as he made a small first team impact, then, for six months, failed to either influence the reserves or the under 18's in a very positive way. He worked hard and improved again in the next six months, but it must be reminded that he must be given all the time he needs to develop. I recognise this is the first time in god knows how long that we've actually got an English home-grown player coming through the ranks, and it's fantastic, but he does need time. Having said that, I don't see there being a particularly large amount of pressure on these wide roles during games against sides of Rangers quality (the Sunderland's, Fulham's etc…) and they could mark a very good opportunity to give Wilshere a go, especially against sides with aging full or centre backs.
3) The formation also plays to our best other strength – full backs. I don't think there's much debate about it, in Clichy and Sagna we possess two of the best full backs in the world. I'll be the first to admit both of them didn't have their best seasons last year, but in terms of the mix of defensive and attacking ability I wouldn't swap either of them for any other full back in the world. This formation will certainly, as all Wenger formations do, allow for the full backs to get forward. This formation also, due to the lack of true right or left midfielder, places a greater reliance upon the full back being good and fit – something that can only be good for our team given how talented they are.
So – that's the positive bit about this formation, what's the negative part?
1) For those of you that have read my previous articles this point won't come as a surprise – we are stupidly short in central midfield. I believed we were short playing in a 4-4-2, which would have required for only two central midfielders, but now we are trying to play three and remain competitive! Over the Emirates Cup the players to fill the role were Fabregas (brilliant), Song (massive potential and first choice starter), Denilson (leaving a lot to be desired and knowledge that he cannot play with Fabregas in a two man midfield), Merida (far too young, raw, and needing a season on loan before even being mentioned), Ramsey (certainly an option for many league games, as he looked really good, but not good enough to play in matches vs big four yet) and Eboue (a lovely second choice right back but a sickening choice in right midfield and a truly suicidal option centrally). What else did the Emirates Cup teach us? That Abou Diaby cannot even be considered an Arsenal player any more. If anyone can ever remember a player who has spent more time out injured by only his twenty third birthday than Abou Diaby I'd be genuinely shocked. I'd heard that Diaby was trying to work on his fitness this close season, the fact that working on his fitness has resulted in another injury lay off pretty much sums Diaby up. Wenger would do well to forget about him. In order to consider our central midfield up to any sort of standard we must assume that both Nasri and Rosicky are going to be used in this way this year. However this also raises some problems. Does it leave our attacking wings short? Personally I don't think it does, but it does mean we must count someone like Wilshere as a serious option in this way. Does it limit Fabregas? We must conclude it would do, as they are both very attacking, and Wenger certainly can't attempt to play Nasri as such a deep laying playmaker as he did last year, in this same formation, as it failed spectacularly. What on earth do we do for the start of the season? We have a really hard beginning to the year, more difficult than ever before champions league qualifier excluded, and Nasri will be out injured and Rosicky won't have the match fitness available to play whole matches, though he has at least shown when he does have match fitness he'll still be a talent. Ultimately we must buy in this position and the fact three not two players are required to start here lends credibility to what I suggested in my last article, that Wenger could do a lot worse than buy both Vieira and another good young central midfielder.
2) Wenger must identify that this formation has its weaknesses. If the central midfield is struggling to keep the ball (imagine Fabregas getting injured and Song, Denilson and Ramsey taking on Essien, Obi Mikel and Lampard) then the two wide players will find they are dropping further and further back in search of the ball, which will help the central players but leave the lone striker isolated. This could still be the case if we strengthen in central midfield, but will certainly be the case if we don't.
3) This final point is a minor but notable one on the occasions both in pre-season and over the last few years where we have tried to play it. Why is it that Robin Van Persie plays in the loan striker role, whilst Bendtner occupies the wing? Given that Bendtner is an out and out striker and every international appearance Van Persie has made has been in this wide position I can't even suggest an explanation…
Overall, what I think Wenger is doing with the formation is excellent and if the decision to buy Arshavin wasn't already fully justified with his performances to date it has been by what is a clear indication Wenger will be using this formation. From an attacking point of view I think we can put out a team that challenges to be, if not already is, the best. However, Wenger must again look clearly at the role of the central midfield and question just how we are supposed to win the league with just four fit players for three positions.