It is my firm belief that the failure and near misses of the past six-years actually go back to 2006 when we left Highbury. Not because we left the spiritual home of football, although the smaller pitch did help, but due to the change to a winning formula.
The 1998, 2002 double winning sides, and the 2004 ‘Invincibles’, were all made up of 4-4-2 formations, and it is only since Wenger changed this system to a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in an advanced midfield role, and to a lesser extent, Walcott and/or Arshavin in wide striker roles, that our fortunes seem to have changed…coincidence? I think not.
All three championship winning sides operated with attacking and hardworking wide players, none of whom were traditional wingers and 2 central midfield players, one slightly more adventurous than the other. However, I feel that 1998 is the team and formation that truly teaches us the most, and can give us a pointer for the 2011/12 campaign and our current crop of talented underachievers.
There is no need to dwell on the defence at this stage, as we all know the strength and dominance of the back five Wenger inherited, but the key is the 4 first-choice midfielders. In the centre we see Manu Petit sitting and Paddy Vieira playing the more advanced role. Of course as they proved not only for Arsenal , but famously in the World Cup final, they were interchangeable, and each knew when to support the other or cover. On the left we had Marc Overmars and on the right our very own home grown Ray Parlour. So why are these four players, or in my opinion, the two wide players, so crucial, and what can we learn from them? The significance was the total difference in Overmars and Parlour and what their style and flexibility did for the team, and crucially the formation – how they interacted with the strikers, Bergkamp and Wright.
In Marc Overmars on the left, we had a skilful dribbling speed king with ice in his blood in front of goal when one on one with the keeper. On the right we had a hardworking, tough tackling, committed engine in Ray Parlour, with growing passing ability and confidence under Wenger. So in Overmars we had a far more attacking wide man and on the right the more conservative Parlour either side of two strong central midfielders in a 4-4-2 system. It was the fundamental differences in the two wide men that provided Wenger with the key to success, because whilst Overmars was always likely to over commit and effectively become the 3rd striker, Ray would always naturally tuck in, like the central midfielder he originally was, and seamlessly turned the 4-4-2 into an exciting 4-3-3 when were on the attack. Therefore, in essence, it was the players we had at that time that effortlessly and fluidly changed the formation during the game.
It was not too dissimilar in 2002 and 2004 when either Pires or Lungberg joined the attacking two, the other would moved slightly infield to support Gilberto and Vieira in midfield.
However, since moving to the Emirates , Wenger has altered tactics and formation essentially to give the major talent that is ‘Cesc’ to shine. We have to be honest and conclude that so many barren years this 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 with Fabregas in an advanced role has run its course, and if we are to believe the strong rumours that our skipper will leave with all our blessings, then now is the time to revert to the 1998 system – here is how it might look next season if this transpires.
Despite his apparent greed, I for one hope Nasri will stay and is alongside Wilshere in a central, reinvigorated and flexible 1998 style 4-4-2 next season.
So who will feel the shoes and roles of Overmars and Parlour, who’s differing talents and attributes made 1998 so rewarding and a joy to behold? So who do we have now with incredible pace, who is right footed, able to cut in from the left as Overmars once did and score goals? In my opinion, this man is Theo Walcott . No he is not left footed, but then neither was Merson, Limpar, Overmars or Pires. And he does share all Marc Overmars ’ attributes.
Finally, we need the player to slot in on the right, with the ability to run the flank, but also be able tuck in seamlessly to join Wilshire and Nasri in the centre when Walcott is in an advanced role. To my mind, the very player is none other than Aaron Ramsey . Ramsey undoubtedly has the ability to beat a man and find a telling cross or through ball whilst playing wide right, who can easily move in to support the centre when required. I feel he has the talent, energy and discipline to follow Ray Parlour ’s footsteps, and join him as an Arsenal legend in years to come. This formation will give us the attacking flair we had in 1998, as well as the structure when defending or without the ball. It also allows us to utilise Ramsey, Nasri and Wilshire in the same team.
This also allows us to finally go back to having two strikers up top which brought us success in 1998, 2002 and 2004. In all 3 title winning years the key to this was the second striker, which was the ‘Iceman’ Dennis Bergkamp. Well there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that RVP is more than ready for this role, and like his countryman in his era, one of the finest footballers on the world stage. I am not sure if Chamakh is a Henry, Wright style striker to play just in front of RVP, as the jury is still out on that. If you accept my thinking and logic that Arshavin could fill the Overmars role, then Theo could be given his chance to finally fulfil his destiny as the No.14 playing upfront with RVP.
Of course all of this depends of Nasri staying, but I hope you feel the logic of using the 1998 template is still very valid. The flexible 4-4-2 worked in our three most successful campaigns and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it can once again, and should be made to work again this coming season.
This whole strategy relies on us having the solidity at the back we had in 1998, but that’s for another time…
Should Wenger go back to basics?