The 4-1-4-1 on Arsenal’s new formation

The 4-1-4-1 on Arsenal’s new formation

With the football world celebrating ten years since Arsenal became “Invincible,” it was interesting how chatter quickly veered away from the amazing technical accuracy the team played with, to discussion about leaders. That’s because, having begun during the international break, with no comparable action of note, nostalgia was suddenly forced to merge with real life as new Arsenal were set to host Hull City.

Looking at it that way, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about how far away this Arsenal side is in terms of leadership. Looking back, certainly the Invincibles did comprise of some of the sport’s strongest and most demanding characters, while it is not so easy to see the same physical and mental toughness on this Arsenal side. Yet, as Daniel Taylor writes in his column for The Guardian, the downfall of Arsenal probably started in the next season when managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Sam Allardyce begun telling their teams to systematically hack The Gunners down whenever theyhad the ball. Football has changed, however, and power, which Arsenal were built on, doesn’t dominate as much. Tackles with excessive force are routinely called up, so much so that Allardyce says he trains players to intercept now – “because most tackles are fouls.”

Against Hull, in the 2-2 draw, Arsenal didn’t need a leader in as much as they needed a technical leader. Of course, the constant finger-jabbing and cajoling of the likes of Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini pale in comparison to the drive and sheer omnipresence of Patrick Viera, Sol Campbell et al. and there are times when you need “big balls” as Jose Mourinho says, yet there were large moments in the game, particularly after half-time when Hull scored, when Arsenal just needed sanity to their play. In that middle period, passes frequently missed their target and moves broke down as Arsenal looked to force a tempo that wasn’t there. What they should have realised was that upping the tempo was a gradual thing, requiring subtle, sudden changing of gears. Instead, players would make runs that weren’t found in an attempt to transplant urgency to the play, and with each misplaced pass the fans groaned louder and anxiousness seeped into Arsenal’s play.

Thankfully it was Alexis Sanchez who finally grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, though it took a while as he was also culpable of bouts of zealousness, when he took the ball past two players before slipping Danny Welbeck in for the equaliser. His opener was of similar class, but the goal followed an opening passage of play where Arsenal were thoroughly dominant, and which epitomised why Arsene Wenger is determined to use a 4-1-4-1 system this season.

After the game he said that the team has “progressed since last season in the way we dominate the games and the way we combine,” which may confuse some given Arsenal’s league position, but what people might be missing are the palpable steps Arsenal are taking to improve to their positional play. In that, Wenger is looking to emulate bits of the Germany/Pep Guardiola/Dutch 4-3-3 model where the attacking line in the 4-1-4-1 occupies the length of the pitch, thereby always creating angles and options to pass to. As Leighton Baines says, in an interview for The Guardian when talking about Everton’s philosophy which goes along the same branch, “the really top teams who have mastered this way (Dutch Total Football), are the ones that gets success.”

GIF: Just before Santi Cazorla’s shot forces a save, Arsenal’s players occupy the length of the pitch, with Chamberlain joining Welbeck when the full-back pushes forward and Santi breaking from deep. His role changed in the second-half, which affected Arsenal’s fluidity, playing closer to a number 10 role when he played deeper in the first-half.

On the other hand, emphasis on death by possession makes it tougher for Arsenal to defeat teams as often; defences are set thus making it more difficult to get through. It has made Arsenal more sterile in effect, one of the things Wenger has strived to avoid. However, he has probably come round to see it as a necessary evil because sterile domination is not really an aim for possession teams; rather, it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to have the ball. Keeping the ball better also has the added effect of protecting the team from the counter-attack, an increasingly important aspect when planning your team in the modern game and what Jose Mourinho calls the “fourth phase”: attacking, defending, counter-attacking, and then, countering the counter.

Indeed, it’s arguable that much of Arsenal’s success last season was down to, if not more, to increased pragmatism to their play – that is the ability to drop deep, keep opponents at arms length, and then hit them when they showed mental, physical tiredness – as much as the goals of Aaron Ramsey, the impact of Ozil. And that, to a degree, points to Arsenal’s troubles in finding “defensive efficiency” this season as Wenger calls it. Because, as highlighted by the first goal they conceded, the team still seems to be unsure of what it wants to do at various stages or yet, haven’t acquired the game intelligence to carry it out; whether to press high up or sit back.

GIF: Here, Jack Wilshere urges Santi Cazorla to press when nobody else is, eventually leaving Mohamed Diame free to pass to. Wilshere had the right of it to some extent, as Hull’s player had picked up the ball with his back to goal – which should have been the trigger to press – but where he was wrong was that the whole Arsenal team showed no indication to squeeze play prior, with Hull completing 3-4 passes in that area with relative comfort anyway.

Indeed, the frustrating thing with this goal and the second goal was that it happened in the only two real passages of play where Hull had play at the back, and that’s why Wenger says the teams lack “defensive efficiency.” Their ability on the ball helped guard themselves on the counter, but pushing up as a team and moving as a unit, is what they have yet to synchronise. At the start of the season, Aaron Ramsey led the press but with his injury, Wilshere has replaced him, though it seems currently, both players play with more emotion than organisation.

The defence for the 4-1-4-1 falls flat when you consider Arsenal’s highest scoring performances, 3-0 against Villa and 4-1 v Galatasaray, have come when Ozil has been switched to the middle. In those games, he made Arsenal fluid, much as he did last season, drifting into the channels and silently killing teams with his intelligent passing. Yet, the 4-2-3-1 shouldn’t be seen as some sort of panacea for a stuttering start to the season because it must be remembered, for substantial periods of last season playing with the system, Arsenal’s play was jerky and uncertain, and sometimes turgid. At the time, that was put down to Arsenal missing runners from midfield, Ramsey and Walcott, therefore it might be understandable Wenger look for ways to make his system less reliant on certain individuals. Certainly, Alexis is currently bailing the side out on his own, yet The Gunners have looked to add other ways of breaking down opponents, as they lead the league for most through-balls and dribble succeeded.

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Partnerships are forming, though most notably revolving around Alexis, who was found by Wilshere a couple of times with diagonal passes while he himself, works well in tandem with Welbeck. Indeed, it seems Alexis can make a good no.10 if Wenger ever looks to switch-up his formation but perhaps for now, his best position is on the right where he can roam laterally or sprint behind. On the other side, he perhaps relies too much on cutting inside, thus clogging up play centrally. Indeed, Wenger’s reticence about playing him on the right before Hull might have been down to wanting fill his side with ball-players to maximise chance creation, but with Wilshere showing huge strides in his execution of the final ball, switching Alexis to the other was a no-brainer. His impact showed how big a player he has become for Arsenal.

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

And so we return from the Wilderness Fortnight, where we have learnt several things.

One: The Balkans remain the Tottenham of Europe. Like the trouble-ridden Middlesex borough of Tottenham, we hear far more about them than is necessary. From Adriatic to Ionian, from the Mediterranean to the Aegean, from Gorani to Aromanian, and especially from Bosniak to Serb, there seems to be something intractable about their football. Last week, a piece of flying witchcraft which seemed to have leapt from the very pages of Mr. Da Vinci’s notebook, carried the colours of Greater Albania onto a pitch where some Albanians were playing Serbia. According to the downstairs staff, these devices are called Drones. Incidentally, to have a magical flying device named after one of the first Gentleman’s clubs in London is all very well, but let them not be used for provoking inter-ethnic battles on the foot-ball pitch. Let them be used for the delivery of cocktails and cigars to players on the pitch instead. How much more civilised than this vulgar display.

Two: Mr. Sterling is an idle bugger who should be birched.

Three: Mr. Rooney, who seems to have cast some sort of spell over Mr. Hodgson, will play on in whichever role he pleases until he becomes England’s top scorer. Should it be noted that 80% of these goals have come against San Marino, The Faroe Islands, East Kilbride Under Tens, Salford Lads’ Club & a Somaliland Ambassador’s XI who only fielded nine players. How Mr. Rooney continues to find work at Premier League level is beyond me. My only thought is that he has incriminating daguerreotypes of all his managers.

Four: England remain woefully bad.

Five: Arsenal players seem to be slightly safer on international duty than they are at London Colney.

There has been some brouhaha this week from crypto-communist and anti-Arsenal propaganda machine the BBC, who have pointed out to the world that Woolwich have some of the highest ticket prices in the game. To which I say this. Would you rather see a tailor on Jermyn Street, or would you rather be clad head to toe by Mr. Primark? Quite so. Caviar costs money. Arsenal are reassuringly expensive, which serves two purposes. One, it keeps the riff-raff out. Two, it allows us to accumulate vast cash reserves. And everyone loves vast cash reserves. So until the BBC is shut down by the Arsenal Special Branch, we should pay this kind of nonsense no heed.

We turn then to the AGM, where our dear leader, Mr. Windsor, (right) held forth on all matters Woolwich. I have a truncated transcript below.

Alan Windsor - Arsenal manager“Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, chaps and chapesses. I bid you good afternoon. I will now perform an act of mass hypnosis, so please just relax. Look into my lovely eyes. Not around the eyes, look into my eyes. You are feeling sleepy.

“Every ruddy year I can’t please you buggers. FA Cup? Forgotten like a lukewarm cup of tea. Signing Mr. Orwell? Why can’t we have a striker. Bringing Whizzbang Saunders into the club? Why do we have to make do with 1.5 centre-halves. It is dashed difficult to bring in the proper level of chap. I know other clubs seem to manage to buy foot-ballers but it’s not as simple as phoning a club, stating your intention, asking if that player is for sale and then offering his market value. Oh no, dear lord no. If only you knew how complex these things were. And we won the FA Cup.

“We had ups and downs, like a little boat, but also like a little boat, we sank to the bottom of the sea a few times with the loss of all crew. But that didn’t happen more than four or five times in the season, the season in which we won the FA Cup. We finished on 79 points, which would have won us the league in 1998. I have asked the Premier League if they would consider simply repeating that season’s table as a matter of courtesy to us because then we would have also won it in 2014. We await their response. As we won the FA Cup, this year would have been another double.

“We lost some players. Vermington went to the rebellious Catalans. Bertie Sailor went to get splinters in his arse and rain on his head in Manchester. Good riddance to the treacherous pair. We brought in Matthew Matthews and Kanvar Kumar. And let’s not forget Welé.

“And we have cut down on the variety and severity of injuries. There is now very little smallpox at Arsenal. Polio, mumps and Guinea-worm disease are all things of the past. I know that to have 75% of your first team laid up with twangs, tweaks, rips, tears and the like is not ideal, but it is always exciting when players come back from injury for the first time for nine or ten months, and for the two week period until they get injured again all seems well in the world. Admittedly, Orwell, Robinson, Costerley, Ramsara, Arkwright, Fenton, Mandeville, Matthews and Goring-Hildred are all seasoned professionals but injuries at least give us the chance to throw in raw talent with only a few games to their name just to see what happens.

“So here’s to hope!”

What a rousing speech. When he departs, there is only one option: Modern technology allows us the possibility of cloning Mr. Herbert Chapman. And surely there is enough in the cash reserves for that magnificent experiment.

Seasons in the sun

Seasons in the sun

It’s understandable that nostalgia is such a popular phenomenon. The past is always a safe place. Preserved in sepia, the sun always shines, music and clothes were much more agreeable and politicians more honest. The past cannot hurt us, we can filter out the bad parts and cryogenically freeze the good in our mind’s eye. Nowhere is this truer than the mind of a football fan. Because at its best, football is a constant reconnection with youth.

You can behave like a moody adolescent with football in ways that you just cannot at the coalface of adult life. No matter how cynical and relentlessly profit driven the game becomes, when the whistle goes and the match starts, you’re the naughty child again. Ridiculously pleased with yourself for being able to swear and express anger at great volume in public without attracting the slightest hint of attention. A defeat will cause you to sulk insufferably and everyone is just meant to understand.

Every click of the turnstile, every kick of the ball, is a lasting memento to the time you fell in love with the game. Like the ringing of the school bell. And what’s wrong with that? I collect retro Arsenal shirts and what is that but a sentimental bow fastening me to Arsenal’s past? Particularly treasured to me are my collection of early 90s replica shirts, because they re-plot the bonds of my Arsenal awakening. It’s my own football fan version of the mid-life crisis. I wear the bruised banana away kit like a brand new Lamborghini. My 94-95 blue away shirt is a fabric comb-over.

However, nostalgia can alter our judgement and compromise our objectivity. It’s easy to use a sanitised version of the past to bemoan the present. For instance, I think Arsenal fans have only just arrived at the stage where the great ‘Invincibles’ side is seen as a cause célèbre rather than a rolled up newspaper with which to bat the noses of the current crop. Scrutiny is so voluminous and severe in 2014, that anger is very quick to surface. In a time when all of our thoughts and opinions are more public, we compete with another to be heard, which naturally leads to more extreme reactions, which in turn causes the cauldron to bubble further.

In 2012, Arsene Wenger told a gathering of sports journalism students, “We have moved from a society of full support, to a media society and an opinion society. When I arrived here a defeat was not as dramatic as it is today. Why? Because we have moved from a rational society to a much more emotional society. When you finish a game it is analysed in a minute and the opinions go through the whole of society in 10 minutes. The emotional side of any reaction today is massive.”

It’s a question that has gathered dust in my cranium for a while now. How would the revered legends of yesteryear be viewed through the prism of this more emotive landscape? Would their mistakes have been met with greater acrimony and, more pertinently, would that acrimony manifest itself into a long term bitterness held? I think no figure emphasises this divide better in a modern context than ex Arsenal captain Tony Adams.

The term ‘club legend’ is obviously a subjective one. But I think it would take a rather special brand of delusion to deny that Tony Adams is a bona fide club legend. Adams’ Arsenal career was the tale of a Bildungsroman in the classic folk tradition. From smashing his car through an old lady’s wall to smashing home a left footed volley in front of the North Bank against Everton. I’ve been a season ticket holder since 1992, so Adams was a very special player to me, invaluable to my Arsenal induction.

The trouble is, nowadays, he tends to talk an awful lot of rot. Yet it’s impossible to say this in any kind of gathering of Arsenal fans without being tied to a stake as a heretic by a torch bearing mob. To many, Adams’ past achievements make his contemporary comments infallible. This is a symptom of nostalgia. If I were to suggest that Arsene Wenger’s past achievements placed him above criticism I doubt I would be met with much support. Rightly so too.

The issue is that, for many, Adams is a symbol of their youth. He bridged the gap between terracing, cheap tickets and drinking and smoking inside the stadium, right into the technicolour razzmatazz of 21st century football. He was the conduit between Graham’s likely lads and Wenger’s global metrostars. He also connects youth to middle age in the minds of many, which has made him a complex kind of symbol. Adams is not the sole bearer of this strange cross.

I remember very well as Ian Wright advanced into his 30s the debate around his legacy. Would he be remembered for his disciplinary problems more than his goals? With hindsight we know jolly well what he is most associated with, but I wonder if that would be the case if Wright’s time were 15 years later. His disciplinary indiscretions would keep Sky Sports News’ yellow ticker rolling for weeks on end had they taken place today, so maybe those skirmishes would have more of a bearing on his legacy.

In warning against overly romanticising the past, I am of course wary of doing just that myself, but I recall John Jensen becoming a kind of cult figure, celebrated for his uselessness. His solitary Arsenal goal is viewed with ironic acclaim as one of the great alternative moments of Arsenal’s history. Right up there with Sammy Nelson’s arse. (Imagine an Arsenal player mooning his own fans in 2014!) Today, John Jensen could probably expect to receive death threats on Instagram for his failure to score.

Likewise George Graham managing Tottenham is considered something of a footnote now. Given the vitriol dished out to more recent defectors and a more intensive media, it would be fascinating to see how that career move would be viewed. For his part, Charlie George maintains to this day that he nearly joined Spurs and had absolutely no qualms about doing so. “When you’re a player, you stop being a supporter,” he once remarked rather laconically, which sits uneasily with the folk tale of the Islington boy made good.

I’m not certain supporters were more forgiving of mistakes in times past, generally speaking. Players of the 1930s spoke about the grumpiness of the Highbury crowd. Nostalgia also sees us often venerate past players if they represent a supposed hole in the contemporary team. Gilberto Silva probably receives greater adulation now than he ever did when he actually played for Arsenal. I recall Ray Parlour too receiving similar retrospective acclaim a few seasons back when it was thought that Arsenal lacked endeavour.

I remember both men being on the end of many a tongue lashing at Highbury in their playing days. I guess the difference now is that those groans and gripes didn’t travel beyond the ears of a few unsuspecting punters in the stands, or past their own living rooms. They weren’t the midwife to an echo chamber of angst as they might have been in the digital age. There has always been frustration and disquiet amongst supporters, it’s just there is much more fertile ground to sow the seeds of that disillusion, enabling it to multiply.

The purpose of this piece is not to douse the flame of Arsenal legends past in order to make the candle of the current crop burn brighter, or to belittle football fans. Of course, players are paid much more handsomely now and supporters pay more handsomely in turn, so expectations are different. But the glorious bygone age never existed. There are down-payments of yin and yang as football evolves and our temples grey with years accumulated. Overall, it doesn’t tend to get much better or much worse. The circumstances simply change. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

 

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

As Lord Mangan of Leinster pointed out this very morn, every Arsenal player has been devoured by a wolf and the youth team are succumbing to rampaging leprosy, chronic jitters, ladies’ vapours, false leg syndrome, canker sores of the armpit, paper cuts on the old chap and indeed my own nephew, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, drowned in his own tears.

As Arsenal were not playing anyone last weekend, I cannot hear you, my ear-trumpet is sadly lost, la la la, and it is the Interlull, I leave you with this extract from Mr. Roy Keane’s autobiography which seems to have been passed over by the mainstream media. It is, as you will see, somewhat instructive from a Woolwich point of view (click to embiggen).

keane_700

Put it in the ground where the flowers grow

Put it in the ground where the flowers grow

“2-0 down! 3-2 up! That’s how Arsenal won the cup, with a nick knack paddy whack give a dog a bone, Aaron Ramsey poked one home.”

So sang a gentleman behind me at Leicester in August. Repeatedly. I joined him in his choral appreciation of Arsenal’s recent F.A. Cup win. I mean, why the hell not? It seems a good a thing as any to commemorate. Arsenal have existed for 128 years and have won the FA Cup 11 times. We have 28 major honours in that same time span. A very respectable haul but it reveals an obvious and naked truth. We don’t win trophies more often than we do. It’s the same for every other club. Most clubs have no prospect of winning any at all.

So it seems quite understandable to cherish honours when they come along. Especially after a pregnant pause of 9 years, during which time every other article, commentator and online guttersnipe has seen fit to punctuate their every comment on the club with that qualifier. I actually started to think Arsenal had added the words “who haven’t won a trophy since 2005” to their club crest. I joined that gentleman at Leicester in song, not only to celebrate a tangible achievement, but to boast openly to our detractors.

Because that’s one of the things that makes football so fun, right? It allows you behave like you did in the playground without attracting undue attention. It indulges the kind of behaviour that the ‘normal’ adult world encourages you to leave behind you at the school gates. Imagine serenading an office colleague with “WHAT THE FUCKING HELL WAS THAT?!” after a keynotes presentation. Prohibited behaviour for very obvious reasons, but it would be brilliant fun if you could. For those reasons and more, I joined that gentleman at Leicester in song.

After several repetitions however, it became clear that nobody else was in the mood to join our impromptu choir. It perhaps wasn’t the most opportune moment; we were drawing 1-1 with Leicester in a fairly frustrating game. Somewhat cheekily, I recently posited that new signings had replaced trophies at the vanguard of supporter aspiration. It’s not at all lost on me that the chant “sign a fucking striker!” tempted the vocal cords of the travelling support rather more easily that afternoon.

I have attended each game hence and not heard any further attempts at chants celebrating the cup triumph and I haven’t sensed the appetite to start any myself. Ever since, some questions have nagged away at me. Has the FA Cup win made Arsenal a happier club? Has it made any tangible difference at all? Should it have? The day and, by extension, the weekend of the cup win was celebrated with appropriate fervour. And maybe that’s the way it ought to be. Celebrate heartily on the weekend that the trophy arrives, spend the summer having a good old fashioned bask and then put it all to one side once business begins again in August.

It certainly ought to be that way for the players, whose primary focus should be to chisel future glories from the coalface of competition. They have long retirements in which to bask and reflect. I guess it just feels like a slightly incongruous attitude for us to have as supporters. Especially when so much emphasis was placed upon the trophy drought. For so long silverware was said to be at the foot of our Maslow’s triangle, as the underlying condition for our happiness. Now it’s arrived, I can’t escape the feeling that it was all rather fleeting.

Maybe the modern world moves too quickly for reflection. After all, who has time for a good old summertime bask anymore when we have a transfer window to fret about? I must admit that when I arrived at the first home game of the season against Crystal Palace, I expected the club to nod towards it more forcefully. Perhaps to have the cup on display on the pitch before kick-off. Or maybe even an official unveiling for the addition of the letters ‘2014’ on the stadium’s honours board. When the iconic clock face was reintroduced to the Emirates, there was an official inauguration complete with fireworks.

There again, I understand the club’s reticence to do so. Sensibilities are so precious and scrutiny so scathing nowadays. Arsenal may have been wary of accusations of ‘milking it’ or behaving in a manner deemed to be ‘small time.’ Remember the criticism the players attracted for celebrating the semi final win against Wigan? Arsenal wouldn’t want to intimate (or be accused of intimating) that winning the cup was the culmination of their ambition. I think we all want for this most fleeting of joys to be midwife to a legacy.

Back in May, I expressed doubts as to how significant a legacy it could realistically spawn. The target of course is to try and win the Premier League and the Champions League. But to be reductive for a moment, both of those things are really, really difficult to do. The competitive landscape has made it thus. There are several billionaire owners that will fail to land one or both of those prizes. That’s not to be too moon faced about that fact. Arsenal were at the forefront of the creation of the Premier League, which constructed a ring-fence of wealth in the English game.

If we’re feeling sore about Chelsea and Manchester City having altered the horizon, we’re unlikely to find much sympathy from those that were locked outside of the golden gates of the Premier League and the G14 in the 90s. Realistically, I think Arsenal fans can expect for the team to feature in the title race, perhaps as a threatening third horse. To advance to the quarter finals of the Champions League, a stage we have not graced since 2010; ought to be a sensible aspiration. Once you land safely on that lily-pad, then who knows what can happen? I think we can reasonably have expected the season to have started a little better as well.

But the FA Cup was never going to be the magic key that unlocked an all conquering Arsenal side. There is no doubt that this season, the same trophy represents our foremost chance of success. If we do make it to the semi final for instance, hopefully last year’s win will hold us in good stead. Personally, I find the devaluation of the domestic cups one of the most regretful by-products of the modern game. Champions League qualification and avoiding relegation have superseded the cups in importance for one reason and one reason only. Money.

I know a great many share that sadness too, but it does seem as though supporters have begun to partake in (or reluctantly submit to) that depreciation of value. Now, you may have reached this point of the article and found yourself asking, “So what do you want us to do, Tim? Dance a daily jig?! Sacrifice a farm animal? ” Perhaps you’d be right to ask. All happiness, indeed all emotion, is fleeting after all. Winning the cup in May doesn’t mean everything is perfect now. But before I get too Buddhist on you, maybe we ought to reflect on whether the fretting and the sniping over the ‘trophy drought’ was really worth it in hindsight?

If the absence of silverware led to so much pain and frustration, then surely the procurement of it ought to have led to a more sustained fanfare? Obviously it’s a subjective and cerebral thing to pin a judgement on, but I don’t feel like any of the old debates; or the anger with which they are conducted, have subsided at all. If you accept my twin conclusions that the F.A. Cup doesn’t seem to have placated us and that Arsenal can expect to compete for, but not necessarily expect to win the league or the Champions League, then it begs the question as to what will make us happy.

Maybe it’s the nebulous concept of progress. Perhaps people feel they aren’t seeing enough and they may be right. But then it doesn’t seem fair to consider domestic trophies as a measure of progress if finally winning one is now deemed insufficient evidence. Maybe we ought to make a collective decision and lay the precise conditions down for our own happiness. A merriment manifesto if you will. Otherwise we seem to be wed to perpetual unhappiness. And that sounds kind of shit to me. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA