Thursday, November 30, 2023

Formation, formation, formation

I can’t say I was overly impressed by Monsieur Wenger’s initial contribution. At half time he came into the dressing room, took over from Pat Rice and changed us from the 3-5-2 that Bruce had introduced to a back four and we went on to lose the game 3-2 and the tie 6-4.

A lot of my old angry thinking was resurfacing: ‘What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. Does he even speak English properly?’

Tony Adams – Addicted.

So, in 1996, the very first thing Arsene Wenger did was change Arsenal from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2. If you believe the various exclusives today the manager is considering that system as a way of shoring our up our leaky defence. A defence that has only kept one clean sheet in our last 15 games in all competitions. A defence that had seemingly improved at the start of the season but has reverted to type since.

But I would be absolutely amazed if we did this. Maybe it’s something that could be used now and again but even that would surprise me. Arsene Wenger isn’t the most tactically flexible manager around, and this would be a fairly radical shift. For the vast majority of his tenure Arsenal played a fluid 4-4-2, which was certainly the norm in English football and a formation that made sense for him.

In his analysis of Wenger from a tactical point of view in So Paddy Got Up, Zonal Marking quoted him speaking to Gianluca Vialli:

“I think 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases. In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are covering 60% of the space.”

Then teams began to counter that by playing three in midfield, which meant the two in the traditional set-up found life more difficult. Bolton under Sam Allardyce were one of the first, and for a while it seemed teams were cancelling each other out, almost. In Jack Wilshere’s first full season Wenger played him in a midfield three, normally alongside Song, sometimes Denilson, with Fabregas and occasionally Rosicky or Nasti as the most forward of them. Wide men Walcott and Arshavin provided service for Chamakh and latterly van Persie.

Wilshere was part of a ‘defensive’ duo, if one moved forward, the other stayed, and vice versa. At the time Jack said:

I’ve been playing alongside Alex Song a lot and we just talk to each other – if he goes I stay, and if I go then he remains. It’s good, we both have the ability to do each of these things and I think it’s gone well so far.

This season, with the absence of Song as the most obvious defensive midfielder (in terms of our personnel rather than natural ability in that position), the manager has moved Mikel Arteta back there to act as Arsenal’s quarter-back, dictating the play. To good effect early on, but it’s a tactic teams have been able to nullify in recent games as pointed out in this week’s tactics column. Yet much of that has to do with the link man. Whatever you think of Abou Diaby’s injuries, he has the ability to drive forward and find space, which dovetails nicely with what Arteta does.

I see Jack Wilshere as a player who can do that but it’s been more difficult for the Spaniard, and the team, without that kind of player. Aaron Ramsey is really struggling at the moment, he tries but nothing comes off, while Francis Coquelin, who started there against Fulham, is much more suited to the role that Arteta plays. Which is one of the reasons why I’d be surprised at such a massive change in formation. He could easily have switched Coquelin and Arteta against Fulham, let the Frenchman collect the ball from the back, his passing is usually very tidy and allow Arteta to move forward in a role he played with distinction last season.

It strikes me that if a change that small isn’t made then it’d be downright seismic to go with a totally different formation. Not to mention the fact that if you want to play 3 centre-halves on a regular basis you need a good collection of them. We have three at the moment who you could genuinely consider. Per Mertesacker, probably our best player at the back and Wenger must be ruing the day he dropped him against Chelsea. Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen. And we all know the captain has been struggling with form this season.

Beyond that there’s Johan Djourou, who has hardly played this season but is certainly capable; Sebastian Squillaci, a man who has played 10 minutes of Premier League football in this calendar year and whose Arsenal career is essentially over, and Ignasi Miquel, a promising young player but someone who isn’t yet ready yet to be a regular at this level. We simply don’t have the personnel to use this system on a consistent basis. An injury to one the first three, a suspension to another and we’re suddenly scraping the bottom of a rather scabby barrel.

As well as that, I’m not convinced at all that our problems are anything do with the system we play. The 4-3-2-1 does put some onus on the wide men to get back and support their full backs, but the three in midfield also means the deepest lying player can provide cover too. How many times this season have we seen Arteta make tackles and interceptions in deep areas? Maybe the issues now are more physical than systematical. Are we overplaying the Spaniard? Is he finding it tough going?

Also, it’s worth considering that the majority of the goals we seem to concede have little to do with a system not working and more to do with individual errors. Go through them, look at the goals we’ve let in and you’ll see that many were preventable, not by changing formation but by players doing what you expect professional players to do. Mark your man, don’t give away a silly free kick, compete at a set-piece, save the bumbling, bobbling header that you’d want your goalkeeper to save 999 times out of 1000.

Changing formation won’t address that issue, mistakes will just happen in a different system. As I said earlier in the week we need to look at doing the basics right. I think there’s the overall quality in this squad to play better and win more games than we are at the moment. And I also believe with the right players in the team we’ll be better.

Wojciech Szczesny for Mannone makes us better. Jack Wilshere in midfield with Arteta and Cazorla makes us better. Kieran Gibbs at left back, after his displays this season makes us better (and while not making any excuses for Andre Santos, the fact that we’ve conceded 5 goals in 2 games with Vermaelen at left back suggests that he wasn’t the major part of the problem). It’s not the system, it’s the players, and the players are capable of more than we’re seeing right now.

It’d be a huge risk to change ahead of Saturday’s game, I just cannot see that happening for this game, or any others unless there’s a specific threat we’re trying to nullify. But then Wenger has never been the kind of manager to worry too much about the opposition, choosing instead to trust in his own players and their ability to play the way he wants them to.

I don’t think formation change is the way to fix things. I’d happily eat my words if turned out to be a stroke of panacean genius from Wenger, but I’m not convinced.

Till tomorrow.

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