One for all, and all 4-1-4-1

Arsene Wenger began the 2014-15 season by trialling a new 4-1-4-1 formation. Initially there were some travails with inducting the team into a slightly different formation. It led to some disjointed form as the players acclimatised, with a truncated pre-season leaving little time to chisel the team into shape. It led some of us to question whether this was the right time to introduce such a transition.

The reasons for the shift were manifold. Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 system served them well for the majority of the 2013-14 campaign, as the Gunners led the table for more than half of the season. However, it was contingent on some specific cogs. When Ramsey and Özil were struck down by the Arsenal injury curse in the spring, the Hanoi tower tumbled down. (Losing Walcott added a dash of vinegar to the stigmata). Building tactical flexibility seemed like a logical way to vary Arsenal’s occasionally predictable patterns of play.

When taken to task on the adoption of the 4-1-4-1 system following defeat in Dortmund, Wenger drew some guffaws when he suggested it was an attempt to make the team more secure – a direct response to last season’s chastening defeats at Anfield and Stamford Bridge. One of the advantages of the 4-1-4-1 is that its flatter midfield structure offers greater support to Arsenal’s midfield anchor.

At Eastlands on Sunday, Francis Coquelin was magnificent (some fools rather publicly doubted that he had it in him), but ably supported. A myth has grown up amongst Arsenal fans that a storied defensive midfield knight will rescue us from our defensive travails single-handedly. But no holding player can shield a defence in solitary, he needs support from his fellow foot soldiers and Coquelin had plenty of that on Sunday.

However, the City game did not represent brave new thinking on the manager’s part. Arsenal have produced compact, disciplined performances before, most notably in Dortmund and Munich in 2013. The germ of Sunday’s master plan could also be seen at Stamford Bridge in October. Arsenal were disciplined and compact and few, if any, goalscoring chances were traded between the teams until the 24th minute, when Eden Hazard danced past a crowd of Arsenal bodies and drew a penalty.

On Sunday, Arsenal were disciplined and compact and few chances were traded between the teams, until the 27th minute, when some fine Gunners interplay drew a penalty. (For all of the complaints about our full backs over-committing in games of this ilk in recent years, it was Nacho Monreal that was fouled in the City area). The significance of the first goal in a match like this is impossible to underplay. At 1-0, Arsenal were able to dictate the pattern of the game in a way that you cannot at 0-1. The line between tactical master class and tactically clueless is very fine and always dependent on the result, it seems.

The win in Manchester was a triumph of circumstance too. City were missing Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri, while Sergio Aguero was struggling for sharpness. With any one of those players fit or firing, it is not difficult to envisage one them producing the piece of individual skill Eden Hazard conjured in October. It was also easier (though by no means easy) to isolate David Silva as City’s most significant threat and he was marshalled accordingly. Whilst rashness is not an entirely uncharacteristic Vincent Kompany trait, the rust accumulated from six weeks on the side lines possibly contributed to his flaky foul on Monreal.

This was a victory of happenstance too and there is nothing wrong with that. Games of this ilk are exceptionally difficult to win and you need circumstances to be on your side. Too often Arsenal have been keen to juggle with grenades. It was great to see them control the controllables and capitalise on the marginals. I think the team’s poor recent record in these games had led to a strange kind of expectation in the Arsenal fan base and amongst pundits. There was a feeling that the Gunners ought to win one soon due to a misguided belief in ‘the law of averages’, which is in itself, a bunkum theory.

Of course losing them by scores such as 0-6 and 1-5 is not really acceptable, but the reality is that these games are really chuffing difficult. I hope Sunday’s victory tosses a monkey from Arsenal’s backs, but it’s still very likely that wins in these games will be rare. They are for most teams. Hopefully in the future they might be slightly less rare, we will maybe manage a few more draws and to not be spanked out of sight and there is of course the hope that we can have a little bit of extra belief.

Yet this was not hitherto unseen thinking from Wenger. It won’t usher in an era of dominance away from home to their nearest rivals. Back in October they faced a fully fit Chelsea side at the zenith of their form, whilst Arsenal were mired into a period of inconsistency. On this occasion, Wenger’s side had two consecutive clean sheets at their back, whilst City had conceded two in each of their last two home games. Arsenal did not collapse at Stamford Bridge either. They did not repeat the mistakes of last season, where they panicked and opened themselves up too early in an attempt to chase the game.

They stayed fairly compact, but Chelsea were able to absorb the pressure with the one goal cushion. Diego Costa made it 2-0 in the 78th minute. At that stage, it is natural and necessary to open up in search of an equaliser. It’s not even as though Arsenal left yawning gaps, they left the slightest nook of space at the back and in Fábregas and Costa, Mourinho’s team had two players able to extract the maximum amount of currency from the smallest opportunity. In the aftermath of that game, Wenger sighed,

“It was an even game, but at the end of the day they have financial power and used it in an effective way with players like Diego Costa and Eden Hazard making the difference.”

Of course it could be argued that the midfield personnel was slightly more dynamic on Sunday, with Coquelin, Ramsey and Chamberlain playing compared to Flamini, Wilshere and Özil. There again, the latter pair may have been less wasteful with their final ball than the team were on Sunday in some promising counter attack situations. It is difficult to reconcile this setup with how Arsenal shaped up against Liverpool and Chelsea last season, because on both occasions, they were two goals down inside the first ten minutes, so any game plan that involved containment would have been consigned to the dustbin very early on.

Whether or not Sunday’s victory offers vindication for Arsene’s flirtation with the 4-1-4-1 system remains to be seen. I have said many times that tactical flexibility a la Ferguson’s later Manchester United teams should be Wenger’s aspiration. Being able to set your team up coherently in a number of different ways is obviously beneficial. It’s been difficult to convince people that the 4-1-4-1 is an attempt to move away from over reliance on individuals given Alexis’ turbo charged endeavours. Albeit the Chilean has reserved his best form for home matches.

His performance on Sunday was interesting and provided partial vindication for this setup. He was energetic and useful, but not virtuoso, plugging into the collective as a worker bee as opposed to the queen. It is too early to declare the early season debts of inculcating the 4-1-4-1 as paid. It’s also playing fast and loose with the truth to say Arsenal have just stumbled across a blueprint for tackling these games. They have used it before with varying degrees of success. Now, perhaps, they have a little more cause to believe in it. LD.

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