Arsenal's seesawing season continued after their 2-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester City on Sunday. The postmortem doesn't point to one failing in this squad, but to many, not least of which is tactical dysfunction.
While they were down a man for a large portion of the match, Arsenal never really looked cohesive, and didn't possess the ball as they have done so well in the past. This team looks lost. For all of the offensive production that Arsenal had when playing a 4-3-3 in the past, their defense suffered.
The 4-2-3-1 has helped alleviate some of the pressure on the defense by playing midfielders such as Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta deeper than traditional center midfielders, but it has not led to any consistency in the Gunners' game.
In some matches, Arsenal dominate possession, press well, make intelligent runs and ultimately, make the right individual decisions. This type of play used to be Arsenal's signature style, and one that they would impose on every opponent, not just when it struck their collective fancy.
Part of this can be chalked up to Arsene Wenger and assistant Steve Bould, partly to the players inability to maintain their levels of consistency and composure, and some of this can be down to the formation being used.
A 4-4-2 has served Manchester United terrifically well for years, and while Sir Alex Ferguson has experimented this season with his formation, as ever he remains an exponent of the tried and true tactical approach. Arsenal could do well to emulate it, as they have the personnel to do so.
The bastardized 4-4-2 that Manchester makes use of relies heavily on their wingers to be industrious on the defensive side of the ball, as well as creative on the offensive side. It also relies on having a front two where an out-and-out striker plays ahead of a withdrawn forward. With Wayne Rooney's injury, Robin van Persie has at times played deeper, suiting his creativity. Javier Hernandez, what with his pace and tactical nous, plays ahead of him.
Arsenal don't have the wealth of talent that the red side of Manchester does, but they do have options. Playing Theo Walcott as a pure striker makes a great deal of sense, as his pace and finishing make him lethal if the mood strikes him. Playing Lukas Podolski slightly behind him makes a great deal of sense, as he has the inclination to track back, can make the killer pass, and is just as likely to make himself a goalscoring opportunity.
Podolski's physicality is a better fit for the role than Santi Cazorla who, despite his wealth of talent, isn't meant to play that far forward. The Spaniard would do well shunted out to the wing, where he can dovetail with Kieran Gibbs or Bacary Sagna. Former club Malaga played him there to great effect, and he often found himself in the middle of the field anyway. Such a role means that the faux 4-4-2 is a little lopsided when Arsenal are out of possession, but thoroughly dangerous when in it.
The other outside midfielder would be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and it's really a natural fit. The precocious Englishman is a more complete winger than Walcott ever was, as he's more intelligent, is a better passer, and is more physical. Playing as a left midfielder demands more of him, but it's a role that he could, and probably would, flourish in.
This offensive setup offers Walcott more support in the center, as well as quality delivery from either side, while also allowing Podolski to play to his strengths, and make him Arsenal's Wayne Rooney, or at least a poor man's version of it.
The central midfielders would occupy the same role they currently do, but would benefit from Gibbs and Sagna playing a little more defensively. This can invite pressure, and it's been demonstrated by the number of times that Manchester United have gone behind in matches this season. But for a team predicated on pace and technique, counterattacking football makes a great deal of sense.
Why not try it?
No, Arsenal are not Manchester United, nor do they have quite the same caliber of personnel. But they do have a lot of talent, and playing more compactly will open up space when regaining possession. Walcott has done relatively well when he plays on the shoulder of the last man, mostly due to his sheer pace.
It's a different tactic, and neither traditional Arsenal, nor Arsene Wenger, but at this juncture, the current scheme is not working well enough. The greater the protection for the defense the better, and marrying the intelligence, directness and final ball of Podolski with Walcott's burgeoning striking abilities could yield dividends as the season goes on.