Welcome to the first edition of a new series here at B/R, analysing and formulating a plan to beat some of the top teams in European football.
Please note, this isn't a piece dedicated to ripping the Gunners apart, and you shouldn't take it as such. It's a tactical debate.
Transitioning to a 4-2-3-1
Arsene Wenger has never been a great proponent of tactical drilling and blueprint planning.
If you go back to the days of "The Invincibles" you may notice a relative lack of shape or formation—not in a bad way!—with the instructions instead to go out, express yourself and dominate the opposition.
The free-flowing movement of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and company was an incredible watch, but as football became more systematic, Wenger felt he had no option but to install a loose basic shape.
The loss of key defensive figures somewhat enforced this decision, too.
They operated in a 4-3-3 for years, and only recently have they made the full-time switch to the 4-2-3-1. Between systems Wenger utilised an odd hybrid of both, resulting in the likes of Tomas Rosicky and Santi Cazorla playing varied, mobile roles.
The real reason for transitioning to the in-vogue 4-2-3-1 is unclear, but an educated guess would suggest the loss of Alex Song was a major factor. The Cameroon international developed into a prime holding midfielder over the course of the 2011-12 season, but defected to Barcelona in the summer for £15 million.
With Cesc Fabregas leaving the year before, much of Wenger's midfield spine—and vertical running—had been ripped out. Time for change.
The Mikel Arteta Issue
The switch to the 4-2-3-1 saw Arteta become the primary holding midfielder, and despite playing as a No. 10 for almost all of his career up until that point, he appeared the safest option on the roster to replace Song.
Last season, Arsenal were very susceptible to the counterattack, and that's largely due to Arteta's lack of defensive instinct.
His statistics look lovely, he's a fine passer and he plays the role of metronome perfectly, but you can't stick a 30-yard-old in front of the defence for the first time in his career and expect him to turn into Xabi Alonso. Andrea Pirlo started as a No. 10 at Internazionale but was moved into a regista role at a very early stage of his career.
The Mathieu Flamini Fix
Flamini arrived this summer amid little fanfare, signing for free following a release from Milan at the end of the 2012-13 season.
Despite the skepticism surrounding his return, the Frenchman proceeded to shore up this problematic midfield area immediately. He combines power, drive, nous and great leadership skills to snuff out most counterattacks before they begin and has the aggression to intimidate skillful No. 10s.
Flamini's debut marked the start of an amazing run: Beating Tottenham Hotspur at home, the Gunners won seven of their next eight games (drawing at West Brom) with him in the side, then lost the first game he missed in Borussia Dortmund at home.
Coincidence? No, not even a little bit.
He re-entered the starting XI for the tie against Crystal Palace—the league's worst side—but exited after eight minutes with a groin injury. Goal.com believe he's set to miss two weeks, and to make matters worse, Arteta received a straight red card in the same game.
Injury Equals Opportunity (for the Opposition)
Flamini's injury is hard-hitting, Arteta's suspension rubs salt in the wounds.
Wenger will be forced to address the next several games in a busy, tough schedule using a combination of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in holding midfield.
Neither are natural holding players—even less natural than Arteta—and represent a prime area for targeting if you're an opposing manager entering the Emirates Stadium.
Villa cleaved through the Gunners' midfield as if it wasn't there on the opening day of the Premier League season, but had Flamini been present, the visitors likely would have lost the game.
Liverpool pose a particular threat here, as Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez can run at the holding pair, panic them and counter with efficiency. Whatever Gabby Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann can do, "SAS" can do 10 times better.
(Lack of) Width
Injuries are also playing a part in the wide areas, as with Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott out over the past month or so, Wenger has opted to squeeze more central players in and play a narrow 4-2-3-1.
Against Sunderland on Mesut Ozil's debut, Walcott was the only man able to provide any sort of width—even then he was cutting inside regularly.
Wenger likes to dominate the centre of the park with five bodies, but the converse effect of such narrow play is that his full-backs often square up one vs. one (or even two vs. one) with opposing wingers and full-backs.
Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna have put together fine seasons so far, but it's all the more impressive when you consider the fact they've had very little help when tracking back.
Kevin Grosskreutz exposed Gibbs' naivety in the UEFA Champions League, and Arsenal paid the price, both for over-committing and showing to be a little lazy (or perhaps exhausted) in following deep runners.
Wingers are taught to work in tandem with their full-backs. Mesut Ozil, a No. 10, never was, Santi Cazorla tries hard and Tomas Rosicky shows wild inconsistencies in this area.
If you're facing Arsenal without Flamini you're a lucky devil, as with him in the side and the confidence he supplies, the Gunners are capable of winning any game.
Without him, and now without Arteta too, Wenger will run with a soft underbelly for the game against Chelsea. Upon the Spaniard's return, they'll still be without a natural holder for several more.
Arsenal could well field a midfield five of Wilshere, Ramsey, Ozil, Rosicky and Cazorla in their next game. Attacking-wise, that's some sight, but it leaves the flanks under a lot of scrutiny, as not one represents a "true" wide man.
If the Gunners start dropping points over the next three or four games, this is how it will be done, and the natural reaction will surely be to purchase Flamini cover in January before anything else.
Perhaps Thomas Vermaelen should re-enter the fold in holding midfield?
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