Arsene Wenger has changed his 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3 for the new season to reinvigorate his side, but what is different about the new system?
The problem facing Chris Barnard, the first surgeon to successfully perform a human-to-human heart transplant, was rejection—whether the patient’s body would accept the new organ.
He had no other choice, as it was necessary, and the Arsenal manager switching to 4-3-3 has posed a similar question (though to a lesser significance). The Gunners were ordinary last campaign, and rather than risk becoming stale, Wenger has abandoned his customary 4-4-2 for a fluid 4-3-3 this season.
“We will play the formation and system that most suits the players and the balance of the team,” he says. “That means it’s not rigid. It can evolve throughout the season, depending on circumstances and personnel.”
At first glance the 4-3-3 can look like a 4-2-3-1, and at other times, when Andrey Arshavin moves closer to the striker, it can look like a 4-4-2. That is the thinking behind the system change—it gives the fluidity and the freedom that Arsenal’s pass-and-move game so greatly desires.
There are more triangles in the pass, an added bonus of having the left-footed Thomas Vermaelen at centre back, while the three-pronged attack allows greater pressure in the final third.
“I wanted to play high up the pitch, and it can change in some games,” said Wenger. “But overall I believe we can play high up, and we can bring the threat to the opponent's half very early in the game.”
Different Bodily Functions
The key to the early success has been the players' willingness and attitude, which can bring different interpretations of their roles. Taking the matches against Celtic and Everton as an example, it was Alex Song who played deepest with Denilson to his left and Cesc Fabregas higher and to the right. Each have their own and subtly different functions.
Fabregas is the dictator and is seen as the one to create chances in the final third, while Denilson doubles back with Song and also has the duty of covering the area on the left which Arshavin vacates.
At Portsmouth it was Abou Diaby who had this role, and because of the tireless manner in which he went about his job, it seemed like Fabregas was the deeper midfielder, when in fact it allowed him to dictate more easily.
Rebels or Robots?
What is important to realise is that for a team like Arsenal, players should not be governed by the mere physical arrangements of their positions. It helps explain the shape, especially from a defensive viewpoint, but makes it difficult to compare the systems of Liverpool and Arsenal (both said to be 4-2-3-1s, yet Rafa Benitez may argue differently, especially as he describes Steven Gerrard as a striker).
That is particularly true of Arshavin, who is a second striker by trade, and the freedom Wenger gives him on the ball cannot be stuck to the left or right touchline. Eduardo was the player furthest to the left against Portsmouth, and instantly the Croatian had a better performance in that position than he has had before.
The idea here is for that midfielder to play as a loose forward starting from the left and cutting in to support the forward. This in turn poses great questions to the opposing full back—whether he should remain tight, particularly as the space can be used by the left central midfielder or the surging left-back.
On the other side is Nicklas Bendtner, who is a more direct threat, as his height presents the full back with an altogether different proposition.
In Rinus Michels’ book Teambuilding, he suggests that the build-up to an attack “needs to create situations to be able to play the ball deep as quickly as possible.” Wenger is experimenting this season with one creative wide player and the other more direct, to allow greater variety and the potential outlet of getting the ball forward quickly.
He has the option of Bendtner or Theo Walcott to get in behind quickly, or he can opt for the double creative ploy by using Samir Nasri because, as Martin O’Neill says, “the more creativity you have in your side, the better chance you will have.” (Before his injury, Nasri looked likely to play as the second central midfielder with Walcott on the left).
The Universal Striker
It was the former Brazil manager, Carlos Alberto, who predicted that the tactic of the future may see no fixed striker. And it was Roma, then Manchester United, who brought the "strikerless" formation to the forefront, and now it seems Robin van Persie is playing such a role for Arsenal.
Much has been made of the goals, or rather a lack of goals, from the forwards, but recent developments of fitness and movement mean goal-scoring is to be shared. “It can get a little bit lonely for him [van Persie], but that depends how quick and how massive the support is we give him,” says Wenger.
“I believe that we work on that, you know? That he gets quick support and he needs people around him because he’s a combination player, more than a physical player. That’s why the distances within our side are important, that he’s not isolated.”
The manager feels his Dutch forward can fulfill two roles, one as a provider and the other as a more orthodox striker—once he further develops that part of his game. At the same time, though, he knows he also has the option of Eduardo to provide a more potent threat.
The importance of the midfielders is critical in the new system, with it revitalising the attitude and application of these players.
Pep Guardiola talks about the "llegada" (arrival), a late arriver into the box who can progress beyond the forward unmarked, causing much surprise to the opposition defence. This tactic is now a vital part in Arsenal’s game.
“I feel we create good space for our midfielders to run in and to go into the box,” Wenger says. “On that front we look more dangerous. If you analyse our goals at the moment, our strikers provide more than they score. That is maybe down to the way we play as well.”
Perhaps that is the new system’s greatest strength—the fluidity and flexibility in turn asking much greater questions to the opposition.
The 4-3-3 system as used against Celtic and Everton.