Arsenal FC Formation & Tactical Analysis: 4-3-3 Is the Way Forward Not 4-4-2

Robin SAnalyst IJune 2, 2011

I've noticed many fans still favour the 4-4-2 formation that once used to be the essence of Premier League.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup, however, showed 4-4-2 is not the way forward. Most of the top countries adopted fluid, attacking formations, mostly the variations of 4-3-3 in the World Cup.

The trend now is 4-2-1-3/4-2-3-1 and the current Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund illustrated the perfect way 4-2-3-1 should be played.

You may point out Barcelona. To me, that's out of this world. The attacking shape often looks a 2-3-2-3 (W-W) and the full-backs (Dani Alves in particular) play as auxiliary wingers. So, let's keep that as a special case and away from scrutiny.

Coming back to our topic, Arsene Wenger opted for a similar 4-2-3-1 formation this season but wasn't as successful as the Bundesliga champions. This has tempted many fans to question the system and have called for regression to a 4-4-2.

Until a few years ago, 4-4-2 was the be all and end all of Premier League teams and even now it's the buzzword amongst the bottom half teams.

However, in Europe 4-4-2 hasn't fared well and the teams playing sophisticated 4-3-3 variations prospered in the European competitions.

Most of the Spanish and Italian teams have embraced the modern tactics and formations but the Premier League is still not tactically closer to the Serie A and La Liga. Part of the blame is on the managers who teach the primitive long-ball football instead of more cultured, possession-based continental style.

A proper system must be in place to inculcate technical aspects and tactical awareness at the grassroots level.

Let's get back to the Arsenal part rather than focussing on the tactical facets of the Premiership clubs and England national team.

Wenger, in his early days as the manager of Arsenal, trusted the 4-4-2 and was highly successful.

Over the last few years, he embraced change like others, not least because of his inability to deliver the Champions League trophy.

His hybrid of 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 made Arsenal a possession-based team with positional fluidity being the highlight.

Wenger has always preferred inside cutting wide players and even in the new system he hasn't tinkered much on that area.

The Robert Pires-Ashley Cole partnership made Arsenal's left-flank one of the best during the 2000-05 period and Pires' infield movements combined with Cole's overlapping runs was the key.

Even today the same strategy is in place but the personnel that Wenger has at his disposal now lack the same quality to be as successful as it used to be in the first half of last decade.

Ironically, now Arsenal's weakest part is their left side that once used to be their biggest strength.

Wenger also likes attacking fullbacks, which is very important in Wenger's system as the fullbacks are expected to give width when the wide forwards drift infield.

Wenger's biggest strength is possession, well supported by statistics as Arsenal were the only team that averaged more than 60% possession in 2010-11 Premier League season.

With possession comes passing and the modern 4-2-3-1 system offers better passing options because of the interlocking triangles.

Legendary player Johan Cruyff once said "it's not possible to play dominant football with a 4-4-2 system because the numbers (triangles) on the field don’t match up."

It was his idea that led to the triangles overpowering straight line. He has always been critical of the bands (straight lines) instead taught midfield triangles. He professed triangle always beats straight line. Very true and indeed a truly amazing player as well as a brilliant mastermind.

4-4-2 is apparently antiquated and will fade into oblivion few years down the line. Foresighted tacticians have laid the foundation at the right time for a successful transition from the tedious, overused and static 4-4-2 to a more fluid 4-3-3.

Wenger too has embraced innovations to keep up with the changing trend. He has been relatively successful with the new system, though it was a case of wrong personnel in the right framework.

Regardless of the quality of the squad, Wenger's defensive set-up has left a lot to be desired. The pressing needs to improve. The defensive shape has been hardly convincing.

Barcelona is the team that exemplifies the art of pressing in the best possible way. Their intensity and hunger to win the ball back is unmatched.

Interestingly, Barcelona's defensive shape is 2-5-3 compared to Arsenal's 4-5-1. That clearly shows what has been lacking in Arsenal's defence. Arsenal press deep whereas the Catalan team strangulates opponents in midfield.

The question at hand is why shouldn't Arsenal revert to 4-4-2.

4-4-2 is a system generally employed by teams to stop tactically superior sides from playing football. The traditional English way of defending in two banks of four is the key defensive stronghold of this style.

However, it's not suitable for teams intending to keep possession and pass the ball around. The space behind and infront of the midfield is way too much and teams playing triangle (W or M) in midfield can easily get in between the lines and dictate the game unless the side playing 4-4-2 sits deep.

To overcome this weakness in midfield, teams playing 4-4-2 must move the ball quickly to the flanks and need to look at crossing into the box more than passing through the middle (Tottenham). That's not Wenger's ideology.

Moreover, Arsenal are the best team in the Premier League in terms of keeping possession and pass completion ratio in the final third, so it would now be absurd to revert back to the vanishing 4-4-2.

The most recent Champions League final should be enough to convince the days of 4-4-2 are numbered.

Arsenal just need better personnel and need to work on the pressing side and defensive set-up.

Also the high defensive line should be pushed deeper with the fullbacks pushing further forward and the holding player shielding more closer to the centre backs almost like a three-man defence (like Sergio Busquets at Barcelona).  


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