The Inquest: The formation conundrum

Have you ever had the kind of day when everything is going swimmingly – work hasn’t been a pain, you’ve got a big holiday coming up, you’ve got super fun things lined up with friends, you’re getting the right signals from the person you’re interested in, the works – but then your boss comes in and says he doesn’t want to keep you on your current job but move you to some really shitty department, and then you decide to act tough and insist you won’t, then say you’d rather leave and put in your papers because you can get a better job elsewhere, and then put in your papers and leave, and then go vote in a referendum feeling happy about all the job offers you have, only for it all to disappear the next day because Brexit happened and now you’re screwed, though you realise this is your opportunity to go and do something really cool in the future?
Ok, maybe not everyone goes through that. But after Arsenal’s last week, you get what I mean.
Arsenal followed up the Crystal Palace win, which had been characterised by a move to a 4-3-3, with a win over Chelsea in the Carabao Cup semi-finals that had demonstrated tactical flexibility and some good midfield play. Henrikh Mkhitaryan had signed in a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was on the way, and it looked like Mesut Ozil was rumoured to be signing a new contract. Jack Wilshere was back, and it looked like the team was going to be built around him. Things were on the up. We were building a team for the future, Wenger was thinking of ways to make sure the team clicked, and team spirit seemed to be in better shape after the departure of the wantaway Chilean.
And then we had the Swansea game. We got a well-crafted opener, but they equalised immediately, and then we conceded two more goals, one blatantly from individual errors, one partly so. Not much of a start then, to this brand new era of Arsenal.
We’ve been distracted since then by the hype around Auba’s arrival and confirmation that Mesut has signed a new contract, but the issues raised by the Swansea game, which relate to issues that have been lingering around the team for some time still, continue to plague us, and need to be addressed going forward. It’s particularly pertinent to address these now, given that the new signings need to be bedded in and we need to figure out what to do going forward.
So, to the formationcave!

Problems That The Swansea Game Demonstrated

Against Carlos Carvalhal’s side, Arsenal looked to line up in the way that they did against Chelsea, with Mohamed Elneny playing at the base of midfield, dropping in between the centre-backs when we were defending and stepping up when we pushed forward. There were two broad things which went wrong this time, however, with Swansea dominating the game despite playing five at the back.
Problem number 1 was that unlike the Chelsea game, this time, there was no Jack Wilshere, due to an illness. Aaron Ramsey stepped into the team in his place, and had a stinker. It should not be surprising that Ramsey can’t do the same job as Wilshere, but the Welshman did pretty much nothing useful, constantly playing square passes or passes back to the defenders (hence giving him an 88% pass success rate), which meant that we were as sterile as a mule (and about as good in a footballing sense) when we had the ball in midfield. Wilshere, like Cazorla, knows how to switch between quick passes and small dribbles to retain the ball, and then find a good forward pass, which ensures that not only do we keep the ball, but we also do something useful with it. This is essential to playing a 4-3-3-ish kind of formation, and for ensuring that we put an opposition team which is sitting back under pressure, and without it, we looked sluggish and not really very threatening. This was not helped by the fact that Granit Xhaka put in another terrible performance. It’s weird to be saying that about a midfielder who completed 94% of 117 attempted passes, but that’s just what it is. Like Ramsey, he failed to play a single key pass, and instead focused on utterly pointless square or backward passes. Even Denilson used to get tired of those and then manage something useful.
To make it worse, Xhaka was at fault for the first Clucas goal and, after further shambles from Monreal and Mustafi, was part of the problem for the third goal as well. For both those goals, he lost Sam Clucas, who had a barnstorming game from the left of midfield, constantly driving behind our defence and causing all sorts of problems. Xhaka not just failed to track his run for the first goal but then decided not to bother even trying to do anything to stop him. For the third, he was perfectly placed to intercept any cutback from Jordan Ayew but then … didn’t, allowing Clucas to get in ahead of him and poke the ball home. A shambolic performance from a midfielder who had to be more switched on, and failed miserably – surely this should be the end of the line of chances he’s been given, and the end of his Arsenal career as well. He just isn’t good enough, unfortunately, and it’s better to keep a midfielder in the team who isn’t quite as good getting the ball forward, but who can at least keep it together.
Problem number 2 compounded the midfield horror show, of course. And that was the problem with our full-backs, who pushed up like this was 1911 and they were playing as not just wing-backs but wing-forwards in a 2-3-5. Bellerin and Monreal were constantly caught too far upfield when Swansea broke against us, and the ensuing panic to defend against a swarm of white-shirted players was ripe for causing us problems. Clucas in particular frolicked in the wide open spaces behind  Bellerin on our right, while Leroy Fer and Nathan Dyer had a great deal of joy from Monreal on our left. Bellerin hared off down the right wing so fast that when Ozil was bundled over, Xhaka (shudders) had to deal with Clucas and failed for the first goal. Monreal then proceeded to do utterly daft things for the second (letting the ball go out for a throw-in instead of passing/clearing) and third (attempting a spectacular clearance that caused him to fall over and also went straight to a Swansea player) goals, both of which meant he was not in a position to help stop those.
But these kind of mistakes, from the full-backs and the rest of the team, are only natural when everything is so unbalanced. Even though they were supposed to be playing as full-backs, Monreal and Bellerin were instead positioned as wing-backs for most of the game, which is fine when playing with a back 3 and at least one midfielder switched on defensively. But with Elneny not always playing as a centre-back and Xhaka and Ramsey doing absolutely nothing defensively in midfield, this was a disaster. And this is not the first time that this has happened – Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn have several times pointed out that in the second-half (more like 2/3 now) of Wenger’s tenure, both full-backs push up at the same time, instead of only one going while the other stays.
To an extent, this is understandable, since teams often sit deep against us, and we’re looking to keep the ball when we go forward. But it’s being compounded by our team-selection and formation. Against Swansea, for instance, we played with Alex Iwobi and Mesut Ozil as the left and right attackers in the front 3. Neither of them like to go wide, nor do they have the pace to stretch opponents there, which means that nobody from our attack or midfield took up wide positions in the final third, which is, by the way, essential to an effective possession game (as Guardiola or Cruyff would attest). Instead, both like to cut inside, drift into midfield and look to play passes forward to the striker. Except, with Swansea lining up with 5 at the back and 4 in midfield, there were few passes to be played forward through the middle. Which in turn forced them to look to play the ball out wide. Which forced Monreal and Bellerin to push up wide to offer them an option to keep the ball. Which then left them out of position defensively.

Problems That the New Squad Will Continue to Face

Our January transfer business is likely to go down as pretty good in the future, but only if we clearly identify the imbalance in our formation and look to correct it. At some level, letting Francis Coquelin and Theo Walcott go may come back to bite us. Coquelin was a no-frills defensive player who’d be more useful to have if we drop Xhaka and need someone defensively solid to help Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey have the freedom to do their thing in midfield. Theo could have helped offer some much-needed width, but without requiring half our backline to go AWOL.
But things are what they are and we need to figure out a plan that will allow our forward players to wreak more havoc on opposition defences without leaving us defenceless. The first thing to do, regardless of how we line up further afield, is going to be to reinstate the rule that only one full-back/wing-back pushes up at a time. And even for that one guy, he must wait till the ball has been moved up by the others before rushing forward a la Bellerin. This is essential to retain balance at the back.
The obvious counter to this is that we then lose a body going forwards, but this is where the January signings come in. Both Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang have pace, decent dribbling ability and good movement. They have to be used right so that these attributes can offset the absence of a body from the back. One of the ways to do this will be to recreate the Cole-Pires-Henry axis down the left wing – which should be doable with Kolasinac-Mkhi-Auba. This also reduces the dependence on using the right wing and Bellerin’s pace down that side (which leaves that side exposed).
Another thing to do is keep Ozil drifting in off the right, and make either one of Aubameyang or Lacazette play on the left wing. Both of them have played this in the past, and while they prefer to go down the middle, this would help balance the team in two ways. One, it makes sure we have a fast option out wide in the final third. Two, it allows Mkhitaryan to drop into midfield where his greater pace will allow him to shuttle from one side to the other and make up for the loss of the full-back from that side.
The third thing that needs to be done is settling on two solid defensive options in midfield. Elneny can do a job defensively and as a water-carrier – against Swansea for instance, he completed 100% of his 89 passes – and should be part of this plan. But it also needs a hard-tackler and good interceptor to play along with Jack Wilshere in midfield – Jack’s inclusion when fit is essential, even if it has to be at the cost of Aaron Ramsey. This is likely to only be secured in the summer transfer window, but we have to now look to make do with what we have. And that is going to involve either Nacho Monreal or Kolasinac (whoever isn’t playing at left-back), or Ainsley Maitland-Niles. All three have solid passing, can intercept well, and know how to defend. All can interchange with Elneny to drop into a back 3 if necessary. And all have some experience of playing as a full-back and can either take up a wide supporting/overlapping position or cover at the back out wide. We’ve seen Wenger make this switch happen with Emmanuel Petit – it’s high time we did it again. After all, with Aubameyang’s signing we are going back to an old Wenger style with a pacy centre-forward – we might as well go the whole hog.

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