In 2003/04, Arsenal won the league without losing a single game all season. This was of course down to a strong defence, only conceding 26 goals all season, but Arsenal were also the highest goal-scorers by a distance, racking up 73. The next season they finished second behind Chelsea but scored a league-high 87 goals. High scoring but conceding very few, the perfect Arsenal side could compete on every blade of grass.
However, the very next season, there was a significant change. After being league high goal-scorers for three consecutive seasons and winning trophies, Arsenal finished fourth in 2005/06. This wasn’t due to the move to the Emirates, or the rise of Chelsea. It was more fundamental. Arsenal switched from a 4-4-2, using Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp up top and wingers cutting inside, to a 4-2-3-1, with Henry up top and a young Cesc Fabregas playing behind him in CAM.
The effect was severe. While the Arsenal style was still evident, with quick passing and a possession heavy system, Henry was the only player sticking it in the back of the net. Luckily, Henry happened to be one the best strikers to grace world football, but it was clear that the emphasis of the team had shifted to midfield dominance.
This change was due to the decline of players such as Bergkamp and Patrick Viera, and the emergence of the exquisite Fabregas, but one major regret of Arsenals could be that as the irreplaceable invincible players got older, the entire system changed. Take Bergkamp. In 2004/05 he made 29 appearances and contributed to 20 goals, either assists or scoring himself. Compare that to one season later, in 2005/06 where he made 24 appearances and contributed to three goals.
Yes he got a year older, and yes a number of those appearances were as a substitute, but this is Bergkamp we are talking about. The problem was that in the earlier system he was a second striker, playing to the right of Henry and getting forwards to score. The wingers started deep then drifted in as the attack neared the opposition goal. Contrast that to the later system, where he played in the CAM role, unable to get forwards and contribute around the box, where he is so deadly. In a 4-2-3-1 the wingers stay up in the opposition half and act as permanent attackers.
Long story short, the switch from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 seriously hampered Arsenal. Goals were less free-flowing, and with the wingers so far up the pitch, the defence got nowhere near enough support to make up for it. In that 2005/06 season, they scored only 68 goals. A pitiful contribution considering the fearsome Arsenal attack of old.
Two up Top
In 2013/14 Man City won the league, scoring 102 goals, beating Liverpool who scored 101. City played a regimented 4-4-2 that year, with Aguero joined by either Negredo or Dzeko. Liverpool played a mess of a system, but it worked, and the SAS were deadly. There is a reason 4-4-2 was the dominant formation for so many years because it works. Two strikers are better than one, the wingers help the full backs and the midfield doesn’t stop running for 90 minutes. Leicester’s title winning season in a nutshell.
But maybe 3-4-2-1 could be the answer. We put four past Leicester on Friday, with Giroud, Welbeck and Lacazette scoring. While the team-sheet shows two CAMs and one striker, having two out and out forwards on the pitch at the same time simply will cause the opposition defenders problems. Not every game will be as ridiculous as Friday, but the boys in red had 27 shots, while averaging only 14 shots per game last season.
So the attack should be stronger, the midfield is solid, and when the first-choice centre backs are back in business, this could be an exciting season for Arsenal.