There is no crisis at Arsenal. Having been predicted to drop out of the top four in the summer, there is no question that any rational Arsenal fan, would have grabbed our current league position with two hands, having followed two seasons of toying with Tottenham in fourth place mediocrity. Yet, as fatigue, injuries amongst other things set in; it is our formation that is not bringing the best performances out of the team, not shown by our recent collection of league points this winter.
This defensive formation, while it suited us last year, as it gave Cesc physical support in the midfield to counter the rougher sides, he rarely made the runs he does this year, and Hleb there inhibits the space in which he can operate as does the aggressive Flamini who closes down so early Cesc isn’t in any position to play the pass; the 4-5-1 worked with Gilberto last year, who was passive in his role. Furthermore Rosicky has a tendency to cut in, and while this is typical of a fluid style, it further congests the midfield. Eboue on the opposite flank has shown a lack of spontaneity in his play, consistently looking for the one-two instead of opening his mind into better options. Instead, two strikers pressure the opposition defence to be wary all the time, and give more freedom to the midfield. It also spatially covers the most ground on the pitch, rendering it most effective.
In a 4-4-2 Adebayor can run the channels and pull out wide as his strike partner, normally Van Persie, would stay central or move to the right flank. If one comes short, the other will hang on the shoulder of the last defender in a bid to split the central defensive pairing. Therefore it would make sense in a 4-5-1 that the lone striker stays central, and if not directly involved in the play, can affect the opposition with his mere presence. At Portsmouth, Adebayor pulled wide (in an attempt to allow midfield runners, who surprisingly had poor movement), and on many occasions inadvertently blocked Clichy’s forward run, who then was forced to play it back (similar to this was Eboue running directly ahead of Sagna’s run, making his intentions crystal clear and thus ending the attack). On other occasions, he received the ball short, when pulling away to the far post was the better option. When pulling wide was the correct option, the wrong man made the forward run into space, and this can be put down to pure luck as Fabregas’ touch let him down. We created two chances in the final few minutes with two strikers on the pitch, both of which should have led to goals, but instead led to injury to the captain and then a bewildered look from our Czech playmaker.
At the beginning of the season, Arsenal were frustrated at home by Fulham, until Bendtner came on late in the game, and provided a greater attacking presence, coupled with Van Persie and Hleb, who won the game right at the death. Therefore this is not a criticism of any Arsenal striker but more so of the formation employed by Wenger, a great tactician perhaps slightly flawed by his reluctance to change formation. Our game is based on intuition, fitness and concentration in manipulating the ball, and if influential players are off form, then it reflects on the whole performance, especially in a formation not bringing out the best in the team as a whole. There are many examples of world-class strikers struggling as a lone forward, with Torres in his later years at Atletico, being criticised for his contribution, when his lack of supply formed statistics shaped against his talent. Drogba only blossomed at Chelsea when played with a partner, and with Rooney shown to be lacking in discipline when leading the line alone, this point shows a clear pattern.
Credit must be given to Portsmouth; they gave a master-class into defending against Arsenal. They squeezed the midfield, reducing our fluency, and sat back, when the ball was on the flanks. It would have been a great escape, as Benjani nearly stole a goal, yet fortunately his touch was too heavy past Almunia, allowing the impressive Clichy to clear away. It occurred because Toure abandoned his position and tried to play in midfield and add urgency to our game, but only succeeded in further congesting the area. Furthermore our last two winners in the Premiership have come as a result of poor defending from the opposition. Put Cech’s error down to pure luck (unless it is the beginning of an unthinkable dip in form) and Spurs, well it was bound to happen. Both corners taken by Fabregas were in the area where the keeper normally collects as shown by James on many occasions on Boxing Day, yet inept Spurs’ defending and an uncharacteristic gaffe from a world class keeper allowed us to win both games.
Earlier in the season, Wenger admitted his error in playing the 4-5-1 against Manchester United, yet he continues to adopt this formation. Possession of the ball is vial in Arsenal’s game and the 4-5-1 helps this along with coping with a physical threat, yet it reduces our attacking potential in the final third, although by no means is it a defensive formation. As it reduces attacking options, i.e. bodies (in the optimum position) to pass to, the players have limited options and on many occasions have played the wrong option, or have been unable to execute the correct one (see Adebayor’s attempted slide-rule pass to Toure at Anfield). This compounds frustration in the players. On the other hand, it can highlight the efficiency of some of our play, in taking one chance out of a few, though not at Fratton Park.
The statistics however, do not lie. We have played the 4-5-1 in 15 games of a possible 28 and have scored a disappointingly low 9 goals, with a measly 0.6 goals scored per game. In contrast, we have scored a huge 31 goals in the 13 games that we played 4-4-2. This gives a ratio of 2.38 goals per game.
This includes every fixture we have played this season, and so shows the 4-4-2’s played excluding Van Persie (although he is hugely important in our game, it shows that we have played a 4-4-2 based on the opposition and not entirely on the personnel available) too, a clear example of which is the 7-0 demolition of Slavia Prague, with Adebayor and Walcott, as the forward pairing. As pure statistics, these do not look at injuries or suspensions, form (as clearly the win over Slavia had the whole team on form, while the Middlesbrough game away had a depleted side). Nor do they look at the quality of the opposition.
Therefore, while this is one of many articles on our minute drop in form, all show that a return to 4-4-2 is needed, as are some fresh legs through rotation. Yet with extremely busy period coming up, rest for some of our first team stars looks like a rare prospect. Also, having gained 7 points in our last three games, when two are tough London derbies and the other against a side who have now only let in one goal in their last five premiership home games, we appear to have come through well, without playing too well (the mark of strong team spirit and belief). The comparison to Man Utd is not needed, they are the champions, have spent close to £100 million in the summer, and have potentially the best player in the world in Ronaldo.
We are in the early stages of developing the third generation under Wenger. If we can continue to achieve results as we have done so far and as the players gain even more experience, we can become something special. This is just the beginning. Let us hope the team perform at Everton tomorrow (and hopefully play in a 4-4-2!).
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