Around the time of the 2006-2007 season Arsene Wenger adopted the 4-5-1 formation. The strategic notion was that the midfield was becoming increasingly more instrumental to the fluidity of the game. In Italy, Clarence Seedoft, Andrea Pirlo and Kaka were dictating the game through vision, speed and elegance for AC Milan. By 2008 Barcelona’s Andreas Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets were dominating Europe, with their tikka-taka passing style. Wenger had forecasted the future of the game, and decided to implement his limited resources into utilising the midfield.
However 10 years on, and Wenger is quietly going about changing his entire philosophy again. Wenger, however, does not possess the personnel for this restructuring. He only switched his formation from 4-5-1 to 3-4-3 with 10 games to go in the 2016-2017 season. There are now a plethora of reverberations that Wenger now faces as a result of this decision. In this article we will discuss those repercussions.
This article is not designed to lament Wenger; indeed he has been stubborn in the past, but this progressive tactical concept highlights his inclination to adjust. However, there are many conundrums now present because of this modification.
Wing-Back In The Changing Room
When I played school and Sunday league football as a kid, there was always a funny joke we played on our full-backs, particularly the left back.
Prick: What position do you play mate?
Left Back: Left back
Prick: Left back? Left back in the changing rooms more like, oi oi!
What a cunt. I only have animosity towards this joke, because I played both full back positions. That joke in today’s football, I am happy to report, has less effectiveness.
Like an oscillating pendulum that swings furiously, the same can be said about trends that encompass football. Although I am inclined to believe that football evolves, and adapts to the surge of the modern player’s ability. This is certainly true of the full-back position. The evolution of the full-back has become personification of the modern game; fast, energetic and technical. That position has poignantly been named wing-back.
The resurgence of Tottenham and Juventus can be attributed to their wing-backs that the constant pressure they put on the opposition defensive line. They are constantly pushing the pace of the game, and invigorating their teammates. Kylie Walker and Danny Rose are the engine of a reinvigorated Spurs team, and that is why their value has soared. The same came be said Sandro and Dani Alves at Juventus.
However Arsenal already retains four full-backs who do not possess the same intensity, speed or stamina as these players. What does Arsene Wenger do with Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson? None of these players excel offensively or defensively:
- Hector has blistering raw speed, but lacks the stamina to be a wing-back, and is often found floundering defensively.
- Nacho is tactically a good defender with decent speed and technical ability, however at 31 how much does he have left in the tank? Wenger has already suggested his career now lies in a centre back position.
- Kieran Gibbs also lacks the stamina and defensive awareness to become a quality wing-back. Also has he ever played a full season for Arsenal? Does the signing of Sead Kolasinac intimate a potential exit for Gibbs?
- Carl Jenkinson may not have a future at Arsenal with the shift in tactics. Where does he fit in the modern game (on a competitive team)? I see a future in the Championship awaiting Carl.
The lack of options for Arsenal highlights the impetuosity of the decision to change system. They cannot afford a full rebuild at a stage that dictates retaining their top talent – Ozil and Sanchez – and remaining relevant in the changing landscape of the EPL. So because of this dilemma, they will have to, no pun intended, wing it. But this also brings up another problem Arsenal have: what about their wingers?
We Can’t Forget About The Wingers
It wasn’t long ago that Wenger was applauding his crop of English talent that patrolled the wings for Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott were the future of England and Arsenal. How they mighty have fallen.
Personally I believe that Alex and Danny are vital parts to Arsenal’s ambitions with this formation. Chamberlain proved at the back of end of season how high his work-rate is, and was extremely impressive in the 3-4-3 system. However will he get enough game time? Can Liverpool offer more assurance on his place in their team? Will Wenger try and convert him into another expendable midfielder? I believe Ox has proven his worth to the team and deserves to be the starting wing-back for Arsenal, despite his defensive fragility.
Danny, when full recovered, can be a faster version of Oliver Giroud, and that is a menacing notion. But will he want to be the 3rd option as a striker (behind Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez)? Will he be utilised well in the wing-back position? If Danny accepts playing behind two stars, then success will prevail. But what 26 year old, injury prone striker doesn’t want to lead the line?
Theo is the anomaly in this situation. He lacks the decisiveness of a winger, the clinical ability of a striker and the defensive consciousness of a wing-back. But Wenger’s loyalty to his players is legendary, and may signify his reluctance to sell a redundant player. But I believe it’s mutually beneficial for both parties to part ways now. Theo still has much to offer, just not in this system.
Arsenal’s Carousel of Central Midfielders
Remember how we discussed Wenger’s incredible footballing foresight in late 2006? Well with the changing of circumstances at Arsenal, there may be a surplus of central midfielders at Arsenal. Because now there are two spots in the midfield that require defensive intensity, yet need to be creativity enough to help out the forward three. Also there needs to be reliable cover for both Ozil and Sanchez, who will support the main striker.
So let’s look at the midfield and the problems that may occur with the change of system; at least for this season:
- Aaron Ramsey – I believe is Aaron is the most vital competent within the Arsenal midfield. Not only is he the most effective box-to-box player, he is also the most versatile midfielder Arsenal have at their disposal. If he is healthy, expect Ramsey to start a majority of games, especially in the holding midfield role but also in a more advance role when Ozil or Sanchez are unavailable.
- Granit Xhaha – Improved towards the end of the season, and maybe has finally figured out the pace of the PL. He will partner Ramsey in midfield opening day. His powerful left foot and ability to space the field with tremendous vision will be imperative to Arsenal’s success.
- Santi Cazorla – Injured. Old. Mesmerising. 3 adjectives that describe Santi to perfection. When he is finally back, he will be more than an adequate replacement for Xhaha when he is not available.
- Jack Wilshere – Does he have a future at Arsenal? Has he ever lived up to the hype? Will injury be the foundation of his legacy? I love Jack, and I would never give up on him. But he needs game time and confidence. I don’t believe he will get that Arsenal. He does not fit within a holding role (because of the demand of tackling, and potential injuries that can be generated in that graft), and nor has he shown the playmaking ability, on a consistent basis, to play behind a striker.
- Mohamed Elneny – A solid role player that knows his place at Arsenal. Although I would be inclined to give more chances to young British players like Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Elneny is a very limited player offensively, and apart from his long range shot (which is circumspect) has nothing to offer in that realm.
- Francis Coquelin – Another solid role player that has limited skills in the offensive department. He is a solid defensive player.
So out of those six players, I only named one that could replace Ozil and Sanchez on a rotation bases, and he is a quintessential player in the midfield already. That means Arsenal may need to sign two new young, attacking midfielders to replace Ozil and Sanchez in the rotation. Yay, more midfielders!
I am all for Arsene changing system, and trying to demonstrate his famous progressive disposition. We should applaud Wenger for this decision. But it is not without mild condemnation. This seems like a knee jerk reaction which may hamper the 2017-2018 season. In the long term we may see a brilliant team created by Wenger, however Arsenal face an up-hill-battle to stay relevant and competitive in the EPL. We will see how the season unfolds, but Arsenal fans should not hope for success. Mediocrity may be the most realistic notion this year.