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One of the most pleasant ways to end a season as a football fan is for your team to do so with silverware.  It is usually just reward for a year of faithful devotion, often at some cost physically and financially.  This year, Arsenal fans experienced emotions which last occurred in 2005.  Doubtless, this will wet the appetite of players and fans alike and will impact on the preparations for the new season even as the previous one has barely ended.

Before indulging in the favourite close season pastime of analyzing a player “shopping list” about the comings and goings of players, it seems absolutely important that the actual, on field, playing strategy should receive some mention.  This could be important as it should have some bearing on player acquisition.

Arsenal plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, much admired and adopted by many leading teams in the world.  This is the formation that Arsene Wenger has settled on and the team is generally set out that way. But football continues to evolve and it is common knowledge that predictability curtails flexibility and leads to expected outcomes.  A team list that is capable of common predictability is a source of concern as opponents can make arrangements aimed at frustrating play.  Presently, with everyone available, the team literarily picks itself in virtually all positions.  With better players in one or two positions, it would be easier to make firm selection decisions with confidence.  For instance, playing two defensive minded Central Midfielders would not generally be necessary if Arsenal had one world class Defensive Midfielder.  This, effectively is sacrificing one place in the team and is a bonus to the other team. 

Also the ability to switch formations before or within the game depends on players’ adaptability and also having the playing resources to do so.  The switch, mid-game, to 4-4-2 for the Cup Final, a formation that Arsenal has not played for years, demonstrates the availability of Option B.  This is crucial especially when things are not going according to plan.  4-4-2 should not be an Option B but even an occasional main option.  For an astute illustration, Athletico Madrid represents a genuine example.  Athletico Madrid’s success has been built on 4-4-2.  A truly exceptional analysis of this outcome appears in spielverlagerung.com when it states

“…The 4-4-2 hasn’t really gone out of fashion in recent years, but it has been the recipient of repeated criticism. It’s inflexible on offense, the ten space is abandoned, it is easy to isolate on the wings, and a “beautiful game” is thus hardly even possible; for the Englishmen the 4-4-2 is regarded almost as a metaphor for the many failures of the national team in recent years. As a defensive formation, however, the standard 4-4-2 is still used by the majority of teams.

 

Athletico Madrid, on the other hand, is one of the few teams that use the 4-4-2 on both offense and defense. And, in contrast to the English or the classical implementation, it works. What sets apart their implementation is that they neutralize the inherent disadvantages of the 4-4-2 with small but important adjustments.

What is outstanding from a strategic/tactical point of view is the fundamental influence on the center, especially in the ten and eight spaces, which are usually seen as the most important strategic areas in football. In a basic, static 4-4-2, these spaces are abandoned and Athletico keeps with the tradition of abandoning the ten spaces; however, they play more of a 4-2-2-2 where the wingers increasingly move into and align their position with the half spaces.

Manchester City, for long periods of the season, played 4-4-2, pairing Aguero with Negredo or Dzeko as Pellegrini considered appropriate.  Their goal return was enormous as they put away teams with the kind of abandon, swagger and alacrity that became a cause for concern for many teams.  This was how Arsenal ended on the wrong end of a 6-3 defeat, amongst others.  City was forced to review this with the repeated absences of Aguero by injury but by this time, they had done the kind of damage that saw them just edge ahead of Liverpool to win this year’s championship.  Was this effective?  The answer must be yes as they scored 102 goals showing that it was effective going forward and defensively, they finished with a goal difference of 65, having let in only 37 goals in 38 games.

Alternatively, Arsenal could do no worse than consider the 4-3-3 formation so devastatingly utilized by Real Madrid and, domestically, Liverpool.  At the beginning of the Spanish season, Ancelotti, himself starting the season having arrived from PSG, tried first the Christmas tree and then 4-4-2.  Both almost failed completely.  In two games against Rayo Vallacano and Sevilla, Madrid were 3-0 up but defensive frailties largely caused by the formation they played let the teams back in.  Bale had arrived and as soon as he started to make a contribution to the team, Ancelotti switched to 4-3-3 with Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale as the front three.  Real Madrid did not win La Liga but came very close; have won the Copa Del Rey and qualified for the Champion League finals.  Ronaldo has scored 31 goals in the league and 16 in the Champions League.  Bale 20 in 42 games and Benzema 26 goals.  Brendan Rodgers almost pulled off an incredible feat.  Having successful seen of Arsenal in its attempt to lure Luiz Suarez to North London, he had to wait until game 6 in the league before pairing a front three that he had been seeking to unleash on the rest of the premiership this term.  Tagged by the media as the SSS, Suarez, the front three of Sturridge and Sterling was the reason why Liverpool produced 101 goals, just 1 short of the eventual champions tally and finishing just 2 points behind them.  It was an incredible feat for a team that had finished the previous season in 7th place.  

For Arsenal, producing a front 3 operating with blistering pace, this would have to comprise a forward line with Walcott and Ox Chamberlain on the wings with a pacy striker which Arsenal now do not have.  With the acquisition of that kind of forward, Arsenal can seamlessly switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, depending on the opponent and the circumstances.  Developing this kind of flexibility is critical to the kind of continuing success that the Arsenal faithful have now come to expect.  It is no less than the players, staff and long suffering supporters deserve.

ANDREW ONYEARU

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