Recently, after the defeats against Norwich and Shalke, the 4-4-2 debate has come up again. Fuelled also, in part, by Theo’s contract situation and his desire to play up front. With the team hardly perfect, it makes sense to question our tactics and think up solutions to our problems. But I wonder if it really is as simple as changing our 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2. Would it really make a difference? I decided to analyze some of the discussion and see what formations, or changes in formation, would really mean for AFC.
Well, first, do formations really matter? In 2008, Fabio Capello said of formations, “these figures are stupid. In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1.” Well, I guess that answers our question.
Capello was obviously simplifying things a bit, but made a very good point. The game is moving more and more towards universality on the pitch, which means everyone defends and attacks as a unit. Everyone, except maybe the striker, tracks back and defends. When Arsenal lose the ball, you see immediately players get into shape to press the ball, and that starts with Giroud and Cazorla up front. And when the pressing fails, everyone, except perhaps Giroud, is asked to track back and get into a solid defensive shape.
And in attack, the focus is not on staying in straight lines, but rather disrupting them, switching positions, making diagonal runs – keeping a shape in attack becomes counterproductive. It is all about fluidity. Just a few days ago, Wenger said “In our team, we have freedom of movement, nobody is handcuffed. When we have the ball, we have a lot of freedom to move.”
But despite the fluidity of today’s attacks, surely there’s a difference between playing two strikers and just one up top? There are differences, but they are more subtle than that, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other.
“Formations are neutral; it’s their employment that gives them positive or negative characteristics,” says Jonathan Wilson. So a 4-4-2 isn’t any more attacking than a 4-5-1. It depends more on the personnel deployed (is Santos playing on the left win or Gervinho?), and obviously on how much freedom is given to the players to get forward and break the lines. If we are playing a difficult away fixture, perhaps Wilshere would be asked to curb his forward runs and sit next to Arteta to protect the back four. At a home game against a parked bus, he would be given more freedom to get forward and join in the attack. It is subtleties like this which would make a formation more positive or negative. Despite the extra striker, we have seen many examples of an opponent playing 4-4-2 only to sit back and defend against our 4-5-1, as we relentlessly throw men forward.
There are other differences in style and strengths, but in the end the differences aren’t big enough to suggest a drastic change in a team’s fortunes. A 4-5-1 is implicit in a 4-4-2. Drop the second striker a bit deeper into midfield and the change is complete. In fact, we’ve seen us defend in a 4-4-2 shape, with Cazorla up front with the striker ahead of two banks of four.
But from our rigid starting shape, things get muddled as we move forward in possession. Last season, Rosicky spoke of his no.10 role, saying “I start close to van Persie up front, and after that I come a bit deeper to stretch the pitch out.” So a 4-4-2 morphing into a 4-5-1? Perhaps it’s a matter of who plays that role. Bergkamp, naturally a forward, was more likely to stay higher up, closer to the forward, letting the midfield supply him with balls. On the other hand, a midfielder playing in that role might want to move deeper in search of possession.
Or maybe our second strikers are now midfielders because we tend to play strikers on the wings. Last season Gervinho and Walcott flanked van Persie in what Wenger called a “three striker formation.” Even this season we have played at least one of Podolski and Walcott on the flanks. They are direct runners, finishers, instead of creators the way Hleb and Rosicky were.
In our fluid attacking shape, perhaps it doesn’t matter too much what starting position the players are assigned, but maybe it can have some effect on how well a player plays, and how much the team benefits from his qualities. Again, commenting on Walcott, Wenger said that the wing position is changing and that you have to defend a lot more from the wings. That obviously takes away from Walcott’s strength, which is in playing off the shoulder of the defence and making runs in behind. He is a mediocre passer but a composed finisher, so no use playing him far away from goal. The closer he is to goal the likelier he is to get a chance to use his strengths. You could say the same about Podolski – a player described as the most lethal finisher ever by Steve Bould shouldn’t be on the wing, should he?
But in the end, perhaps Wenger has decided the “balance” that Podolski offers on the left is needed more than his finishing up front (and in a fluid system he can get chances there anyway). And Maybe Walcott is better off making diagonal runs from the right until his back-to-goal play (i.e. ball retention) improves.
I feel Wenger picks the system to fit the players rather than the players to fit the system. It is not about 4-4-2s or 4-5-1s or 3-5-2s, not about “stupid figures,” but rather about players’ strengths and weaknesses and how they can fit together cohesively in a team. So perhaps the discussion shouldn’t be about the superficial numbers but rather about what roles our players should play, or maybe more subtle changes to our style, our positioning, which could get the best out of our team.