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Should Arsenal switch to 4-4-2?

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Written by Kush Sharma

Besides the divided opinion on which Arsenal player smashed the pizza in Sir Alex Ferguson’s face on a certain controversial day at Old Trafford in the 2004-2005 season, another debate that causes a bifurcation of a similar degree among the Arsenal faithfuls is that of the formation that would suit their team the best.

Having made the switch to a more offensive 4-3-3 formation last season, Arsene Wenger has received both praise and flak from fans and pundits alike. And not surprisingly, as the side from North London looks to end a 5 year trophy drought this time round, the issue regarding the optimum formation has emerged again.

While a set of fans want the 4-4-2 reinstated with the view of diminishing defensive frailties, others prefer the current formation, as it facilitates expansive football.

The 4-3-3 formation allowed for more free flowing football that suited the style Arsenal are associated with and gave more freedom to their key player, playmaker and captain Cesc Fabregas . It also allowed for more width in the final third and hence Arsenal could press their authority right from the start.

And since the responsibility of building an attack is shared with the two strikers on the wings, it allows Cesc to play a more penetrating and attacking role, which was quite evident last season as he emerged top scorer for the club.

However, downside to this was lack of a semi-defensive minded strong midfielder who along with Alex Song could cover Cesc. Denilson and Abou Diaby proved to be too attack minded for this role and though the latter possesses the physical attributes required, the defensive mindset was lacking. Hence , against the big sides , a well thought out variation of this formation in the form of 4-2-3-1 never sustained and more often transformed  to an almost 4-1-4-1 like suicidal formation, leaving the defense vulnerable to counter attacks as seen in more games than one.

Another trouble with the formation is that Arsenal lack world class wingers like Arjen Robben who have the pace and trickery to beat the fullbacks and create major threat from the sides. Theo Walcott , Samir Nasri ,Tomas Rosicky ,Nicklas Bendtner , Emmanuel Eboue , Andrei Arshavin all were allocated this responsibility at some point or the other, but none seemed equal to the task. Arshavin on the left has probably been the most effective and looks set to play a similar role if Arsene Wenger sticks to the current formation.

Many are of the view that a 4-4-2 would suit the central nature of Arsenal midfielders more and this would make up for the lack of world class attacking wingers. Instead , Arsenal would be playing to their strengths by focusing the play development from the centre as was done repeatedly even with the 4-3-3 and it is overuse of this tendency that forms the basis of the general criticism of “trying to please the eye a tad too much “ that Arsenal face.

Another factor that played a major part in Arsenal being unable to utilize the potential of the 4-3-3 was injury to Robin Van Persie. The formation requires the lone central striker to be top drawer, and top drawer he certainly was. Some believe his injury to be the point that caused Arsenal’s downfall last season, as the half baked experiment to employ Arshavin in that role did not bear fruit. Nicklas Bendtner did leave a mark towards the finish but is still far from being a finished product.

In many a game last season, Arsenal’s defensive flanks were left completely exposed as there was no protection offered to the extreme fullbacks. Many believe that with a 4-4-2, the wingers / midfielders would be able to protect the fullbacks more often and that this would be more effective than marking the opposition’s fullbacks as is required to be done by the strikers in a 4-3-3 formation.

Perhaps the biggest question that has left many scratching their heads is that of envisaging Marouane Chamakh’s position in the team in a 4-3-3 when Robin Van Persie returns. It is hard to imagine that the Moroccan striker, having “Played and scored in Champions league” on his curriculum vitae, has been called to warm the bench and equally hard to imagine him replacing Robin Van Persie in the central role.

So, if Wenger was to keep faith in 4-3-3, whom would he play out wide? Considering Chamakh’s aerial prowess, you would have to put your money on Van Persie playing that role on the right as he has done for Holland a couple of times. This would also allow him to cut in and use his preferred foot to take shots, in a way Robben does so effectively.

If a 4-4-2 is chosen, it would be tough to contemplate their exact roles as Chamakh’s versatility is yet to be seen. Robin being given Dennis Bergkamp’s role with Chamakh deep in the box in a 4-4-1-1 formation is a possibility.

Wenger adopting a Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea like diamond midfield in 4-4-2 / 4-1-2-1-2 seems unlikely as the extreme fullbacks , especially Bacary Sagna on the right ,are not the most threatening attacking wise and burdening  them with providing width frequently  along with the wingers , in the form of putting in threatening crosses and beating defenders seems too much.

A possible balance can be the 4-2-2-1-1 formation which will require the extreme mid-fielders the freedom to attack from the wings, play a central role as well as cater to the defensive needs –

GK

Sagna      Koscielny      Vermaelen     Clichy

Song

Fabregas

Nasri /Walcott/Rosicky/Denilson/Diaby/Wilshere                   Arshavin

Van Persie

Chamakh

This would obviously require the extreme midfielders /wingers to work very hard and be flexible as and when required. More discipline and focus would be required between Song and a midfielder to cover Fabregas than in a typical 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3.

Well, if the Pre-season is anything to go by, the prospect of Arsene Wenger drifting away from the current 4-3-3 seems unlikely. Will it work? Will the addition of Chamakh finally be the key to this system working for Arsenal or would Wenger make defense a priority and reinstate what was once the most popular formation in the world of football?

We should find out soon enough.

What is your view? Do you think Arsenal should switch to the 4-4-2 formation? Or is there any other system that in your opinion might suit the team the best?

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