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Which Is The More Formidable Formation? Thoughts on 4-4-2 and 4-3-3

The final day of the season nears and amidst Yann M’Vila’s on now and off again transfer to the Gunners, most thoughts are turning to the crucial West Brom game.

Arsenalsphere is full of suggestions that we should treat the game like a cup final. I have to disagree – first because there’s no cup at the end of it and second because it usually means an end-to-end game with both teams going gung-ho in pursuit of glory – isn’t that what we did against Norwich?

In my humble opinion, the match should be approached as a league outing that we should win, at the worst of times. I think the right way to achieve that would be to get the players into a calmer, more focused frame of mind – and not making them nervous by overstating the need to get a result. The more the expectation, the more nervous energy we display and this leads to a lack of discipline with too many players looking to make a difference in attack rather than maintain shape and allow each player to do their job.

Talking of shape, it’s the current rage isn’t it? I wrote a piece yesterday, prematurely maybe, on how Arsenal might line up with M’Vila’s arrival. Dave Seager believes the shape needs changing at West Brom itself and he makes some compelling arguments for the 4-4-2 formation in his piece yesterday.

I agree with him that tactics need changing based on opposition. So does Arsene Wenger – although our manager believes it’s the opposition that need to do the changing. While there’s frustration among us fans when we sometimes fail to match up tactically with our opponents, one has to admire the sheer proactivity of Arsene’s philosophy – he would rather enforce our style on the game and not react to someone else’s.

I do have a few thoughts though on the 4-4-2 as compared to the 4-3-3 or 4-2-1-3 we play now.

Formation and personnel go hand in hand. For e.g. you can’t play a Barca style 3-4-3 unless you have players who can press hard and win the ball back quickly. I will address this later in the article.

Firstly, the basic trade-off between the two systems is an extra man up front versus an extra man in midfield.

Secondly, I don’t see the two wingers (say Walcott and Ox/Gervinho) doing anything drastically different in attack  in either systems. The only thing it would probably do is to force them wider in a 4-4-2, with two strikers in the middle and an attacking midfielder in support making the central area very congested.

While this has the advantage of stretching play and having an extra body in the box to aim crosses at, it would curtail the forward overlapping movement of the full backs (Gibbs and Coquelin). They would be forced to play a little deeper with the wingers operating in the space they normally run into during attacking phases.

If anything, I believe the 4-4-2 formation would help our defensive game with the full backs not getting caught up field as much. On the other hand, we rely heavily on their attacking contribution especially from the right where Bacary Sagna always figures heavily going forward – Coquelin continued that tradition when coming on against Norwich.

The area of greatest concern though is the central attacking midfield (CAM) role. With 2 strikers up front, 2 wingers staying wide and 1 sitting holding player, the entire burden of controlling possession and making forward play falls onto the shoulders of the creative midfielder – hence the term playmaker. Yes, the two central midfielders can interchange in attack and defense but still, one of them has to maintain a deeper position to break up opposition attacks when we lose the ball.

If the opposing team presses well, we could end up losing the ball often. Our entire game is based on retaining the ball and this is borne out by possession stats which nearly always favour us – the Liverpool result at Anfield is a rare case where we had less possession but still managed to win the game.

If this happens, the result would be that one of the strikers would instinctively drop deeper to receive the ball and help out the CAM, which then means you’re back to playing with one striker up top.

Of course, that’s not to say 4-4-2 does not work. In fact, Arsene himself has used it successfully in the past. But there is a good reason teams who like to dictate play are moving away from it – precisely because they are unable to dictate play with the loss of numbers in midfield to retain the ball especially as pressing has now become an important ingredient in the modern game.

The personnel at your disposal also make a huge difference to your preferred formation. If you have a Cesc Fabregas in your team, the system has more chance of being effective. I just can’t see Tomas Rosicky retaining the ball, channelling possession, switching play and threading passes to the strikers – it’s not his game. The Czech likes to dribble and go past people and that means he will always risking losing the ball and needs the protection of two midfielders mopping up behind him.

In fact, if there’s anybody in the Arsenal team who’s most suited to play the CAM position effectively in a 4-4-2, it’s Aaron Ramsey – hence Arsene Wenger’s high regard for him. But form is not on his side and it might be suicidal to throw him in at the deep end in such a crucial game – especially as his defensive capabilities are far from the best.

In summary, I think the 4-4-2 is effective in certain phases of the game where an extra striker up front and a more direct approach is called for. Even though you risk losing the ball, there are certain situations where you have to take that chance – like when you’re losing 2-1 in a must-win game at home against the 14th placed team in the league table.

Also, it’s interesting to note that our concession of Norwich’s third goal came when we were typically set up in 4-4-2. Of course, there was a catalogue of mistakes all over the pitch that heavily contributed to the goal.

But the fact is that we did have two strikers up top in that phase. And when the ball came to Alex Song in the 85th minute, he had one less body in midfield to pick out, leading to his adventurous ball to Chamakh which eventually led to the visitor’s equalizer. Not making any excuses here, because I feel Song could have dealt calmly with it, but it does highlight the perils of playing 4-4-2 at all times.

And in a game of ‘cup final’ proportions, I just don’t see Arsene Wenger moving away from the 4-3-3.

Back tomorrow with more thoughts.

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8 thoughts on “Which Is The More Formidable Formation? Thoughts on 4-4-2 and 4-3-3

  1. Bradster on said:

    I think RVP has more space with an auxilary striker but i agree it also leads to gaps in the midfield. If Wenger goes with the usual set up of 4-2-3-1 set up, could he not rather play Coquelin next to Song and have Jenky right? I have confidence in Jenky and Coquelin to the business required.

  2. Swikrath on said:

    Spot on with the analysis.Couldn’t agree with you more.Fans just assume we have more chances of scoring if we play two up front which as you have pointed is not true.
    One more thing regarding the personnel, when Arsene did play a 4 4 2 back in the days, we had two box to box type midfielders and the wingers like Pires and Ljungberg provided creativity but now in Theo and Gervinho we have players who are faster and more direct. And if you look at the recent acquistions( Ox) and upcoming players like Ryo i just don’t see us going towards a 4 4 2. All i can see is a 4 1 2 3 or a 4 2 1 3

  3. I actually think Jenks has done quite well whenever he’s been called upon, Swikrath so he may be alright at right back. I absolutely love Coquelin – the Ox and Miyaichi and Wilshere hog the headlines but this French boy is special. I would go with you Bradster, although I still feel AW will start Ramsey next to Song :)

    • The french guy is thats why I think Wenger ll play him out of his position at RB tomorrow. Jenkinson’s been good but has zero game time this year. I don’t see him start such an important game

  4. henrychan - indonesia on said:

    I think we must play 4-5-1 formula.. We need 3 AM and 2 DM..
    We have a very high qualified striker.. RVP..
    For Defender Midfielder we have Song and Arteta..
    M’Villa will be a very good added

    We just need more Attacking Midfielder.. And Rosicky can’t do it alone..
    And Ramsey.. sorry to say.. very unqualified..
    AOC is much better than Ramsey..
    Dempsey, Belhanda or Sneijder is a solid AM.. We must bring them in..
    And if Willshere is back that will be perfect..

    If we have a solid midfielder than Vermaelen or Koscielny can cosentrate in their job, Defender.. not attacker..
    How many time we lost or draw just because no one do the job defend..??
    With 3 Attacking midfielder, and RVP for striker.
    Arsenal will surely win EPL and UCL next season..

  5. Chester Sino on said:

    nice piece. Keep it coming Sir.

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