Our final league season at Highbury was special. Not only because it would be our last every league/cup fixture at the majestic old ground but for a more tactical reason. That season also saw us reaching the final of the Champions League. Contrasting that to our fortunes in the domestic league, eventually only sealing 4th place on the final day when our closest rival failed to win their own game.
That season saw Arsene Wenger using two different formations in two different competitions. It may be every single match but the pattern was definitely there to be seen. In some matches, injuries or suspensions did forced his hand into adjusting the side. The Premier League saw the manager retaining his faith in the tried and trusted 4-4-2 while in the Champions League, we saw more of a 4-5-1 formation with Thierry Henry at the pinnacle of things, formation and quality.
I’m not going in depth on how we can improve or what formation is best suited to the our team at the moment or the near future with the inclusion of which new signings. Rather I’m speaking of this in general. For so long Wenger has persevered with the same formation throughout his time with us. From the 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 occasionally to the current 4-3-3 / 4-2-1-3 formations. He has tend to stick with fixed formations and not adjusting it to different teams that we face.
To credit, that has worked for a very long time. Mainly because we had players who knew exactly what to do with and without the ball and also because Wenger’s style was still new to the other teams. However, over the years, other managers has begin to pick up on ways reduce our advantage. In the early years under Wenger, we had a team capable on all fronts. Mentally, physically, skills and quality, we were head and shoulders above every team except for Manchester United. The same cannot be said of the latter years.
Once a formula was found to foil/reduce our advantage, it spread like wild fire. Closing us down, denying us time on the ball and be that extra bit physical bordering on the wrong side of the football law, the hallmarks and ethics of the supposedly weaker teams that have more than held their own against us. That said, in the last 2 seasons especially, we’ve seen signs of opposing teams taking the fight to us. Passing and moving the ball in an almost similar fashion to us and coming out of that game victorious over us. However, more than most, the reason for the latter happening to us is more because of our own team attitude towards that particular game than the formation used.
Now, I’m not saying that Wenger should have a complete overhaul of the team structure and how we play the game. Apart from making sure that there would be no slacking off in any matches, I’m hoping that Wenger considers adjusting his formation/match tactics to opponent specific. Given our style and quality (diminishing as it is), we are still able to steam past a lot of teams. Yet, there are those which we can’t or somehow found a stumbling block in the course of a match.
It won’t be something new though. 2006 wasn’t the last time he changed things around. Wenger did set us up in a very defensive shape when we went to Camp Nou last season. To a degree that worked, only for the referee to handicap us. It showed that Wenger isn’t as stubborn as one thinks, when it comes to formation. It showed that Wenger possess the technical nous and could adjust if required. The only question is why we don’t do it more often when it’s clear for all to see that we’re struggling in a particular game. And no, I’m not just talking about the last 5 minutes when we have like 5 strikers on and throwing the kitchen sink at the opponent.
Our formation is too reliant on key individuals being present in the side. When a key component goes missing, we suffered. Taking the recently concluded season as example, the loss of Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott made a huge difference to our game. Like I said earlier, it’s not about parading different set of formations every time we take to the field. The formation could either be about setting up differently against teams who could potentially hurt us or it could be about covering for the missing individuals either through injury or suspension.
To a certain extent, we saw that in the final game against WBA. Where Francis Coquelin was employed and he shared the defensive midfield role with Alex Song. In previous game two more attacking minded players in Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey were used ahead of Song in the formation. It worked that day and perhaps it should provide as an inspiration to Wenger. It will not be easy though, and it won’t work without training and practice using such formation.
As with everything in life, improvement comes with the right training and practice.