Is Arsenal’s 4-3-3 A Flop?

I am not a big fan of formations in football. That is not because I am some genius who can think beyond the best managers and their formations but more down to the fact that I am a commoner and can’t really see much sense in a formation when most of the players are free to roam wherever they please.

My rudimentary understanding of a formation is that it’s something we see when a team doesn’t have the ball. When a team is in possession players move around, the full-backs push forward and depending on the team’s intentions and talents we see different attacking shapes which are quite different to their supposed formation.

On the other hand, once the ball is lost teams form their lines to defend. Here is where the formation comes in handy. It earmarks the positions and areas that players have to defend depending on how the opposition moves the ball.

In this light let’s discuss Arsenal’s supposedly new 4-3-3 system. Firstly, it’s not new. As Wenger and some of the players have told us, we tried this formation towards the end of last season including the Champions League semi-finals.

Given our improvements this season, especially if we leave out the events of the last few days, many would consider this formation change to be a success. We have scored 60 goals and are just one good performance away from being right in the title challenge. I can’t deny any of our improvements, in fact I am delighted by them. I feel we have done well against a number of teams and in spite of our injuries we continue to challenge at the top.

So what’s this talk about the change being a flop. Leaving aside our general progress let’s focus on some specific games. Starting with the Champions League and FA Cup semi-finals last year we have played Manchester United and Chelsea six times. All have been losses, some really humiliating ones. These are the results that led me to question the merits of this formation. (I am leaving out the draw at Old Trafford as I am not sure we played with this formation in that game)

These results are not an isolated data point that can be ignored. They form a significant and worrisome trend, one that can affect our title chances in the future. I guess it makes sense to analyze the merits and demerits of this formation.

The reason why this formation works against smaller teams is that it plays to our strengths. We get a chance to free Cesc and have more creative players in the final third. We also have more players getting in behind the opposition and the fluid movement of the front three and our attacking midfielders pulls teams apart. On good days, we also tend to make good use of the width offered by our full-backs and the wide players.

As the teams are forced back, our center backs have a relatively easy task of marking a lone striker. Overall there are quite a few problems with our defense, as I had mentioned in yesterday’s post, so even in good games we tend to concede a goal or two but in most cases we manage to out score the opposition.

Now let’s compare this with the games in which we have serious problems. Apart from our problems against the title rivals, we have faced serious challenge from the likes of Fulham, Aston Villa and Manchester City. Challenge not in terms of our league position but in terms of a fight for a result in the game.

Is it a co-incidence that most of these teams have attacked us through the wide channels? To me our struggles are down to the fact that this formation leaves our wings exposed and teams with quality in those areas find a way to trouble us.

Is it a co-incidence that we look really vulnerable on counter attacks and look like conceding every time? Chelsea, United and Citeh got results against us because they had top quality finishers in their team. Fulham and Villa challenged us but couldn’t quite apply the finishing touch.

I don’t blame our full backs or central defenders for this problem. In the modern game almost every team provides some midfield support to the defenders. Unfortunately, with our formation and given our personnel, we aren’t always fully equipped to do that.

If we look at the last game against United, the visitors had three central midfielders each of whom was physically and technically capable of playing as a DM. Park on the left wing is also a disciplined, hard working and tough tackling winger. Chelsea played the likes of Essien, Obi Mikel and Ballack in midfield.

On the other hand we play with the likes of Nasri, Rosicky, Cesc and Denilson. While the first three are extremely skillful and technical players, are their defensive abilities and discipline even remotely close to that of the opposition players? I won’t waste time and space talking about Denilson.

So, we have a fluid attacking formation that works against smaller teams but always leaves the back door open. This back door has been exploited time and again by our title rivals and makes me feel really vulnerable against any team that has clinical finishers and top quality defensive midfielders.

The way I see it, we can win games against most of the smaller teams with any formation but we cannot possibly do much worse against our immediate rivals than what we are doing with the present system.

Unless Arsene finds a way to plug these holes, we will continue to struggle against the bigger teams. A tactical change in formation and/or really hard defensive training might be the solution.

31 Responses to Is Arsenal’s 4-3-3 A Flop?

  1. BOOZY says:

    I love the 4-3-3, it really brings the best out of fabregas, and it allows our winger more shot at goal, and it has also taken us to our position at the table.
    Wenger has been humble for once to admit, he copied the barca style, but it worked wonders when we had a recognized striker in RVP. but now the midfielder have to do both the creating and the scoring.
    we need bendtner back to full fitness, even if he is not the answer, but he’ll do just fine.

    on the other hand 4-4-2 is more like the arsenal. but you’ll need a very strong central midfield to play it( viera /petit). teams like chelsea can afford to play 4-4-2 easily but not us we just dont have the players ready for that yet.

  2. george says:

    this is george the g man we changed our formation when we were strong always at 442 just had wrong mentality and aproach and not as strong squad (after invincibles).now we have been playing stupid 451 s which ruins all end of last season cup chances any one can see if they look at it and consider it ,against weak clubs maybe but any half decent ones no ,since these messed up formations every week week out we look vulnerable and we never did with 442 we were only caught by one goal if ever did we lose and they would just sitback and try to defend and as i said due mentality inexperience and aproach and squad we sometimes could not break them down but now we know what to do and with 442 we will domininate if we see 442 you will see ,and so after this ludicrus 451 we went too another experiment 433 much better and effective anything better than that 451 but i still saw the vulnerability in it even in the everton game and all of them i s have been screaming this since i saw us with that joke 451 and have still to this day just not as much with the 433 as i thought maybe since we looked good and won even though looking vulnerable but now my fears are more clear if not certain ,dont get me wrong i think we could pull it off with any formation if anyone can its arsenal .we never looked vulnerable or like conceding with 442 and now we do since these crazy formations in my opinion we were surgicaly dismatled by man city because of this as with these two formations is no balance 433 weakness in defence leads to weakness in attack and 451 vice versa to me this is clear to see as i am a great very talanted footballer and have experince in formations so with this 433 we our very defensively weak especialy on the break with the 442 we will have harmony invinceable defence midfield and attack surely some one must agree does anyone agree,only with strong tall and creative engine players in midfield wud we pull it off barca pull it off but this is in the spanish league which is nothing compared to the premiership eccept barca ,real and they have messi who in there games comes back to win the ball and is always back until they have the ball and then he gets forward

  3. Nischit says:

    Ever since RVP got injured, I’d say that the formation isnt working. Our lone striker( arsh, eduardo, etc) just haven’t been able to hold up the ball. Bendtner, just coming back from injury, while offering a physical presence, doesn’t have the touch or vision required to play there imo. I was thinking during the Man Utd game whether its time arsenal went back to the 4-4-2 with cesc dropping a lil deeper and effecting play more. While he’s been scoring goals and carrying the team, i think the overall play of the team has suffered. Denilson has been awful since returning from injury. Nasri has only shown sparks of what he can do. Arshavin seems to be running on reserve. Injuries have taken their toll this season, and the players returning from injury seem to take forever to settle. Arsene Wenger must be tearing his hair out after the perfomance against man utd. I am.

    • desigunner says:

      I guess all of us are. Maybe I should put some of those hair treatment ads on this blog, eh! 😛

      Jokes aside, I fully agree with you on the players returning from injury part. Everyone seems to be on the edge and I skip a beat every time one of our player goes down.

  4. george says:

    ive been screaming this point for like 2 seasons now finally someone sees good post desi

  5. george says:

    best post ive seen in like 2 seasons i cant believe u are the only person who sees this and has bloged this 2

    • GoonerVance says:

      For 2 season? We’ve barely played in the 4-3-3 for 1 season.

      Without a solid lone striker, too many players move up the field to attack and leave us exposed. Without RVP we can’t keep playing the 4-3-3

  6. Jack Staniforth says:

    All formations are only as good as the players avilable. If we have the right combination and the right talent most formations will work. Trouble is we havn`t found the combinations for what ever reason.

  7. 0.9 Calibre says:

    @ George: Great point about the 433 looking like a 451 for us right now.

    This ofcourse brings me and desi back to the banter we had about the big man theory in the last post.. Actually, we do maintain the formation or more specifically the attacking shape when we play.. its just that our personnel interchange positions seamlessly giving us an illusion as though there is no definite shape.. We have the players to play this 433 formation.. we also have the movement, infact when barca had achieved so much with the 433 it was only a question as to when the other “passing giant” in Europe would adopt it and rightly so the Boss has done it this season (Arsenal’s formation was a great topic to talk about in an undergrad mess!).. but PRESENTLY there is a big hole, actually 3 holes.. 1) As Nischit pointed out we have lost that physical presence upfront when RVP was kicked out of the season, and this shines light on George’s point as to why the 433 became 451 (sometimes 460).. Against tight defenses the 2 creative forwards on the flanks are stifled and when they are rendered useless upfront they automatically switch to a “safe” mode, as in drop deep and start creating rather than move past defenses.. Barca have Ibrahimovic upfront to hold the ball, sadly we dont have RVP now.. 2&3) When there is no tall guy upfront then there is no point for our fullbacks to put in the crosses.. They move upfront to deliver their crosses which are not effective and don’t get enough time to get back and we are caught on the counter.. Arsene addressed this problem by starting 2 Defensive midfielders in Song and Denilson, but as we know denilson hasnt done his job well recently and we have been bombarded with successful counter attacks… and even with RVP upfront the crosses from our fullbacks aren’t that great.. its frustrating to see Sagna crossing almost mechanically with no real edge.. Barca’s Alves puts in phenomenal crosses.. am not asking Sagna to be like Alves as Sagna is more defensive, all am asking is to improve his crossing technique.. thats all..

    For an attacking team like Arsenal 433 is a good option but there are holes to be plugged and soon..

  8. george says:

    451 and 433 are both bad we need 442 desi s the only person in the world to see this whats going on ,read my long post

  9. Nischit says:

    lol. Anyone else read evra’s comments? almost makes it all worth it.

    • desigunner says:

      Sorry I missed those, what did he say?

      • Nischit says:

        “When we won the Premier League for the third time in-a-row last season, in France they just said, ‘Manchester United are champions again.

        And then Arsenal won a Carling Cup tie and you hear that it’s the most beautiful football in the world, and that they’re fantastic and that winds you up after a while. What have they won in the last four years? Nothing.

        [But] I don’t think you can rule Arsenal out of the title race. They bounced back before and maybe they can do it again. ”

        Atleast the people in france seem to appreciate what Arsene Wenger is doing. Well i know he is french, and Arsenal is almost like a french club based in london, but its good to be appreciated and to see Evra so obviously jealous. 😀

      • desigunner says:

        lol, that’s brilliant. Now I understand why he seems so bitter.

  10. I play 4-3-3 in fifa. i like tottenham and david bentley’s new haircut.

  11. gooner61 says:

    yes 433 is a flop,not gona go into why as you guys have pretty much covered that, all i will say is wenger should have got a striker and a def mid in the transfer window but as per normal he turns a blind eye to it and relys on players that quite frankly shouldnt be wearing an arsenal shirt

  12. keith says:

    Why not play the Verminator as holding midfield against the chavs team i want to see

    Sagna Campbell Gallas Clichy
    Nasri Cesc Veminator Diaby
    Bentener Arshavin

  13. Jonny says:

    its a god post and some valid points but the bigger issues for me are confidence (throughout the team) and confidence in certain individuals (clichy, almunia, denilson, nasri and arshavin all seem to have confidence issues).

    As ever, one good team performance can turn this round but everyone needs to focus on their individual jobs and Wenger needs to drill this into them.

    It must be very difficult when the line-up of the team keeps changing and the argument for changing formation is a reasonable one given that the team has been so fluid in it’s line-up.

    Nonetheless a big performance/result could turn our season which is why this Sunday is so important. It’s a marker of intent and a chance for the boys to ease their stung pride – whatever the formation they have to play without inhibitions, with passion and belief – otherwise there is nothing to play for.

    • desigunner says:

      Agree with you on the confidence issue, not sure why though. If we can’t be confident on the back of a 10 game unbeaten run then when can we be confident.

  14. nikkogunners says:

    MY best side:

    Sagna, Campbell, Gallas, Troare/Eboue
    Song Vermelen
    Rosicky Fabregas Asharvin

    subs: Walcott, Ramsey, Nasri

    There is need to ensure that players who underperform know that they can be dropped. I think this formation can surprise Chelsea and surprise us too. I suspect Song-Vermalen DM role will be like Gilberto-Viera in comparison.

  15. oz_gooner says:

    I recall the game we beat man u at the emirates last year 2-1

    we used this formation..

    4 2 3 1 and Bentdner was the lone striker up front..
    it worked wondefully well..

  16. oz_gooner says:

    sagna gallas silvestre clichy

    diaby denilson

    walcott fabregas nasri


  17. bobbygee says:

    I am a comman man when it comes to futebol. I know the basics. But Football and hoops I know like the back of my hand. The principles are same in futebol, football, and hoops. Learn the fundamentals. In football and hoops it is about match ups. find a way to exploit a teams weakness. The other key is game time adjustments. Great coaches and teams do this. They pull wins out of the jaws of defeat. The Gunners had the right idea. Make Nanai beat you. Until this game Nani hasn’t shown much of anything. These things happen. Stop Drogba. He is the key. He is a killer. Work hard on the “D”. Practice tackling and the counter attack. teach players how to defend the two on one. Arsenal can and will win.

  18. Hong_gunner says:

    A thoughtful post. And i thought i wont touch any blogs till the chelsea game. But here i am:
    Formations are just an illusion to cut the defenses with our movement and free-play ever since the Wenger era. It does give a defensive shape, but only when our defensive third is given time to settle back, as our back-line is pretty high and makes us vulnerable to counters. As i was looking back at the invincibles’ team again, this team differs to some extent to the invincible legends. That team was gifted with wide players who had the natural ability to make decisive runs into the box as a unit. Not that our current attack is potent. It is great! Probably technically superior than the Invincibles. But the cohesion of the movement seems disjointed at times when we attack from midfield(which we almost always do). Denilson is not a Viera, agreed. But he could atleast work an Edu to support fabregas and song. He needs to understand his role and throw his fears. The team needs confidence and Bendtner on the right. fears. He is gifted to spray passes and help in midfield.*

  19. gooner god says:

    i think until we get van persie and the others back to full fitness and form we shud go back to the 4-4-2 formation, as some of u have suggested. It makes the most sense as we are getting ripped apart by the bigger teams atm imo, we may not have the attcking threat of the 4-3-3 but we certainly wudnt be having the defensive lapses we have been seeing recently….

  20. Shashi says:

    dnt know.. ive always been fan of conventional 4-4-2.
    I guess wenger introduced 4-3-3, to suffice for 1 less striker.. I nver felt it was any tactical move.. same was years back, when we had only henry as a lone striker role in 4-5-1.. In contrast. that worked quite well for us..

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