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.