Naveenan Thanendra takes a look at how Arsenal could make simple changes, but potentially improve their results.
When I think about the Premier League Era there is no team that represents the usage of a flat back 4 system better than the Arsenal defence led by Tony Adams. It was so effective that I’m sure there are strikers that are still frustrated about being caught offside by Arsenal’s well-disciplined trap.
However, as time has gone by, Arsenal have not been able to sustain the rigidity of that defence. This has especially been the case over the last few seasons where Arsenal’s back 4 has come under considerable scrutiny. People could point to the numbers that show that Arsenal have the best defensive record away from home in the league. Sadly though the numbers can’t deny what the eyes can see.
It has not simply been a case of bringing in reinforcements either. In recent times Wenger has added Monreal, Mertesacker and Jenkinson to the ranks. While it could be argued that greater quality would have been a better option, I suggest there is a way to strengthen the team with the players available at the moment.
What I propose is a change to a 5 man defence with 3 centrebacks and 2 wingbacks as per the below. I feel this shift is necessary because as good as Arteta has been as a deep lying playmaker, their lack of a real midfield presence can often leave the heart of Arsenal’s defence exposed. The switch to a three-man centreback system with Mertesacker playing as a sweeper would help rectify this issue.
The problem for Arsenal became most apparent following the sale of Alex Song, as it left Arsenal bare of players who could break up play in midfield. Without his presence, the centrebacks have struggled to effectively close down attackers when they are charging through the middle. The clearest example is Andreas Weimann’s goal for Aston Villa at the Emirates.
While it could be argued that Szczesny should have done better, there would never have been an opportunity to shoot if Vermaelen or Mertesacker had pressed rather than dropped back. With three defenders through the middle it allows one man to press with the sweeper effectively covering for the centreback that has moved out of position.
One reason they may have been worried about pressing in the current system is that with a pairing of Vermaelen and Mertesacker they are susceptible to pace. So in an effort to avoid being beaten as the last man they are allowing too much space in front of them. Against Spurs it was noticeable that a word had been had in their ear about this issue but in their efforts to maintain an offside trap the ill discipline from Vermaelen in watching the ball rather than the attacker allowed him to be exploited by the pace of Lennon and Bale for two quick fire goals.
If Koscielny is not going to start for Arsenal in the defence’s current form, then this is further reason to switch to a 5-man defence. While it means that it will be difficult to execute the offside trap as effectively in this system, it would allow Mertesacker not to worry about his lack of pace. Instead his key asset of being able to read the game would come to the fore and while a manager cannot do anything in a game for a lack of concentration from his players, the use of a sweeper allows a safety blanket or rather a 2nd line of defence in instances where the first line is breached.
On the face of it this may seem like a very negative move that could impact the potency of Arsenal’s attack but I would argue to the contrary. I think this format allows a greater freedom for Arsenal to attack with real vigour.
Firstly, as Arsenal’s fullbacks are known for their attacking prowess it would be wise not to dampen this ability despite the team’s defensive struggles. Therefore, employing them as wingbacks would allow them the freedom to support the attack at will. Vermaelen and Koscielny would be capable of covering if the attack is broken down and a quick counter attack needs to be dealt with. Furthermore, with Koscielny and Vermaelen’s tendency to drift forward and join the attack at times, Mertesacker’s presence would allow for less positional panic if they are caught out of position.
Better still, with Arsenal being known as a team with a desire to play an ‘on-the-deck’ technical brand of football, Vermaelen and Koscielny would be able to step in as a libero and play the ball out from the back with greater composure and purpose as the instigator for each Arsenal attack. With Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta working the middle of the park, it would no doubt require a greater deal of the opposition’s attention, thus allowing for greater space on the wings for Sagna and Monreal/Gibbs to exploit in the faith that the three aforementioned players have the ability to find that killer pass.
For this 5-3-2 formation to work best for Arsenal Walcott would have to adapt with each attack and drift out wide when need be, as he stretches defences with his pace and has been a creative catalyst when working the flanks this season. His presence in the final third would also create greater support for Giroud to do damage, as he has always looked a better striker when he has had someone playing alongside him.
With Arsenal’s plethora of choices on an attacking front, it would also mean that they would be able to rotate personnel if things aren’t going to plan while still playing players like Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain in their preferred positions when coming onto the pitch.
While I am not saying that this would definitely be the solution for all of Arsenal’s problems, I would encourage Wenger to note that with the current personnel he has at present this system could be more effective in his charge for a top 4 finish. The back 4 have been Arsenal’s main problem for some time now and a tactical switch could earn them some respite by playing to their strengths.
However, the simple fact of the matter is that even with this formation shift there is insufficient depth in the defensive third of the pitch for Arsenal and there is no hiding from the fact that they could benefit from an imposing presence in the middle of the park. So even if this tactical switch is made, a greater effort will need to be made in the summer to strengthen these areas.
image: © P-A-S-T