Arsenal, like many other teams, have switched formations in recent years to accommodate the increasingly tactical battles on the pitch in leagues around Europe.
The midfield's of the perennial contenders used to compose of a flat four, backed up by a rigid back four and two probing strikers. Then came the days of sacrificing a striker for a specialist defensive midfielder, shielding the defenders and controlling the build up from deep.
This has further evolved by two sticking two deep lying midfielders in the middle of the park, enabling a front four based around deft touches and speed of thought, to work their way through compact defences. Arsene Wenger prefers to refer to his formation as a fluid 4-3-3 system, based on the dominant Ajax team of the 1970s.
However, with the exception of Barcelona, not many teams can testify a true 4-3-3, including Arsenal. Wenger has gone with the flow of the modern game, with two sitting midfielders. And while this has been the template of success for most teams in recent years, these tactics often leave the gunners horribly exposed on the wings, which in turn pulls central midfielders and both centre halves out of position on a consistent basis.
So what can be done?
Take a look at an utterly dominant Manchester United team this season. Sir Alex Ferguson has reverted to the once no-brainer but now out of fashion formation of a 4-4-2. His two central midfielders are always well disciplined, well oiled cogs at the centre of a machine. The outside midfielders, while they possess both flair and pace, are drilled to defend as part of a midfield four.
Two central strikers have consistently torn opposing defences to shreds this season. And despite their defence having a case of the wobbles this season, the return of the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership has steadied the ship. On top of this, no matter which players the United manager picks, the central midfielders remain disciplined, the wingers still provide an attacking threat and work hard defensively and the strikers always score goal. If we were to look back 10 years, this sounds a lot like the description of the invincible Arsenal team.
Arsene Wenger's best teams were built on a foundation of discipline, power and unity. Their 4-4-2 system that was consistetnly challenging for trophies in the late 1990's and early twenty first century involved a unity that hasn't been seen during the last eight trophyless campaigns.
With Manchester United's success proving that there is still a place in football for the 4-4-2, perhaps it's time for Wenger to consider reverting to the formation that brought the club so much glory.
If we look at the current squad, many of the pieces are already in place. Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby have all the makings of a formidable partnership if only Diaby could stay fit.
Wilshere no doubt has the verve and panache to be much more of an offensive threat than Emmanuel Petit, but the latter's dominating displays alongside Patrick Vieira in a distant era could come around again in the form of Wilshere and Diaby. Along with able back up and experience in Arteta, Ramsey and Coquelin, the two central midfielders would provide the drive going forward while arguably doing a much sturdier and tenacious job at protecting the defence than Arteta currently does.
If Wenger felt reinforcements were required, Victor Wanyama of Celtic has been making waves in Scotland and it seems it is only a matter of time before a big club snaps him up. He would undoubtedly add a little more muscle to the middle of the park at the Emirates.
Out wide, it has been a long time since Arsenal fans have seen their outside midfielders consistently glide past their men or score 15 goals a season. Looking back, having Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg in the side was a feast for the eyes, and while it's maybe unfair to expect that such productivity could be reproduced, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain do possess the gracefulness and skill set that the former Highbury legends showed off consistently.
Both have the ability to drift infield and influence proceedings from central areas and both can skip past their men with what looks like considerable ease at times. Cazorla has shown in his debut season that he can also find the back of the net and despite his rather paltry goal return so far, there is no doubt that the Ox also has goals in his game. In terms of depth, Walcott and Gervinho would perhaps be better suited to one of the two forward positions, along with Podolski, but Arsenal's forgotten man, Tomas Rosicky, could well make a case to be included.
Upon his arrival in 2006, "little Mozart" was instantly inserted into the starting line-up on the left of a midfield four. Up until his injury troubles, Rosicky showed huge amounts of promise and looked as though the vacated number seven shirt of Pires had a worthy successor. Rosicky has recently gone on record to say that he still feels young and there is no reason why he couldn't make the left side of midfield his own once again.
Up front, using two strikers would probably give Arsenal a greater threat going forward because they lack the sheer class of a Robin van Persie to be a sole focal point. Theo Walcott is probably better suited to playing up front with a partner that likes to drop deeper as Dennis Bergkamp used to do with Thierry Henry playing higher. Having another striker would also give Walcott more of an opportunity to play on the shoulder of defenders instead of with his back to goal, allowing him to drift and use his pace to devastating effect.
The contenders for the second striker's spot, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Gervinho have all had their ups and downs this year and would provide solid options if called upon. However, Wenger would probably be tempted to go out and find another option with greater technical prowess and creativity that would be able to drop deep, turn and pick out the best option each time. There is a reason why names such as Stevan Jovetic and David Villa are often linked with Arsenal, as it is this kind of player that they are currently lacking.
Taking a look at the personnel at the back, Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are all top class centre halves, contrary to popular belief. You do not simply accumulate over 130 international caps combined by being bad defenders. Bacary Sagna, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal are all classy full backs, each with international caps of leading European giants. So what is the problem?
All of them are victims of the system deployed by Arsene Wenger. They are often exposed as a result of a lack of discipline further up field, leading to frantic but often necessary erratic defending in an attempt make up for other's mistakes. By no means are they the unit of Tony Adams and co. as the communication and positioning obviously needs work, but with a solid bank of four in front of them that will work hard on the defensive side, Arsenal's back four would be able to properly function as a line of defence and reduce the amount of individual mistakes to a respectable level.
WIth a rumoured takeover on the horizon, and a £70 million war-chest currently at the disposal of the Arsenal manager for the summer, Arsenal fans far and wide seem to be convinced that they must buy superstars in order to be competitive again. But there may be a much more inexpensive solution.
Switching to a 4-4-2 would enable the team to move forward as a unit and defend as a unit. It would provide solidity at the back and in the middle of the park and ensure that the wingers stay disciplined and work hard at both sides of the game. This would all come without sacrificing the attacking mentality that is engrained at Arsenal already.
It would be unjust for fans to expect Wenger to find players of the attacking brilliance of Henry, Bergkamp and Pires, the drive and thrust of Vieira or the authority of Tony Adams or Sol Campbell, but it is fair for those same fans to expect Wenger to put out a team with the right personnel and tactics to compete at the very top of the game.
The Gunners' manager has the players at his disposal to be successful, but instead of looking around to see what everyone else is doing, maybe Monsieur Wenger should take a look at what made his former teams so successful.
There's no reason that what once worked couldn't be another stroke of genius a few years later.
Do you agree Arsenal should re-visit 4-4-2 to bring back success?
image: © Ronnie Macdonald