Back then the Gunners had the likes of Jens Lehmann, Lauren, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Ashley Cole, Freddie Ljungberg, Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry which manager Arsene Wenger formed into a 4-4-1-1 shape.
Since then, the French boss has changed his formation to a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, opting to play a lone striker, formerly Robin van Persie, now Olivier Giroud with Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott as widemen who are afforded the freedom to roam inside off the flanks.
Rather than play four across the midfield, the two widemen operate as forwards or forward wingers where the likes of Pires and Ljungberg were more wide midfielders.
Another distinction, and probably one of the most crucial, is that Vieira and Silva in central midfield were proper traditional midfielders, rather than attacking midfielders, playmakers and a defensive midfielder as Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla now play as a central trio.
Henry was the most dangerous striker in Europe at the time and Bergkamp was one of the most gifted number 10’s ever to play the game. The same cannot honestly be said of Giroud, however and whilst Wilshere is a gifted number 10, he doesn’t possess the same finishing quality as the Arsenal legend and isn’t built for that Bergkamp role.
Cazorla perhaps is of a similar quality but Giroud doesn’t strike fear into the minds of defenders the way Henry did. Meanwhile, Arteta and Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey in central midfield don’t offer the same physical presence that Vieira and Silva did and the dynamic simply wouldn’t be the same. Equally, Walcott was Arsenal’s top scorer this term and Podolski’s tally too was admirable – setting them in deeper wide roles would likely hinder their ability to score as often.
In my estimation, with the current first-team – assuming a back four of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Kieran Gibbs, a midfield quartet of Walcott-Arteta-Wilshere-Cazorla might work and moving Podolksi who is probably Arsenal's most quality finisher at present to the Bergkamp role behind Giroud might be a plausible solution.
Whilst Arteta and Wilshere are small in stature, they do like a tackle and they could offer just enough protection to the backline – switching Cazorla to the flank would limit his impact on the attacking play but he played in that position for much of Arsenal’s unbeaten run at the end of this term and Podolski could affect the play better if he wasn’t stuck out on the flank where he has to chase back and forth all day long.
If, for example, Arsenal brought in Marouane Fellaini or Victor Wanyama to sit alongside Arteta that would offer a similar structure to the midfield as Vieira and Silva did to the 'Invincibles'. If Wenger brought in a striker like Stevan Jovetic or Gonzalo Higuain this summer, that could mean Cazorla or Podolski could operate in that Bergkamp role to good effect.
Potentially, Giroud could operate as the lone striker with Higuain or Jovetic behind him – the front two (1 and 1) could be interchangeable dependent on who’s available week in week out but what is paramount to that formation is the central midfield.
Wenger could rotate Arteta and whichever ‘defensive midfielder’ he brings in whilst rotating Ramsey and Wilshere as well (they both have their fitness issues and would likely have to alternate anyway). Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain could compete for that right midfield spot, which would perhaps suit the latter more than the former whilst Podolski and Gervinho could compete for the left flank.
At present Wenger’s invincible formulae wouldn’t work but if he brings in another quality striker and a midfield powerhouse type, a reversion to the 4-4-1-1 formation could suit Arsenal very well indeed.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald