Read First Part of The Article Here (Evolution under Herbert Chapman)
Read Second Part of The Article Here (Evolution under George Graham)
Read Third Part of The Article Here (Evolution Under Arsene Wenger)
At the start of the 2005-2006 season, captain of the ‘Invincibles’, Patrick Viera left the club. It was the beginning of the end of an era. That year Arsenal had a disappointing domestic season, just managing to grab 4th place in the league ahead of Tottenham. But their European campaign was a different story all together. The Gunners reached the Champions League final for the first time in their history, where they met Barcelona.
Arsene Wenger fielded a team which was perhaps the first sign of him diverging from his favored 4-4-2 formation. In the starting line-up, Henry was the only out-and-out striker, with two Dutchmen, Bergkamp and Van Persie on the bench. Freddie Ljunberg was played behind Henry, as the Gunners lined up in what seemed more of a 4-4-1-1 formation. Fabregas and Gilberto Silva started in the middle of the park, with new signing Hleb and Pires on the wings. Injury to Lauren meant Eboue started at the right back along with the ever reliable pairing of Toure – Campbell at the center and Ashley Cole at left back. Here is a look at the team formation during that game.
Sadly though, one would never know whether that formation would have worked against the Catalans, as it was thrown out of the window early on in the match after Lehmann received his marching orders, which also meant Robert Pires being sacrificed, that being his last outing in Arsenal colors. The gunners though, surprisingly took the lead through Campbell’s header in the first half. 10-men Arsenal put a valiant show to protect their lead, but two late goals from Eto’o and Belletti won the trophy for the Spanish giants.
Life Without Viera And Bergkamp
Arsenal were not only undergoing changes in the team sheet, but also off it. 2005-2006′ would be the last time men donning the famous red and white would take on to the pitch of the historical Highbury turf. As the Gunners moved on to their new home at the Emirates Stadium, another famous son bid adieu to the club that season, Dennis Bergkamp.
2006-2007 season saw the Gunner’s squad going through a sea of changes. Players like Cole, Lauren, Pires and Campbell left the club. As the old war horses left, new talent rose to prominence. It was a new look Arsenal side, with players like Clichy, Fabregas, Flamini, Rosicky, Hleb, Adebayor and Van Persie taking up the mantle of the team.
During this season, Wenger mostly use his trusted 4-4-2 formation, with variations of 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-1-1. Here is a look at the line-up that was sent out on the pitch during the very first match of the domestic season against Aston Villa.
Apart from big changes in the famed defensive line-up, the biggest change in the team came in the midfield and how it operated. The Viera-Gilberto partnership operated differently to Fabregas-Giberto partnership. For all his creative talents, Fabregas didn’t have the defensive qualities that Viera possessed. During the ‘Invincible’ era Gilberto broke up opponents’ play and Viera acted as the link between the defense and attack, while Bergkamp dropped deep to create chances for his team-mates with highlight on reel passes/through balls. After the departure of Bergkamp and Viera, Fabregas became the focal point of the team. While Gilberto did his usual duty of covering the defense, Fabregas had to take up both the role of Viera and Bergkamp, which was inconceivable even for a player as talented as Fabregas. Henry was known more for his horizontal movements rather than his vertical movements like Bergkamp, while Adebayor was an out-and-out striker. What this meant was Fabregas had to move up the field to create chances and Gilberto had to act as the link between the defense and the attack. 2006-2007 season saw Gilberto spending more time in the opponents half than what he had to do while playing with Viera. This had its effects, while Silva scored 11 goals that season (Highest in his career), Arsenal’s defense suffered.
Here is look at the tactical change that took place in the Arsenal team (in 2006/2007) since the departure of Viera and Bergkamp and the arrival Cesc Fabregas in the team.
So the 4-4-2 of ‘Invincibles’ era and the 4-4-2 of ‘Post-Invincibles’ era were completely different in their modus operandi. While Arsenal were still great going forward, their defensive structure was hugely weakened since the departure of Patrick Viera.
We shall now have a look at the 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-1-1 variations used during that season that were highlighted earlier. The 4-1-4-1 formation was first used that season in a 1-0 league victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. Eboue, Toure, Djourou and Gallas made up the back four in that match, but what turned out to be a tactical master stroke, was how the midfield shaped out. Gilberto Silva played in his usual position in front of the defense, but with four midfielders ahead of him, he played a much deeper role and stayed in his own half mostly (unlike what he had to do in the normal 4-4-2). Fabregas and Rosicky played in the center ahead of Gilberto. Having Rosicky beside him allowed Fabregas to roam the field with much freedom. Hleb and Ljunberg was deployed on either side of the wings, while Adebayor was the lone striker up-front. Arsenal put on a wonderful display of possession football, with Gilberto Silva and Fabregas being the shining stars. Adebayor scored the only goal of the game, after the Gunners missed lot of opportunities. It was again an example of how Arsenal looked a better team when Silva played deep shielding the defense and Fabregas with the license to roam free. The exhilarating movement in the Arsenal midfield was a sight to behold, it was one of the best performance that Arsenal gave that season.
Another variation used was 4-4-1-1, though tactically it would seem quite similar to 4-4-2, but the slight difference of one striker playing a bit deeper role had huge impact on the team-play. The first instance of Arsenal playing this formation in 2006/07 season was in a league match against Charlton in late September. Eboue, Toure, Gallas and Hoyte made up the back four, while Gilberto Silva and Fabregas played in the center. Hleb and Ljunberg made up the four in the midfield, while Van Persie was deployed behind Henry, who played up front. Van Persie was the star of the match as he excelled in the new role. With Van Persie (and at time Henry) dropping deep helped Fabregas in the midfield. Which again meant Gilberto could play his much favored shielding role. Arsenal won the match 2-1, with the Dutchman scoring twice.
Here is a look at the two variations of 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-1-1 and how it changed the shape of the team on the pitch.
That season, Arsenal took time to adapt to their new life at the Emirates and life without Viera and Bergkamp. Wenger himself predicted that the team won’t be competing for silverware this season, and it turned out to be true. Arsenal finished fourth in the league, this time level on points with Liverpool. Their only shot at a title came as they reached the league cup final, where they were beaten by Chelsea 2-1. This season also marked the end of perhaps the most celebrated career in Arsenal colours as Thierry Henry left for Barcelona. Along with Henry, Ljunberg, Reyes and Jens Lehmann also left the club as only four players from the ‘Invincibles’ team remained at the club.
2007/08 – A Season of Heartbreak
In the 2007/2008 season, Arsenal made a brilliant start. The Gunners played some scintillating football, they were simply irresistible in attack, so much so that many Gooners still believe that in the start of 2007/08 season Arsenal played more eye-catching football than even the 2003/04 team. Arsenal went on a 28 matches unbeaten run in all competition till late December. New recruit Eduardo, Sagna and Flamini rose to prominence in this new look Arsenal team.
Similar to the 2006/2007 season, 4-4-2 was the formation mainly used throughout the season, with occasional variation of 4-4-1-1 and 4-1-4-1. Gilberto Silva lost his place in the first team to Flamini while Adebayor and Eduardo formed a lethal partnership upfront. The team was filled with brilliant passers of the ball. Fabregas, Rosicky and Hleb were masters at work. Here is a look at the 2006/2007 team formation from a league match against Newcastle in January. Arsenal won the match 3-0.
A season that started with such promise ended in disappointment. Eduardo suffered a horrific injury in a match against Birmingham and the team never quite recovered from that scar. They finished 3rd in the league, just 4 points adrift of eventual champions Manchester United. They were also knocked out of all the Cup-competitions. It is believed that, If Wenger could have retained the team of 2007-2008 season, the trophy cabinets would have had a different story to tell. But following Eduardo’s injury and departure of some key players next season, it was back to the drawing board for Wenger.
We shall continue to look into the tactical changes that Arsenal went through after 2008 season in our fifth part of this series.
A note of thanks to @Sounak for his inputs on this article. Follow him on Twitter.
Continued in Part V – Tactical Evolution under Arsene Wenger.