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 : ‘Invincibles’ era)
Read Fourth Part Of The Article Here (Evolution Under Arsene Wenger : post-’Invincibles’ era)
At the start of the 2008/09 season, Mathieu Flamini, who was becoming such an important figure in the club, surprisingly left for AC Milan, along with Hleb, the latter joined Barcelona. After Flamini left, Song and Denilson grabbed his place in the first team. By this time, Fabregas had become the fulcrum of the team and Arsene Wenger, realizing how important the young Spaniard was to the side, started building his team around him. During this season, Wenger showed first signs of gradually divulging from his favoured 4-4-2 formation. The reason for this diversion was the lack of natural wingers in the squad. The 4-4-2 deployed during this period was more of a 4-2-2-2 formation. Eduardo, Van Persie, Adebayor and Bendtner were the options Arsene had as strikers, interestingly even Walcott was deployed on a more central role at times that season. The season also saw Wenger using the 4-2-3-1 formation for the very first time in a Champions League game against Dynamo Kiev; in fact, towards the end of the season, this was the formation he favored most. Here is a look at the two formations used by Wenger in variation with 4-4-2.
Arsenal again finished 4th in the league, way off the pace this time (18 points behind champions Manchester United). They reached the semi-final of the FA cup, but were beaten by Chelsea 2-1. The Gunners were also knocked out in the early stages of the League cup by Burnley. Arsenal also managed a good run in the Champions League this time around, as they reached the semi-finals, where they were eventually beaten by Manchester United.
The Advent Of 4-3-3
2009/10 season saw the arrival of Thomas Vermaelen and Andrei Arshavin to the club. This season was also the start of something new in regards to tactics at the London club. Wenger changed the formation of the team completely, the Frenchmen brought in the 4-3-3 formation. Tactically this was the start of a new era under Wenger. The first match of the season was a sign of things to come. Arsenal played Everton at the Goodison Park. While Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen and Clichy made up the back four, the triplet of Fabregas, Song and Denilson were deployed in the midfield. Bendtner, Van Persie and Arshavin formed the front three. The width of the team was mainly provided by the on rushing full-backs, while Fabregas played higher up the pitch compared to Song and Denilson. Bendtner, who wasn’t a natural wide player, joined Van Persie more often in the box, while Arshavin provided the threat on counter-attacks. Here is a look at the Arsenal team that thrashed Everton 6-1 on the opening day.
In this formation, the work rate of the midfielders is very important. All three of them must contribute to both defense and offense. This formation also gives them more opportunity to score as they make runs into the box, the three men at the top stays wide to spread the attack. Another important attribute that could affect the success of this formation is the willingness of the two wide strikers to track back, as they are placed higher up the field; the full-backs of the team get less cover from them, than what they get with normal wingers. So basically a 4-3-3 changed into 4-5-1 while defending.
Throughout the season, Robin Van Persie/Eduardo was played up top, Bendtner/Walcott on the right and Arshavin/Nasri on the left shared the load of striking responsibilities. Rosicky, Fabregas, Song and Diaby played through the middle. Arsenal finished 3rd in the league that season, way behind Chelsea, who were virtually unstoppable. The Gunners were also knocked out from the Champions League by Barcelona in the quarter finals.
Finally To 4-2-3-1 And It’s Variations
The 2010/11 season saw the arrival of Jack Wilshere into the first team, while Eduardo left the club. During this season, Arsenal underwent a slow but visible tactical change, from the 4-3-3 used earlier season to 4-2-3-1. Nasri and Arshavin played on either side of Chamakh (Van Persie was injured for the early part of the season), while Fabregas played just behind the forward line. Song and Wilshere/Denilson played in a deeper role, in front of the back four. There significant changes to the Arsenal back-line as William Gallas left the club for arch rivals Tottenham, while Koscielny was brought from French side Lorient. Koscielny’s transfer was met with skepticism, as little was known about the Frenchman on English shores. Thereby, Arsenal had a completely new pairing in the center of the defense with Vermaelen and Koscielny. Sagna and Clichy completed the back four. Here is a look at the team’s formation during their 6-0 victory over Braga in the Champions League (15th September, 2010).
4-2-3-1 on the outset might seem to be a very defensive formation, as the team plays with two deep-lying midfielders, but in reality those two midfielders provide solid base for the attack to be built from the back. Brazil’s 1970 national team is thought to be the pioneers of this formation. It is widely used in Spanish, French and German clubs as well, nowadays. This formation in fact, can be very flexible. When a team starts out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, while defending the shape of the team changes to 4-5-1, similarly while attacking the shape changes to 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-2-3 depending upon the width that the wide forwards provide. In case of Arsenal, lack of natural wingers meant, the 4-2-3-1 formation changed to 4-1-2-3 formation as the wide forwards came inside, while the full-backs had the responsibility of maintaining the width of the team. Lets have a look at the flexibility that 4-2-3-1 provides.
The season started well for the Gunners, in fact till late February they were still in with a shout for all the four competitions. But it all went downhill from then onwards. They lost the League Cup final under dramatic circumstances against Birmingham. Arsenal never quite recovered from that shock, as they were knocked out from Champions league, FA Cup and eventually out of the title race in the Premier League. While they produced a brilliant come-back performance against Barcelona in the first leg of the knock-out round, they lost at Nou camp to the Catalan giants, the eventual winner. Manchester United handed them a 2-0 defeat in the FA Cup 6th round and they eventually finished 4th in the league, 12 points behind the Red Devils.
At the start of the 2011/12 season, Arsenal were dealt with a hammer blow, as Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and most importantly Cesc Fabregas left the club. Wenger, who built his team around Fabregas, since the departures of the ‘Invincibles’ team, was left without a midfield general who can pull the strings for the team. Desperation crept into fans, players and manager, as the club looked for replacements in the transfer market. Arsene Wenger eventually made 5 signing in the last 48 hours of the transfer window. Mikel Arteta, Gervinho, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Santos, Benayoun, Park and Mertesacker were the reinforcements.
Wenger continued with his 4-2-3-1 formations, with Arteta dropping deep beside Song, Ramsey/Rosicky playing in the hole behind the striker, while as Gervinho/Chamberlain, Van Persie and Walcott/Arshavin formed the front three. Arsenal made a shaky start to the season, as they won only 3 of their first 10 games in all competition (including the Emirates Cup). So much so, that they found themselves in the relegation zone. But since late September, they have made a good recovery and are currently in the 4th place in the league. They have been already knocked out of the FA cup after a 2-0 defeat to Sunderland and they were earlier knocked out of the League Cup following a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City.
Evolution Under Chapman, Graham And Wenger In A Nutshell
Arsenal have evolved drastically since its inception in 1886, from the days of Herbert Chapman, to George Graham and presently under Arsene Wenger. Herbert Chapman elevated the Gunners from a team that was fighting relegation, to a championship winning team. He revolutionized the club, its infrastructure and most importantly its thought process. The master tactician pioneered the enigmatic W-M formation, leaving his mark not only at the London club, but on football itself. George Graham, on the other hand, saved the club from mid-table mediocrity and forged a squad of winners. His most important contribution was the defensive stability and mental strength he drilled into the team during his reign. The famous back-four contrived by him helped the club win silverware not only during his reign, but during the reigns of other managers who followed him, notably Arsene Wenger. Arsene Wenger on the other hand, set himself up for a different project all together. He added a touch of art to the way football was played at Arsenal football club. Arsenal have undoubtedly played the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing football under his tenure. He combined the strength of Graham’s defense with the guile and artistry of his handpicked midfield maestros and forward line. He changed the outlook of rest of the world towards Arsenal, who were at times taunted to be “boring”. The legendary “Invincibles” team stands-out in the legacy, he has already built.
The holy trinity of these illustrious managers, have tactically evolved the club. Each of them have their imprint in the pages of history, from Chapman’s W-M to Graham’s 4-4-2, Wenger’s 4-4-2 to Wenger’s 4-3-3 and now finally to 4-2-3-1. Here is a look at the tactical evolution of Arsenal football club in a nutshell.
Arsene Wenger might have come under criticism in recent times, but none can dis-accord with the fact that he is still, and will always be part of a holy trinity, who have shaped the past, present and future of the club. With this, we end this series of Arsenal Rewind, tactical evolution of the Gunners under three of the most influential man in their history.
A note of thanks to @Sounak for his inputs (and brilliant editing) on this series of articles. Follow him on Twitter.
Thanks also to @arsenalsince87 for his inputs in the 2nd part of this article. Follow him on Twitter.