Read First Part ofAi??The Article Here

Read Second Part ofAi??The Article Here

 

Arsenal won the 1994 Cup Winnersai??i?? Cup beating Parma in the final 1-0. In fact, that was to be the last trophy won by George Graham as an Arsenal manager. Graham was sacked in February 1995 after he was found guilty of taking illegal payment from Norwegian agent Rune Hauge when Arsenal brought John Jensen in 1992.

George Graham after spending 9 years at the club left behind a legacy that seemed hard to emulate. Stewart Houston was appointed as the care taker manager till Bruce Rioch arrived at the club. Riochai??i??s short span at the club is remembered due to the famousAi??acquisitionAi??of a certain Dennis Bergkamp from Inter. Rioch was sacked just before the start of the season in 1996 following a dispute with the board regarding transfer funds. Stewart Houston was again appointed as the care taker manager. Houston resigned after just 6 matches in order to take over at QPR. Pat Rice, who was the youth team coach then, took up the reins at the club, before a lean, smart man, who was managing a Japanese side named Nagoya Grampus Eight, was appointed as manager of Arsenal football club.

 

ai???Arsene Who?ai??i??

Ai??

ai???’What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. Heai??i??s not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properlyai??i???ai???

That was the first reaction of Mr. Arsenal, Tony Adams when Arsene Wenger was appointed as the manager. Wenger became the first non-British person to manage Arsenal. People in England had hardly heard his name; most of them thought that the board has lost it completely. The Evening StandardAi??newspaper welcomed his appointment with the now famous headline ‘Arsene Who?ai??i??. Soon they were about to know.

Le Professeur

 

Even before officially joining the club, Wenger advised the club to bring in Patrick Viera, who would go on to become the lynchpin of Wengerai??i??s team. Arsene Wenger didnai??i??t make radical changes to the defense of the team which was so successful under George Graham. Arsenal finished 3rd in the league, in his first season at the helm. In his second season, Wenger took big strides towards improving the squad he had. Wenger was busy in the transfer market, bringing in players like Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka.

Here we will take a look at the tactical evolution that Arsenal under went under monsieur Wenger. We can very well divide Wengerai??i??s reign into four phases.

  • The first was the pre-invincible era where he used a classical 4-4-2, that was quite rigid none the less. Rigidity was more to do with the personnel on the field than Wenger’s tactics itself.
  • The ai???Invincibleai??i?? era, where again Wenger used the 4-4-2 but this was different from the one used earlier. The team had great fluidity and great movement.
  • The Post-Arsenal era, when Fabregas became the fulcrum of the team. Wenger used a variation of 4-4-2, which was more close to being 4-2-2-2 and then it gradually changed to 4-3-3.
  • The present system, which evolved from last season, a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation that gradually shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation.

The Folklore Of 4-4-2

 

In 1997, Arsenal completed the double by winning the league and the FA cup after they beat Newcastle United in the final at Wembley.Ai?? Wenger combined the new foreign recruits with the existing old guards of the team to forge a winning combination. He implemented the 4-4-2 formation with great effect. In the final of the FA cup, Arsenal beat Newcastle 2-0. The back four that started this game was the same he inherited from George Graham. Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Lee Dixon formed the backbone of the team, with the ever reliable David Seaman at the goal. Emmanuel Petit, who normally played as a defender (Center Back or Left Back) at Monaco was deployed as a midfielder along with Patrick Viera. That turned out to be a master stroke from Le Professeur as they would complement each other very well and would go down as one of the best midfield pairing in the history of the club. Marc Overmars was deployed in the wings along with the ever reliable Ray Parlour. Nicolas Anelka, another new arrival that season paired up front with Christopher Wreh (Cousin of legendary George Weah).

Newcastle played in a 4-4-1-1 formation and they defended with a very high line. Viera and Petit dominated the midfield while Overmars and Parlour troubled the Newcastle wing backs throughout the match. In the end, Newcastleai??i??s high line at the back caused their downfall as Ray Parlour (Man of the match) produced two lovely through balls over the top, firstly for Overmars and then for Anelka to race clear of the defense and score.

Arsenal's formation in the 1998 FA Cup final against Newcastle United (4-4-2) (Dotted lines are defensive runs made by the players and complete lines are attacking runs made by the players)

 

From the above formation, it is apparent that the team was primarily set up for counter-attacks. The full-backs made very few adventurous runs forward, while most of the attacking was done by the wingers. Parlour would drift inside occasionally while Viera and Petit in particular shielded the defense. Anelka and Wreh (Wright was the substitute in this match) were very quick and made good runs behind the defense.

After his successful second season at the club, Arsenal went through a lean period after this. The Gunners came close in numerous occasions, finishing runners-up thrice from 1998 till 2001 in the league.Ai?? During this period, players like Overmars, Petit and Anelka left the club, while the famous back four was nearing the end of their careers. By then Wenger had started to re-build the Arsenal side with new recruitment like Ljunberg, Robert Pires, Wiltord and Thierry Henry. To shore up the defense he signed Sol Campbell, Lauren and promoted Ashley Cole from the youth ranks. A French revolution was taking place at Highbury.

 

The Invincibles

 

Arsenal won back the league in 2001-2002 season, beating Liverpool to the title by seven points. They completed the double that season by beating Chelsea in the final of the FA Cup. Only four out of the starting eleven were present in the team when Arsenal won the trophy the last time. In 2002, Arsenal retained the FA cup but missed out narrowly on retaining the league title as well despite dominating for most of the season.

The 2003-2004 season saw the ai???Invinciblesai??i?? arrive on stage. Arsenals went through the entire season unbeaten, and were only the second ever English team to do so after Nottingham Forest. That team cannot be described in using one particular formation. They were poetry in motion, loved by the purist, and marveled by the scholastic. They played expansive attacking football, yet to found the grit and determination to remain unbeaten an entire season, that was stuff of immortals. The team sheet that was put out on every match day put them together in a 4-4-2 formation, but that 4-4-2 was an enigma.

The back four consisted of Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure/Martin Keown and Lauren. A very interesting fact about this back four was that none of them were natural defenders. Ashley Cole played as a forward in Arsenal youth ranks and Lauren, who was signed from Mallorca in 2000, played as a midfielder for his former team. Sol Campbell started his career as a striker eventually moving down the field to play as a center back. Finally, we come to Kolo Toure, who was a very versatile player and could have played as a midfielder as well. Who can forget those charging runs through the midfield made by him? Yet, they made up an Arsenal defense which was arguably its second best in history. That is after the famous back four of George Graham. David Seaman who left the club in 2003 was replaced in goal by the German international Jens Lehmann.

The midfield was an assemblage of maestros. Patrick Viera and Gilberto Silva was a conjugation of fire and steel, with generous seasoning of class. Gilberto was the invisible shield in front of the back four, withAi??Viera the quintessential midfielder. Viera had too much ability to label him just as a ai???defensiveai??i?? midfielder. Ljunberg and Pires were the two wonders on the wing, usually Pires played on the left and Ljunberg played on the right. The word ai???usuallyai??i?? must be stressed upon as because in that Arsenal team, only the positions of Seaman to Viera were fixed, the rest were unspecified. Ljunberg and Pires made more diagonal runs into the box than to the by-line. These movements were in sync with the various positions that Henry and Bergkamp took up. Henry, who was a winger during early days of his career, usually drifted wide left dragging central defenders along with him. This created space for Pires and Ljunberg to exploit. The wing backs of the opponents were pinged back into their own half, due to the forward movements of Ashley Cole and Lauren. The left hand side of Arsenal were said to be their strongest with Cole, Pires and Henry creating havoc down that side.

Then there was the mysterious case of Dennis Bergkamp. He was listed as a striker, but most of the goal scoring was done by Henry, goals from the godly gifted feet of the Dutch master became less with years as did paucity of hair on his head. But there was always more to Dennis Bergkamp than just goals and hair. He was the orchestrator, the Kapellmeister of the band. He dropped deep and found spaces in between the line of the defense and midfielders and with the ball in his feet he could pick out passes like Messi wins Ballon d’or now a days. Again, his assist count would always be overwhelmed by his ai???Pre-Assistai??i?? count. Invariably it would be Bergkamp who would start off a move with an eye-of-a-needle pass. So, essentially when on attack, the Arsenal formation would represent something similar to self portrait drawn by a 2-year-old kid. Let us take a look at the two possible formations for Arsenal during the ai???Invincible Eraai??i??.

Ai??The Starting FormationAi??

Arsenal's formation and their movements (4-4-2) (Dotted lines are defensive runs made by the players and complete lines are attacking runs made by the players)

Ai??FormationAi??While Attacking

Arsenal's formation while they attack (Dotted lines are defensive runs made by the players and complete lines are attacking runs made by the players)

 

The above formation shows a hypothetical situation of a typical Arsenal attack. Henry drifts wide and Bergkamp drops deep, while Pires and Ljunberg makes run into the box. The width of the team is maintained by the two on rushing fullback in the form of Cole and Lauren. Viera charges up field while Gilberto drops back to cover the two center backs. So, essentially at times, Arsenal would play without a proper forward or target man in the box. Few teams keptAi??possessionAi??as well as Arsenal did, they would be patient and draw the defenders out of their comfort zone, then with a suddenAi??accelerationAi??of pace and an inch perfect through ball would open up the defense and they would score.

Counter Attack

Arsenal's counter attack against Aston Villa (Dotted lines are runs made by the players with/without the ball and complete lines are pass made by the players)

 

If Arsenal were sublime in attacking, they were irresistibleAi??at counter-attacking. The above pictorial representation of a swift break away move wasAi??orchestrated against Aston Villa in a league game. When Henry collected the ball on the right there didn’t seem much danger to behold, but the Frenchman with the help of some Godly skills skipped past two defenders and passed the ball on to the left to Bergkamp. The Dutchman produced another one of his masterclass first touch pass right on the path of on rushing Ashley Cole, who finished with an aplomb. Brilliant!

Below is the Ashley Cole goal discussed above.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVP-_o69OAI&w=420&h=315]

 

 

Due to their counter attacking prowess at times it seemed opponents feared to attack them, as they would be vulnerable at the back. In a blink of an eye, from defending at one end, Wengerai??i??s army would be racing down the field to score at the other end. With pace to burn and Vision aplenty the Gunners could have ripped apart any side on their day.

In the following season, Arsenal failed to retain the title as they fell apart psychologically after their record-breaking 49 matches unbeaten run was ended at the hands of Manchester United. They managed to win the FA cup that season, beating Manchester United in the final through penalties.

You can enjoy the 49 Games Unbeaten Run here.

 

“In Wenger we trust”

 

Wenger had an eye for talent like no other and his degree in economics certainly helped him getting those talents at bargain price. He took Arsenal to the next level, changing the evolution that started under George Graham into a revolution. He had his own philosophy about how the game is ought to be played and he followed it religiously. The ai???Boring boring Arsenalai??i?? taunt that were heard from the stands during the later part of George Grahamai??i??s reign, quickly changed into incredulous gasps. Wenger added a touch of French art to the often crude game of English football.

 

Flashback

Ai??Arsenal Vs Middlesbrough – 2004

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7Cxcuv4Tt4&w=420&h=315]

We shall continue to look into the tactical changes that Arsenal went through once the ‘Invincibles’ left in our fourth part of this series.

A note of thanks to @SounakAi??for his inputs on this article. Follow him on Twitter.

Continued in Part IV ai??i?? Tactical Evolution under Arsene Wenger.

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18 Responses to “Arsenal Rewind : Tactical Evolution ai??i?? From W-M to 4-2-3-1 (Part III)”

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  1. Natasha says:

    This is so full of errors and mis-statements.

    Arsenal switched from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 in December 97 for the second half of that season (read Tony Adams’s book “Addicted”).

    The Invincibles played 4-2-3-1. The difference in systems is not how you line up at kick-off, it’s to do with defensive responsiblities. In 4-4-2 the responsibility to cover the full back is with the wide midfield player. In 4-2-3-1 it lies with one or both of the “2” with its resultant effect on the lateral movement of the front four. Also, the fullbacks in the Invincibles almost never advanced ahead of play at the same time as you imply in your third diagram. Either Cole or Lauren (usually the latter) would always be in contact with the centre-backs.

    Calling Sol Campbell “not a natural defender” because he played a few games as a striker when he was a schoolboy is just embarrassing.

    The formation did not gradually change to 4-3-3. In 08/09, Wenger alternated between 4-4-2 (mostly in the league) 4-2-3-1 (for a couple of games in the CL knockout stage and a couple of games prior to those ties in the league to familiarise the players with the system) and 4-5-1 (semi-final of the cup). Wenger then switched to 4-3-3 for the last game of the season against Stoke and has been using it ever since.

    • Amlan Majumdar says:

      @Natasha – The invincibles played in 4-2-3-1? well actually you can put them into any formation you like. As I said, there was difference in the formation they were lined up and the formation they actually played in, because all the attackers in that team were so versatile that they ended playing every where. And if you talk about how they were lined up? they were lined up in 4-4-2 formation not 4-2-3-1. The full backs in most cases would move up the field, because the team dominated possession so much. Coming to Sol Campbell, well all I wanted to state was that none of the defenders started their career playing as defenders, except Toure, who could have played anywhere. Campbell played as a STRIKER in the early stage of his career..and that’s what has been stated. In 2008/2009 Arsene did change between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 (not 4-2-31 as mentioned by you), that formation came into the team only last year. Before that it was either 4-4-2 or 4-3-3/4-5-1.

      I think there is a difference in how you see a formation. Thanks for bothering to criticize anyways. Keep it coming :)

      • Natasha says:

        Sorry, but you’re just wrong. You obviously don’t really understand what you’re talking about.

        As I tried to explain above, the difference in systems is not positions on the pitch when you have the ball, it’s about areas of responsibilities and areas of the pitch that individual players are expected to move into in any given situation. For example, the lead striker in a 442 will usually play on the shoulder of the centre-backs and will not run the channels too often. In a 433 he will play as a “false nine” and spend more time vertically, deeper (ie in central midfield), in a 4231 he will play higher up but horizontal (ie in the channels with the aim of pulling the cb’s into the wide areas for the “3” players behind him to arrive in front of goal). Ask anyone who was at Highbury for every home game of our Invincible season (as I was) and they will tell you that it was an asymetric 4231 system.

        Of course our strikers move up the pitch because Wenger has always played a high line, the point I’m making is that they didn’t advance ahead of play (further forward on the pitch than the ball) at the same time.

        How many games did Sol Campbell play as a striker in his professional career? Zero. None. Zilch. I have never seen a more natural defender in all of my life.

        As for your analysis of which formations we played in 08/09, you’re simply wrong, What evidence do you have for saying we played 433 that season before the last game against Stoke? We played 4231 in both ties against Roma and the round of 16 of the CL, against Villareal in the QF’s and also the league games against Blackburn and Hull. It’s not a question of interpretation, they are completely different systems and when you know what to look for, they are easy to distinguish from each other. If you can find videos of the home leg against Roma and the home game against Stoke, for example, watch RVP’s movement in both games and you will start to understand the different requirements for playing the “1” in a 4231 and playing the “false nine” in a 433.

        • Amlan Majumdar says:

          When a team is lined up as 4-4-2 – it absolutely doesn’t mean that the strikers cannot move about. you say “will not run the channels too often” – but that really depends upon whether they can do it, whether if they do so, are there other players who can make up ground and get in the box to cover that up. The Gunners lined up in 4-4-2. while Henry drifted wide left/right…Bergkamp dropped back in the hole…while Pires and Ljunberg got into the box making diagonal runs. Its not that Arsenal always attacked in the same way…there strength always lied in the fact that most of the players were comfortable playing anywhere. So in some case when Henry didn’t drift wide and Bergkamp dropped deep, while Pires and Ljunberg maintained there postions on the flanks. The formation would look like 4-2-3-1, again in other cases it would also look like 4-3-3. See what I have said in the article “The team sheet that was put out on every match day put them together in a 4-4-2 formation, but that 4-4-2 was an enigma.” and “So, essentially when on attack, the Arsenal formation would represent something similar to self portrait drawn by a 2-year-old kid.” – I guess this means that the Invincibles were a versatile team and the formations were not something they were bounded by. I might not have been to the Highbury to watch the matches (Which is my biggest regret) but I remember Henry collecting the ball at a left back position and starting a move …so does your 4-2-3-1 formation allow a player to roam about over there. The Invincibles were above the limitations of mare man-made formations.

          Now lets come to Sol Campbell – I quote this from Wikipedia “Campbell signed for Tottenham Hotspur after a short spell with West Ham United, beginning his career as a striker.”. He even scored against Chelsea on his debut for Spurs, playing as a Striker.

          As far as the 2008/09 season goes – wait for my next article on that. I sincerely hope to you will bother to read it once it is published. :)

          • Natasha says:

            No, no, and thrice no!

            The movement of players in different systems is absolutely dependent on the system and not the individual. That is why RVP, for example, has adapted his game to make different types of runs in each of the different systems. In a 442 as a classic number 10, his movement in the box was always to pull away to the far post or the penalty spot. In the few games he played in a 4231, his movement was lateral into the channels (which he hated and wasn’t very good at. Indeed, at the World Cup in South Africa, he was asked to play a similar role and was equally uncomfortable doing it). He has blossomed as the false nine in a 433 and has employed the best elements of his play as a number 10 but added much more variety to his movement inside the box, particularly the near post run, arriving late from deeper outside the box – precisely the opposite of the sort of run he used to make in a 442.

            Henry kept drifting wide right PRECISELY because he was playing in a 4231. Why was he able to do it? Because Pires was constantly drifting inside onto his right foot. Why was Pires able to drift inside? Because he was freed from the defensive responsibility of covering the fullback from the overlapping runs of his opposite number. Why did that happen? Because in a 4231, the job of covering the fullback is given to one or both of the “2”. In a 442, it’s given to the wide midfielder. What is the logical consequence of this? He can’t drift inside, he has to run in straight lines up and down the flank.

            It is a fundamental conceptual error to think you can judge what formation a team is playing simply by taking random snapshots of a team during a match and just looking at each individual position or to say that X player was in Y position at the 58th minute of match Z, so therefore it was/wasn’t 442/4231. It’s about areas of responsibility, both attack and defence which allows for different types of runs, as I have tried to explain. This is very basic stuff that they teach you at level 1 of your F.A. coaching badge and you really ought to do some background reading before trying to write this sort of article.

            You’re obviously so convinced you’re right that it seems there’s no point in debating with you so I shan’t be wasting any more of my time on this site. I would advise anyone reading your article to understand that what you have written above is severely flawed and that if they want to learn about Arsenal tactics and football strategy in general they might be better to look elsewhere.

  2. Anand says:

    Great Article !! Awaiting the next part !!

  3. Anand says:

    Great Article !!!! Awaiting the next part..

  4. Donna Van Oss says:

    A real pleasure to read this, terrific breakdown of the Arsene era….

  5. Amlan Majumdar says:

    @Anand and @Donna – Thanks for the appreciation. Means a lot :)

  6. Paul says:

    Famous accusation ? Who edits these articles ?

  7. Maestro says:

    Natasha..you are the first woman I’ve ever met, that knows more about Arsenal than just the name…
    You probably know more about Arsenal than 99% of Arsenal fans…who are 99% male…
    Great Stuff from both of you!!!!
    Amlan, please keep doing what you’re doing. This is by far the most knowledgeable soccer site I know…
    Thanks…My favorite Soccer site…

  8. Zoony says:

    @Natasha – Thanks for pointing out a lot of formations as you have seen them LIVE. Unfortunately, every arsenal fan/author/critic on this planet do not have a season ticket to Highbury/Emirates, their observation is based on what they watch on TV.

    @Amlan – Great job with the article.

    • Amlan Majumdar says:

      Thanks mate :)

    • Natasha says:

      Television is good for some things and it’s absolutely terrible for other things. If you have only seen a Premier League or a Champions League game on TV, you might not understand that the two main things you do not get from TV coverage are 1) a sense of the speed of the game and 2) the off-the-ball movement of the players. Unfortunately, since the latter is the single most important element in any appreciation of a team’s tactics, it is a severe handicap if you’re trying to understand how a team is set up and you are unable to see them live.

  9. @Natasha – Are you suggesting writers without season tickets stop writing articles? And also, the entire writing fraternity shift to the UK and travel for the games?