Picture the scene. We’ve just drawn a blank at the Emirates against a team that we are expected to beat handsomely. Hoards of fans rush out of the ground disgruntled at another 2 points lost. On the tube journey home you launch into your usual routine of reflecting on the match, assessing the positives and the negatives. Then you hear an increasingly familiar question from a group at the other side of the carriage, “Why doesn’t he just go back to 4-4-2?”
The calls to change to 4-4-2 are definitely becoming more numerous but why is that? One reason is that, in the Premier League at least, the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 is in vogue. The Manchester clubs have raced out of the traps using this formation (albeit different variations of the same shape). The red half have done what Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams have so often done in the past and used their pacy wingers to stretch the play while the midfield two of Cleverley/Carrick and Anderson have added positive intent in the middle of the park. Roberto Mancini on the other hand has used a more solid duo in centre midfield as the base on which their creative inverted wingers can attempt to prompt and create havoc in the opposition’s defence.
In fact, considering Liverpool occasionally use 4-4-2 with either Carroll or Kuyt and Suarez leading the line, and keeping in mind Harry Redknapp’s fondness for a classic ‘big man, little man’ pairing up top it could be argued that 4 of last year’s top 6 are facilitating the comeback of 4-4-2. With this in mind and considering our current woes it’s only natural for fans to reminisce of the ‘good old days’ where 4-4-2 was gospel.
Pros of 4-4-2
1. In recent games Robin van Persie has become somewhat isolated. Giving him a striking partner would immediately solve that problem and depending on the particular partner would coax different qualities from his game.
2. Giving van Persie a partner up front would also aid the partner. Chamakh and Park are in direct competition with van Persie for the lone striker role currently. As it’s incredibly unlikely our captain would be dropped, moving to 4-4-2 would give them more game time. Thinking back to Chamakh’s time at Bordeaux he forged a very good partnership with Gourcuff with both of their strengths being complemented by the other individual (Yoann’s prowess at delivering a ball from deep or a set piece with great technical quality and Marouane’s aerial ability).
After the first few occasions that both van Persie and Chamakh played together, where there appeared to be a little tension between the two, there have been brief glimpses more recently of a similar combination forming. Marouane’s latest goal vs Blackburn was very reminiscent of one he may have scored for Bordeaux and it would be interesting to see if the Chamakh of old could be reinvigorated by partnering van Persie upfront.
3. Of course that role of playing up front alongside van Persie could also be taken by Theo Walcott. Not a day passes, it seems, before Theo is once again championing his case for playing as the spearhead of the team. Having been a striker in his youth and with Wenger constantly saying he’ll eventually play there it’s very understandable that Walcott feels this way. In theory his good movement and pace seem suited to that of a classical poacher. I’m not saying for one moment that he would be good as someone like Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez but he does have similar attributes to the lively Mexican.
Consider this recent quote from Arsene discussing Walcott:
“When you look at Theo, he’s a player who you think sometimes ‘he could have contributed more then’, but then you think ‘who scored the goal?’ Him. Or ‘who made the pass?’ It’s him. He’s a player who is efficient.”
This certainly rings true when you think about Theo’s impact in games. He still drifts in and out of games more than one would like but think back to a game and it’s invariably Theo who has been involved in our goals. This is reflected by the stats. Last season, Theo scored a goal once every 189 minutes and assisted a goal every 242 minutes in his 1697 total league minutes. He scored 9 goals and assisted 7 giving him a ‘points’ total of 16. Therefore, in the table below ranking the Premier League players’ attacking efficiency in the 10/11 season he scored a point every 106 mins (1697/16)*.
|RANK||PLAYER||ATTACKING EFFICIENCY (point per x mins)|
|1||Robin van Persie||71|
|6||Rafael van der Vaart||107|
(Includes players who played > 1500 mins last season)
So, Theo ended the season as the 5th most efficient player in the league in terms of scoring and creating goals. Many factors have to be taken into consideration here including his relatively small number of minutes on the pitch compared to some. Though more minutes could mean more ‘points’, unless he continued to score and assist at the same regularity his efficiency would decrease. The general quality of teammates and position should also be taken into consideration but he compares favourably to other ‘wingers’: A Arshavin 129, A Johnson 170, A Young 180, S Nasri 217, D Silva 233, S Downing 242, G Bale 306 and A Lennon 473. (Out of interest Javier Hernandez also scored 106 but only played 1488 mins).
As long as Walcott keeps this efficiency up there’ll always be that question lingering about whether he’d be able to improve the numbers even further if played upfront.
Cons of 4-4-2
1. 4-4-2 with this group of players is a total unknown and although there is an obvious hope/intrigue that a partner for RvP would aid our potency there’s the other side of the coin where it might disrupt our play for the worse. At the time of writing RvP has scored 23 goals in 25 games in 2011**. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Gomez and Lionel Messi have better records. Do we dare tinker with that?
2. There’s no guarantee that van Persie’s potential partner would prove more efficient than an extra midfielder and the added possession they would inevitably cause. Take Theo Walcott for example. His shooting and finishing have noticeably improved (29.2% of his total shots were on target last season compared to 26.7% in the 09/10 season and 9.4% of these shots were goals compared to only 3.3% in the previous season)*. However, questions remain over other characteristics needed of a striker. Does he have the touch and the body strength to be able to hold the ball up at the top end of the pitch? Are his runs good enough so as take him away from the attention of defenders who would be marking him closer than usual? These remain doubts in Wenger’s mind I imagine.
3. Looking at our squad in particular I wonder about the suitability of the players to a 4-4-2 formation. Teams that make it work usually have either orthodox or inverted wingers of quality who take on the bulk of the attacking onus. It seems to me that our most natural wide men at the moment (arguably Oxlade-Chamberlain and Miyaichi) are too young and inexperienced.
There’s certainly an argument to take on a more asymmetrical shape using a more orthodox winger/direct forward on one side (eg. Gervinho) and a more creative/hard-working midfielder on the other flank (eg. Ramsey or Rosicky). This is actually the type of structure I prefer in a 4-4-2 and is something we’ve used to good effect in past Wenger midfields. I would again worry about the familiarity of the specific personnel to these positions though.
Tied in with this is the pure number of centre midfielders in our squad. When you add those in our academy and Reserves it would seem quite odd to start using a 4-4-2 formation where a large proportion of these players would become rather redundant. We can’t just discard them all.
4. Finally, a basic tactical point. Simply due to its shape, a 4-4-2 generally has less fluidity and movement than a 4-2-3-1. There can be exceptions to this of course as the Manchester clubs’ attacking play this season has shown. City in particular seem to be joining Villarreal in their utilisation of ‘Brazil’s magic box’, making a 4-2-2-2 in attack. Without such a variation the lower numbers of strata or bands in the system make for fewer possibilities to roam.
This can not only be a hindrance going forward but can also pose problems defensively. Having a formation with fewer strata naturally opens up more space between these bands which can be exploited by the ever-growing number of trequartista’s (no.10s) appearing in world football. In addition to this the 3-man central midfield has become far more popular than when Wenger last implemented 4-4-2. Even when he did so he had Flamini whose incredible stamina and work-rate almost completely compensated for a relative lack of numbers in midfield. We have nobody currently in our squad with the same desirable characteristics which would make a move to 4-4-2 more difficult.
Overall it seems to me that 4-2-3-1 fits our squad and the club as a whole best. Though it would be interesting to see how we’d fare playing 4-4-2, and perhaps there should be a little more flexibility to switch between the two, I think the shortcomings of the system with our current personnel outweigh the advantages. Ultimately we just require our players to become more accustomed with each other in the present system while allowing for more roaming and positional rotation. If this is perfected hopefully we’ll be able to see the best of both worlds.
* Many thanks to Sunny Sandhu (@Sunbeam007)
** Opta Stats (@OptaJoe)
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