Following on from my last piece about the need and logic for Arsenal to switch to a 4-3-1-2 formation with three deeplying central midfielders (a regista, a tackling defensive midfielder and a box to box midfielder), I thought I would explore some of Arsenal’s biggest defensive weaknesses this season and outline how Arsenal in a 4-3-1-2 setup can help to address those deficiencies.
Defending against long shots, avoiding individual errors and stopping opponents from creating chances have by far and away been Arsenal’s biggest defensive issues this season.
Despite Arsenal adopting an attacking approach focused on monopolising possession of the football in the opposition’s half through countless short passes around the opposition’s penalty box, their defensive approach when they lose possession (a non-aggressive focus on establishing two banks of four defenders and midfielders behind the ball) doesn’t seem to complement their attacking setup.
This defensive approach has seen Arsenal become almost lackadaisical when defending and has allowed opponents to create numerous crossing and shooting opportunities, particularly from distance.
Moreover the lack of aggression when Arsenal transition from attack to defence mean Arsenal fail to take advantage of the higher number of Arsenal players in the opponent’s half. A more aggressive approach to ball recovery when Arsenal first cede possession in their opponent’s half can enable the team to quickly recapture possession and create clearer shooting opportunities by taking advantage of a disorganised opposition who would have expected to take control of possession following the initial turnover.
Whilst Arsenal could simply attempt to implement such an aggressive pressing strategy using its current 4-2-3-1 setup, Arsenal’s central midfielders (Coquelin, Cazorla, Ramsey, Elneny) have been guilty of making a high number of individual errors this season. This has repeatedly resulted in successful efforts made by Arsenal’s central midfield to quickly recover possession of the ball being undermined almost immediately by loose ball control or a poor initial pass turning the ball over and exposing Arsenal’s back four and in particular their centre halves.
The extra central midfielder afforded by the 4-3-1-2 formation (which would be comprised of Coquelin (tackling midfielder), one of Cazorla or Wilshere (regista) and one of Ramsey, Elneny or Ox (box to box)) would provide Arsenal’s central midfield with additional defensive coverage in the event the individual errors of this season persist.
Aside of the ability to address specific defensive weaknesses experienced by Arsenal this season, the 4-3-1-2 formation’s biggest advantage in the modern game is that it is naturally set up to be able to press teams high up the pitch when they attempt to play out from defence.
In this setup the number ten (Ozil or Ramsey in Ozil’s absence) would be tasked with the job of marking the opponent’s holding midfielder, while the strikers (two from Sanchez, Welbeck, Giroud, Walcott, Campbell, Iwobi and Gnabry) cover the central defenders. The two shuttlers in the central midfield trio (one of Cazorla or Wilshere (regista) and one of Ramsey, Elneny or Ox (box to box)) can mark the opponents two other central midfielders, as well as work with their own fullbacks (Bellerin or Jenkinson on the right and Monreal or Gibbs on the left) to trap the opposition fullbacks if they were to receive the ball. By covering all available outlets, the pressing team gives the opponent’s goalkeeper a choice between playing the ball long, or playing it into a pressing trap.
Whilst the 4-3-1-2 system is highly effective both defensively and offensively, as Chile have demonstrated at an international level, the traditional vulnerable spot that hasn’t gone away is its vulnerability to opposing fullbacks. If modern-fullbacks are attacking in nature, who is there to stop them in the 4-3-1-2? Of course, your own fullbacks, and the strikers floating out wide to occupy the fullbacks, or one of the central midfield shuttlers drifting out wide to caution the fullbacks can help negate this advantage.
That said I believe the 4-3-1-2 is well suited to Arsenal because what the formation does is combine two of the best qualities of the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2: the maintaining of equal or superior numbers in midfield, and the two strikers to add directness to the team’s play and the ability for deadly counter-attacks. There is a possibility of over-reliance on the playmaker behind the two strikers to be the sole catalyst in initiating the team’s attacks (which is not really a problem for Arsenal given Ozil is the most creative number ten in world football), but overall, the formation is best suited to that most valuable of things – pressing your opponent deep in their own territory, winning the ball, and launching a counter.
For Arsenal, season 2015/16 can be a great learning experience if Arsenal can honestly admit and address their biggest defensive issues. Having considered those issues, I think switching to a 4-3-1-2 formation and adopting a more aggressive pressing strategy defensively could greatly assist Arsenal in their quest for the premier league in season 2016/2017.
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