There was a time I used to write many an article about tactics and formations and many of them were about the possibility of Wenger’s Arsenal returning to a 442 system, or a variation of it. If I am honest I gave up for a few years partly because I was continually told that 442, as a formation, was dead and that I was a dinosaur living in the past. However I guess the real reason I relaxing on banging the 442 drum was because I simply could not see our current manager moving away from the one striker system he has adopted since 2009.
So far though in this campaign I have found myself beginning to wonder if the current team was not evolving into one that looks remarkably like one playing with two up top; more accurately perhaps a 4411 with a traditional Bergkamp like 10. I found myself early in the season screaming for Ozil to drop and work back but then I realised he was no longer being asked to do so. The structure, always fluid under Arsene, has subtlety changed. I found myself turning to my friends who sit with me and saying ‘we are playing 442 you know’. Until recently such observations were met with scepticism and in truth I had not even convinced myself but in the last month I believe what my eyes are telling me.
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With Alexis dropping deep so far removed from the static focal point we have been used to we have all witnessed Mesut Ozil working the space vacated by the Chilean and quite often being the furthest Arsenal player forward. His goal tally has increased as a result and what may have begun as a consequence of Alexis’s style has now become, in my view, a more considered tactic. Walcott too has been a grateful beneficiary of the gaps left but it is the transformation of Theo that makes the 4411, certainly when we not in possession so possible. We have all commented and admired the new appetite for work and the defensive contribution of the Englishman but it is this new found fitness and desire to work box to box that has allowed Arsenal to relieve our German magician of his defensive role.
However whilst I was semi convinced of the change earlier in the autumn I think it is the last month that my conviction has solidified. The change that has cemented it for me and perhaps even for the coaching staff has been the role of Alex Oxlade –Chamberlain on the left and then the team’s display in Basle last week. Earlier in the season I think the flaw in the system was the fitness or understanding of Alex Iwobi. I think the young man has the work at his feet but he simply could not seemingly sustain the box to box role for a full match. Chamberlain despite his wayward passing at times and rash decisions in attack has grasped the front to back nature of the new role. Ramsey was tried there and it did not work and Ox has staked a strong claim to stay in the team on the left. But for me this is not a wing role it is a left midfield role and the same applied to Walcott on the right. Of course Theo began his Arsenal career on the right of a 442 and that is in essence where he is 10 years later. Yes when we are in attack they have licence to join Ozil and Alexis but as soon as we lose the ball they are left and right midfielders. It was in Switzerland that the new roles, very much evident against Bournemouth and West Ham, when Perez and Iwobi rose to the challenge and worked tremendously hard in the wide roles. The headlines acclaimed the Spaniards three gaols but the commentators on the night were praising his constant working back to support Gabriel and Iwobi and Monreal mirrored the system on the left.
I will watch this play out in the coming games starting tonight at Goodison and I know most reading this will probably not be convinced. However keep an open mind and watch the team this evening when Everton are on the attack. Indeed, look closely when we lose the ball and the Toffees begin to advance and my money says you may just see not just Alexis Sanchez but also Mesut Ozil staying up filed and Ox and Theo back either side of Coquelin and Xhaka in a 4. Too soon to think of the 2 Ex Saints as Bobby and Freddie in talent but they may just be reprising their roles.
This system gave Wenger 4 FA Cups and 3 titles but can it again?