Wenger’s new tactics represent a revolution

I think I might be getting too old for this football commentary lark, because it is only now that the magnitude of the Lord Wenger’s achievement is starting to hit me in the face.  I should have had faith in what I saw at the Celtic game – but I got no further than, “I wonder if…”

Now after watching three home games in person I’m sure.  This is one hell of a revolution that is going on.

4-3-3 is what it is all about.  But 4-3-3 of the type Wenger is playing is in fact 4-3-3 Variation, ( which I shall call 4-3-3 V, first because it is shorter and second because I am pompous and the opportunity to name something myself is never one I throw away lightly).

But it is not just a simple change of format from the old 4-4-2: it is much more than that.

What I saw at the Ems yesterday was a three man forward line of Eboué on the right, Van Persie in the middle, and Eduardo on the left.  I am not sure the rest of the world saw it that way – certainly the BBC commentators had Eboué playing midfield, but as I watched the game it just didn’t look like that at all.

What we had was the two wingers (Eboué and Eduardo) sticking to their channels like wingers from 50 years ago, and Van Persie holding the centre.   Now when I first saw Van Persie put out to play the old “number 9” position I thought it was just an oddity – like Rosicky playing centre forward at Barnet, pre-season.

This is the man who the Lord Wenger described as Bergkamp II and we know where Dennis scored from – about half way up the pitch.

But in fact what happens is that Van Persie slips back as the “wingers” move in from the sides to take up the more established centre forward positions.  It sounds obvious when described (although not so obvious when one of the wingers is Eboué, in that you just don’t expect him to be there).  Yet it is not that obvious to play against.

You go out onto the pitch as a defender to mark Bendtner and you find him playing on the wing – so you start tracking him back and forth, only to find the bugger has moved into the centre and Van Persie has dropped back.  Most confusing.

Meanwhile all sorts of rotations are happening in the middle. The classic midfield  that we have is, for me: Denilson, Cesc, Song.

That trio is something else again.  Cesc can do everything, Song can tackle, track back, tackle, recover, and Denilson is the utter master of knowing how and where the ball will be as it bounces off a tackle into space.

So you have those three rotating as play moves, and the front three rotating as play moves.

Meanwhile the back four are now playing a different game.  I’ve read all the stuff about Clichy being off form this season, and I was starting to get suckered into it, but I am not sure this is true.  What the full backs are doing is far less of the overlap, tearing down the wings stuff, more of the traditional left and right back defending behind that rotating midfield of three.

Of course it is not like this all the time, and you can see examples of moments when the players slip back into their old systems – which is even more confusing for the opposition (and unfortunately occasionally difficult for us).

But what is so utterly remarkable is how fast the players have got the hang of this and are making it work, despite huge numbers of injuries.   Yesterday (if you accept my analysis rather than the BBC’s) Eboué was a forward, and we had our 3rd choice keeper, no Denilson, no Theo, no Arshavin, no Vela, and only 50% Rosicky.

I am not saying they would all have played if fit, but there would have been some presence from that lot, and an even more exciting bench.  As a defender if you are 3-0 down and Rosicky comes on, you probably don’t think too much about it, because you don’t remember too much about him.

But if Theo comes on, fresh and ready to tear into you, or Arshavin comes on… you’ll probably start looking at the clock.

So, if this is all so wonderful, and 4-3-3 V is such a staggering innovation, how come we lost twice in Manchester and had a dodgy start in Belgium?  Especially when the system  was working so well from the off?

I am going to stick out my neck a long way and say it was three things

  1. Freakishness – Diaby’s own goal against Manchester U was one of those bizarre things, like Dixon’s own goal against Coventry City where he beat Seaman from 40 yards out.  It happens.
  2. Bad refereeing – even the most rabid anti-Arsenal hack agrees now that the tall geezer who used to play for us and wander around the pitch a bit, should have been sent off both for this attack on Cesc and his violent assault on Van Persie.  If either decision had gone our way the result would have been different.
  3. Injuries – we are in our third year of continual injuries to key players, and I think the Lord Wenger is now planning for this with an ever maturing back up team.  The reason must be the speed of the game – the faster you go, the harder it is on your body when you do a dead stop.  But we are having to get the hang of this situation.

The answer to this is that you can excuse anything – and the fact is that as I write this two clubs have 100% records and are not suffering freakish events and dodgy refereeing (or if they are the refereeing is in their favour).  That’s true.

Those two clubs also have huge amounts of money.  But that does not mean that where they are today is where they will be tomorrow.

Manchester Arab are proclaiming that their future is to be built on a youth development system and the players they have got.  Exactly as the KGB in Fulham have repeatedly said that their system is to be built on youth… and then look what happens.  Suddenly even the corrupt and meandering UEFA and FIFA catch up with them.

Making changes takes time. The rich who steal the wealth of the poor are used to ordering change and seeing it happen – but it doesn’t happen in football.  (Remember the kid who stayed at Charlton and refused to go to Chelsea because “no youth player at Chelsea ever makes it into the first team.”)

Three weeks ago the Guardian called the Chelsea youth development programme “as productive as a one-armed paperhanger in recent years”.  Actually that article on 5th September about a Chelsea reserve game really is worth reading

There will be fits and starts but what we have with 4-3-3 V is a stunning development in football, not just because it confuses the opposition, but also because it is a decent way of overcoming rotational fouling (Wigan committed over 20 fouls to Arsenal’s six yesterday) and the “team bus” approach which we saw in Belgium after the fifth minute, and which Wigan looked to achieve before the first goal went in.

And this is what it has all been about.  The four years of waiting have been waiting for the evolution  of the new system, and the players to make it work.

I don’t think you get the full picture watching it on TV – although of course if I am right then in the coming weeks all journalists will be saying “as I have been predicting for some time…” as they ask for wider shots and chalkboards to show the rotation of the two groups of three players.

But believe me, sitting in the ground, it smashes you in the face.  This is something utterly different.  And I think it is going to work.

(c) Tony Attwood 2009

31 Replies to “Wenger’s new tactics represent a revolution”

  1. It is looking rather good at the moment. We now have a run of games where we should pick up maximum points before then playing Chelsea. Momentum is often critical to these games and we seem to have better cover than in previous seasons. We need to sweep the disappointment of the Manchester games away and focus on winning the next game.

  2. It indeed is a revolution. This formation is giving freedom for everyone to play their game. Even Vermaelen and Gallas are allowed to make lots of forward runs and Song covering them.

    But I somehow feel this formation is more similar to Chapman’s WM formation than a 4-3-3.. I mean when I see us defend, I see Song dropping into a CD position to make it look like a inverted Chapman’s defensive 5.


    And the attacking 5 in a similr fashion.


    This doesnt seem obvious all the time but when we defend deep, Song plays a lot deeper than a Defensive Mid will do. I maybe wrong but I felt like We’d gone back 80 years in the last week or so.. I read a lot about Chapman years and loved the formation and the way it worked. The one name that comes to my mind when I think about Chapman is Cliff Bastin. Theo can emulate his success with this new formation.

    I also feel this formation had been in Wenger’s mind for quite some time now especially with the players we’ve. And it also explains why Wenger didnt buy a ‘traditional winger’ in the last couple of years. The players must have been playing this way in the practice sessions for some time. That can explain the good understanding and flow on the pitch but as every new plan will have small hiccups like manchester games, I’m sure We all will see the full capability of this formation before the end of year. This formation suit Theo, AA, Eboue to use their pace, Cesc/Rosicky/AA/RvP/Nasri to be at their crative best, Diaby/Vermalen/Gallas for their forward runs and the full backs too because when they go forward, Song drops deep to create a 3-man central defence.

  3. So Shayne, whats your point ? Is it like we only beat Everton ?
    Last year I think we scored 3 goals in the corresponding games against those team (Everton, Wigan and Portsmouth one goal each) Now 18 goals in those games.
    On the Belgian TV they said during the Standard game: “The players from Standard don’t know anymore where they all are coming from. The keep on switching positions every other attack.”

  4. I agree with Tony a bit.

    Sure we ve only beet Wigan, but on the evidence of all the games we played do far, we ‘outplayed’ all of them.

    We lost yes, but I will fight anyone who say we deserved those losses…man u got very lucky, and the rich bitches got away because of our poor finishing, tireness, and individual errors – not team’s downfall.

    The only game we played poorly was in Belgium which we won…it does prove to some anti-Wenger that yes, A TEAM CAN WIN PLAYING poorly like man u and the rich bitches (minus counter attacks and clinical finishing).

    I don’t think Tony did this on just the evidence of one game…this season we played 8 games and have but 1 game deserved to win by outplaying even man u.

    To the gloomers who spoil the fun, if you’ve been watching football long enough then u should know that a team can lose 4-2 despite playing better…and we suffered alot of that in recent years too.

    Very excite to see theo on the wing with this system.

  5. Yes Shayne we only beat Wigan, but that’s something we should do right? Well what happens if we would have lost against them? “How could we not have beaten Wigan!” would have been the cry. So why not take the win with some enthusiasm and excitement?

  6. Very good points Tony and as someone who has also been at those 3 home games, the rotation really does make your head spin as a spectator. Sometimes it is really hard to tell who is playing where and whether it’s 4-3-3 or some other variation. It must be hard for the opposition players too and I recall some Celtic players saying it was like playing against 12 men such was the movement of our team. So far this season the system has worked best in the first game against Everton when everyone was fresh and raring to go. We have been a bit disrupted by internationals, CL qualifiers and the fact that we’ve had so many tough away games on the spin, with limited opportunities to rotate due to injuries, but the signs are there. When we get more players back so that Arsene can rotate more to increase the variation even further, we could see more games like the Everton game.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing how the young guns do with the new system against WBA who are very much in form at the moment.

  7. Over the past season (and I think when it was becoming increasingly obvious that we were not going to win the premiership) the players have been increasingly used in various positions, though generally in the same area of play.
    Some blogs were complaining about players being out of position but if you start to look at it from the longer term perspective it begins to make sense, and that they (the players)were being groomed to be more flexible in the positions that they take up.

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone. Thinking on this further this sunday afternoon I was reminded of the comments that seemed to flow a lot last season about how inexperienced we were. The old “can’t win anything with kids” stuff.

    If you think of our proper first team now we have, amongst the kids, these players

    Van Persie

    all of whom have considerable experience at this, and in many cases international level.

    That is the right sort of balance for me. The highly talented who have a lot of experience, mixed the equally talented who have come through in recent years (Theo, Clichy, Sagna) and then a few newcomers (Song, Denilson).

    It is difficult to know quite which group some fit into, but I am sure you see what I mean – we have a blend of youth and experience that people have been calling for.

    Somehow it just happened.

  9. Yes Tony, and it must be pretty galling for those experienced players to be overlooked and referred to as part of the ‘Arsenal is a young team’ mantra. In fact I would add Sagna and Eboue to that list too.

  10. If I’m affraid to one thing than it is that we migth suffer another Eduardo-case.
    Not that Edaurod will dive again and will be slaughtered for it by the press. No I refer to the Eduardo horror injury.
    The way the oppononts are throwing in tackles and try to heart Cesc is making me affraid. He escaped against Adebayor last week, yesterday again some very sharp tackles.
    The ref mostly gave a foul but the tackles are very dangerous at time.
    The refs have to take care of this

  11. I agree that the new system is a revolution, and completely different game to George Graham’s “boring, boring Arsenal”. It is certainly exciting for the fans, and is comparable to the style that Barcelona and Spain use, but is it suited to the Premier League? It’s fine when you play inferior teams that sit back and let you attack (park the bus, as you say) but will it get us anywhere against the big teams? The reason i ask, is that it does seem to leave big holes at the back, ehich are vulnerable to breakaways. Its fine when you know “We’ll score more than you” but i don’t think it will work against the Chelseas and Man Utds of the world. Not until our defence improves anyway.

  12. there is obviously something going on, what with 14 different goal scorers this season. vermaelen looked like a cf yesterday for his second goal, and he’s only just got here.

    yesterdays ref was good, i thought. he laid down the law in the first half and by the second, most players had got the hang of him. he should have played advantage a bit more tho.

  13. I see your point Pat, but we usually do well against the top teams, it’s the ‘park the bus’ teams we need to overcome and we have failed to do so consistently before. If we can despatch those teams this season we will be in a position to fight for the league. Look at man u’s stats from last season if you doubt it. They had the worst record against the other top 4 teams, but they consistently beat the also rans and had a PL trophy to show for it.

    Oh and we didn’t lose the man u game because of our system, that was down to us not taking our chances and then gifting them the points by conceding a soft penalty and an own goal.

  14. Pig, I thought the referee should have also shown a couple more cards to Wigan players early on rather than allow the rotational fouling to continue throughout the game. He only gave one for a foul, the other one was for dissent despite RVP and Cesc in particular being on the end of some very industrial tackles.

  15. I find it really encouraging that AW is willing to be creative and flexible in his thinking. A lesser manager might have sought safety in the use of more conventional formations. Adopting a ‘zonal’ rather than ‘positional’ approach frees the players to intervene whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

    It seems to me that to work it requires players who combine a high level of skill, athleticism and, crucially, judgement. But that’s alright because we have many such players, and as the season progresses, we can only become more effective at playing this way.

    Agree absolutely with Walter. It seemed clear to me that Wigan made repeated use of foul play in an attempt to interrupt the flow of our game and nothing effective was about it, leaving Cesc and RvP vulnerable to serious injury.

  16. people if some wants to see pretty football then buy a ps3 with HD tv im sure you’ll enjoy. this is real world over here win is all that matters and wins you silverware and thats what we’v been cravig for last five year. bigger the name gets even bigger the expectations get. we all know how big of a cheat is man u but at the end of the year no body praises the pretty football its champs everybody is singing about.
    well thats not an opinion its just reality

  17. Hmmm…but doesn’t this system leave us lacking in delivery from wide areas? If you saw the Manchester derby today, almost everything ManU created was from wide areas.

  18. I’m in full agreement with the notion that it is the “team bus” approach that we need to counter. And indeed not just us – we’ve heard a lot about the fact that Liverpool lost the league last season because of the number of draws they had. In fact all top four teams struggled.

    One of the greatest matches I have ever seen in person (and I know how easy it is to say that about something recent) was last year’s Arsenal v Man U at the Ems, a staggeringly exciting and flowing game. We won that 2-1, and over the years without a trophy we have had our fair share of good victories like that over the rest of the top 4. Chelsea away was rather fine last season too.

    But those terrible games against Bolton, Blackburn and the other teams that openly declare that they will have

    a) 11 behind the ball
    b) a policy of timewasting from the first second
    c) a policy of rotational fouling

    those are the ones we have had problems with for several years.

    During the Henry era we had a brilliant tactic to defeat these guys – Henry drifted left and took a central defender with him, and also drew in the full back. Pires then wandered into the centre forward position. Henry’s brilliance generally drew in a third player, and he then took out all defenders with a pass to Pires who scored.

    Obviously there were other tactics, but my point is that the brilliance of those two together allowed us to beat the 0-0 teams.

    As matters stand we don’t have two players of such exquisite skill who can do it themselves, so we are seeing a new approach.

    Of course if a couple of players on our books now emerge as the new Henry/Pires duo, then we could be onto something.

  19. If you allow me I will repeat my comment earlier on. I had lost track of time and I had to take my son back to university as college start again tomorrow.

    If I’m affraid to one thing than it is that we migth suffer another Eduardo-case.
    Not that Edaurdo will dive again and will be slaughtered for it by the press. No I refer to the Eduardo horror injury.
    The way the oppononts are throwing in tackles and try to heart Cesc is making me affraid. He escaped against Adebayor last week, yesterday again some very sharp tackles.
    The ref mostly gave a foul but the tackles are very dangerous at time.
    The refs have to take care of this.

    The Fa has to choose. Do they want the best players to play in the PL because another Eduardo-injury will bring the PL in a whole in a bad daylight. One of the reasons Hleb left, apart from the money, was the Eduardo tackle and the dangerous charges he had to suffer.
    The Fa must now that people want to pay money to see good football and quality players but the don’t pay money to see those players being carried of the field and brought to hospital.
    Also the fact that Arsenal players constantly are being stigmatized as cheats, in the press, plays a role. We all remember the not given Arshavin penalty in MU wich could have been an Eduarod injury if Arshavin would have his feet stuck in the ground. The dangerous tackle on Cesc by A********r, the kick in the face by that same player, yesterday once again I have seen charges on Cesc that made me shiver.
    One of these days it will go wrong again. I really would like to see the Arsenal talking about it in the press and given video examples on what could have happened with some bad luck. Because of the suffering Eduardo and Arsenal had we are entitled to warn for a repeat.
    They will call us weak or moaners but my God, I really fear it will happen again. We can only call on the FA to give instructions to the refs to have a sharp look on dangerous and twofooted tackles.

  20. I’m really liking the new system wenger has going and the players seem to be responding well to the set up. vermaelan is quickly becoming an absolute titan for us. the only thing i would like to see is a bit more speed in our counter attacking remember the days of henry, pires, ljungberg et al the speed of attack was fierce.

    @anto, united have had to change the way they play with the loss of ronaldo changing the emphasis to crosses form the wide position rather than the counter attacking 3 man forward line.

  21. I understand your fear Walter, but I don’t see the authorities over here doing anything about it. Arsene mentioned it in his press conference yesterday that the media choose to focus on issues dependent upon the personality of the player concerned (or passport, I believe!). He also challenged them about why they focus on issues, like diving or a handball in the heat of the game which does not have the potential to cause serious injury, yet they are silent about the rotational fouling or serious foul play that goes unpunished week after week. Unfortunately, the ex-player pundits who set the standard by their comments after the games are from the era of the dinosaur when kick and rush football was the order of the day. They are deeply suspicious of skillful footballers and seem to revel in the unnecessary roughness that passes for football in some quarters.

  22. I haven’t seen the press conference yet so very intrested in what AW says about it. Hope I get some time tomorow to see it. And really hope that Cesc is not serious injured.

  23. I have read with fascination this article and the replies. I watched the Man Derby and wished somehow both teams could lose.
    And thats the point, a simple rule change would liberate our game.

    For a 0-0 draw both teams lose. ie no points
    This would remove the requirement to park any buses and make all teams at least score one goal to secure a point or three.

  24. I agree with the entire article except the reason that had ref given adebayor a red card we would have won. Come on, we always like to beat the teams fair and square.
    On a different note, I am not comfortable with Cesc’s performance i the last 2 games and his showing a straight face even when he scores the goal.

  25. Tony,
    I just want to say that this is a brilliant blog, and it certainly helps me understand more of what is happening on the pitch from the tele. Ive read alot of blogs about Arsenal lacking 2 or 3 big stars to challenge for the title, and while I do still think Wenger should have brought in just one more defensive player in the Transfer Market, given the ebb and flow of the new system it does seem like the players we have fit that style of play quite well doesnt it. Amazing…youre ah ha moment is becoming mine. Thanks man. One question-
    We do seem a bit frail defensively on the break. Man City’s 4 would be a good point in case. And this new system seems to push more players forward, focused on attack. So then, are you postulating that Wengers strategy to win the PL might be to ensure victory against everyone outside the top four…well…5…haha…despite our results,or at least taking pressure off our results, against Chel. manu. liv. and city? Meaning-beat everyone else, hopefully beat the top competition, and win the title?

  26. crap..crap…and more crap….sweep fulham aside in craven cottage then there’s a realistic chance at the title or top four more practically…sweeping wigan who were trying to pass the ball was an easy job..now let’s see what happens at fulham..

  27. Great article.

    Q: Is this ‘new’ tactic just a natural progression as the squad has matured and players grown in confidence? Last seasons 4-5-1 was necessary to help younger players settle into the 1st XI and keep the pressure of as much as possible, the title was lost early on? Is it that dissimilar a style to Barca’s tactics?

    Vela’s & Walcott’s pace will be vital to any success this season, even if they aren’t starters. Eboue’s performance just confirmed how much space & movement players who have pace and run/dribble with the ball can add to the front three.

    On the fouling culture, Baresi was the master surely of the dark arts, and no offence, but Italy’s performance in the last WC final was a master class. Although Zidane wasn’t too impressed, I think he made his feelings clear on that subject.

    However in England there is still this ‘blood & guts’ mythology that belongs on the rugby field. Baresi was dirty but how often was he truly nasty? And as long as this monster is fed (How many caps did Le Tissier get?), English football will suffer, and players like Hleb, Fab & The Lesser Ronaldo will always be looking abroad to finish their careers as they lie in bed on a Monday with their legs covered in ice packs.

  28. Don’t mean to sound like I’m jumping on the ‘sad Fabregas’ bandwagon there.

    If I just side-footed in a beautiful (hard) cross in with the same ankle I’d been hobbling about on for fifteen minutes, I’d probably be in a fair amount of pain too!

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