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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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