Arsenal’s brilliant defensive display against Manchester City was impressive on a number of fronts, the most obvious being in demonstrating how the gunners could utilize an alternative game plan to their habitual possession game to win at a difficult away ground.
As is their wont, the media have gone into overdrive in their contrived shock at Arsène Wenger’s ability to adopt such a prosaic approach to winning a game, conveniently forgetting, (as Michael Cox notes in this brilliant piece for zonal marking) that the cerebral Frenchman has employed a similar approach on several occasions in the recent past.
More intriguing than the pseudo shock at Wenger’s change of tactics was the way the performance at City served to highlight the Arsenal manager’s increased tactical flexibility this term. The Frenchman, often pilloried for his tactical rigidity has at various times this season employed a 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and even a 4-4-2 before reverting to the 4-1-4-1 used in Sunday’s victory at the Etihad. The question then arises, is this experimentation with different formations a “new normal” for the Wenger, or simply the search for a perfect system to accommodate the plethora of talents at his disposal?
The answer may very well be a little bit of both. For whilst it was apparent, particularly at the beginning of the season that Wenger was trying to accommodate as many of the glut of playmakers he has in his side as possible, other factors like the astonishing injury crisis the club had to endure, and the need to integrate new players like Alexis Sánchez undoubtedly played a part.
With the injury situation now for the most part easing, the greater options in terms of personnel give Wenger the opportunity to continue to vary his tactical options, from game to game. In a sense he has little choice, especially with the likes of Özil, Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, and Jack Wilshere all either having attained full fitness or approaching it. The challenge has gone very quickly from scratching around for a fit starting eleven to keeping the squad happy whilst simultaneously ensuring that results do not suffer as a consequence. The last observation is a very salient one, as the importance of striking the delicate balance between keeping players who have lost their starting berth as a result of succumbing to injury without upsetting the consistency of a winning team cannot be overemphasized.
It’s a tricky issue to navigate even if in the wider context of a campaign that was quickly heading south, it’s a relatively nice problem to have.
With that in mind, it appears that Wenger may have to gravitate between playing either a 4-1-4-1 formation with Coquelin occupying the withdrawn midfield role and Sánchez, Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil taking up the more advanced midfield roles of a 4-3-3.
Santi Cazorla’s recent performance operating in the centre of midfield have been nothing short of phenomenal and it will be extremely ill-advised to shift him from his central berth as long as he continues to deliver consistently in this role. As a result, Mesut Özil will simply have to adapt to operating mainly from a wide berth. Some may say that this is not his natural position, but given that he has performed reasonably well when playing for the World Cup winning German national team whilst occupying a wide berth, there’s no reason to believe he cannot adapt to playing a similar role for Arsenal at least on a short term basis. Besides, he’s unlikely to be asked to play there for every game. In some games, against relatively weaker opposition, Cazorla may be rested to allow Özil to operate from the middle of either a 4-3-3 of 4-2-3-1, with the possibility here of utilizing the pace of Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sánchez and even Danny Welbeck in the wide positions.
Regardless of the formation(s) adopted, what is of paramount importance is that Wenger’s charges execute their roles to perfection. That much was very much in evidence in the course of the victory over City. It was not so much the novelty of the tactics on show that won the game, but the application and discipline of the players in carrying out their instructions to the letter that was instrumental in securing a hard won victory. If the Gunners are to conclude their season on a high, what is paramount is that the players exhibit a similar level of professionalism, commitment, drive and endeavour in every game between now and the conclusion of the season in May. That will remain the case whether or not Wenger chooses tactical rigidity or flexibility.