For many, it is the traditional and best way to set up a football team. To others, it’s too rigid and not adaptable enough for the modern game. However, whilst playing the 4-4-2 system, Arsene Wenger won the Premier League three times. Since changing his philosophy, he hasn’t won it and has only rarely looked like doing so. This article will try to understand the reasoning behind the change from 4-4-2 to the modern 4-3-3.
My background as a community and to a lesser extent academy football coach, has enabled me to come across people at a decent level in the game. When coaching in Boston in the summer of 2014, I got talking to a coach who had recently left the Arsenal academy after 10 years. More than anything else, I’m a fan, so I was desperate to find out what I could from this bloke, who had worked with Wilshere, Akpom, and more interestingly, Cesc Fabgregas. “Why was it mate? Why did he change the whole philosophy of the club, from having a side full of power, speed, physical presence, to these shorter, technically better players and move to a 4-3-3?” I asked, expecting some insight from someone involved in the club. The answer summed up the feeling of most Gooners, he simply sniffed and replied “don’t know mate”.
Its 2004. Arsenal have just gone unbeaten, playing some of the most impressive football ever seen, combining attacking flair with defensive strength. The average height of the team is just over six feet. Vieria and Gilberto made up two in the midfield, and they lined up with two inverted wingers (usually Pires and Freddie but Reyes would begin to play more). They were based behind two strikers, more often than not, Henry Bergkamp. Like anyone, it hurts having to type these names because as good as Sanchez and Ozil are, I struggle to find a place in the team ahead of these players. Interestingly enough, that all conquering side of 2004, like 2002 and the 1998 team before lined up 4-4-2.
In any of those (4-4-2) title winning teams, Wenger had similar players, and if two players were to define the two systems, and even more so define Wenger’s Arsenal career into two parts, I would say it is Patrick Vieria and Cesc Fabregas. More on Cesc later. Patrick Vieria was 6’4 and was the first major signing by Wenger, whose instruction to his backline was simply “when you get the ball, pass is to Patrick”. He didn’t care how many men were around him, he would receive the ball, turn and pass forwards, usually to Dennis Bergkamp (The most completed pass 1997/1998 season). It also helped that he had a partner that was as big and as strong as him next to him, first Petit, then Gilberto Silva, and sometimes Edu. Arsenal could go into games knowing they had the technical quality, but also had the physical power should they need it (something clearly lacking in later years).
In 2004 though, something else happened. Jose Mourinho moved to West London and brought his “park the bus” style with him, and with the help of around £150 million from the Russian, transformed Chelsea into winners. He used a 4-3-3 system that was relatively unknown in England, the main advantage being when you are defending, 4-3-3 becomes 4-5-1. Teams began to use this style, particularly lower down the Premier League, while Arsene persisted with his tested 4-4-2. However, the emergence of Cesc Fabregas would have negative affect on the team in certain away games of the 04/05 season, I seem to remember Palace away, and the all too common physical batterings in the North West as teams began to pack the midfield and physically over run Arsenal, who continued to play with 2 in the middle. An FA cup win over Man United in 2005 marked the end of the Vieria era, the start of the Fabregas era and the start of a 9 year trophy drought.
In the following years, Wenger continued with 4-4-2 with the same stubbornness he is accused of today, partnering a two of Fabregas with first Gilberto, before the likeable Brazilian was shipped out, and this was followed by Flamini (In 08, where had it not been for awful luck, they would’ve won the title), Diarra (remember him?) and then Denilson. It was only in 2009/2010 the idea changed and we would play 4-3-3, with Fabregas quite rightly the focal point of a brilliant footballing team. Another reason Wenger may’ve been influenced was that this is around the same time Spain were winning everything and Pep’s Barca were recreating the right way to play football.
Of course, you can’t blame a trophy drought on tactics alone, and perhaps if signings had been different, or Gallas hadn’t been appointed captain etc, we may be talking differently now. But it remained obvious that in big games, against big teams (both figuratively and literally), Arsenal struggled. The average height had dropped significantly, we no longer had that midfielder that would shove 3 players off the ball and take on another 3.
As great a footballer as he was for us, Cesc was never able to do this (this is demonstrated now at Chelsea, where you see him line up, often protected throughout by Matic and Ramires). My argument with Wenger is that he was so convinced that he had found this new way of playing, he’d persist with it. When Cesc left in 2011, I wonder what would’ve happened if he’d gone out and bought two brick walls to play central midfield. Possibly would’ve slowed down Jack and Aaron’s development (although I personally feel both can play in a midfield two, just not together), but we may have a league title to be parading round the Emirates. Another crazy though, imagine having these technically gifted players being allowed to do their thing, knowing that a Matic type is behind them,
Four years on from Cesc’s departure from Arsenal, and it’s fair to say we’re in better shape than when he left. Consecutive cups and shields have lifted mood somewhat, but we as fans are crying out for a league title. Under Wenger, Arsenal will always score goals, whoever is up top, but what really disappointed me in the last window was the lack of a holding midfielder. I like Coquelin a lot, but the best way I can describe him is he is a number 16, not a number 4 (basically, we need someone bigger and stronger to play that role, or for the tough away games, play two). Arteta and Flamini I dont like criticising, because they clearly care about Arsenal and put in a shift, despite being not good enough. But why, with £100 million in the bank, has Wenger decided against Kondogbia, Krychowiak, or even Scheneiderlin?
I said earlier that you could almost split Wenger’s time at Arsenal into two. Many would call it Highbury and Emirates. I would call it Vieira and Cesc. And speaking as a football coach, but more so a fan, I think it’s time Wenger returned to the Vieira ideology, to help, if not completely change, his philosophy on how a title should be won.
Up the Arsenal.