Arsenal's tactics -- specifically, the 4-1-4-1 formation and its implications -- have been discussed almost constantly this season. People look at the lineup before every game and fret over what shape the players will assume. Loads of the same people complain for the first ten, fifteen, twenty minutes of games when Mesut Ozil invariably drifts to the left side. We've talked about it here. Nobody seems to like the New Formation except for Arsene Wenger, and there's not a lot in the results to argue against it. Aside from the midweek 4-1 shellacking of Galatasaray and the first 80 minutes of the 2-2 draw against Manchester City, Arsenal really haven't put together a great performance this season.
This may come off as a #hottake, but I don't think the formation is the problem. I think the 4-1-4-1 could work fine, in theory. The problem isn't where the players are standing. It's the players who are being chosen to stand there.
Here's the thing about formations in general, and at Arsenal in particular. They're more an outline for who's going to be doing what and where they're going to be doing it than they are a rigid rule. Whether Mesut Ozil is told he's playing as a number 10 or a left winger, he's going to spend some time in both positions. Our players move around a lot, because they're good and they're versatile. That's a good thing. It makes it harder for defenses to know where you're going to be, and what you're going to do with the ball. It moves the defense around and helps disrupt their shape; that's helpful, particularly if they're playing a more static, defensive game than us. (You know, like practically every match we play.)
But that only works if the players involved all are suited to it. If you have two guys who want to be in the same place all the time, that hinders your fluidity. If you're not balanced right, you too often force players into positions where they're uncomfortable, and that's where the performance drops.
The problem isn't the 4-1-4-1, or 4-3-3, or anything like that. It's Jack Wilshere.
I'm not really happy about this. I like Jack Wilshere, all #banter aside, and I want him to do well. And so far this year, he really has. He's been one of the more consistent positive performers in a team that hasn't performed positively on a consistent basis, and he's shown flashes of getting back to the level he showed in 2010-11, when he (among other things) famously played the greatest midfield ever assembled off the pitch. The problem isn't that he's not playing well, it's that when Wilshere plays well -- in 2014, at least -- it's not the kind of "playing well" that helps his teammates. He's performing, but at the detriment of the rest of the team.
When playing through the middle, Wilshere sees a lot of the ball. That's natural -- his preference is to attempt to dribble the ball first, then pass, and for the most part that's okay. It's not necessarily "selfish" or anything like that, it's just his style and that can be useful in a team. It also has the effect of sometimes making Wilshere look like he's playing well simply because he's seeing the ball a lot, and most of the things he's trying are coming off. It's a less subtle way to have an effect on a game than others might have.
It can cause problems, though. Spending too much time on the ball can take the rest of the team out of the game. It can cause stagnation, and reduces the variability in attack that I talked about earlier. Everything slows down, you start losing the ball deeper and deeper in your own territory, you get tackled and can't defend the counterattack...all in all, bad things happen.
And when you have a bunch of players who all want to occupy the same space, the problems are compounded. This is particularly evident when Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey play together. Aidan called this out in the column I linked above, with a GIF from the Manchester City draw. Here it is again:
THAT'S NOT HOW YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO SOCCER.
Ramsey and Wilshere are consistently where the other wants to be. That (in part) has led to Ramsey's poor pre-injury form. Wilshere and Ramsey in the middle pushes Ozil wide more than he wants to be there, which has led in part to his poor form. It also forces Ramsey forward more often -- to make up for the fact that Wilshere lacks the creativity and ability to unlock a defense that Ozil has -- which strands Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini in front of the defense alone, and puts more pressure on both, bringing their flaws into the forefront. The same goes for the defense, where fullbacks have to push forward even more than usual to provide width and support a stagnant attack, leaving the centerbacks more vulnerable than usual. Danny Welbeck has to do more work because he's not getting the service he needs, thus drifting out of scoring position (and again, into the same space in midfield that Ramsey and Wilshere are trying to occupy).
The fit is simply not there. It's puzzle pieces jammed together because they're there, not because they're supposed to go together. And the finished product shows the disorder.
The team as it exists right now is essentially set up to cater to Jack Wilshere. I don't have a problem with the idea of centering your team on a pivotal player -- we did it a few years ago with some Catalan guy, and it worked pretty well for a bit -- but only if he's really, really, really good. Jack Wilshere, right now, is not. He's certainly not good enough to carry a team, and like I mentioned earlier, he's not the kind of good that makes his teammates better. He's simply not a player worth catering to, to this extent.
Now think about the team that we saw against Galatasaray this week. At times it looked like an old-school 4-2-3-1, and at other times I noticed a distinctive 4-1-4-1 shape. It was listed on the teamsheet as the former, but it was a lineup that honestly could have handled either formation, and who the hell trusts the teamsheet's idea of what a formation is anyway? It was a holder in front of the defense, and a striker up top, and then four others basically interchanging consistently. At times I saw all of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, and Alexis Sanchez through the middle and on the wings.
And it worked! Of course Galatasaray aren't world-beaters, but long-time Arsenal fans know that doesn't matter. Hell, anyone who watched us play Leicester City knows it -- their 5-2 win against the shriveled husk that is the Manchester United defense aside, Leicester aren't a team Arsenal should struggle to beat. But Arsenal tend to struggle in exactly that kind of game (especially before last year), and at Leicester, with the team set up around Wilshere, they did. With Wilshere out of the team Wednesday, and more dynamism and fluidity injected, Arsenal took a Champions League opponent apart. Small sample size? Yeah, definitely. But I really don't think it means nothing.
All that being said, I don't think the answer has to be "bench Jack Wilshere." He is a good player. He has played well this year. It does not have to be this way. It's simply that the team cannot cater to his needs. If Wilshere is going to play, he has to be willing and able to move around the pitch like everyone else, and cede control from time to time. He's played on the wing before, and done it reasonably well. There's no reason he can't or shouldn't do it more going forward, whether he starts there or not. Arsenal's play can't run through him 100 percent of the time, he must facilitate for the players around him. He simply can't be the central figure in a team that is going to perform at the highest levels, at least not today.
Whatever the goal is, the experiment must end. For Arsenal, the reassignment -- not demotion -- of Jack Wilshere is critical. Arsene Wenger has to take the reins out of his hands, whether he intends to play two midfielders behind one or the other way around. The attempt to get him into good form was maybe not quite admirable, but it seems to have worked. Now we need to do what we can to get the entire team there. This would be a good start.