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What’s a formation?

Mikel Arteta’s ideal Arsenal was always described as a 4-3-3. But is that even accurate?

Arsenal Training Session Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Formations are crucial in football. They are how most fans speak of their team’s tactics; how they line up, and in some ways go to describing the football itself. A team playing 4-4-2 is old-fashioned, anachronistic. A team playing 4-3-3 is modern; advanced, neat. If you play anything that starts with a five, you are a defensive team.

For something that is so crucial, though, formations are very inaccurate. In a simple sense, the only team a side that is playing 4-4-2 might line up in a 4-4-2 is during kick off, and perhaps again off the ball, defending. But what that team does with the ball isn’t picked up by the common numerical description of a formation. It might be that both full backs push up, forming a 2-4-4, or one full back pushed up and another tucking in, making a 3-3-1-3. All of these things are possible to capture numerically but generally aren’t.

This brings us to Arsenal. Mikel Arteta’s tactical history can read as the following: a 4-2-3-1, followed by a 3-4-3, that morphed into a 5-4-1, before returning to a 4-2-3-1 before Arsenal finally evolved into what most would call a 4-3-3. This is all fine and good, but it misses two important contextual clues: firstly, it ignores a level of consistency in Arteta’s positional tactics, and secondly, doesn’t really describe Arsenal in any phase of play. Observers may call Arsenal a 4-3-3 team, but Arsenal defend essentially in a 4-4-2, with Martin Ødegaard joining Gabriel Jesus, and on the ball, Arsenal, with Oleksandr Zinchenko as one full back and the box to box prowess of Granit Xhaka, don’t attack as a 4-3-3. Formationally, how could one describe Arsenal then?

I’ve written throughout Mikel Arteta’s tenure at Arsenal at how he likes to have five channels occupied both deeper, in Arsenal’s own half, and with the forward players. The idea is that all five channels are occupied forward, while deeper, Arsenal’s players can choose to either set up with occupying a wider deeper space, or overloading centrally, allowing players to play through the lines.

Here, Arsenal have their full backs, Zinchenko and White, wider, but in line with Thomas Partey. Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard are ahead, but in the same half-space as Gabriel and William Saliba, giving both centre backs the opportunity to play through the lines, or go wide. In that sense, Xhaka and Ødegaard are in the inside left and right position respectively, while Martinelli and Saka, further along, are wide. When Arsenal lose possession, Xhaka drops in and Ødegaard stays high, giving Arsenal a 4-4-2 out of possession.

Further up the pitch, after a counterpress and regain of possession, the shape is broadly similar. The only difference is the center forward position hasn’t been filled—only because Jesus was helping with the press, creating space for either Ødegaard or Xhaka to fill in, displaying the rotation on hand. With Arsenal regaining the ball further up the pitch there’s more presence on the forward line, making this more of a true five-player front line.

Instead of positions, it might be worth talking about roles and spaces that are occupied. This, funnily enough, has a connection with the past. In the old 2-3-5, the five channels were described as outside left and right, inside left and right, and the centre forward. The three in the middle were called half-backs (hence, the centre half), and the two at the back were fullbacks. This, showing the link with other codes of football, like rugby, does have a link with the football of today: Zinchenko, for example, might be best described as an inside left halfback, which describes the zone of the pitch he plays in. Xhaka as an inside left is also descriptive, perhaps more so than a #8, and it is not as if the inside forwards of the 2-3-5 were always playing off the front. If we are to make it modern, we could take halfback away from Zinchenko, and discuss him as being in the middle in the inside left half-space, and for Xhaka, an inside left deeper forward or attacking midfielder, with Ødegaard the same, but from the right.

Formations are meant to be guides. But if they are guides, they should have accuracy. This can be done in multiple ways: by describing players by their area of the pitch, but also in thinking about how teams are shaped on the ball and half the ball. Arsenal, for example, are almost never in a strict 4-3-3. It’s a 4-4-2 off the ball, and a 2-3-2-3, 2-3-5, or W-M on the ball. If we are to be more accurate in discussing team shapes, we don’t actually need to reinvent the wheel. The pressing, pace, style, and rules may be completely different to the football of the 1920s, but the shape is fairly similar: for filling the five channels is what they were at the beginning of football tactics, a 2-3-5 in possession. In this case, everything old is new again, just described more fashionably than necessary.