It is my firm belief that the failure and near misses of the past six years actually really go back to 2006 when we left Highbury. Not because we left the spiritual home of football, although the smaller pitch did help, but due to the gradual change to a winning formula.
The 1998, 2002 double winning sides and the 2004 ‘Invincibles’ were all made up of 4-4-2 formations and it is only since Arsene Wenger has changed to 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in an advanced midfield role and to a lesser extent, Theo Walcott, Andrey Arshavin, formerly Samir Nasri and now Gervinhoin wide striker roles that our fortunes seem to have changed. Coincidence? I think not.
All three championship winning sides operated with attacking and hardworking wide players, none of whom were traditional wingers and two central midfield players, one slightly more adventurous than the other. However, I feel that 1998 is the team and formation that truly teaches us the most and can give us a pointer for 2011/12 and our current crop of talented underachievers.
There is no need to dwell on the defence at this stage as we all know the strength and dominance of the back five Wenger inherited, but the key is the four first choice midfielders. In the centre we see Emmanuel Petit sitting and Paddy Vieira playing the more advanced role. Of course as they proved not only for Arsenal, but famously in the World Cup final, they were interchangeable and each new when to support the other or cover. On the left we had Marc Overmars and on the right our very own home-grown Ray Parlour. So why are these four players, or in my opinion, the two wide players so crucial and what can we learn? The significance was the total difference in Overmars and Parlour and what their style and flexibility did for the team and crucially the formation and how they interacted with the strikers, Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright and latterly Nicolas Anelka.
In Marc Overmars on the left we had a skilful dribbling speed king with ice in his blood in front of goal and when one on one with the keeper. On the right we had a hard working, tough tackling, committed engine in Ray Parlour, with growing passing ability and confidence under Wenger. So in Overmars we had a far more attacking wide man and on the right the more conservative Parlour either side of two strong central midfielders in a 4-4-2. It was the fundamental differences in the two wide men that provided Wenger with the key to success because whilst Overmars was always likely to over commit and effectively become the 3rd striker, Razor would always naturally tuck in, like the central midfielder, he originally and ultimately was, and seamlessly turn the 4-4-2 into an exciting 4-3-3 when were on the attack. In essence therefore it was the players we had at that time that effortlessly and fluidly changed the formation during the game.
It was not too dissimilar in 2002 and 2004 when either Robert Pires or Freddie Lungberg joined the attacking two the other would moved slightly infield to support Gilberto/Edu and Vieira.
However, since moving to the Emirates Wenger has gradually altered tactics and formation essentially to give the major talent that was ‘Cesc’ the freedom to shine. However Fabregas was and is a special player and perhaps it is time to be honest and come to terms with the fact that we are still playing a system designed for Cesc, without a Cesc equivalent.
So if we did revert to the original 1998 winning formula who would fit into the various roles?
There is no doubt I am sure in anyone’s mind that when fit Jack Wilshere must play. Alongside Jack I would envisageAlex Song or Mikel Arteta, dependent on the opposition. Who will feel the shoes and roles of Overmars and Parlour whose differing talents and attributes made 1998 so rewarding and a joy to behold? I would selectGervinho wide on the left. He is not of the quality of Overmars yet, but has a good work ethic and is prepared to track back to support his full-back and I am certain in time he will regain his confidence any begin to score at the rate he was for Lille last season.
Finally and crucially we need the player to slot in on the right, with the ability to run the flank but also to tuck in a seamlessly join Wilshire and Song/Arteta when Gervinho has joined the strikers as Overmars was given licence to do so effectively. To my mind the very player is none other than Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey undoubtedly has the ability to beat a man and find a telling cross or through ball whilst playing wide right and can easily move in to support the centre when required. I feel he has the talent, energy and discipline to follow Parlour and join him as an Arsenal legend in years to come.
This formation will give us the attacking flair we had in 1998 as well as the structure when defending or without the ball. It also allows us to utilise Ramsey, Arteta/Song and Wilshere in the same team. Ramsey is struggling to cope I believe with the pressure of filling Cesc’s shoes. He has the ability to find the killer through ball or pass but not with the consistency required in the 4-2-3-1 formation designed for Fabregas. In 1997/98 Ray Parlour was a huge success working the right flank and as many will recall he was Man of the Match in the FA Cup Final against Newcastle. We can of course also utilise Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right of the midfield.
his also allows us to finally go back to having the two striker formation up top which brought us success in 1998, 2002 and 2004. In all three title winning years the key to this was the second striker which was the ‘Iceman,’ Dennis Bergkamp. Well there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Robin van Persie is more than ready for this role and like his countryman in his era, one of the finest footballers on the world stage. So here is the big decision – Would we give the Anelka role from 98 to one Walcott? It is what he wants and what Wenger has always said he will eventually give him. Looking at the natural finish against Swansea you know he has it in him to fulfil what he believes to be his destiny and fill the no.14 shirt as the arrowhead of our attack. Right now, I think I would give him a crack at playing off the last man if we did revert to the winning 4-4-1-1.
Many believe that this formation is dead in the modern day game and it may be that we just use the system in certain games. For those who do feel the modern game has moved on I suggest you would only need to look at the United run in from March to May last season. Ferguson settled on a front 6 that just clicked. It was Carrick and Giggs in the centre, with Nani and Park the two wide players. Nani more attacking and Park tucking in, when Nani was joining the front two of Rooney playing just in behind Hernandez. Sound familiar?
Wenger has proved stubborn in many ways as we know and he seems reluctant to change, but it is just the opposite character trait in Ferguson that has made so annoyingly successful. Ferguson will change systems from game to game dependent on the opposition and the form of his players, something Wenger seems loath to do, even bringing Marouane Chamakh or Nicklas Bendtner on in wide roles rather than alter the shape. The last time we were genuinely close to winning the EPL was in 2008 when we had a 4 man midfield of Fabregas and Flamini, flanked by Hleb and Rosicky, neither of whom were real wingers. Ironically that year it was the horrific injury toEduardo saw Wenger deviate and change from the 2 striker formation permanently and it was the new system that sadly left Eduardo out in the cold on his return. (God what would we give for a fully fit Eduardo now?)The system worked for 10 years and I feel it could work again with our current squad.
The other real advantage it gives Wenger is a true bargaining chip in the transfer market. At present as I have argued previously I see it as very unlikely that a top striker such as a Lukas Podolski would come knowing that they are cover for RVP, but they would certainly come if they heard that Wenger was planning to change back to a two striker attack. What is does give us is options. It might give Walcott his long awaited opportunity. It might see Chamakh return to the form that saw him hit double figures rapidly in the first three months of his Arsenal career. Or it might give Wenger the flexibility to bring in a top quality partner for our skipper, who must run out of steam at some point.
It has to be worth a try surely?
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