Time to build an Arsenal team and not build a team around an individual


So much has and will be written about Robin van Persie this summer and I myself on this blog am as guilty as the next Arsenal fan. We are also guilty collectively, and not surprisingly, or moaning about not winning a trophy for 7 whole years. Where the heck if he going with this they say?  Well this is not one of my tactics and formations pieces (well just a bit), nor is it one of my using statistics to argue my cases pieces. No this is a gut feeling from the heart sort of a piece, but it does have a thread that binds the two opening sentences. So why is us worrying about the decision of our talismanic skipper and our distinct lack of silverware inextricably linked?

Something has been nagging at me for a while and I will try and argue this coherently but first here is the controversial statement: ‘Arsenal don’t produce trophy winning sides when they build the team around one man.’ The last trophy we won was in 2005 but it was already going wrong by then.

Something had changed after the 49 game unbeaten run had end at old Trafford and looking back for me it was that the emphasis shifted slightly away from the brilliant well-oiled machine that has won the league unbeaten a year earlier and towards one man, Thierry Henry. Such that when Henry was unavailable injured for the 2005 Cup Final instead of just playing the usual side and playing Reyes or van Persie alongside Bergkamp we saw the first use of a 4,5,1 and Ljungberg was dropped to the bench to accommodate Pires moving to the right and Reyes playing on the left. A whole team changed just because we had lost one focal point. The result was a complete embarrassment and the first time under Wenger we defended for the whole game and played for a draw. (Our last trophy!)

     Beginning of the end FA Cup & sale of Paddy?

The selling of Vieira that summer was the beginning of the end because we lost our leader and he was replaced by Thierry Henry as club captain. Two things happened. One was the introduction of a 5 man midfield on a more consistent basis but the result was that without the influential Vieira the whole team began to revolve around one man, Henry.  We had a brilliant young Dutchman in our ranks called van Persie and he only got 13 starts in the Premier League in 05/06 as the team was increasingly set up to feed the talent that was Henry. Yes he scored an incredible 27 goal in 32 EPL matches but the goals but at what price. We won nothing and Pires and Ljungberg who had hit 18 in 2 years earlier hit 8 between them. Thierry Henry still reigned as the King of Highbury but the team had ceased to function in the same fluid fashion. A memorable run to the Champions League Final papered the cracks and again a team set up to counter attack and free Henry, failed when he missed 2 chances to seal the game. 2006/07 was worse as Henry was struggling with a bad back but rather than rest him and play RVP and Adebayor we soldiered on with a team built to service Henry. No Pires and a fading Freddie and then that summer no Thierry Henry.

Cesc Fabregas was the new star of the Arsenal team but in 2007/08 the side was functioning with him pulling the strings but it was not built around him. Now Henry had gone Wenger had reverted to the formation that bought him all is glory. A conventional 442, with one central midfielder, Cesc, given more licence, with Flamini sitting deeper. Just as we had with Manu and Vieira and Gilberto and Vieira. Either side were Rosicky and Hleb taking on the Pires and Ljungberg roles, with RVP, Adebayor and the newly arrived Eduardo rotating as 2 strikers. This was the one season we should have won the league since 2004. We were the best team, playing the best football in our old familiar style, and not just functioning to support one supreme striker. Sadly we had 2 bad breaks with bad injuries to first Rosicky and then Eduardo, having already losing RVP. This was the turning point as we only had one fit centre forward. Wenger opted to bring another centre midfielder in and move Fabregas closer to Adebayor.  The marked the end of the winning 442 at Arsenal, and the start of the team being fashioned again around the talent and brilliance of one man.

 End of 442 & beginning of team set up for Cesc

So in 2008/9 we made the young Spaniard skipper and set up the team with 2 deeper midfielders and 2 wingers and let him dictate the play. Of course dictate it he did to a degree, but the fluency of our football relied solely on him. The previous season, when we were so close to the title Cesc had hit 13 goals and had 24 assists in all competitions operating in a two man centre midfield. In 08/09 with the team built to suit his attacking and creative prowess we finished lower in the league and whilst the formation worked as he created 19 goals for his team mates he stopped scoring, netting only 4 times. This new formation also meant that a returning Eduardo had no place to play but on the wing. RVP, Bendtner and Adebayor shared sole striker duties, but RVP or Bendtner often found themselves out wide to accommodate the new single striker system. The phrase ‘square pegs, round holes springs to mind.’

This was to continue for the next 2 seasons, moving players around to fit the 4,2,3.1 system created for Fabregas. Diaby as a defensive midfielder in 09/10 is a perfect example. Bendtner, an out and out centre forward on the wings. Rosicky and attacking centre midfielder or wide player in a 442 yes but a winger no. Perhaps the biggest crime was buying one of the world’s best second strikers in Arshavin and sticking him on the left wing. All these players are quality footballers and could adapt but the point is we suffered. Whilst the team was set up to get the best from one man, which it did, the overall performance level was just not quite enough to take us to silverware.  The legacy of this is that the one player has now left and we have a formation which requires a player as good as Cesc to make it work.

Ironically the one season it looked as if it might work was 2010/11 because even though we still had players like Nasri, Walcott and Arshavin all playing away from where they wanted to be, it has finally clicked again. Why because a fully fit again van Persie was on the same wave length as Fabregas and Walcott. Just when it seemed the plan was again coming together Fabregas got injured just before the Carling Cup Final. The game that might have changed everything and proved pivotal ended ultimately in disaster.

So have we learned the lesson, or has Wenger learned it. I am not sure but I hope so because we are at another cross roads. This past season we have maintained the same formation without Cesc and again we have fallen short. Why because to make the 4231 formation work the central attacking midfielder has to be a special player and the sole striker has to be a special player. Briefly in 201/11 from December to February we had both in Fabregas and van Persie but this past season we have struggled. Neither Ramsey of Rosicky, whilst both excellent players are not of Cesc’s calibre. We are in danger of building the current team around the talents of one man again, Robin van Persie and the last 7 years have surely told us this is a doomed path.

So what has prompted me to pen these thoughts now? Well the circumstances now seem perfect to me for us to build a TEAM again full of talented individuals all playing at the top of their game and all contributing. There were times last season when we were so close but ultimately the strength in dept cost us on the run in due to injuries and we limped home. Also we have the RVP will he or won’t he sign question? Either way whether to convince him to stay or to build for a future without him this is the summer to build a squad capable of all contributing and not to focus on a supply line from or to one player. Our great sides had multiple attacking contributors and this is what we should be aiming for again.

An excellent way to make my point is to take in my mind the greatest season under Wenger of 2002 and see the gradual shift away from the team contribution and yes inconceivably I do include 2003/4 in the decline. To do this we can look arguably the most influential players in terms of attacking play:

Player Goals Assist League Pos
2001/02 Henry 24 18 1st
Pires 9 22
Ljungberg 12 9
Bergkamp 9 19
2003/04 Henry 30 18 1st
Pires 14 20
Ljungberg 4 7
Bergkamp 4 15
2005/06 Henry 27 15 4th
Pires 7 9
Ljungberg 1 8
Bergkamp 2 6


The shift towards the team playing for one individual is evident but it also demonstrates that titles are won with multiple attacking contributions.

So the lesson must be learned and the conclusion inescapable. Arsenal if they are to challenge in 2012/13 cannot rely on the brilliance of one player and cannot set up their team to suit that one player. Successful Arsenal sides under Wenger have always had 3 or more players in double figures for goals and assists across a season. Last season we had 3 players with double digit assists in RVP, Walcott and Song but only van Persie scoring over 10. Okay so he scored 30 and won a pack of individual awards but the team won nothing. Even when Henry was scoring at a similar rate to RVP others were contributing. Indeed I have not even included our Old Trafford hero of 02, Sylvain Wiltord who also hit 10 in the league. In fact across all competitions in 2002 we had 5 players scoring more than 10 and in 2004 only 2. There I have said it the decline had begun during the ‘Invincibles’ year. We were too reliant on Thierry Henry as we are too reliant on Robin van Persie now. In 05 and 06 Henry was still scoring but the support from others had dried up because of the way the team began to play. It was the same with Ian Wright in the last 2 seasons under George Graham.

  Additional goal threat

So the challenge for us to win silverware in 2013 is to produce a team that has  creativity,goals and assist threat from multiple avenues and the addition of Podolski is a fine start, but others will need to step up to the plate. 2011/12 must be the last season that the great institution that is Arsenal FC is built around the brilliance of one man. We failed with Henry at the end and Fabregas so let us not fail with van Persie.

Until next time thanks for reading

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  1. Great post Dave. Seriously could not agree more.

    We play for one player far too much and that is apparent by the lack of assists shared by the whole team. What I meant by that is for example, as you see on your 2001/2 stats our “worst” big assist maker got 9 assists. This season our 2nd “best” assist maker got 9. The 2001/2 team for me was built around most of our attacks coming down the left flank with Cole, Pires and Henry. Even if we said we played just through those three players (which we clearly didn’t although most of our best work came from that flank) then that is still 2 more players we built a team around than we have in the last 7 years.

    I really hope that we change our system this summer to suit ALL players not just 1 player, although I don’t think our system even suits RVP, I believe he really wants the old Bergkamp role which means he needs a partner.

    I’m certain that you’ll get called AAA and Wenger out for this post and I will too for this comment but what do they know eh? 😉

  2. Gr8 post and the statistics are there for all to see. Last season Madrid won the league with 3 strikers scoring more than 10 goals,Man City won with 3 players scoring more than 10goals & Dortmund share the same record. Even barca who seem to have been reliant on Mercy still got David Villa who share the spoils. Who knows what would’ve been had he stayed fit till the season end. Hopefull, that will change with Poldi joining the team and Giroud in the frame. I want to bliv Wenger has come to the point where winning a trophy has bcom innevitable. He has no better time to reshapen the team than this transfer window.

  3. Arsenal really has not tried to build a winning team after coming to Emirated. Arsenal is only concentrating to pay back the stadium loan. For some recent years Arsenal is trying to make good profit also. That’s the reason Arsenal is just simply selling their best players and not getting quality players in.

    Arsenal wants only CL birth to get more profit. AW is only trying for that. The team also is built for that. Just for CL birth, not winning trophies.

    We stupid fans still asking more investment and good players who can win trophies. But really Arsenal FC is trying for that? The fact is big NO. They just want good money, not trophies. Our manager still can cheat fans. Because he is a good manager in all aspect.

  4. Great post. Agree with it all. Am frustrated with players being played out of position to accommodate a 4-3-3 formation which doesn’t suit us.

    Would love to see us go back to a 4-4-2 and play more as a team.

    The sinking feeling last season when RvP was left on the bench or given a rest was heart-breaking. I’d like to have a team that has more strength in depth and doesn’t rely on RvP, Wilshere, Arteta etc.

  5. You can’t build a team around a centre forward because the play doesn’t go through him or shouldn’t go through him, we built our midfield around fabregas and it worked wonders it was just our defence (mainly our goalkeepers) and our strikers who let us down all though van Persie was a huge player for us last season and the seasons before he didn’t score enough goals because of his injury problems, in my opinion we shouldn’t of got rid of adebeyor or toure because they were two huge players for us and toure is arsenal through and through unlike gallas who I hate and would like him to burn in the firery depths of the Europa league along with the rest of the spuds.
    The point is that our board doesn’t give wenger the backing he deserves and with the controversies of which ade and toure left I’m not sure wenger had a say in it when the bids came in from city. I think we will be title contenders next season or the season after if we bring in top players in the right positions.
    My suggestions
    David Lopez gk
    Javi Martinez cb and CDM
    Walter Samuel cb (he’s free and with his expeiriance in winning a lot he’s priceless to our club)
    Eriksen or dzagoev or gourcuff cam
    The purchase of top players in the said positions will without doubt bring us trophies in the near future

  6. Dave, you’re right. And I feel as if Wenger agrees with you and is slowly (slowly!) going back to making Arsenal a proper TEAM again.

  7. Lovly post wt fantastic analysis. Arsene Wenger is just kiddin us(fans). Let there b a change in d team.

  8. Another excellent read Dave, thanks very much! And I fully agree with you on this one!

    I am a big fan of a 442 formation (which may also take the focus off a single talismanic striker or attacking midfielder), as my commments have suggested previously. Might I refer to the formation you suggested in the article you wrote about Santos – again, another tick in the column for that formation is that it may well go a long way to us playing effectively as a team. Santos and Ox are well capable of getting more than 10 goals in a season.

    I also think there might have been a lack of leadership in the team, with a young side. Remedied slightly with Arteta this season. You look at previously successful seasons with the personalities and leadership we’ve had on the field. That’s why I think Jack and Ox should play (again, in the formation you suggested) – although they are young, their true grit and determination shines (not to mention loads of talent).

    What about captaincy? Let me know what you think about this. I just think that in the circumstances of recent seasons, RVP and Fabregas might not have been the correct choices (probably made captain to encourage them to stay). Maybe even Henry was not right. I just get the feeling that this supports the notion of “building a team around one player” – relying heavily on one guy. Not a lot of natural choices, but Vermaelen maybe? Firm believer your “star” player shouldn’t be captain.

    I don’t know. There is a lot to consider. For instance, how can we play 451 without any genuine wingers. Can’t expect the best return from players out of position (Walcott has proved me wrong to an extent). You look at Bayern with Ribery and Robben feeding Gomes. Or United with Nani, Valencia and Young. Fergie loves a good winger. Separate point, but also related as those wingers are stars for those sides.

    Just throwing it out there!

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more, I mean how do you play an attacking midfielder like Arshavin on the wings after selling Fabregas, and knowing that this player is 30 or close, if it was some young chap then that’s a little more explainable; but really the 4-4-2 is the only English way to Glory.

  9. This is a great post. No arguments.

    My only contribution is that we must also understand that whatever formation or style a coach adopts is dependent upon the materials (in terms of playing staff) available to him to prosecuted that strategy.

    Since the investment in the Emirates, Arsenal has had very little cash for the recruitment of the right quality personnel for the various departments on the field. Teams have used different approaches/formations to win trophies. What this tells us is that it is not so much the formation that really wins trophies. Rather, it is the quality of players in the fold coupled with some depth within the squad. This is where Arsenal has lacked. And we all know why, even though some of us choose to act like the proverbial ostrich.

    It is a good thing though that our debts have reduced reasonably. That is why Wenger now has the confidence and the backing of the board (even though this appears half-hearted)to invest in quality signings. This season we will sure win a trophy, even as the rebuilding process remains (for the next season or two) a work-in-progress.

  10. Couldn’t agree with you more – great post.

    I just feel that Wenger created a style of football that worked perfectly in this league. Big strong physical players who all worked together, a well oil machine, if one got injured we had ready made replacements to slot in and not change the dynamics of the team. Great defensively, could mix it when required and scored goals from all positions.

    Unfortunately while other sides have replicated this style and build their own success on it, Wenger has decided to build a different smaller team around key individuals and we fail on the same basic things season after season. On our day we are a match for anyone, however it only takes a couple of injuries or one or two to have an off day and the wheels come off.

    The premier league is a marathon, not a sprint and we just don’t have the type of players or tactics to put a consistent run together.

    We must demonstrate intent this summer and build a team by keeping hold of our best players, not continually trying to replace what leaves.

  11. Great post .. I just really hope Wenger hasn’t signed Poldi to fill Van persie’s departure.. 4-4-2 is an attacking minded formation, but with the current one we really struggle incase van persie doesn’t score . Our has the One man reliance on mind instilled in them. Without Robin , We are like the reserves team.. Time to change that ..

  12. Great post again Dave! I agree with you all the way and I have a funny feeling about Wenger seecretly reading your blog, or at least I hope he does! 🙂 As I read through the post I was constantly thinking abaout the Ian Wright point and then you said it in the end. Lovely stuff!:)

  13. While one man cannot win you titles there will always be a stand out individual on any team. Almost every successful team is built around one player with a good supporting cast. I have no problems building our team around RVP but what we lack is quality depth. Man Utd was built around CR and they won three years in a row and the CL while they did. Fergie has now built more of a team Man Utd and look how lackluster they are. You could argue they build around Rooney but they really don’t as Nani also runs the who at times so it’s more of an actual team rather than CR+10. Barca is built around Messi with some truly wonderful players backing him up.

    No I don’t agree with this post that you need to build a team because every top club just has one stand out player, even among 11 stand out players and they will look to that player first and then everyoen else second – it’s just how football has become.

    What we really need is quality depth because when asked to fill in, our subs have not shown up and that’s where we are weak.

  14. Fabulous article. It brings to mind all the major league winners in 2011/12 for me. In Spain, Barcelona were reliant on Messi with most of the goals and assists and got edged by Madrid who had HIguain and Benzema sharing the goal burden with Ronaldo. Then in Italy, Milan relied on Ibrahimovic whereas Juventus didn’t have one star forward (admittedly I don’t think they had any star forwards haha). Instead they had a few midfielders who helped score goals. Manchester City edged Manchester United and Arsenal because they had Silva, Balotelli, Dzeko, Aguero, and sort of Nasri, Yaya, and Tevez all chipping in goals. Borussia Dortmund also had a team with a ton of forwards and midfielders who shared the goal burden even though Lewandowski was exceptional. I wish I had the numbers.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this article!

  15. Thanks for taking time to comment today. Intelligent comments one and all from intelligent readers. It is most gratifying and makes the effort so worthwhile. Thanks again. Goonerdave66

  16. Excellent article which as I read certain points, thought, he’s bloody right there.
    What I didn’t agree with were your comments about Ramsey and Rosicky. Ramsey has had a bad time of it since his injury and I believe that there are signs he is coming back to the player he was before. Rosicky has played out of his skin in the last half of the season and I believe his improvement of form was reflected in the Arsenal transformation after January.
    Have to mention ‘Gaunty’ here. Totally agree with his comments regarding the size of the team. We have followed Barcelona (or they us), in a way. Watching them against Chelsea was almost like watching Arsenal play QPR or Wigan. Other teams have learnt how to deal with our style of play. Pack a defence and go for the quick break. Yes, we are skilful but a bit of brute force can always stop that. And that is exactly what happened with Barcelona and Chelsea, skill up against a brick wall.
    We need to build a TEAM and it needs to be with an assortment of types of player. Big, solid, small, fast and skilful. And while we’re at it, vary the play. A long ball over the top can be just as effective as a 1-2 through the defence and let me tell you, that’s exactly what Walcott wants.
    Once again, brilliant article, keep up the good work

  17. individual brilliance isn’t terrible but at the end of the day its the team work that leads to dream work! so,u’re spot on-we really need to change from over relying on one man for results. just imagine what would have happened if RVP had been injured during our PL campaign? so lets hope wenger really checks on this. nice piece as always-keep up the good work dave.

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