During his 19 years as manager of Arsenal Football Club, it’s difficult to imagine Arsene Wenger has ever started a season with greater tactical options.
With a plethora of talented attacking players at his disposal – the majority of whom can play in multiple positions – Wenger will chop and change his starting XI regularly this season, partly for tactical reasons, and partly for fitness reasons.
Arsenal’s midfield and attacking options can broadly be separated into four distinct types.
- Deep midfielders: Mikel Arteta, Francis Coquelin, Mathieu Flamini.
- Box-to-box midfielders: Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
- Playmakers: Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky.
- Forwards: Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud.
Wenger’s job will be to find the right blend, and pick the right combination of six players from the four categories. In simple terms he needs the deep midfielders to recover the ball and play good passes into the final third, the box-to-box midfielders to provide energy in the centre, the playmakers to create chances, and the forwards to score goals.
The question is precisely how Wenger will format his team, and it seems like there are three potential types of system.
System 1 - last season’s shape
The default system towards the latter period of the 2014/15 season was a 4-2-3-1. It featured the midfield combination of Coquelin and Cazorla; the former providing tenacity and the latter creativity in a surprisingly successful duo. There was something of a compromise, though, with Ramsey shunted out to the right.
Meanwhile, Ozil was the number ten, Alexis cut inside from the left and Giroud generally led the line, although Walcott came in for the FA Cup final with great success. Considering the success of that system, Wenger would be well within his rights to stick with it for 2015/16.
However, there’s the problem that Ramsey’s not in his best position, and had been Arsenal’s Player of the Season in 2013/14 from his favoured central midfield role.
System 2 - the Community Shield shape
Therefore, for the Community Shield victory over Chelsea, Ramsey was fielded in the centre of the pitch instead, alongside Coquelin. Oxlade-Chamberlain played on the right, Walcott was upfront, and in the absence of Sanchez, Cazorla was pushed back to his old role on the left.
This is another 4-2-3-1, but a very different system. The balance in midfield has changed - Coquelin and Ramsey are good battlers and both comfortable in possession, but Arsenal lack the Spanish influence of Cazorla or Arteta, a true ball-playing midfielder.
Coquelin’s natural partner is Cazorla who scuttles into attack, Ramsey’s is Arteta who holds a more cautious position. It does mean, however, Arsenal have two playmakers, Cazorla and Ozil, located in the final third of the pitch - but getting the ball to them can become trickier.
Besides, where does Alexis fit in?
System 3 – the Etihad example
This means, therefore, that Wenger might consider a return to the 4-3-3 system he’s occasionally played over the past couple of seasons - the 2-0 win against Manchester City in January was a particularly fine example of its virtues.
This arguably makes it easier for Wenger to find the right balance. He can play a solid holding midfielder - Coquelin, Arteta or Flamini at the base of the midfield triangle, and supplement that player with Cazorla in a left-of-centre role, and Ramsey storming forward to the right.
It provides the balance of a deep midfielder, a box-to-box midfielder and a playmaker. Then, Wenger can field his two star signings from the past two summers, Ozil and Alexis, on the flanks. That provides a selfless playmaker and a direct forward, who can support the striker – Giroud, Walcott or Welbeck – in different ways.
It also means Arsenal can revert to the second system quickly, with Cazorla moving wide, Ozil returning to the number ten role, and a 4-2-3-1. It remains to be seen precisely what Wenger decides this season, however, and with so many tactical options, there are probably potential systems that haven’t yet been considered.
Somewhere, however, it feels like there’s the right combination of players to prompt Arsenal’s best title challenge in years.
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