3 At the Back and Manchester United

We have seen the resurgence of 3 at the back over the last couple of years. Examples of this is most prominent in the Serie A, where a majority of teams have seen benefits in playing that way since Walter Mazzari found great success with it at Napoli a few years ago. Since, the now departed, Antonio Conte took over at Juventus and switched to a similar 3-5-2, the Old Lady have claimed a couple of Scudettos; going through an entire season unbeaten on the way to one of them. The formation has slowly crept into the English Premier League with reasonable success too. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan switched to another variation of 3 at the back, in the form of a 3-4-3, a decision which has to gain some credit for delaying their inevitable relegation till the very last day of that season. And while Aston Villa occasionally experimented with the formation last season, it was Hull City that persisted with it and, arguably, turned out to be the season’s surprise package; as they sat mid-table all year and even have a shot in Europe next season thanks to their FA Cup run.

If you hadn’t taken the formation seriously during its gradual comeback, it certainly should have grabbed your attention at the biggest stage of them all: The World Cup. Netherlands and Mexico used it reasonably well; but it was Chile and Costa Rica that surpassed everyone’s expectation with their performances and results, owing hugely to how they were set-up tactically. Argentina played their opening 45mins of the tournament with 3 at the back before, swiftly and understandably so, switching to a 4-3-1-2 for the 2nd half and subsequent matches on their way to the final. It is also interesting to note that all 4 teams who used the formation consistently made it to the last 16 despite being in tough groups.

Now with Louis Van Gaal looking set to play a 3-4-1-2 at Manchester United, after an emphatic 7-0 drubbing of LA Galaxy, the formation is surely going to be one of the most talked about topics next season. The purpose of this article is to evaluate the formation in relation to the modern game. There are reasons why playing in this manner works for some teams and not for others; and we will be looking at what those factors are. In the process we can figure out the chances of Manchester United making it work to reclaim the title next season.

Just as a side note; I have a bit of experience with the 3-4-1-2 and 3-5-2 as it was the preferred formation for the youth team that I coached last season. So while I will be analysing the formation from the perspective of a Premier League club, some of the anticipated challenges and successes may stem from personal experiences and factors that are universal in football.

 

The difference between 3-5-2 and 3-4-1-2

The 3-5-2

Juventus' 3-5-2

Juventus’ 3-5-2

To understand the 3-5-2, we only have to look the team that does it the best. The layout shown above is how Juventus set themselves up in attacking and defending phases. The key piece of information we take from this is how the 3 in central midfield operate. Rather than having a holding midfielder, Pirlo is preferred in a deep-lying playmaker role; and Marchisio or Vidal and Pogba ( deployed in box to box roles) make forward runs and add numbers in attack. Lichtsteiner and Asamoah, meanwhile, provide width high up. Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli are trusted to nullify any counter-attacks or at least hold on till they can get numbers back. When defending in their own half, Juventus drop quickly, and sit compact with a back 5. Machisio, Pirlo and Pogba form a crescent in front of the defense, shifting from side to side with respect to the ball, giving added protection by blocking off any channels in the process.

The 3-4-1-2

Manchester United vs LA Galaxy 2014

Manchester United vs LA Galaxy 2014

There are a lot of examples of this formation, the Dutch and Chileans at the world cup to name a couple. But we will look at how Manchester United set-up in their friendly against LA Galaxy.

Once again, if we look at the 3 central midfielders we can see that there are very different priorities here to what the 3-5-2 offers. Herrera was more of a play-maker and Fletcher sat deeper to break up play in central areas; resulting in less options in numbers in front of Herrera when compared to Pirlo at Juventus. Rooney and Welbeck split into wide areas often with Mata piercing through the middle, looking a lot like a false nine at times. This was very similar to how Arturo Vidal operated for Chile against Spain, with Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez splitting away looking like wingers. Pressing high-up is an added advantage in this formation over the 3-5-2. Rooney and Welbeck were encouraged to press the opposition full-backs, while the centre-backs were allowed more time. It seemed like Mata, in the middle, was also instructed to close down Galaxy’s deepest midfielder throughout, which quite effectively resulted in a goal on one occasion. This pressing with 3 men is why many thought the formation was a 3-4-3, but make no mistake about it; it was a 3-4-1-2.

The underlining differences are that the 3-5-2 gives added numbers in organised attack and defence. The 3-4-1-2, on the other hand, allows higher pressing and better protection against counter-attacks from central areas.

 

Is this an Attacking or Defensive formation?

There is a fine line between a 3-4-1-2/3-5-2 and a 5-3-2; that line is the mentality of the wing-backs. We all know how hard-working and intelligent the players in this position need to be, but their mentality is heavily influenced by the context of the game. This is where Juventus established themselves as one of the better attacking teams in their league and why Manchester United might struggle in the premier league with this formation. Juventus are overwhelming favourites in almost every game in the Serie A. They are expected to dominate possession, have better physical attributes, better one-on-one attacking and defending; they are in complete control from the first whistle till the last. This has a lot to do with the quality and generally slower, more patient and elaborate attacking style of the Serie A. With this kind of a stable ‘environment’, their wing-backs have the confidence to push high-up and cause problems in wide areas; as they play a genuine attacking 3-5-2.

This is in stark contrast to their performances in Europe, where the opposition are more aggressive in their pressing and attacking, which causes the wing-backs to spend more time defending; and in turn, takes away from their productivity in attack as they look more like a 5-3-2. This is where I think Manchester United are going to have some trouble against at least 12 of the teams in the Premier league. The English league is full of pacey wide-men, and goals from crosses to big target men from wide areas are a common occurrence. High pressing and early recovery of the ball is also common strategy for most teams in the league.

Possible Defensive Issues

Dangers to Defense if Herrera loses the ball while transitioning to Attack

There are 2 problems here. The first being that their wing-backs will have definite job of defending; Shaw and Valencia have to track back their respective wingers immediately when United lose the ball or they will be left exposed in wide areas. The second problem is that, when United win the ball back they must hold onto possession for long enough to get the wing-backs forward again from very deep positions to be effective in an attacking sense. The fear here is that, if they cannot have a great amount of control of the ball in midfield then they will be stuck with a 5-3-2, struggling to produce the kind of attacking performances their fans expect of them.

There is an argument that defensive vulnerability in wide areas can be taken care of if only 1 wing-back goes forward at a time, leaving an organised 4 at the back; the problem here is that you lose width on one flank, narrowing the field and once again making attacking more difficult. Then again, you could also say that one of the strikers can come wide to provide width on that flank and open up the pitch, but this means that you lose an attacking player in central areas.

The answer to the sub-question “is this an attacking or defensive formation?” is: It depends. This formation should be used only by overwhelming favourites or by underdogs with little chance of a result. It is effective for teams that genuinely feel that they will dominate the game and send the wing-backs forward with greater freedom. Conversely, it is an approach for teams that are happy to take a draw or sneak a win, and feel defending in more of a 5-3-2 is a better option to achieve the result.

 

Is this the right formation for United?

As with all formations, you need certain types of players and tactical solutions to get desirable results. Some may argue that formations should be tailored to the players that are at your disposal. While I agree with this, I also think there are other factors such as the balance of the squad and the type of opposition in the league. The thinking behind Van Gaal’s decision is understandable from a squad management perspective. This is one of the few options he has to play his 3 best players (Van Persie, Mata and Rooney) in their preferred positions. I still feel, however, that if Shaw and Valencia are pre occupied with the opposition wingers then too much of the attacking responsibility will be on the shoulders of the front 3. Anyone who watched Netherlands at the world cup will have realised that relying on 3 players to come up with the goods on a consistent basis is a bit of a stretch. This was apparent in the game against Australia where Sneijder was not at his best and the Dutch switched to a 4-3-3 to get more numbers forward to help him out. This was a consistent theme with the Oranje at the world cup, switching to a 4-3-3 when chasing games or trying to score goals.

You may ask why the Dutch didn’t play 4-3-3 from the start? The fact is that the Netherlands national team don’t boast world class defenders, and there is little they can do about that as they can only select from a pool of Dutch defenders. This is what prompted Van Gaal to include an extra central defender on the team sheet: to help the other 2 center backs out and ensure defensive solidity. That is why I am surprised that the Dutchman has chosen to implement this system at United. With financial backing of the board, he has the power to pick up any defender in the world he wants. The aim of Manchester United football club for decades has been to attack, score goals and entertain their fans. While they may thump LA Galaxy by 7 playing this way, I feel their attacking power will suffer against better and more energetic footballers in the Premier League. Regardless of what anyone may say, if the wing-backs are not consistently pushed well forward, then having an extra center back makes this a very defensive style; a formation that will not yield the attacking force required of prospective premier league champions.

 

Additional Thoughts

As an added note, while Rooney, Van Persie and Mata will be playing in their preferred positions they may not be a suitable trio to make this system work from a strategically point of view. There are specific types of players required for each of the 3 positions up front for it to work effectively:

1st Striker: Needs to be either a traditional Target Man or a Pacey striker. The target man can be used to get a long ball forward and relieve pressure. He would then be expected to use his strength to hold play up allowing the wing-backs time to get forward. Alternatively, a Pacey striker can be released into space quickly in a counter-attack.

2nd Striker: This man needs to be a Tricky/Mobile striker or yet another Pacey striker. A player with the ability to take on a few defenders to keep the ball and invite support is ideal for this formation. Alternatively, having another Pacey striker offer threat in behind can’t possibly do any harm.

Center Attacking Midfielder: The ideal player for this position is a natural playmaker who can link-up with quick exchanges of passes and provide a killer final ball. Additionally, because much of the attacking responsibility is on the front 3, this player needs to chip in with goals on a regular basis. Mata fits the mould.

Every team that has made the formation work have had this combination of 3 up front; Napoli’s famous “Trinity” with Cavani/Lavezzi/Hamsik; Juventus’ Llorente/Tevez/(Pirlo-Vidal-Marchisio-Pogba); Chile’s Vargas/Sanchez/Vidal; Netherlands with Robben/Van Persie/Sneijder and so on. Once again the effectiveness of the 3 up front will depend on how well they can get the wing-backs up to support; which is why the Dutch were not as threatening as the 3 other examples. This may be a similar problem for United.

Rooney/Van Persie/Mata do not offer the same balance of attributes to go with effective strategies for this formation. Having Javier Hernandez’s pace and clinical finishing would be a step forward; but that would mean dropping either Rooney or Van Persie, rendering the formation switch pointless.

 

Final Prediction

In one of my other articles I have mentioned how I think the system of 2 strikers is on it’s way back, but 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 is not the way to accommodate this if you want to be title challengers in the English Premier League. I personally feel, against almost 2 thirds of the opposition in the Premier League, Manchester United’s wing-backs will struggle to have a significant impact in attack; this will mean they will struggle to score goals in a 3-4-1-2 which will end up looking like a 5-3-2. If they do decide to push the wing-backs on, early balls into pacey wingers in wide areas by the opposition upon recovery will leave the United defense vulnerable. Premier League clubs are specialists at counter-attacking and wing-play, so it is a problem they can expect to face frequently.They will most likely switch back to 4 at the back in games where they really need to get a goal. I expect them to abandon the 3-4-1-2 altogether when they realise that it does not allow them to show the attacking initiative that is required to be champions of this league. With a few more defensive signings, I do see them getting back into the top 4 and possibly challenging for the title, but not if they play 3-4-1-2  for too long.   Please feel free to leave a comment! Let me know what you think of the 3-4-1-2 and how you think United will fair with it!

Part 2: Arsenal’s Defensive solutions for 2014/15. Khedira vs Bender vs Schneiderlin!!

In the previous article I mentioned that there are two problems that Arsene Wenger needed to address in order to get Arsenal back to the levels that their fans expect of them. I suggested that their attacking style was highly predictable last season; now however, with the purchase of Alexis Sanchez they should opt for a more aggressive style in the form of a 4-4-2, or 4-2-2-2 depending on how you look at it.  And with the signing of Debuchy confirmed, there is only one void in the starting line-up that needs to be filled.

The second problem was the defensive vulnerability they showed to counter-attacks, especially against high quality oppositions. It does not take great amount of analysis to convince anyone that this was a major problem, which cost them in the big games and ultimately the title. You don’t have to tell many Arsenal fans how important a proper holding midfielder is to this attack minded squad. While, Arteta is a quality technical player and did they best by his ability in the role, you have to say that it’s not exactly what Arsenal need to reach the top. He lacks the general physicality to perform the job effectively, due to his lack of pace, as well as 50/50 strength in duels. You can, get away with 1 of your 5 defensive players lacking pace, and unfortunately Arsenal have used that token up with Mertesacker. Arteta also lacks the mentality of a proper holding midfielder; to understand this you would only have to imagine what he would honestly answer to the question “Does a saving tackle really mean as much as a goal to you?”.

Not many do, but the midfielder Arsenal need would answer “Yes” to that last question. This article is meant to look at players that Arsenal have been linked with, and to evaluate the best option for the role. We will also look at solutions for how Arsenal will set themselves up defensively against counter-attacks.

Option 1: Sami Khedira

Khedira has been heavily linked with Arsenal for a few reasons; he is now a world cup winner, offers muscle and work rate in midfield, and he would be part of a growing German influence in Arsene Wenger’s camp. The fact that he only has a year left on his contract makes him a viable target for most top clubs. He is a favourable choice among the among the Arsenal fans; and for that reason, I will spend a little more time evaluating him than his 2 competitors for Arsenal’s defensive midfield spot.

Here is the truth: as much as he is a fantastic player, he is NOT what Arsenal are looking for. And now, here are the facts:

Khedira 1

Khedira’s Role for Real Madrid 2013/14 (Courtesy statzone on FourFourTwo)

In the handful of appearances that Khedira made (due to injury and tactical reasons) for Real Madrid last season, he was mostly deployed in a Box to Box role, with Illaramendi preferred in the holding position. The graphic above shows his average position of influence in a game against Malaga; this was more or less where he found himself whenever he played last season.

Khedira's Involvement in a  match for Real Madrid 2013/14 (Courtesy statzsone and FourFourTwo)

Khedira’s Involvement in a match for Real Madrid 2013/14 (Courtesy statzsone and FourFourTwo)

This second chart shows his stats from the same game. As you can see, he likes to get forward a fair bit, with a lot of his passes made from further up the pitch. The one successful tackle that he did make in the entire game was in an advanced position as well; and anyone who watched him in the world cup knows that he is a player who likes to leave his position in midfield and press fairly high up. Schweinsteiger is the holding midfielder in that squad. While it is true that the Bayern man was allotted that role, it still takes an incredible amount of discipline to not get carried away when you are 7-0 up against Brazil in a world cup semi-final. The graph below shows Bastian Schweinsteiger’s average position in that game. It’s the kind of discipline Arsenal need; unfortunately he is not a viable target.

Khedira 3

Khedira’s average position for Germany vs Bazil 2014. Schweinsteiger in comparison (Courtesy statzsone and FourFourTwo)

If you compare Khedira’s and Schweinsteiger’s average position against Brazil, then we know that they are two players who play completely different roles; and it is because both, Khedira’s international and club, managers feel he is more comfortable and suited to the advanced role. Arsenal already have Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Chamberlain and possibly Diaby to fit into that box to box role. Funnily enough Aaron Ramsey has better defensive stats for 2013/14 than Khedira; including around an average of close to 3 tackles a game in comparison to Khedira’s average of just over 1 tackle per game. Perhaps his lack of prowess in the tackling department is a part of the reason why managers tend to play him further up.

Conclusion: There is no doubt that Khedira is a fantastic footballer, but he is no more suited to the pure holding role than Arteta. While the Real Madrid man might offer more physically, his tendency to get higher up the pitch could leave Arsenal exposed: a problem which we are trying to solve in the first place. So for what Arsenal need, I would say no to Khedira. Rating for the role: 5/10.

Option 2: Lars Bender

Lars Bender is another German that Arsenal are linked with for that role. As a possible understudy for Schweinsteiger’s position, he was unfortunate to miss out on the world cup through injury. He is a tenacious midfielder who loves a tackle and is the best at it, of the three options that we are looking at here. Leverkusen preferred to play 4-3-3 for most of the season; with Simon Rolfes in the holding role, Bender in a Box to Box role, and another midfielder, usually Emre Can (now of Liverpool), slightly further up. Against the bigger teams, they did switch to a 4-2-3-1, with Bender joining Rolfes in front of the defence to offer more protection. Regardless, there were only a few occasions all season when Bender was used as the deepest holding midfielder. To really understand Bender, we have to look at him from a statistical perspective even though he was deployed as a box to box player.

Bender 1

Bender’s Involvement in a match for Bayer Leverkusen 2013/14 (Courtesy statzsone and FourFourTwo)

 

The above picture shows Lars Bender’s involvements in Leverkusen’s game vs Dortmund in the Bundesliga. In this particular game, he played in a slightly more advanced of the “2” in a 4-2-3-1. He and Rolfes were obviously flexible in switching sides on the pitch, but Rolfes was generally the deeper player. In comparison to Khedira, Bender’s involvement is only slightly deeper, and there is no denying that the Leverkusen man does occasionally get forward. What sets him a notch above Khedira, however, is his tackling which stands at 5 in this encounter (Nearly all in his defensive half), which nothing short of remarkable. The man quite clearly has a knack of putting his foot in and coming out with the ball; even against top teams.

His average positioning and involvement was similar even when playing in a 4-3-3. This is to say, Sami Hyypia felt Rolfes offered more in the holding position, and justifiably so. Rolfes reads the game very well and recovers the ball with timely interceptions, whereas Bender is more of an aggressive tackler.

Conclusion: Bender possesses all the attributes to bring about balance in the Arsenal midfield and allow Ramsey and co a little more freedom. But don’t get me wrong, the Leverkusen man is technically sound, and a good passer of the ball too. However, if Wenger were to switch to a 4-4-2, he needs a defensive midfielder who is an athlete, and a natural defender. Bender fits that mould; whether Wenger can turn him into the defensive shield (where he has rarely been used last season) is the big question. I, personally, can see him succeeding. Rating for the role: 8/10.

Option 3: Morgan Schneiderlin

Last, but definitely not the least, is a Frenchman. What sets him apart from our other two candidates is his undoubted experience in English football. He has come through the ranks at Southampton, which gives him Home-grown status: another added bonus. His displays last season earned him a call-up to the French world cup squad, where he played, even if it was just for one game against Ecuador, in the role that Arsenal are trying to fill.

For Southampton, over the course of the 2013/14 season, he played as part of the “2” in a 4-2-3-1. Unlike Bender and Rolfes, however, Schneiderlin and his midfield partner, Wanyama, sat tight together in between the defenders, allowing full-backs Shaw and Clyne (or Chambers) to get forward. Depicted below is one of Schneiderlin’s best games of the season; ironically against Arsenal at the Emirates.

Schneiderlin's average position for Southampton vs Arsenal 2013/14 (Courtesy statzsone and FourFourTwo)

Schneiderlin’s average position for Southampton vs Arsenal 2013/14 (Courtesy statzsone and FourFourTwo)

As you can see, this is where the Frenchman found himself for most of the season. He rarely ventures forward despite having a similar midfield anchor beside him. Only when he sees a glaring opportunity to drive through midfield does he get forward to add a different dynamic in attack; which only happens occasionally. His primary goal, however, was to protect the defence.

Schneiderlin 2

Schneiderlin’s contributions for Southampton vs Arsenal 2013/14 (Courtesy statzsone and FourFourTwo)

In the same game, we can see his contributions in the match. He managed a grand total of 6 tackles and few interceptions. In accordance to his average position, you can see that most of his passes came from within the Southampton half. While his tackling stats in this game were outstanding, his average at under 3 tackles per game for the season was short of Lars Bender’s average of over 3. This might have to do with the Frenchman having Wanyama, who is a similar sort of tackling midfielder, next to him; the workload was, perhaps, being shared. Whereas, at Leverkusen Rolfes was a positional interceptor and Bender was the tackler.

Conclusion: Schneiderlin, like Bender is an Ideal candidate for the role Arsenal need to fill. Schneiderlin offers the defensive solidity that the North Londoners need for their attack to concentrate on doing their job. He comes with premier League experience, has home-grown status and is technically sound. Whether he can handle the defensive responsibility on his own without someone like Wanyama around him is the only question mark. He did find himself in that role in his only appearance for France against Ecuador in the world cup. On that occasion he spent most of his time playing passes from in and around the centre circle; looking very comfortable. Rating for the role: 8/10.

The Verdict

The choice between Bender and Schneiderlin is a tough one to make. It is the matter of Bender’s slightly better athleticism (pace and work-rate wise, Schneiderlin is probably physically stronger of the two) vs Schneiderlin’s experience in the position as well as in the League. I really have to sit on the fence for this one; but if I only had enough time to save one of them from drowning I would pick LARS BENDER. He has Champions League experience, where his tackling stats were up through the roof last season. His higher work-rate and pace might be a bigger asset to nullify threats from counter-attacks, which is the problem we had in mind. The team-talks at the Emirates are probably conducted in German by now, so he won’t have a problem fitting in! That said, Arsenal fans should be no less excited if Schneiderlin were to come in instead!

Defensive shape in the Attacking phase.

Proposed defensive shape for Arsenal in the attacking Phase.

Proposed defensive shape for Arsenal in the attacking Phase.

With Bender sitting tight between Koscielny and Mertesacker, Arsenal would look solid from a defensive persepective. Koscielny and Bender are both relatively pacey in comparison to most defensive players, which will allow Arsenal to hold a higher line when attacking and in turn, ensure to keep pressure on the opposition when attacking. This would not work with Arteta in there, as we found out last season; Koscielny was the only one who could get back in time, while Arteta and Mertesacker were chasing shadows, prompting Arsenal to drop deeper and deeper.

Option 1 should be used against the bigger or more attacking teams. The only clear difference is the positioning of one of the full-backs; in this example it is Debuchy. This allows Bender, Koscielny and Mertesacker to stay compact against teams that tend to leave more than 1 forward upfront (e.g Suarez and Sturridge last season) when defending. If Arsenal switch play to the right flank, Debuchy can move forward and Gibbs can drop. This will give both added numbers and pace to nullify counter-attacks.

Option 2 should be used against oppositions that tend to stay very deep and leave only 1 forward in an advanced position when defending. In such scenarios you can see Cazorla picked ahead of Walcott, as the Spaniard’s creativity would be more of an asset against incredibly deep and tight defences than the Englishmen’s pace. With 2 wingers who drift in to play more centrally, Arsenal can take more of an initiative and push both full-backs right on to pile on the pressure. While leaving only 3v1 at the back; and although the full-backs in this scenario would be afforded more time to drop back, they must do so nonetheless.

That sums up how I think Arsenal should play in the 2014/15 season. If they were to implement these solutions I have provided for their predictability in attack (in the previous article) and also for their vulnerability to counter-attacks, they would surely be right up there challenging for the trophies that their fans deserve for their patience.

Comment and let me know what you think about my choice for Arsenal’s DM position and how I expect them to set up!

How Arsenal Will Line-Up with Sanchez 2014/15

Arsene Wenger has two key issues last season that needs to be addressed to bridge that 7 point gap between his side and Manchester City in the coming season.

Part 1 (The Attack) Lack of Pace – Predictable

Recap:

The lack of a more mobile striker was not only an issue of depth in the squad, but it was also a question of balance. Having a different kind of player to Olivier Giroud to lead the line was essential to become less predictable in their play. Furthermore, the only player, apart from Giroud himself, that Arsenal could not afford to lose for an extended period of time, Theo Walcott, was out for the season. Walcott’s pacey runs from out to in, past Giroud, in-behind the opposition full-backs added depth on the field for Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey to work their magic. With the likes of Gnabry and Oxlade-Chamberlain stepping into that positions, you could see glimpses of what Arsenal missed, in the form of pace and trickery. Were they a little more experienced and clinical, they might have saved Arsenal’s title-challenge. Ozil, Ramsey, Cazorla, Giroud and Wilshere (at times) were all that was good in an attacking sense. Their link-up play and efficient passing was great in the build-up phase of attacks but, through no fault of their own, they often lacked a penetrative outlet to release the final ball to. Even if the movement between them was great, their lack of pace made them easier to mark. Simply put, as a defender, who would you rather track back or chase after, Cazorla or Walcott? Honourable mention to Podolski, who saved Arsenal’s top four spot by coming in and hitting top form with his clinical finishing ability just when his team needed it; mark of crucial player for any squad.

 

The Solution:

I feel Arsene Wenger knew this was going to be an issue last season, hence the attempt to bring in Suarez that summer. It didn’t work out then, but in my opinion, he has brought in a very similar player in Alexis Sanchez. For some it may seem obvious and for others less so, but they are very similar in what they have to offer to a football team; pace, trickery, work-rate, reliable finishing, positional flexibility and ability to linkup. While it may seem now that Suarez is a better finisher, being 2 years older, that has arguably come with age and experience for a striker in his prime; and the statistics only show a rise in the 25 year old Sanchez’s Goal scoring ratios over the past few seasons: 19 Goals and 10 assists in 34 appearances, many of them off the bench. For the rest, they are almost identical in their style; remember, Suarez too started out on the left for Ajax before transitioning into a centre forward.

Bringing in the right player is only about 25% of the job, it is using him correctly that accounts for the rest of it. If we are to be thorough, we can say it depends entirely on the opposition. For the sake of a conclusive discussion we can talk about a preferred role that he will play for majority of the campaign. Many have suggested that Sanchez will play on the flanks next season. I, however, think Wenger has different ideas. Here are a couple of ways I think Arsenal will line-up with Sanchez next season.

Option 1 With Sanchez

Option 1 With Sanchez

 

Option 2 with Sanchez

Option 2 with Sanchez

The Invincibles:

Football is always evolving, and sometimes it comes back full circle. Teams have adapted and found comfortable solutions for defending against 3 midfielders, unless at least one of those midfielders is a genuine goal scoring threat; which is why teams have begun to play 2 strikers, with one of them dropping deeper to help the midfield, rather than the other way around. Much like Dennis Bergkamp’s role in the Arsenal’s Invincibles. Time to go back?

For periods last season, Wenger switched to something that resembled a 4-4-2, with Podolski, coming off the flank, and playing more centrally with Giroud; more memorably, with Sanogo and Giroud in extra-time in the FA Cup Final. While it worked well at times, there was always the feeling that Wenger wasn’t entirely comfortable with the type of players he had at his disposal for that role. You could see in the Final, that even though their link-up caused all sorts of problems for Hull, Sanogo was not the player you needed to finish Giroud’s perfect lay-offs.

The video above, shows just what Sanchez can do. I keep coming back to the key point of unpredictability in football, and if Arsenal are to go all the way this time, it is a skill they must master; part of this is playing with a no.10 who can score goals. With Ozil or Cazorla in positions where they can pass or strike at goal, defenders know that it is more likely that they will look for a killer pass, rather than attempt a killer shot. This does not mean they will back off and allow a free shot, but they are wary of the percentages and will give higher importance to tracking any runners rather than closing down, in turn, diminishing the chances of a successful pass. With a goal scoring no.10 such as Sanchez, or Dennis Bergkamp, defenders are caught in two minds, as allowing the strike is likely to cost them a goal, and closing down would be allowing space in behind for other attackers to exploit or a chance for a one-two to get past the closing defender. Just to be clear, I know Bergkamp and Sanchez are completely different players, however, Sanchez can be entirely effective in producing the same results (Goals and Assists) with a different style from the same positions.

Ozil Passes Recieved Vs Sunderland 2013 (Courtesy Statszone FourFourTwo)

Ozil Passes Recieved Vs Sunderland 2013 (Courtesy Statszone FourFourTwo)

Modern Winger:

The above graphic shows where Ozil likes to generally pick up the ball; mostly out wide or deep. It was no coincidence that in his very first game he assisted Giroud from the left flank. Even when playing centrally Ozil is player who tends to drift out wide naturally. He does the job there for Germany with Kroos preferred centrally. I believe Ozil can be as effective for Arsenal, doing his work out wide, but allowed the freedom to drift in, and interchanging roles with Sanchez or Ramsey. Ozil drifting in would allow Gibbs to go in on the overlap to provide width as well as cause overload problems for opposition defences. The rest of the problems that are faced by full-backs due to wide men such as Ozil with a free-role is well known to everyone; When do I go with him? When do I hold? What about the over-lapping full-back? What if the striker comes wide? Etc.

For the rest of the team, from an attacking perspective, it would be business as usual. Giroud, who is underrated by a mile, providing a target and a reference point, as well as playing neat touches to link-up. Ramsey playing box-box, and doing it well in both an attacking and defensive sense. Walcott providing threat in behind or staying wide. If Cazorla were to play in Walcott’s stead then he would play a similar role to Ozil. I, however, only see this happening against teams that defend incredibly deep, which would give license to release both of Arsenal’s full-backs to provide width; and Cazorla’s creativity inside would be more of an asset than Walcott’s pace.

The Comparison:

The system resembles the one champions Manchester City used last season; and very effectively so. And that is how I believe a top team should play, as it shows taking initiative at a slight risk. Just a quick comparison of the two teams in terms of positional strength in the ATTACKING positions of this formation.

Target Stiker: Giroud vs Negredo. I would pick Giroud for his link-up play. The amount of headers and one touch passes he finds from long clearances and zipped in balls has to be the best in Europe. Wilshere’s goal vs Norwich is a testament to his link-up ability.

Mobile Striker: Sanchez vs Aguero. This is 50/50. Aguero would be the better goal scorer as he is an immense finisher. However, Sanchez is more of a No.10, trickier and better work rate. If I had a gun to my head though, I would pick Aguero: proven striker.

LW: Ozil/Cazorla vs Silva/Nasri: I have to go with Ozil on this one. Best passer at the world cup, what more can you say? He might get stick for not being consistent in providing special moments. But he is incredibly consistent at what he does best, finding space and finding a team-mate with a pass.

RW: Walcott/ Navas: Walcott. Same pace, more of a goal scoring threat. Easy.

Box-Box Cm: Ramsey vs Toure: I pick Toure the tank, with only a slight hesitation. Ramsey is an incredible player, who had a breakthrough season, but when Yaya gets going there is no stopping him. Ramsey had better defensive stats and would have done even better if he had stayed fit. But Toure was ever present and aside from his physical presence, was a constant threat to defences.

Out of the front 5, we can see that Arsenal would edge the battle 3v2, and that too with Sanchez very close to Aguero. So, if it can lead to Man City scoring a 100 goals, I’m excited with the prospects of  the Arsenal if things click.

If we are to Include Full-backs as part of the attack, and in the modern game they are, you would have to fairly say that Zabaleta and Kolorov are better getting forward that Debuchy and Gibbs. And while they do have an influence, it is more in the form of providing numbers and width; Zabaleta, however, is quite a player.

Arsenal could prove to be an unstoppable attacking force if they get this right and can keep their starting eleven fit through key parts of the season.

I did mention at the beginning of this article that there were two issues that Arsenal needed to attend to. With one of them resolved, I will turn my attention to the other one in the next article. Vulnerability to counter-attacks and defensive frailties are on the agenda. We’ll have a look at possible players to slot into that crucial defensive midfield position for this system to work. Stay tuned.