The Evolution of Arsenal’s Gameplay

The Invincibles are gone, they’ve parted ways and chosen their futures. Some have gone on to rot on benches, others to try new prospects. As the dust settles Arsenal’s style of play has changed from the impressively successful 4-4-1-1 employed by the Invincibles side to a 4-5-1 formation for the modern game built around 1 man, Cesc Fabregas.  But as time went on the big teams learnt how to deal with this amazing playmaker and Arsenal’s offense looked more and more unimaginative and while it was at times, dazzling to watch, the majority of games saw us passing the ball around on the edge of the opposition’s goal box without ever taking a shot or looking threatening. As more and more teams cottoned on to the fact that they could stand off Fabregas(who rarely shoots) and simply man mark all the target players he would pass to, we also started to see how often and easily we could be undone on Counter-Attacks as the team got more and more aggressive, committing more and more bodies forward and leaving our back 4 very exposed in our desperate search for goals, despite having the self proclaimed “World’s best striker” Nicklas Bendtner, on hand to hit the target, or chair row Z, or simply put his shot out for a throw in.

The Diagram shows a fairly standard scenario from a few seasons ago when we still adopted this style of play and it’s easy to see the problems with what we were doing back then. Fabregas naturally plays fairly advanced and with the other midfielders pushing up in support you can see the huge gap it leaves in between our lines between Song and the Center Backs, that can be exploited by teams with a quick long ball to a target center forward who can then run at the defense or really stretch us if they have speedy players flying down the wings, like say United. By ignoring Fabregas, Player A intercepts a pass from Fabregas to Bendtner, hits it long to Player B who lays it off to Player C and then we’re screwed. You can clearly see how Song is outnumbered, Sagna is caught high up the pitch, Clichy is overlapped and the result is an attack with width running at our two Center Backs and the hapless keeper beyond.

Now,  jump forward to last season. Fabregas is gone, Na$ri(who?), Clichy(who?)  also and Wilshere is injured indefinitely. In their place Arsenal has Rosicky,Gibbs, Gervinho and Arteta. Now while these players are being utilised the same way there are some important differences. Firstly Gibbs is much more of a winger style player than Clichy ever was, Clichy was a no-nonsense Fullback who pushed forwards at times whereas Gibbs is more often further up field than his Left Winger. This has created the occasional problem defensively but weirdly it has also solved a big problem for Arsenal. Clichy was often found to be playing attackers onside resulting in a heart attack inducing 1 on 1 with “gulp” Almunia. Whether because Vermaelen is too aggressive or because Clichy was just useless at staying in line with his Center Backs is up for debate but since Gibbs is so eager to go forward this problem no longer exists.

Gervinho and Rosicky added some much needed energy to our offense, both have great workrates however the best thing that Rosicky inadvertedly did is get the other players involved. With their crutch Fabregas gone from midfield the other 10 players on the team started to take on more responsibility on the pitch and even though a certain Dutch traitor who we shall refer to as “Voldemort ie “He who can not be named”  was banging in the majority of our goals, the assists were coming from everywhere. In the later half of the season once the excellent Arteta had firmly stamped his mark on a midfield position in our side, the trio of Arteta, Song and Rosicky started to show their potential and with this new confidence we started to see a shift in formation, when attacking from the normal 4-5-1 to a very fluid 3-5-2. In possession, Gibbs would bomb down the left wing providing width, Gervinho would slide inwards into a secondary striker role and the Center Backs would adjust their position to compensate for this. This gave Arsenal an extra attacking option and allowed one of the best crossers on the team, Gibbs to show his attacking potential. With the speed of Theo Walcott on the Right Wing, Arsenal were able to not commit Bacary Sagna at Right Back forwards too much and still provide an attacking threat from both wings, crucially stretching the oppositions defense.


It’s a shame Rosicky is too old these days to always start as he did a fantastic job in Attacking Midfield when we really needed someone to step up. While all this was happening Arsenal also shored up their defense with the arrival of Per Mertesacker and the development of our young Keeper Wojciech Szczesny.  Mertesacker in particular was becoming a key player for us as he asserts his authority and experience on the back 4 and provides much needed organisation. Arteta likewise in midfield became more important than anyone save maybe Arsene Wenger could imagine as his performances are just so damn consistent it’s like having a machine in midfield. You program it to your specifications and then watch in awe as he carries out your instructions with unerring accuracy.

Present Day

So fastforward to this season and predictably the season started with  several players being sold.  While the article on this site written by Threkstari explains why this is necessary it is no less damn annoying. So adios to Song who suddenly discovered he had Barca DNA, while Voldemort has definitely turned to the dark side as he joins Manchester United. Wenger brings in Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud as his key signings, as well as promoting a young player by the name of Carl Jenkinson in place of the currently injured Bacary Sagna. Happily unlike last season the new recruits bed into the starting eleven much quicker than expected and Arsenal only drop a few points at the start thanks to not having a proper pre-season warm up to familiarize with each other. Cazorla proves a revelation in midfield and Podolski who struggled to play well in Bayern Munich’s 4-3-3 play wide formation quickly strikes up a great partnership with both Gibbs and Cazorla. Giroud impresses early also but fails to get the goals his performances deserve and loses his starting position to Gervinho who after looking rather unimpressive last season as a Left Winger, really seems to have hit his stride in the Center Forward position. But the most impressive thing about all these early signs is what we start to see in the formation.

That’s right, a return to the 4-4-1-1 formation that was the staple of the most glorious days in Arsenal’s history and we have the players to make it work, we have a sexy beast of a Center Forward with brilliant positional awareness and the attitude to get on the end of a cross regardless of if he’ll break his foot doing it.  Meanwhile we have Cazorla pulling the strings and the metronomic Arteta as the midfield anchor. Perhaps the most crucial change to this formation is the doing away with a traditional Defensive Midfielder. Instead we have in it’s place the double pivot of Arteta and Diaby ensuring 1 player(usually Arteta) is always covering the back 4 and eliminating problems we had in the past with 2 defensive lines of 4 players, thanks to the workrate of both Podolski and Gervinho on the wings.

While this is Arsenal’s standard formation now it’s worth noting that in offense we switch to a 3-5-2 due to Gibbs bombing down the flank and I think this is what utilises Podolski’s potential. It’s clear on the pitch he doesn’t like playing wide so having Gibbs provide the width and Podolski slide inside to become a secondary striker is perfect. This also moves Podolski closer to where Cazorla is playing and allows the great linkup play and intricate give and goes we’ve seen them play this season, most notably when Cazorla scored vs Liverpool and when they tore Southampton apart.The starting eleven is almost cemented with maybe 3 or so players who can give it a nudge. Players pushing to get into the starting team is great for promoting good performances from those on the field however and even though Wenger has to decide on which two Center Backs to start and which player should be at Right Wing etc these are decisions that are much preferred to not having any options at all.

Looking to the Future

This current Arsenal squad looks to have loads of potential with far more steel in the side thanks to the veteran players that have been introduced and the willingness of the players to defend and attack as a team. I think we can look forward with hope and belief that this is a team that can win consistently. There is still room for much improvement, particularly our defense on set pieces and also the tendency of a certain newly promoted captain to make rash tackles and press forwards too much but the team chemistry is looking stronger every week. Add to this current crop the fact that our young prodigy Jack Wilshere is soon to return from injury as well as other solid players such as Bacary Sagna and Tomas Rosicky and the future looks positively mouth watering.

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