The World Cup 2014 has provided us with a brilliant platform to analyse how the beautiful game has developed – and will develop further – and where Wenger’s Arsenal stands in all of this. My thoughts, in terms of what the most successful systems and formations are, are constantly being adjusted. We have enjoyed the attacking approaches of most of this tournament’s participants and the glut of goals this resulted in, but there is also a tactical beauty to be analysed.
Unfortunately, I also missed quite a few games; so I am hoping you fine fellow Gooners will give me your take on the tournament’s teams and football in general as well today.
Some initial observations
Spain’s tiki-taka seems to have been decoded, and who would have thought that, even two years ago? It looked like Spain had found a system of football that conquered all. High ball circulation in the opposition’s half, with immaculate passing, high levels of ball possession, goals from almost any player on the pitch and a slow, inescapable suffocation of any opponent. With so many young talents coming through, it looked like they would be able to slowly replace the tiki-taka masterminds of Iniesta and Xavi, thus remain a force for a long, long time.
But Van Gaal had done his home work and realised that in order to beat the Spanish he, the team, as well as the entire nation, needed to undergo a temporary(?) paradigm shift. The holy orange 4-3-3 was abandoned, and constantly zooming in and out of 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 was applied. The Dutch dared to push up a bit and overpopulated the midfield; as a result, the Spanish triangles were disturbed and the flow was constantly interrupted. The Dutch added a lot of bite to their game and hassled their opponents constantly, and they were helped quite a bit by the referee’s leniency on the night. Nevertheless, the Spanish were able to pick a few holes in the Dutch defence and, despite being given a soft penalty, deserved to be 1-0 up in the first half.
However, Van Gaal had prepared his team for this eventuality, and they did not panic. The tactics soon paid off and in dramatic style. Before and after the break, Holland were able to find a hole in the Spanish system, and once they found it they pounced on it till the decoding was complete: brutal yes, but nobody likes to be suffocated either. The free man on the left was Blind – the blind spot – who instantly put the ball in the acres of space the Spanish system allows behind their ‘deepest’ ‘strangle’ line. The first time, Van Judas runs into it and, for once, found the net against a top team with an otherworldly effort; the second time it was Robben, who was able to control the ball in the Spanish box before beating two defenders and the goalie with composure and precision. Three more goals followed as the Dutch smelled blood, but those first two tactical/training ground efforts had already done the damage: the Spanish system had been overcome and they knew it.
The big question is now whether Spain can mend/improve their tiki-taka or whether they will abandon it entirely. I reckon the former will be the case, but they will have to find a way, and perhaps the players, to iron out its weaknesses, both in defence and up-front. One goal in two games, against Holland and Chile, despite high possession rates, is simply not good enough.
Ironically, France, Germany, Brazil and Argentina all play a more attacking style of football than Holland and are set up along the formation of 4-3-3/4-2-1-3: the current Arsenal system if you want. Van Gaal feels he has not got world class defenders, but even more importantly, high quality attacking midfielders to play such a system; hence the 3-5-2/5-3-2 un-Dutch choice of formation. Relatively low possession and pass completion rates are a worry, but nine points and most goals (10) in the first round of games are a very pleasant surprise. Van Gaal, if we did not know it yet, is one of the best managers of the world, and his ability to make tactical adjustments is second to none imo. He gets criticised for going against the Dutch Needs Attacking (DNA) football to a large degree, but I applaud him for it all the way.
The beauty of the current Dutch system is that it allows for space to be exploited, as the team sits back a lot in its own half, ready to pounce at any moment. For that, though, you need pacey, high quality attackers, and that is the one area in which the Dutch are blessed. Thierry Henry was in rapture after the Spain- Holland game and you can see why: he would have fecking loved being one of those two attackers. So much space to run into and express himself – just as much as Robben is enjoying himself more than any other Dutchman: pace and space is like oxygen an fire for him and he is having the time of his life.
However, ‘absorb and pounce’ is very un-Dutch and by far my least favourite system of football, and it is also an un-Wengerlike style of football; and their occasional inability to hold onto the ball and pass themselves out of trouble is a worry. However, if Van Gaal can get this right – and every World Cup game offers him a new opportunity to further strengthen and adjust the team – the Dutch could well make it into the final with the current system.
The World Cup is of course a tournament, and such tactics are more appropriate for such an occasion than for example the PL league. The question to ask is:
Would it work for Arsene’s Arsenal?
It could work a treat. I have no doubt that Ozil or Jack would revel in 3-5-2: both are a lot better than Sneijder in holding onto the ball and make defensive contributions. Ramsey and a proper DM – ala De Jong – would shore up our defence in front of the back three – and our natural passing game would come to full fruition. Up-front we don’t have a Robben or Van Judas, or do we? With Theo, Ox, Gnabry, and hopefully soon Campbell, we have the pacey, space-loving attackers for such a system. With Gibbs and Jenkinson we have the full backs to bomb up and down all the time, although the latter might have to wait one or two more season to become our nr.1 RB. I reckon BFG and Koz would revel in such a system, especially if TV could be one of the ‘CBs’ as well.
It all depends on how Arsene wants to take his team to the next stage. In the pre-Cesc, Bergkamp days, we played a fantastic 4-4-1-1 and we were blessed with speed, brilliant passing football and top quality finishers (Henry, Bergkamp, Pires and Ljungberg). We loved to get the ball of the opponents in our half, or in midfield and then pounce forward like a collective tiger with breathtaking and deadly attacks. We were also pretty good at smothering the opponents in their own half and pass our way into the box.
Since and post the Cesc team, we gradually lost this and replaced it with pure possession and passing football. At times, especially when Cesc was our conductor, we played phenomenally clever and beautiful football, but for all sorts of reasons it did not bring us success. We have not replaced Cesc and during the last three years the quality of our football has deteriorated imo.
I could go and on and on about this but it is time to open the debate:
Is it time to try something different, and is ‘Van Gaal’s’ 3-5-2/5-3-2 the best way forward for our current squad of players? Which formation would you prefer to get us to the next level – and who is the one super quality player we need to add in order to play it to its full strength?
Written by: TotalArsenal.