Fantasies of Free Flowin Footy in a Four Four Two

The match at Fulham was, if nothing else, encouraging.

It’s hard not to feel like this was the type of occasion Arsenal might squander. After a good period of momentum heading into the international break it almost seemed inevitable. This is less a dig at Wenger and more the mentality on display in the past few seasons. Whether this string of results is due to Emery’s efforts in addressing this mentality or if we’re just enjoying a period of good fortune remains unclear. My guess is that it’s probably a bit of both.

Instead, our club extended its run to nine consecutive wins across three competitions, not only a testament to form but the manager’s ability to effectively balance results, morale, and injury. Alexandre Lacazette put in another man-of-the-match performance. Alex Iwobi came of age. Aaron Ramsey finished a sweeping move that will surely compete for goal of the season. And Torreira… f*cking Torreira. The team responded positively to conceding before the break. The football was tidy and purposeful; at times, nostalgic. For the first time this season, it felt like we were watching Unai Emery’s Arsenal.

This is not to say that fundamental issues don’t remain. There are serious questions about the club’s ability to build a title contending team with the error-prone Mustafi leading our back line. The increasingly familiar butt-clench that follows a Xhaka turnover somehow managed to escape us these past few outings, but I suspect they too will return. Coupled with a broken wage bill and a few uncertain futures, it will be interesting to see how Emery’s time at Arsenal plays out.

Still, there is no denying the attacking football that was on display last Sunday. In addition to feeling like the first glimpse of the new Arsenal, it was also the first time I (and likely thousands of other supporters) felt like we’d made tangible progress on our performance the week before. Perhaps most encouraging—and the initial inspiration for this piece—was how we set up on Sunday. I must admit that I was completely oblivious to this change in formation during the match and it wasn’t until my second viewing that I started to form an idea of why everything seemed to be going so smoothly.

The debate over the importance of formation at the highest level is valid. Thanks to the fluid nature of football, at any given moment it is not unusual to find a center back occupying the space of a forward or a midfielder dropping deep to cover for their outside back. The debate over the importance of tactics is not. As I touched on earlier, it is still too early to draw any real conclusions about Emery’s managerial prowess and it will likely be an entire season or two until we can. But, if we can take anything from these first few months of life under Emery, it is that he approaches the game in a fundamentally different manner than his predecessor. It would not surprise me in the slightest if we’ve already produced more goal-line cut-backs in the last three months than in the entirety of the 2017/18 campaign. Hyperbole aside, Emery clearly has an idea of how he wants this team to play and continuing in a 4-4-2 is the right step in getting the most out of both the system and the players.

Well, sort of. I don’t actually believe that we set up in a 4-4-2. I think that a 4-2-2-2 variant might be a more appropriate assessment. We don’t possess the natural wingers. We do, however, have an abundance of wide attacking midfielders and a couple of fullbacks that love to eat up space. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were brilliant on the day, the latter quietly so. As we built from the back, our “mid-wingers” often tucked in to create space for the fullbacks which created multiple chances and eventually our first goal. These narrow positions also served to tighten things up defensively and relieve pressure on our back-six.  On a side note— how good is Seri? He had a relatively quiet game by his standards, but I certainly wouldn’t mind some of his technique and calmness on the ball in our midfield.

If you revisit the first half at Craven Cottage you will find some beautiful partnerships forming. The pairing of Torreira and Xhaka at the base of midfield allowed our attacking unit the confidence to get numbers forward with great effect. The understanding shared by two incredibly intelligent footballers in Mkhitaryan and Lacazette is a real treat. I wouldn’t say these partnerships or understandings can necessarily be attributed to the formation, but it’s hard to argue against the idea that every single player in that starting eleven lined up in their preferred position. What’s more, the game was effectively won before we even had a chance to observe the 4-4-2’s greatest offering— surely the biggest advantage to this formation is that it allows for the duo of our combined £100m men. Pushing Aubameyang wide hasn’t been entirely ineffective but it simply wasn’t the role he was brought in to play. Pair him with his pal Lacazette, let the bromance blossom, and allow our new strike-force a chance at greatness.

Again, this is all very encouraging. In my opinion? We aint seen nothin’ yet.

A few questions to consider during the lull…

  1. Is the 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) here to stay? Or will Emery’s tactical flexibility keep us wanting?
  2. Where do we start reintegrating Ainsley Maintland-Niles?
  3. How does 350,000-pound-per-week man Mesut Ozil fit in to all of this?

by Frozen

16 thoughts on “Fantasies of Free Flowin Footy in a Four Four Two

  • No comments yet… So maybe I’ll venture one… I think we may just be too deep into the interlull and folks have maybe gone over the Fulham match just a bit too much…

    It also might be that putting out a post at 7 am (my time, west coast, US = 3 pm England) isn’t the best…

    Nonetheless, cheers for the post, Frozen… Keep ’em coming…


    To repeat myself (again, and not for the first time, etc, etc…), I’m not so sure we saw anything so special in the Fulham match…except for the GOALS. They WERE spectacular, all five of them, but the great finishes by our 100 million pounds of CFs will be (slightly) overshadowed by the great set of improvisations in the fantastic team goal. Together (strikers who shoot fast AND have them bulge the net + a great back to front team goal) they do conjure up the glory days of the early aughts… Maybe?…

    To answer your questions. I don’t really think it was a 442 even if the half-time commentary tried to show us retreating from a Fulham goal-kick in a 4222… (Question of my own: Are formations based on defensive or offensive set ups?…)

    To me, Emery seems very locked in to a 4231…i.e., his tactical IN-flexibility may keep you wanting–if you want a 442…) And, to my eye, it’s a 4231 that oftentimes has very little connection (or lots of space between the 2 and the 3. Effectively it’s a back 6–though often very spread out –CBs wide, DMs narrow, FBs waaay upfield as wide targetmen. The attacking 4 often stay pretty narrow but also work those channels you noted for the tighter pull-backs and crossess. Runs towards the posts are augmented by runs down the sides of the 18yd box, an innovation that has yielded many of our best chances…

    Anyhow, I certainly saw Welbz out wide (left) and interchanging with Iwobi as much as anybody. All 4 attackers, under Emery, it seems to me, are also supposed to do some running at the ball (when the opponent’s have it). Call it a press if you like…to me, it seems (spectacularly) ineffective thus far…

    AMN, I think, will start getting playing time in place of Torreira in the weekday matches…and perhaps in place of Monreal. The latter, however, would be quite a snub for Kolasinac. Longer term, it seems that he could also compete with Xhaka, Elneny and Guendouzi. His defensive recovery pace places him ahead of all those guys, but is that enough? Quick, aggressive and accurate passing seems like the thing Emery wants to see in those deeper lying mids…

    Ozil might not have a place in Emery’s team (nor in football more generally if teams are falling over themselves to play strictly on the counterattack)… While I was deeply impressed by Mkhitaryan’s work in the Fulham match, it was probably because he seemed Ozil-esque on the day, maybe benefiting just a bit by the fact that he’s not Ozil and not drawing man-marking off the ball as our #10 often does. As long as the other attackers perform well, I see nothing wrong with defenders getting glued to the big money player. Opening the pitch for others is extremely undervalued…by fans, IMO… Luckily, I don’t think Emery sees things that way…

    But, we’ll get more info evenutally… (Ugh, gotta wait until Monday night…) Leicester (parking the bus at our home stadium?…) seems a good next test…

    Cheers again for the post!!

  • Thanks for the response, 17. This break really does feel a long one and I think you’re probably right about the timing. Though I was actually surprised there wasn’t more chatter about the formation prior to my post as it looked like this was very much not our typical 4231 (a formation I actually quite like). I think the key difference here is the absence of a single 10– and if you look at our average positions vs Fulham on WhoScored (I cant quite figure out how to paste the picture via mobile) this might give you a better idea of where I’m coming from.

    As for the overall football on display— gonna have to disagree with you again.
    This was by some distance the best football we’ve played all season. It’s unfair, and sounds a bit silly, to say that our football was average aside from 4 (ignoring Laca’s super strike) wonderful team goals. You really are jaded.. 😉

    We still have a ways to go but even the most pessimistic fans have to be fantasizing (hence the title) about the direction we’re heading.

    More later

  • Frozen, we are playing with a variable attacking midfield and forward. They can either be 3 and 1 up top or 2 and 2 up top, depending on the opponent. If it requires pressing from the front then 2 up top. If we are on the back foot, then one up top.

    Seems that this post came a little late, but hope to hear more from you.


  • Cheers for putting the post up 17tino.

    Interesting post Frozen, it seems to me that Emery makes adjustments continually to his line up depending on the opposition and what obstacles they present, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see a different system against Leicester and again against Sporting next week.

    Portugal is not a happy hunting ground for Arsenal teams in the past, 5 visits and no victories to date, 2 draws/3 defeats, so this game could prove as problematic as the visit of Liverpool next month.

  • Nice post Frozen.
    I like the way Emery is very adaptable in those formations to game situations, and uses his personnel. The opportunities he provides his players, the chances to get starts, but also substantial sub appearances are great motivators. In the past, our 18 minute subs knew that’s all they were, and that the starting 11 was not going to change.
    I find it refreshing and I think the production of the bench seems much better.
    Being able to mix in players like Ozil, mkhitaryan, a like-new Iwobi, Guendouzi and others has contributed to a less tired and more lively squad. This can help in Europa and later in the long premier campaign.

  • Well written Frozen, agree with most of what you say. It certainly gets more interesting each week that we keep this run up and it’s been a long time since I felt as good as I did after the 2nd half against Fulham. Your post deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting, but as alluded to the interlull kills off a lot of the momentum.

    As an aside my son rang me from Canary Wharf today to say that he was in the same bar as Charlie Nicholas. What a player he could have been if he had fulfilled his potential

  • Interesting post, Frozen and some fine posers too. Considering the start we’ve had, it is easy to get excited about going on a 6 game winning (league) run, culminating in that marvellous display against Fulham. However, the reason for the apparent caution from both media and fans is that we have had winning runs in the past (even going 19 games? unbeaten at some point in Mustafi’s first season) only to stutter when the chips are down. I guess that’s where your point about mentality will start to count. I have said it a few times here; Emery has inherited a great squad of players (ignore what the nay-sayers tell you) and the team will benefit from the freshness of his style, soon enough. He also makes a point of not making excuses about fixture scheduling and tiredness in the players, ostensibly, so as not to make the players unwittingly believe the excuse. That’s a good attribute.

    On formations, I feel the skills set of your personnel and quality/strengths of the opposition will usually decide that for you. Watford intended to play a 4-4-2 against us but because of our quality, Deeney found himself mostly defending in the middle, for instance. Against Fulham, Emery went with our most physical players in Welbz, Mkhi, Iwobi and Laca to ensure we weren’t dominated in that aspect. Afterwards, it was easy to bring on Auba, along with Ramsey, who both made hay as the hosts had been worn down.

    Ainsley Maitland-Niles will have to start all over again to get back his place, now that Kolasinac is fit again, Bellerin is looking good and we seem to have stability developing in the middle. He did play as a right winger, on loan at Ipswich town; who knows? Emery may need his strength, running and dribbling skill in that department, some time soon. Otherwise, he will have to bide his time.

    The suggestion that we’ve probably had more goals from “goal line cut-backs” in this season than the last is a good observation, but rather exaggerated, if you only recall goal combinations between Bellerin-Laca, Theo-Giroud, Monreal-Giroud, Mkhi-Auba, Theo-Ramsey, etc, in different games. Barring injuries to key personnel, that’s been a trait of our teams in recent memory. Emery has done well to exploit that natural tendency in the players.

    Mesut Ozil, when fit, will always be in Emery’s plans because he is an A-list footballer whom we can’t afford to overlook because of social media or pundits’ narrative. If we are to play a game that he isn’t best suited for, by all means, Emery should keep him out of the firing line. But, for me, he starts in most games. My post has gotten too long now (almost 17-esque), so I’ll pause here.

  • OT. Not sure what it’s about but it’s being reported Bayern have called a press conference for tomorrow morning. Rumour has it they will be sacking their manager, Kovac and will be announcing a new manager from a list which includes Zidane and Wenger.

    Have to wait and see what the announcement is truly about.

  • Thanks for the feedback fellas (though i was starting to think I might’ve set a new BK record..!)

    And to Eris for the follow-up post. I fear ANM has an impossible task in finding his way into our midfield any time soon, but one injury to Nacho and I think he slides right in. I do like Kolasinac and hopes he continues to develop but with the way were playing we need our fullbacks to cover as much ground as possible.

    With the limited data we have to draw from, I don’t think anyone can definitively say “this is how we line up” or “this is how we play.” These opinions are simply observation-based predictions to how the rest of our season might look. I’m just predicting (hoping) to see more of what we saw last Sunday 🙂

  • Meant to get around to this sooner– but work gets intense at times!
    Enjoyed your rousing the regulars Frozen.

    Two weeks. Possibly the least-contentious international break in years. Would not have guessed this would be the reality. So props to Emery’s influences in general, in calming troubled waters that have unsettled the club the past 2-3 years. This quiet may be the most impressive aspect of all. So, time again to begin paying attention to the club.

    In sports I’ve participated, either as a player or coach/manager– my intent was to prepare myself or setup a team to accept advantages on offer from the opponent– before the game began. Whatever percentage gained– physical, mental, intangible? Usually meant I– or the team started on the front-foot. This is my take on Emery’s approach. A lack of predictability is itself an advantage.

    Might point out that first-halves have seen mostly slow starts. But that’s hardly cost us points. Right now players are buying into UE’s attention-to-detail approach. When you’re winning? That’ll continue. Making it a facet of the culture, of the team’s persona? Is what this run of success is helping Emery to establish.

    Folks here have pointed to Pool to be the test– on 11/3. Respectfully, I disagree.
    Always the next match. Leicester on Monday night. OGAAT.


  • Also, your post up-thread Eris? Double-good.
    Agree on aspects like AMN making his way back into UE’s periphery.
    (In that vein, the club’s youthful midfield core of AMN, Guendouzi, Torreira, and Smith Rowe– have nearly all you could ask for in the way of skill-sets. Future is bright there.)

    With you on Mesut as well. Ozil is like a menu without prices.
    Those compelled to ask, won’t appreciate being told.


  • Frozen … very well written and very well considered post. Boils down to it being all shades, fine shades … the 4:4:2, the 4:2:2:2, the 4:2:3:1 etc. As you pointed out a view of the average position of the players (via WhoScored or The Telegraph) makes you realize that paper formations are simply default positions for the players. They are merely reference points that players use in identifying their positions at each moment within the context of their respective assignments. It is there as a language for instruction and analysis. It is a structure with a lot of spaces for maneuvering. We tend to view it too rigidly. The personnel selected is possibly more critical than the formation which would lead to the fact that the personnel has a huge say on the formation chosen.

    Meanwhile I feel Emery is become a bit more adventurous which I see as the 2nd phase of his getting to know his players. Let’s enjoy the ride.

  • It was uplifting to see those pictures of Laurent Koscielny joining in the last training session with the rest of the squad, another gold star for our new improved medical and fitness team methinks.

    I’m kinda looking forward to the Blackpool game, especially as I’ll be there, hopefully a combo of Guendouzi and AMM in midfield should make for interesting viewing, but in deference to the oft used mantra of OGAAT I will park my thoughts on that game.

    Jamie Vardy will be a handful for sure next Monday, he always likes to show us what we missed out on and is a certain as anyone to score. I’ve always liked his ‘feck you’ attitude and regretted his decision to stay at Leicester…

  • OK fellas, Friday (has) finally come around…

    But now we wait until Monday night…but then the fixtures will come thick and fast. Are we ready? Like JW suggests, it’s been a quiet break…Too quiet? I don’t think so. It’s just the sort of quiet caused (only?) by winning matches…and what’s wrong with that? Long may it last, I say, starting with Leicester…

    A couple of comments on the comments…

    First off… Eris, I’m agreed about JW and his way with words… That guy should write a post, I think. And, when are YOU gonna write one, now that you’ve conquered the word count issue… 😉 If I’ve found any ONE thing to be true it’s that you don’t need anything (in particular) to say… 😀 and it’s fine to go from topic to topic (or even to repeat the points upon which you’ve been hammering). This is Arsenal blogging, after all, and Frozen was able to stick in a few chestnuts that nobody touched: the (by now routine…) digs at Wenger spine-players (Xhaka and Mustafi) plus our f*cked up wage structure. Why is it so bad? I remember, because we beat that (3rd placed from the Championship) Fulham team without the (extremely) Ozil-paid one… For me, I’ll have whatever that guy (JW see above) is having…even if it wasn’t on the menu at the cottage…

    But basking in (our most recent) brilliance is better, surely…

    I thought we’d done that game to death, but then I put on the tape and…as I suspected, the cottagers played us toe-to-toe in that first half. Fool-ham, maybe we should call them, as we were successful in luring them forward…into our counter-a-trap…And, it worked!! esp. after we got ahead (esp. the 2nd time)…

    Leicester, at our place, stalwarts of the English game at both ends of the pitch (Vardy and MaGuire at least…) might not be so easily drawn out…

    I’ve already said enough (no such thing, Eris…) but I’m thinking of a rehash of my early-Emery-Empressions, eyeing the ensuing entanglement at the Emriates… Lord knows I love an alliteration…

    …So, borrowing a North (or East?…) London accent…Fanks (again) Frozen for filing a fought-full fillup wif feelings of fine formations. Fan-tasies is what the footy is all about, in my (humble) opinion…

  • Nobody’s biting…

    JW, were you really working hard or…just living (and dying) with your local sports teams? I saw a bit of the Rockets (sleepwalking through their) opener and some of the Astros reaching out (but failing) to beat the Red Sox… Are the fans too close to the action in these new (smaller) stadiums? It’s not quite like our (Oakland) coliseum…nor the Astrodome… Anyhow, sorry about that…

    Sorry too about this…


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