Watching Nasri put in a great performance as a ‘holding` player in central midfield against Middlesbrough on Sunday I reflected on how impressed I had been with him playing behind van Persie in some games during the season as an attacking creative force in the team. This was the role, behind the striker, that Fabregas took up in the same game, against ‘boro, which had me recalling some comments made by Wenger very recently which seemed to indicate that Cesc`s future lie in playing a little deeper.
In turn this follows an item I had just read in the current Arsenal magazine in which Arsene discusses the merits of a 4-2-3-1 formation that we have used increasingly in the PL in recent months. Wenger, at the time he joined the club a committed disciple of 4-4-2, speaks of the benefits of this ‘new’ shape but a little more revealingly perhaps about the process of deciding which shape to play.
In explaining the adoption of 4-2-3-1 he tells us that this is a system that he has used for some time in Europe. “I find this formation gives you a good balance, particularly defensively” he says. “The technical level is so high in the Champions League so it`s important not to lose the battle in midfield. You have to be defensively sound as well. So I must say that most of the time in recent years we have played this formation in Europe.” One of the reasons we have used this shape more frequently in the Premier League this season is familiarity with the system “That`s because the team gets used to that way of playing, and if they win you get them to continue like that.” Arsene explains.
When asked whether 4-2-3-1 is here to stay he says “Nothing is ever permanent. We always look for the best solution. No formation can ever solve all the problems, but you always try to find the system that suits your players the best, and that gets the best out of their qualities.”
Given the changes in midfield this season, firstly due to summer departures, secondly to injuries and thirdly due to simply not knowing what our best midfield is, deciding what formation best suits us must be pretty tough. Even if we know, or think we know who our best midfielders are, are we even sure what their best positions are?
Formations themselves should be adaptable. One of the benefits of 4-4-2 Wenger once claimed is that it could adapt to the needs within a game becoming 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 or whatever as the game demands. 4-2-3-1 seems only to be 4-5-1 with two dedicated holding midfielders. The skill is in being flexible enough to modify the system when the pattern of the game needs it.
One aspect of Wenger`s recruitment policy designed to simplify the process may potentially complicate it. “What I look for is whether they can play in multiple positions or not. The adaptability of a player is important, for example Samir Nasri can play defensive midfield, offensive midfield, wide on the right, on the left, or behind the strikers.”
That sounds fine in principle but in practice, if a player doesn`t know or gets to know what his best position is, do we then lose something through this lack of specialisation? Wenger seems to think not “…we look at the multi-functionality of the players because that gives you more room to adapt to other systems.”
That has to be a strength I am sure. The fact that Gibbs has played in midfield has to help his overall understanding of the game but if he is to become a really good left back then his education must continue in that role. A season ago Wenger acknowledged that Song could play midfield but wasn`t convinced that he could play the role full time and believed that central defence is where he should play. This season he has been pretty well used exclusively as a defensive midfielder but does he risk getting caught in between positions? If ultimately he is to be a central defender is his education being compromised by using him so much in defensive midfield or are we losing a good midfield player if he does eventually revert to a defensive role?
I can see the benefits of multi-functionality but are there risks in this too? Will Nasri be a better player because he can play anywhere in midfield or does he need to know where he will play in order to be the best in a given role? I can imagine that understanding different positions is a valuable asset but depth of knowledge as well as breadth is also valuable. Having 7 substitutes on the bench now should allow enough specialist talents to be able to change formations as the game demands.
I think we have struggled with midfield options all season. At times as injuries have played havoc with our formations at other times because we have experimented with different set ups. In particular in the early part of the season trying to adapt our midfield to use Walcotts talents I felt gave us very real problems with an underweight midfield. Yet Walcott has visibly grown as a player in physical stature and confidence. I still feel we are someway from deciding what our midfield should be yet this is the vital part of the team through which both successful attack and defence are born.
At some point we need to decide what Cesc`s role will be along with Nasri and others in order for our midfield to develop and for the players themselves to become more settled with their role in the team. Their adaptability will never desert them and that will always allow us the option to vary our play in particular circumstances but our greatest need is surely for a settled midfield. We still seem to be some way from knowing what that is but I hope that we can do so between now and the beginning of next season if we are to avoid the inconsistencies that, despite the present unbeaten PL run, have bedevilled us this season.
On the other hand this season`s experimentations and resultant inconsistencies may just be the investment we have to make to acquire the knowledge on which to base the success of future seasons.
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