In recent years, it is fair to say that the transfer policy at Arsenal has lacked a lot of joined-up, long-term thinking. The transfers of Kim Kallstrom and Denis Suarez spring immediately to mind of course, but more broadly a lack of quality defensive reinforcements were a common theme in Arsene Wenger’s tenure, sidelined in favour of creative midfielders galore.
Under Unai Emery, however, whilst the playing style was fundamentally anti-Arsenal, the hierarchy did seem to make more logical signings, such as Lucas Torreira and Nicolas Pepe, two positions that Arsenal lacked cover in. This article looks at how Arsenal can continue on this path, and how they have reached a crossroads with regards to how they move forwards.
THE CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS:
Few would question that Manchester City and Liverpool are the two best teams in world football at present. They did not get there by chance, however. Their transfer policies are hugely different, but each is incredibly instrumental in their success
Both have recruited very well over the past few seasons, and whilst Liverpool will gain the plaudits for spending less (the famous net spend argument), if you ask me, if you have the money then spend it. There are countless examples of sides frittering money away (Tottenham post-Bale and Barcelona post-Neymar immediately spring to mind). City have managed to avoid this however. If Arsenal aim to be a heavyweight in the League anytime soon, they need to take notes from both sides.
THE TOP TABLE:
In theory, both Manchester City and Liverpool play a variation on a 433. Their personnel directly influence how specific positions operate, however.
Liverpool operate with a traditional no.6 (Fabinho), flanked by two workmen-like no.8s (Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson). The midfield lacks a lot of creativity, which would not work were it not for Roberto Firmino, who drops deep as a false-nine to link up play and create chances.
In turn, the wide players (Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah) push forward and more centrally, into a formation which resembles more of a 4312. The full-backs provide the width and extra numbers in the attack, whilst the midfield focus on simply winning the ball back and recycling.
Manchester City, on the other hand, operate with less defensive security (Shown by the numbers of goals conceded). Fernandinho plays at the base of midfield, with David Silva or, in more testing games, Ilkay Gundogan on one side, and Kevin De Bruyne on the other. This is a midfield which oozes creativity, which in turn allows more “finishers” in their forward line, such as Sergio Aguero. This means that there is little to no need for a creative forward, in the same way that Liverpool need it. Two very different, very effective styles.
SEEDS OF BOTH?
Arsenal are currently nowhere near the level of either of these teams. This is in some ways, perhaps, because they have elements of both. Of course, they cannot, simply “copy and paste” any style, but they can take inspiration.
Arteta has favoured a 4231 since his managerial reign begun, but this is almost certainly just in order to accommodate Mesut Ozil. In the long-term, he is likely to revert to a 433 variant. Whilst Manchester City is surely his prototype, having learnt much as assistant manager to Pep Guardiola, Arsenal’s squad lends itself, with such attacking fullbacks, more to Liverpool’s system.
However, it is probably fair to say that Arsenal have a forward line to play Manchester City’s style of play, with a midfield that is chronically unbalanced. That is where the problem lies.
Both midfields in this discussion (Manchester City and Liverpool) are set up to directly complement their striker and wingers. The problem is, Arsenal have two very different strikers- Alexandre Lacazette resembles a forward more in the Roberto Firmino mould (Although perhaps less creative and more prolific), whilst Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang surely fits in a similar category to Sergio Aguero.
So, the obvious answer is to choose one. But which? Arteta’s decision will surely be crucial in setting up the rest of the team, as the midfield will be set-up to complement the strikeforce.
If Manchester City’s method is adhered to, Aubameyang could be deployed centrally with perhaps Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe either side, but the midfield would be lacking both creativity and energy. Dani Ceballos is a good player, but is more suited to a second defensive midfielder than an athletic box-to-box player.
Were Arteta to take inspiration from Guardiola, we could perhaps see players in the Grealish mould (Much scaled down of course) flanking an athletic defensive midfielder. On the other hand, if the Klopp formula were to be tried, Arsenal would perhaps look to recruit more workman-like midfielders, which would, in turn, require a more creative forward such as Lacazette. Which striker leaves in the summer could go a long way to deciphering Arteta’s long-term plans. In turn, it would surely affect the type of midfielder that the club recruits for the coming season.
There will, of course, be some readers questioning whether either should be sold. Comparisons to other two striker successes, such as Bergkamp and Henry, or Cole and Yorke, will surely be made. The simple truth of the matter, however, is that two-striker formations are largely a thing of the past, a consequence of evolving tactics in the English game.
Could it work? The previous games have shown an effective, albeit fundamentally flawed, way of satisfying two world-class strikers, with Aubameyang moving to a left inside-forward role. This has, however, made Arsenal’s attacking patterns very obvious and one-dimensional, and it would be silly to expect this exact formula to continue working.
At the moment, it seems clear the 4-3-3 is working. To catch the top sides, therefore, Mikel Arteta and the Arsenal hierarchy are at a crossroads. Both Liverpool and Manchester City operate with hugely different transfer policies, with similar results, and it could be that one of these is taken as a template for Arsenal going forward. The decision, however, needs to be made soon.