Time for a tactical reinvention at the Emirates?

Given the season Mesut Özil has just had, undoubtedly the brightest ray of sunshine in Arsenal’s predictably humdrum season, it’s with great peculiarity that I appear to take aim at the German with my next point, but here goes nothing. Özil can be just as detrimental to the opposing defence as he is to ours.

Here I cite the 27-year-old’s apparent pick and choose mentality in tracking back, a combination that alongside Ramsey’s untameable urge to take initiative next to Francis Coquelin or Mathieu Flamini has often left our lines of defence chasing shadows.

But this is far from a criticism that I’m stamping upon Özil’s name, in the meantime acknowledging the incompatibility Ramsey has experienced with our tough-tackling French midfielders. This is, in fact, my acceptance that Özil, like many more playmakers about, naturally contributes very little defensively.

As a key player, it’s then up to the team to be moulded in response to his shortcomings, offering both control and security for such artists to work their magic freely. One of the newly-requested methods has been to pack the midfield with a third body, forming a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 set-up we’ve become accustomed to.

In theory, this is a remedy that should cover up Ramsey’s perceived ill-disciplined nature, or even cater to Santi Cazorla’s physical inadequacies which so often relied on the Welshman’s presence as a right interior. Furthermore, less defensive responsibility is given to Özil.

This route has been explored before, implemented by Arsène Wenger with mixed results at the start of the 2014/2015 season, meanwhile its use proved to be far more favourable in Arsenal’s 2-0 win at the Etihad last season versus Manchester City, as well as the victory at home to Bayern Munich this season by the same score in the UEFA Champions League.


Özil was moved out wide in each occasion. Sometimes with success, meanwhile other examples exist of him resembling a caged beast, stuck on the left flank back in 2014. There are many benefits to be had from having a third central midfielder, but it’s not a tactical shift one can deem as wise if it moves one of our best players out of his natural habitat, and you can bet Özil will have a thing or two to say about such a development too deep into the peak years of his own career.

But there is still one way in which Özil in the number ten position and three additional centre midfielders can coexist. A narrow 4-1-2-1-2, utilised by Liverpool in their wild charge for the Premier League title in 2014, which is also expected to be co-signed by Roy Hodgson in France when England walk out for Euro 2016. Brendan Rodgers and Hodgson. I know, hardly revered tacticians, but Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri has turned to the system occasionally and done well for himself with two Scudettos and the presence in a Champions League final. Better?

The greatest weakness this formation presents is that it could leave you short either in attack or on the flanks, but Arsenal’s current crop may be versatile enough to pull it off.

We shall start with the much-maligned defensive midfield position in which the first conclusion, in my opinion, is that delving into the transfer market would be paramount. I’m thankful for Coquelin’s renaissance, but the feeling that Arsenal need something far more well-rounded doesn’t go away and this is a scenario that’s also mirrored in Per Mertesacker’s and Olivier Giroud’s relevance to the club.

Coquelin, as well as Mertesacker and Giroud in their preferred positions, is more than capable of deputising in a midfield three, but given the lack of wingers, it becomes a requisite that the holding midfielder displays the ability to construct play from deep, seeking the full backs as an outlet and momentarily creating a back three in their absence.

A fine blend of defensive attributes and the ability to manipulate the tempo of the game make up the composition of the desired target, and if rumours are to be confirmed as true, Arsenal may have already found that man in Granit Xhaka.


Nacho Monreal, Héctor Bellerín and Kieran Gibbs should suffice in wide areas, all generally sound defensively and demonstrate the required physical capabilities to get up and down the flanks. This tactical shift could be particularly interesting for the development of Bellerín, a player who more often than not appears to be too timid to leave his mark offensively but would now have the responsibility to do what his potential as a wing back promises.

It’s in central midfield, providing Arsenal have the adequate base, that Wenger is truly blessed. From creative minds, workhorses and those that serve as a bridge between the two, the Gunners should have more than enough to impact the game in a variety of ways with Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Mohamed Elneny. If we were to imagine Xhaka put on the red and white this summer, he also is another player to add to the list and a three-man midfield also offers me, at least, greater peace of mind in testing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the middle of the park.

As much of this piece has tried to outline, it’s difficult to look past Özil as the primary source of creativity in the final third. His goal contributions are at an all-time high in an Arsenal shirt and he appears to be hungry for more, almost looking as though he’s operating as a centre forward shadowing Giroud at times. This crossover between a traditional playmaker and false nine should suit him well, offering one of our best players the optimum conditions to thrive.

Surrounding him are the back-up options of Cazorla, Alex Iwobi and, again, ‘The Ox’. Or even Serge Gnabry! Remember him?

Equally pivotal to this project is the versatility of forwards like Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and even the ‘wantaway’ Theo Walcott. It’s imperative that at least one of the two forwards can spear into the channels to provide width (noted as a potential disadvantage) and create space.


One’s not sure, however, where this leaves everybody’s favourite scapegoat – Giroud. It’s quite possible to envisage the Frenchman operating as a right-sided striker where Bellerín’s characteristics offer greater assurances of renewed width; meanwhile his infamous hold-up play aids the roaming Özil, among others.

On the other hand, Arsenal’s leading goal scorer is now 29-years-old, and since we’d need a new striker regardless of the formation we choose to install, the temptation is there to cash in on Giroud. I’ve heard Juventus have an unconditional admiration for just about every striker that isn’t theirs, so perhaps they could help us out with that.

Ultimately, the stats don’t lie (most of the time) and the 23 goals Giroud has amassed this season would not only need to be replaced, but also enhanced upon. For all the stick he gets, the numbers registered by Walcott, the now in-form Sanchez and the absent Welbeck haven’t backed the striker up, which reflects our current league position.

To solve that issue, a world class striker is the order of the day but those come around like a bottle of Louis Roederer’s Cristal for us gut-expanding beer drinkers. The idea of having a world class striker has us infatuated, even if that tag is thrown at anyone who scores a notable goal these days. The important thing for Arsenal is that they find a quality striker that works.

Perhaps we really ought to take a look at Juventus’ Álvaro Morata as the papers suggest. It’d be something to do when showing Giroud around the city of Turin. In Morata, Arsenal would have a striker who is enriched with potential and hungry to prove a point after being shut out at both Real Madrid and Juventus. Additionally, he’s a well-rounded forward capable of moving into the channels should the game demand him to, fitting this new structure.


Like Morata, there are a few more other gambles to ponder on, such as 22-year-old Michy Batshuayi currently at struggling Ligue 1 outfit Olympique Marseille, or, dare I say it, Olympique Lyonnais’ Alexandre Lacazette, whose reputation has perhaps paid the price for not moving elsewhere at the start of this season.

Much has been made of the supposed “death of possession football” and the need to adhere to the now popular high press/transitional style of play, but one would think, again in theory, that Arsenal could alternate between both styles within this system thanks to the varied qualities we already possess in certain areas of the field and the ones we should look to add.

Of course, like any formation and habitual game plan, it can easily end up in the scrapyard fairly swiftly. Imperfections are to be expected every time you go to the drawing board. That’s simply football. But, financially, it is also a risk free plan that requires the technically dominant defensive midfielder and mobile goal-getter you would have otherwise begged the club to shop for when maintaining the 4-2-3-1. It’s just a question of trying, and will be just one of many requests for change aimed at one man in particular this summer.




Patrick Ribeiro

One Response to “Time for a tactical reinvention at the Emirates?

  • Özil didn’t play at the Etihad last season in the 2-0 victory

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