Arsene Wenger has taken a lot of stick for his team selection recently, with the Frenchman refusing to use two natural wide players and instead deploying a central midfielder out wide.
Our formation is usually billed as a 4-2-3-1, with two central midfielders, a No.10 flanked by two wide men, and a lone striker leading the line. In reality though, we don’t set up like that at all, and the players’ heatmaps (via the Daily Mail) show the formation we really play.
Using our lineup for the clash against Crystal Palace as an example, below is the formation that most would have you believe we play:
Our philosophy is anything but rigid though, and the fluid nature of our game sees our forward line interchange and roam around freely.
Aaron Ramsey rarely remains out wide, Olivier Giroud regularly drops deep, and our full-backs love to bomb forward. When you look at the heatmaps and players’ average positions throughout the game, you can see how different things really look.
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Firstly, let’s take a look at our two ‘wide players‘ Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey.
You can see the Welshman rarely sticks to his position out on the right, and spends most of his time centrally alongside Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla. On the few occasions he is out wide, he prefers to push onto the opposite wing – joining Alexis and overloading the left flank.
This allows us to play the tikki-takka style we are so used to seeing, with short passing and quick one-twos utilised as we probe and prod the defence.
As the heatmap shows, Ramsey does his defensive duties on the right, but beyond that seems to have been handed a free role.
Aaron Ramsey heatmap:
Alexis is one of the few forward players who stuck to their position against Palace, but that isn’t always the case. The Chilean is capable of playing anywhere along the forward line, and often comes deep in search of the ball as well.
He actually spends more time further up the pitch and in the opposition box than Olivier Giroud, which says a lot about where our goals are likely to come from.
Alexis Sanchez heatmap:
Özil also tends to lean slightly more towards the left side of the pitch, meaning the majority of our attacking force are based on one flank. This leaves us very lopsided, and highlights the importance of another area of the team – our full-backs.
With our ‘right-winger‘ spending very little time on the right-wing, it’s down to our full-back to create width. Hector Bellerin boasts excellent attacking qualities – evidenced by his assist for Alexis Sanchez at Selhurst Park – and does a fine job of stretching the opposition alone.
Mathieu Debuchy is a fantastic full-back, but he isn’t as attack minded as Bellerin. You’d argue that the Frenchman is better defensively, but he isn’t as capable of troubling the opponent in the final third.
Hector Bellerin heatmap:
Nacho Monreal gets forward too, but he is much less adventurous. He is used more as an outlet for our attacking players, and offers an escape as well as recycling the ball and feeding it back into midfield.
Nacho Monreal heatmap:
As you can see by the graphic below, the formation we end up playing looks nothing like a 4-2-3-1. Our midfield and left flank in particular are incredibly congested, with Giroud, Özil, and Ramsey practically occupying the same position.
Here is the formation we actually used against Crystal Palace based on heatmaps and average player positions:
Against a number of teams this is unlikely to be a problem, as not only should the quality we possess be enough to get us through, but the fact that we dominate possession means we are less vulnerable defensively. When up against better opposition though, with teams who contest possession far more, playing this way could prove fatal.
When facing the likes of Eden Hazard or David Silva from Chelsea and Manchester City respectively, Bellerin’s threat going forward is likely to be neutralised. The Spaniard has to be more diligent defensively, and therefore lacks the freedom to get forward and stretch the defence.
Our attack will consequently be far more stale and predictable, making any forward momentum significantly easier to snuff out.
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The fact that we play such a narrow and congested game is unlikely to come as a shock to most, but something clearly needs to be done, and Wenger needs to address our lack of width. It’s no coincidence that both our goals against Crystal Palace were a result of wing-work and crosses, and while it’s fantastic to see us score goals like Jack Wilshere’s against Norwich, width is key to any success we are hopeful of having this season.