Tactics Tuesday: Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1

Last week Ben dove into the inner workings of Barcelona’s 4-3-3. English club Arsenal is the only other top-flight squad that attempts to replicate the beautiful soccer produced by the Catalans. Like Barca, Arsenal’s fullbacks bomb forward and the lone striker often functions as a false-nine.

A typical Arsenal lineup

Arsenal certainly doesn’t possess a forward as talented as Lionel Messi (though, of course, who does?), but the absence of Argentina’s whirling dervish isn’t the only difference between the two squads.

Center Midfielders

Barcelona’s center midfielders Sergio Busquets and Xavi have two distinct roles. In contrast, Wenger prefers to use like-minded players in the center of the pitch. The two most common pairs are Jack Wilshere/Alex Song and Wilshere/Denilson. All three midfielders are more similar to Busquets than to Xavi, which is one reason why Arsenal’s holding midfielders tend to share responsibilities.

In a Champions League match against Sporting Braga, Denilson and Wilshere received passes in very similar locations.

Wilshere sometimes drifted a bit higher and Denilson occasionally went a bit deeper, but, for the most part, they stayed in the same area. The two are generally tasked with providing a base from which Cesc Fabregas can operate. Fabregas drifts all over the pitch to link with fullbacks, wingers, and forwards. He wouldn’t be able to meander if Arsenal’s holding players also roamed.


Wenger’s preferred outside midfielders, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin, might be the players most responsible for allowing Arsenal to replicate the intricate Catalan passing game. Nasri and Arshavin are just as likely to be found in the middle of the pitch as along the flanks.

Unfortunately, Arsenal, like Barca, sometimes seems obsessed with finding a perfect pass into the box, a strategy derided as ‘walking it in.’ Arsenal’s tendency to attempt to walk it in has become so pronounced during Wenger’s tenure that even a show about IT professionals poked fun at the London club.

The Gunners do have a solution, and it comes in the most British of packages: a traditional winger. Speedster Theo Walcott provides something no other Arsenal outside midfielder can offer. Actual width.

The passing chalkboards for Walcott (in a 3-1 victory over Chelsea) and Arshavin (in a 1-0 loss to Manchester United) demonstrate Walcott’s traditional approach.

by Guardian Chalkboards

The right-footed Arshavin prefers to step inside from the left flank before linking with teammates or unleashing a shot. Walcott, who is also right-footed, stays on his ‘natural’ (ie, right) flank and uses his pace to fly down the wing, either dribbling past defenders or running onto a diagonal through-ball.

When Walcott is on the pitch, Nasri – who has been perhaps Arsenal’s best player this campaign – moves from the right to the left. Walcott’s presence on the opposite flank forces defenders to cover more ground, leaving more space for Nasri and Fabregas. Walcott’s influence this season has been most impressive. Arsenal has yet to lose a Premier League match in which he was a member of the starting XI.

Insights for the USMNT

The 4-2-3-1 utilized by Bob Bradley looks more like Arsenal’s setup than Barcelona’s. But Bradley keeps running into the same problem as Wenger.

In matches against Chile, South Africa, and Poland, the outside midfielders both pinched inside, though they found little success doing so. This inward movement is the key feature of Bradley’s 4-4-2, but in that formation wingers Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are filling an area of the pitch in which no other Americans are stationed. In the 4-2-3-1, there’s an attacking midfielder operating out of the middle of the pitch, reducing the need for both wingers to constantly move inside.

Bob would do well to learn from Wenger and find his own Walcott.

4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Gringo_Primal says:

    I know that it’s a long shot that he could play for the UMSNT, but wouldn’t Andy Najar be great in the Walcott role? A more realistic option would be to tell Alejandro Bedoya to stop coming inside.

  2. bensten says:

    I highly agree with your speculation about Najar, Gringo_Primal. In fact, I mentioned him as a wild card in one of my MLS writeups this fall.

    That experiment might be a long ways away…

  3. Stephen says:

    The Gunners replicate Barca? I think not. They have been running this style of football under Wenger since the mid 90′s

    • Blake Owen says:

      Sorry, that was poor word choice on my part. I didn’t mean to imply that Wenger’s style of tiki-taka came out of the Barcelona of van gaal/Rijkaard/Guardiola. Wenger has certainly been putting forth beautiful soccer for quite some time.

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