Thierry Henry made a suggestion about Arsenal the other day. Commenting on the form of the two players this summer, Henry said that Alexis should be moved up front to play off of Giroud and that Ramsey should be deployed in the middle with Xhaka.
The idea is ripe with promise. Giroud played some excellent football this summer when paired with the smaller, more predatory, Griezmann up front. Griezmann also benefitted from Giroud, latching on to his softly nodded down headers, and was the leading scorer of the Euros with 6 goals.
Meanwhile, Alexis played the Griezmann role for Chile in the Copa America Centenario. Just behind Eduardo Vargas, Alexis helped him to win the golden boot in that competition.
And pairing Ramsey with Xhaka is also a simple call. Ramsey was Wales’ most energetic player and lead the Euros with 4 assists while also racking up the most tackles of any player in the tournament. Xhaka has been compared to a lot of former Arsenal players but with his metronomic passing he is most like Arteta: like a stronger, more aggressive version of Arteta. Arteta’s best season was Ramsey’s best season when the two of them partnered in central midfield.
So, in theory, Henry’s suggestion is sound. The problem, however, is it is also crazy.
First, fans get incredibly uptight whenever anyone talks about formations or tactics. This happens because everyone is a tactical expert these days. They have all watched Adrian Clarke on Arsenal.com, they have all read “Inverting the Pyramid”, and they all watch the games with tactical cam, you know because they are all tacticians. Basically, everyone knows the best formation for Arsenal and it is not whatever you think it is. Oh, and everyone has pet players who need to be shoehorned in to whatever tactics they feel fits the team best. So, I’m loathe to even talk about tactics because the responses get so passionate, no place more than on Twitter where I’m sure I’ll be called stupid, naive, and a moron a million times.
But here’s a little secret: the formations at Arsenal are fluid and I’d say more so than almost any other team. Wenger sets his team up to play more like a jazz quartet than a symphony. The jazz gets more discordant depending on the game state: if Arsenal are behind with 10 minutes left the organization goes from Myles Davis’ Kinda Blue to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz.
But on paper (LITERALLY) this is what Arsenal’s current formation looks like (I know you love my crudely drawn tactics maps, because I know that you know that I am a tactical expert, just like you):
I should say that this was Arsenal’s best formation in the six months before Cazorla got injured. Özil was given space to roam, Alexis and Ramsey were nominally wide players who were both encouraged to go inside, Bellerin galloped up and down the right, and the other four players more or less covered the back.
Here’s what it would look like if you move Alexis and Ramsey to the center:
The first thing you notice is that in essence, Henry has cut Özil out of the team or at least out of his favored position, the place where he got 19 assists last season. This 4-4-2 also raises question marks about the wide left and wide right positions. Özil could play on the left but that would leave Monreal exposed quite a bit. On the right, you could play with Campbell, who plays excellent defense but who lacks a bit in the attacking department.
Henry’s “answer” becomes a question for me. Does shifting Alexis and Ramsey to the middle compensate for shifting Özil wide and bringing on a player like Campbell? Does Arsenal get better with this formation?
I suspect we will never know. Wenger is unlikely to change Özil’s position in the team and he might even be quite mad to do so. All great players want to play in the middle. Playing them wide is seen as a demotion. So, do you really take the League’s best playmaker and tell him “thanks for last season, but we are demoting you to left wing. Now, go out there and give us your best!”
Even King Henry couldn’t pull that off.