King Henry suggests the 442

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, 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.



  1. So we find us in the pedicament of having too many CM’s and not too many tricky wingers.

    What about keeping half of the kings advise and employing ozil instead of ramsey in the middle and having ramsey right and campell left. I like the sound of Alexis as the goalgetter to Girouds knockdowns.

  2. This is great: Short, to-the-point, and featuring the best passage I have read all summer. Those two paragraphs on the futility of tactics writing should be required reading for every Arsenal blogger, podcaster, and Twitter figure.

  3. Curious why you took out Mertesacker in your final formation. Now that he’s captain, he’s sure to start next to Koscielny, isn’t he? Or will he follow in that recent and alarming tradition of Arsenal captains who don’t play?

    I think the personnel we have almost dictate the formation, so yeah, it’s difficult for me to see a switch to a 4-4-2 without seriously compromising Ramsey by playing him out wide (and perhaps Ox on the other side, provided he has that breakout season we’ve all been waiting for???).

    I must admit that a midfield of Xhaka, Ozil, and Ramsey leaves my mouth watering. Really hoping Ramsey can bring his tournament form into the season.

    1. He was benched after January and played just 10 times in the new year, in all competitions. I have a suspicion that Wenger is done with him. Though, given how awful Gabriel played, Per might get a reprieve.

      1. Hm. Yeah, and actually I started digging around a bit and learned that there really hasn’t been any official announcement of the club’s captaincy for the coming season. The rumor that Mertesacker would be named captain started with!

  4. But if we indulge Thierry’s idea, isn’t it also possible to play something like this?
    Alexis Giroud
    Cazorla Ramsey
    Monreal Kos Per Hector

    This way, we have two strikers up front and Özil directly behind them feeding them balls.
    Then a pair of Cazorla and Ramsey, and Xhaka as the deepest midfielder in front of the back four. I don’t know if this works, but it (more or less) gets the best out of the players on the pitch.

    1. Wow, well that didn’t turn out as I thought it would. It’s basically two up top, and a diamond with Özil on top of it, two in the middle and Xhaka as the new Coquelin.

  5. 442 Diamond?
    It wouldn’t even be that much different to what we played last season when Ramsey played RW.
    When defending we could switch to a 433/Özil F9 when pressing high, 433 with Özil on the right wing and Rambo supporting him, or to a 4231 with Rambo on the right wing.

    1. I think it work best with two up top who can also play wide if needed and one of them not doing it that well, using the half space and cutting inside or beating the opponent with dribble from the side. That guy work best as a fulcrum up top, pinging passes towards the winger or midfield players who comes from deep towards the penalty box.

    2. struggling to see how the transition from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 would be efficient; seems awful difficult. likewise, struggling to see the logic of attacking with two strikers yet defending with 3. maybe you said that wrong or, somehow, i’m reading it wrong.

      1. Özil pushes forward and then Sanchez and Giroud drift wide. Dortmund used that system 2 or 3 seasons ago, with Miki as the number 10 and Reus and Obama as the strikers, and they were quite successful with it.

  6. The diamond midfield lacks width and would essentially either pile three players in the middle (Ozil, Giroud, Alexis) or just force some of them out wide to find space. It also does a terrible job controlling the base of the midfield. Because the fullbacks have to go forward so much (no width) it exposes too much space for Xhaka to have to control. You really need two players at the base of the midfield these days.

    1. Worked for me on PS4’s FIFA 16!
      I tried that a few weeks ago and Alexis really looks more efficient. But as you said Xhaka needs to come off by 60th minute due to exhaustion. Had to put the virtual Ozil on the bench though, I hope he’s fine with that!

    2. “You really need two players at the base of the midfield these days.”
      I’m not so sure about that. What about all those teams that play a 433\4141? And I don’t see that problem with players drifting out wide, that’s something Özil has always done and Sanchez also likes to drift around. He’s played that hybrid SS/Winger role quite often in Barcelona and Chile.
      And two central midfielders in front of Xhaka can also help to cover the wings.

      Don’t forget that Juve made it to the CL-Final with that Formation.

    3. It might work, with the other striker/wide player we buy. thus Alexis and XYZ can play as strikers and drift to wings to provide width whenever needed, with Ramsey and Ozil capable of occupying spaces in the middle. Also, with three central midfielders like Xakha, Ramsey and wilshere/cazorla/ox, between them they have enough to protect the centre as well as the wide areas. Also, helps that all of them except xakha have had experience playing out wide.

  7. I can’t believe i actually woke up from my sleep because in my dream, i read that Arsenal failed to sign 2 players towards the end of the transfer windows. I don’t know why i woke up, is it because of the failing bid or the players that we bid, like some guy from Deportivo Lacoruna, i think, and a spanish guy who know i forgot his name, but seems to have a good end product for a midfield player.

    On to the article, i think that modern formation do demand fluidity that is why it demands an intelligent players to know what they should do given the situation that they encounter. Although the transfer windows still month away, ideally we need, especially the new guy, acclimatize as soon as possible. Hopefully we don’t need to conclude our business late in the transfer windows.

  8. You have nice handwriting.

    And good points re: Henry – while I want Ramsey in the middle again, we cannot under any circumstances hinder Ozil either. We’re not paid $8 million per year to make these decisions so I defer to Arsene on this one.

    Do you think we can revert to the same formation we had back in the ’13/14 season with a more energetic, dynamic and younger Xhaka coming in for Arteta, Ramsey next to him and Ozil retaining the #10 role? I guess Jack could ply the right wing and Alexis remain left with license to support Giroud? If we do this does this leave Bellerin and Monreal too exposed? Has our style of play changed and with our current personnel this isn’t really possible anymore? I have no idea to be honest, but I’d really love it to work.

  9. the 4-4-2 is played out. everyone is playing with three center mids now, not two. it’s not just en vogue, it’s the status quo. over the course of a 90 minute game, the three players are going to have big success against only two, which is why no one does it anymore. the only way i’d play a 4-4-2 is if i had patrick vieira and michael essien as my center mids in their very best form and even then, i’d think very hard about adding a third player in the center.

    the only teams having any success playing a 4-4-2 that i can think of are counter-attacking teams like atletico madrid or leicester city. if you don’t want to defend like they do, you’d better put that third center midfielder on. juventus have found a way to play with two strikers and have a third man in midfield and that’s by playing with a back 3. you’ve got to have the right players for that. we watched brendan rodgers fail at liverpool trying to make that work.

    henry played in a 4-4-2 at a time when that was a popular formation. he also had arguably the best #8 to ever play the game in his team. football has changed since henry left arsenal. if henry was the arsenal manager and had to make that call, would he do it? its different when you’re a commentator than when you’re on the sideline. ask gary neville.

    1. likewise, proceed with caution when taking your best player out of his best/preferred position.

    2. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but I’d say “played out” sounds very final. I think the fact it’s so far from being en vogue today is why it holds such promise in the future. Imagine a team tailored to the verticality and swift counter-attack of 4-4-2, playing in a league full of ponderous passers playing 4-3-3.

      A team trying to maximise a player like Pogba, for instance, would likely play 4-4-2.

      It may not be this season, or the next, but 4-4-2 will surely make its return.

  10. Although I think we’re going to play with the same formation as last season, I’ve been wondering whether the purported desire for a CB is aimed at a shift to 3 at the back?

    A 3 at the back probably negates Per’s weakness. We’d have Per, Kos, Gabriel, Chambers, new CB and Monreal to choose from. Apart from youngsters.

    It allows us to play Bellerin in midfield, taking away the issue of width (and lack of wide players).
    Allows more variety of combinations in midfield, and allows more of our midfielders to play. (Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, Elneny, Cazorla, Coquelin, Wilshere, Ox. Iwobi) Gibbs can play on the left at times (or perhaps Ricardo Rodriguez)

    Allows us more options up top.
    Backups Sanogo and Akpom
    Buying Icardi then makes sense as a backup to Giroud in that they are similar styles.

    I think we’d play quite well in this formation. I don’t know whether it would work against opponents playing different formations

    1. I seem to like the Italian 352 formation with Kos, Per and Gabriel at the back, Monreal/Gibbs as wing backs, the three of Xhaka, Coquelin/El-Nenny and Ozil in the middle and Giroud with Alexis up top.

  11. What about 3-5-2? That allow us to play 2 up front, while keeping Oil in the middle, and 2 midfielders at the base.

  12. You are right, every one is a tactician & so am I.Last season I had jitters thinking about the speed we will have on the counter attack, with Alexis and Theo and Welbeck playing in front of Ozil. We all know how that panned out.

    One learning from last season for me would be not all players would be able to play together on the same day. Playing Ramsey in the middle can be an idea but, it does mean either Santi or, Ozil sit out.

    And truly speaking, Alexis aside we don’t have the perfect winger. Someone like Nolito or, Coman who can stretch defences.

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