Fighting fire with petrol: why Wenger should go strikerless to score more
Around 07-08, Wenger moved away from his trusted 4-4-2 that brought Arsenal three Premier League titles and four FA Cup trophies, in order to deal with the tactical trend of only playing one striker. Most teams had sacrificed a forward for a midfielder, and the numeral disadvantage it caused in midfield meant most teams started using a single-striker system. But after years of playing a sensible 4-2-3-1, is it time to evolve and try something different and avant-garde?
Although most people would say our biggest problems in the last few years have been defensive, it's clear that we have lost our attacking edge somewhere along the way. Lack of end product is the biggest problem currently, and has been for a while. Only a superhuman goalscoring form from Robin van Persie helped disguise the problem last season, and now we're exposed as being probing and blunt.
The popular solution from supporters is to buy a "world-class" striker, but last time I checked, they cost more than we're willing to pay. I believe there is another solution though: don't play a central striker. It sounds contradictory to solve a goalscoring issue by removing the goalscorer, but doing so could actually solve both our attacking and defensive issues.
By removing the striker we gain an extra position on the pitch. Where do we put the eleventh player? I suggest an anchor man role, protecting the back four. This allows our first-choice central midfielders (Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta, presumably) to ease off the defensive duties and focus more on creative actions.
It also means our full-backs can afford being pushed up the pitch without too much penalty if caught on the counter-attack, as the anchor man would become a third central defender, pushing Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen out to cover the flanks. The anchor man would also be able to act as a defensive sweeper, able to double up on difficult opposition players and neutralise potential #10s.
The financial bonus is that defensive midfielders are cheaper than strikers, but the real kicker is that we already have defensive midfielders in the team. Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong would be able to play the anchor role perfectly, with Johan Djourou able to fill in as an emergency third-choice backup.
The performance bonus is that we're actually able to field our strongest team - many would argue that Francis Coquelin is currently a better defensive midfielder than Olivier Giroud is a striker. Being able to start the highly creative Wilshere and Arteta plus the assertive and aggressive Coquelin sweeping up behind them is much more practical than attempting to hold Giroud or Chamakh to the standards of Van Persie.
So what do we do when attacking? We wouldn't change much: Santi Cazorla stays in his trequartista position, technically becoming the central forward (similar to how Lionel Messi is the central forward at Barcelona, or Francesco Totti was the central forward at Roma in their strikerless days). Our wide forwards also stay where they are, running into the box from the flanks, turning Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski into strikers - roles they are already used to, or prefer, playing.
Our current 4-2-3-1 is a fluid system that switches easily between 4-4-1-1, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-1-3 depending on opposition movement. But the strikerless formation allows us to switch between a more diverse set of shapes, including fairly exotic ones like 3-4-1-2 and 5-4-1-0. It makes us less predictable, and allows us to better adapt to opposition movement and behaviour.
Our current attacking approach is to flood the opposition with width, passing around their penalty box until we find an opening. It's common to see Gibbs, Podolski, Ramsey, Cazorla, Walcott and Jenkinson in the same vertical line not getting anywhere. Our central striker is in his predictable position, waiting for a cross or a pass to his feet with his back turned to goal.
Opposition teams have figured out how to deal with this behaviour: stay compact, press high and let Arsenal pass. Our passing isn't risky enough to cause huge problems, and without space our speed is wasted. A strikerless tactic like the one I'm suggesting would reduce possession by having more players further back, which, theoretically, should open up more space.
The wide forwards become the main attacking outlet, drifting between traditional winger zones and outright centre-forward areas. The diagonal runs will cause havoc in opposition back fours, as full-backs will have to constantly make quick decisions on whether to track runs or stay wide to deal with our attacking full-backs bombing forward. And with no central striker, centre-backs will need to mark anyone drifting into their zone, which, in the strikerless formation, means Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski, Wilshere and Arteta. Our advantage in numbers will overwhelm the opposition, and should pick apart any attempts at staying compact.
Unfortunately I don't think Wenger is tactically adventurous enough to try exotic shapes. The 4-2-3-1 does fit our players very well, but lacks penetration due to being predictable. Too much focus is being put into playing possession football, but possession is pointless without being able to exploit the dominance gained by it. A strikerless tactic would be a perfect Plan B, intentionally reducing possession to lure opposition into taking more positional risks.
And the way it's going in the goalscoring department, no harm in trying something different.