How Arsene Wenger transformed wingers into wide poachers
In the last decade or so, a fairly conservative approach in shape and strategy has turned into what's currently referred to as 'the modern game' - characterised by several different aspects like strikerless formations, pivots, and so on. But Arsene Wenger has taken it one step further, sacrificing traditional wide roles for an experiment in how forwards are expected to behave.
One of the many trends in the modern game has been using 'inverted wingers' - putting left-footed wingers on the right flank, and vice versa. Traditionally you'd put left-footed players on the left wing, so they could use their stronger foot for crossing. But the inverted winger position was designed to intentionally make players drift centrally, as they look to avoid crossing with their weaker foot.
Although usually effective, wingers tend to be mostly distributive by nature, often trained to advance into a good position and cross the ball. This training is drilled into the heads of wingers from a very young age, and is hard to get rid of as the player matures.
Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger has struggled to come up with a trophy-winning interpretation of the modern game. When he arrived at Arsenal, he used a variation of the traditional 4-4-2, with wingers like Marc Overmars, Fredrik Ljungberg and Robert Pires used more like wide forwards, often ending up in more advanced positions than the central strikers. But nowadays it's hard to make an impact with a 4-4-2, as it's easily outnumbered in midfield by more exotic shapes.
At Arsenal we currently have three main types of players that are used in the frontline - central forwards (Robin van Persie, Marouane Chamakh, etc), wide forwards (Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin, etc), and poachers (Theo Walcott, Gervinho, etc). The wide forwards tend to be players more comfortable as attacking midfielders, and the poachers tend to be players who think of themselves as classic strikers.
The last one in that list is what we're going to discuss - the poacher. Normally, when you have access to a poacher, you try using him together with a withdrawn forward, a '10'. The reason is that a poacher is highly attacking, creating too much distance between the forward line and the midfield. Which in turn makes him isolated.
By combining him with a '10', the gap between forward line and midfield is plugged, and the poacher now has a partner that not only distributes through balls and key passes, but also a player who draws players out of position, so that the poacher has more space available to make runs and cause trouble. Dennis Bergkamp was a perfect example of a classic '10', while Eduardo was a good example of a classic '9'.
However, one of the reasons the classic 4-4-2 collapsed was because everyone figured out that the '10' was the key - take him out and you cut off the supply to the '9'. Every team in Europe marked the '10' out of the game, rendering the 4-4-2 forward line much less effective.
The wide poacher
What Wenger has done at Arsenal is to re-introduce the poacher in his own interpretation of the role. The basic approach is still there - the poacher is supposed to sit on the shoulder of the opposition defensive line and be the spearhead of the attack. But instead of starting from a central position, he now starts from a wide position. And there's two of them.
In addition to having two '9's, Wenger also has two '10's in Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas - the latter in a deeper position than the former, but they still operate in a similar zone during build-up and attacks.
In order to make this strategy work, Wenger had to sacrifice what would be the wide midfielders or wingers, which unfortunately exposes the full backs. Defensive stability has been an issue lately, and the abandonment of the traditional wide roles is one of the main reasons why.
The positional responsibility of these wide poachers is made complicated by the fact that there's two of them. The solution is to use zonal behaviour, based on where the ball is located - if the ball is in possession on the right hand side of the pitch, the right wide poacher turns into a mixture of winger/wide forward, allowing the left wide poacher to behave like a normal poacher would.
With all that being said, keep in mind that player personality controls the bulk of the positional behaviour. What I mean by that, is that in order to get a typical poacher's performance in those wide positions, a poacher must be played there.
The purchase of Gervinho, promotion of Benik Afobe to the first team, Carlos Vela finally getting a fair chance, and the increasing rumours about Juan Mata, is a clear indication that Wenger wants to have more poachers available for the wide positions. Even the attempt at getting Ryo Miyaichi a work permit is an indication of wanting more directness in the wide positions, even though Miyaichi would probably be considered more of a traditional winger.
Because player personality controls the position, we won't see the double poacher approach when players like Arshavin or Nasri are played in the wide positions - they tend to operate in central territory, subconsciously drifting into the middle - but hopefully we'll see more direct players used on the flanks this year.