How Unai Emery’s 4-4-2 formation has Arsenal clicking and is reminiscent of the tactics of predecessor Arsene Wenger.
There was more than a slice of irony about Arsenal fans singing “we’ve got our Arsenal back” as they watched the Gunners beat Fulham 5-1 in the Premier League on Sunday.
The chant is a reference to the dog days of Arsene Wenger’s reign as manager. So some supporters thought it appropriate to revive it for the club’s ninth win in a row in all competitions under Wenger’s successor, Unai Emery.
Funny thing is Emery has Arsenal winning by adopting tactics more than a little similar to those used by Wenger in his glory days. Specifically, Emery has the Gunners clicking thanks to a 4-4-2 formation that’s a throwback to the best of Wenger.
For the uninitiated, the best of Wenger produced dazzling soccer played from a simple base. The base began with a back four protected by a pair of rugged central midfielders.
They formed a platform for two inverted wide players who roamed centrally and beyond the front more than they spent time on the wings. Their support for two fluid-moving strikers made Arsenal a feared force in attacking areas.
Think of Wenger’s best team, the 2003-04 Invincibles, who captured the title without losing a game. A back four featuring Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell was protected by the brawn of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva in the heart of midfield.
Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg were the centrally-inclined wide men supporting the front two of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.
Emery isn’t working with quite the same level of talent, but the Spaniard is already putting together many of the same components.
Against Fulham, a four-man defense still searching for form was screened by holding midfielders Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira.
So-called wide players Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi were as effective when moving central or running past the frontmen as they were from the flanks. Inverted wingers? Check.
Up top, Arsenal began with Alexandre Lacazette and Danny Welbeck through the middle.
It initially looked as though Emery had deployed the Gunners in the 4-2-3-1 setup Wenger came to love in the post-Highbury era. But Welbeck was pushed up alongside Lacazette from the start:
Things continued in this fashion even after Welbeck left the pitch and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang joined Lacazette in the second half.
Emery confirmed most fans’ impressions after the match:
The former Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain boss went into more detail about his 4-4-2 leanings, per Football.London’s Charles Watts:
"Today is the first time we played more clearly with 4-4-2. First with Welbeck and Lacazette and then with Auba. We continue to try and find our best performance with the players and the combination."
It sounds as though Emery is willing to give this back-to-basics approach more chances to impress. Honestly, why wouldn’t he stick with the formation after the Gunners helped themselves to five goals at Craven Cottage?
Four of those goals came from Lacazette and Aubameyang, who netted a brace apiece. The latter also teed up fellow substitute Aaron Ramsey to end a fantastic sequence of tricks, flicks and perceptive running.
Putting two strikers in this sort of form on the pitch together is not a managerial masterclass. It’s common-sense usage of Arsenal’s two most productive players:
Emery’s 4-4-2 was working even before Aubameyang came off the bench in the 62nd minute. Closing the distance between two strikers had helped create Lacazette’s second goal.
The Frenchman finished after Welbeck, who took to the dirty work willingly, flicked on with his head to release his strike partner. A quick shot on the turn was all Lacazette needed to break a 1-1 deadlock and give the visitors a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Adding to the lead three times only underscored how well the 4-4-2 can work for Emery’s men as this season progresses. The formation brings balance in key areas and clearly defined responsibilities for notable players.
Xhaka was steadier than usual with impressive worker bee Torreira regularly alongside him for support. Meanwhile, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi moving infield left more room for full-backs Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal on the overlap.
Both played high up the pitch but had cover defensively when Iwobi and Mkhitaryan stayed wide out of possession.
The presence of two strikers though the middle gave midfielders another target to aim for. More options also meant Arsenal could play quicker and more direct.
Some supporters may choose to celebrate Emery as a revolutionary consigning Wenger to history. But the truth is the 46-year-old has Arsenal back on track by reviving some of the tactics that once brought his predecessor so much success.