The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Aaron Ramsey makes the difference in battle of 4-2-3-1

ramsey marseille

After Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Marseille, Arsene Wenger attempted to explain Theo Walcott’s form in front of goal as “cyclic. You have cycles where everything goes for you and after every game where it’s a bit less,” he said. The same can be said of most things in football: of the success of club sides and nations, and similarly, formations and tactics.

For a large period of the 2000s, 4-2-3-1 was the favoured approach replacing 4-4-2 as the default way of playing. And while there tends to be more variations of play these days – hinting at football moving onto its next cycle – the 4-2-3-1 still remains the most popular approach. The reason behind this is simple: the 4-2-3-1 affords coaches the most even way to distribute players across the pitch. It’s not infallible, however, and as interpretations of players’ roles change, gaps have been exploited in recent times.

On Wednesday night on Matchday 1 of the Champions League, both Marseille and Arsenal played with 4-2-3-1 formations and although for the majority of the match it played out a stalemate, the different interpretations of the system ensured an interesting encounter.

Marseille’s formation was more standard with two holding midfielders playing behind a number 10 and two fairly orthodox wingers although Andre Ayew did tend to drift infield a few times. Arsenal’s, on the other hand, was more fluid, with Jack Wilshere playing narrow on the left and Theo Walcott stationed high up the pitch, almost as a striker. All eyes, however, were on the two playmakers, Mathieu Valbuena and Mesut Ozil, and instantly both were involved heavily. Valbuena attempted a couple of long-range efforts while Ozil put through Walcott for a header, and was snuffed out when he tried to find Walcott again later. But Ozil’s influence soon began to wane while Valbuena’s increased. That’s because Marseille’s 4-2-3-1 was better equipped at disrupting Arsenal’s passing, with the two holders, Imbuna and Romao, frequently breaking up play.

Valbuena, though, kept on influencing, not necessarily directly as he created zero chances in the game, but with the pass before. And that, in an effect, highlighted why he’s so important to Marseille because in this set-up, he’s their only real link-man. The wide players stick wide and stretch the pitch, therefore what Valbuena does so well is drift to those flanks and combine with them. In a sense, he’s just doing what’s natural to him having played the majority of his professional career as a wide-player. Yet, he’s also clever enough to understand that that’s where the space is in today’s game because most teams play with two holding midfielders denying the space in front of the defence. Indeed, for a while, orthodox No.10s were in danger of becoming extinct due to the proliferation of 4-2-3-1, but they’ve since had to evolve and become accustomed to lateral movement, or even further or deeper on the pitch to evade their markers. “The word enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,” says Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.”

valbuena ozil

Roaming laterally is what Ozil loves to do too, acting as both a playmaker and auxiliary winger due to the intelligent runs he makes. He was fantastic at exploiting this space on his debut against Sunderland but against Marseille’s flat 4-2-3-1, his root to the channels was blocked. It was different to Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 where Aaron Ramsey frequently pushed forward and as such, Mathieu Flamini essentially had to cover the spaces on his own. Perhaps on another day, Arsenal might have been exposed but then again, they can because they rely heavily on their astronomical fitness levels to get back, running on average 11.3k km in the match, while Marseille only managed 10.3k km.

Arsenal, however, were more effective going forward because their creativity was plural. Jack Wilshere had a particularly strong first-half drifting off the left-flank and his movement highlighted the other way in which the 4-2-3-1 can be exposed. Because by drifting infield, it asks a lot of the opposing winger to remain alert to track his movement, or if the full-back follows him, slot back into the defence. It’s significant that Arsenal’s opening goal came from such an attack, with Kieran Gibbs taking advantage of this vacant space to cross, and with a little bit of help from Morel, Walcott volleyed home. However, the drawback to Wilshere constantly moving inside was that it horribly exposed Kieran Gibbs; nonetheless he performed admirably with little to no help.

By Wilshere also moving infield, it created an overload in the midfield and thus gave Arsenal a numerical advantage where previously it was stalemate. Indeed, it’s a tactic a lot of top sides are using nowadays, abandoning one flank – usually the left – and then having someone stationed high up the pitch on the other side for a quick switch of emphasis (e.g. Manchester United with Kagawa and Valencia). For some teams, there isn’t a higher tactical purpose for playing an attacking midfielder wide other than a way of fitting all those creative players in (for example, Brendan Rodgers, who christened the clunky term “false 7”, plans to move Coutinho back to the number 10 position as soon as he gets a proper left winger). However, for Arsenal, the benefit is that it gives them a numerical advantage whenever teams pack the middle and encourages the type of combination play that makes them so deadly.

The final say, though, went to Aaron Ramsey, not Ozil or Wilshere, despite conceding a last minute penalty. And in a sense, it was logical. The other two playmakers started much closer to the two holders but Ramsey’s positioning, by playing 10 metres or so deeper, meant he had more time and space to assess the game, to measure his passes and crucially, time his runs into the box. When Gibbs played the ball up to Ramsey with five minutes to go, he had three players around him. But by the time they could react, Ramsey had already made up ground against them and was able to fire the goal that gave Arsenal the three points.

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8 Responses to “Aaron Ramsey makes the difference in battle of 4-2-3-1”

  1. ktr7 says:

    Good read brain.its fascinating to watch us play with 4 central midfielders.the tactic is obviously working but my question is how differently santi and jack interpret the 4th midfielder role.

    I feel santi drops deeper than jack which would allow Ozil to have spaces to operate in.jack i feel congests this zone of the pitch too much.either way its a concern how wide open our left flank there not a solution or is it something we’ll have to live with?…is santi better than jack at occupying the flank better?

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    Arsenal Column Reply:


    To Wilshere’s credit, I think he abandoned his game slightly in the second-half to help out Gibbs.

    Looking at the chalkboards, definitely there’s a difference between how Wilshere plays and Santi plays. Wilshere makes a considerable amount of passes on the right side – usually more than the left. Tactically, Santi is probably stronger but I have been impressed by Wilshere’s give-and-goes recently. Plus, I think he enjoys it on the left side as he’s able to pick the ball up, not only higher, but with the ball side on, not back to goal (or so far deep) as he might as an AM (or CM).

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  2. J7 says:

    Chalk up the Ramsey goal to Giroud who darted to the left and took 2 central defenders with him thereby opening up the path for Ramsey.

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    The Brain Reply:


    If only this image displayed movement as well. Probably the next step in mapping players’ contribution to the match:

<p>Like or Dislike: <img style= 6 Thumb down 0


  3. Tee Song says:

    Jack is young, inexperienced, and learning a new position but I have to echo the same concerns about his play as the nominal left winger. There were times against Marseille that he was out on the right flank alongside Theo. I think the a big difference between Wilshere and Cazorla when they play that left wing position is that Jack tends to hunt for the ball and lacks the patience to stay wide first before coming inside or to direct play back towards the left if he receives it centrally. And as suggested, Cazorla drops deep but stays on the left rather than moving across the pitch as Jack does.

    It’s interesting because in the two games where we’ve played Cazorla, Rosicky, and Walcott behind Giroud we’ve had better balance in our attack with 37% right, 34% left away to Fener and 36% right, 35% left vs spuds. That’s compared to 49% right, 24% left and 44% right, 25% left when we’ve played Wilshere, Ozil, and Walcott in our last two games. Obviously, despite the fact that Cazorla drifts centrally as much as Wilshere if you look at their average positions, it didn’t prevent us from attacking down the left. Mind you, Rosicky and Cazorla have a better understanding of each other’s play then Ozil and Wilshere, but I think Cazorla simply plays that position better as well. Jack’s positioning and awareness are not as good as Santi’s. I have the same misgivings when Ramsey and Wislhere play together in the double pivot. They both want to act as box to box midfielders and haven’t developed an understanding of how to play together. I can’t wait until Cazorla is able to play alongside Ozil.

    Defensively, Gibbs is on an island on the left flank, especially when Wilshere plays, or doesn’t play in front of him. Flamini seems to be aware of this and seems alert to help him out but good teams will find ways to exploit that, especially in transition.

    Ramsey’s goalscoring can be key for us. With teams having to deal with Theo running behind, Giroud’s ability to hold the ball, the quick passing of Ozil and Cazorla, and Gibbs overlapping on the left, defenders will have a lot to deal with. Ramsey’s ability to make runs toward goal from deep can provide the overload centrally.

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    The Brain Reply:

    @Tee Song, Great points.

    I tend to see lopsidedness as not an imbalance, and while I understand that may not be your point, I thought Wilshere had a very good game acting as an extra creative midfielder for the reasons stated above in my post.

    Of course, there’s the flipside and probably, his movement is leaving us exposed a bit but there’s a really good understanding between Wilshere and Ozil already. After England’s 4-0 over Moldova, I tweeted Wilshere was on “a different wavelength to his teammates, which is not necessarily a good thing.” What I mean is I think he tries things that others don’t get and constantly indulging in his ability to carry the ball, though it creates overloads, may be one of them.

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  4. Rohit says:

    It was about Ramsey that Wenger said goal scoring comes in cycles. Not Walcott. Good article nevertheless

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Rohit, Yeah, you’re right.

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