The traditional footy formation is a 4-4-2: Four fullbacks, four midfielders, and two prima donnas strikers (the goalie excluded because, barring schizophrenia, he will always be a 1). The more counterattacking-inclined team may use a 4-3-3 while a possession-based squad often takes the pitch in a 4-5-1. There are endless variations of these three formations, from the 4-2-3-1 “popularized” by Rafa Benitez to the 4-4-1-1 Fabio Capello prefers to better utilize his human conveyor belts: Crouch and Heskey (flicks it on… flicks it on… flicks it on…)
On Sunday, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger sent out a formation the likes of which is rarely seen: Four defenders behind a beehive of six small, fast and skilled midfielders. Now, one might argue that Andrei Arshavin is a striker. But one would be wrong. While Arshavin prefers to receive the ball higher than most middies, he is no front-liner. It’s his ability to carry the ball and cause trouble from the wings that makes him most dangerous.
What makes Wenger’s starting lineup even odder is that it was a home game lineup. No strikers at home? Against a team that is likely to score some goals? Was this some Da Vinci codesque method of showing support for the under-fire master of wacky lineups Rafa Benitez?
The facts: 1) Arsenal has major injury issues at striker. After a blazing start to the year, Robin van Persie has been injured for over a month (surprise) and Croatian Olympic diver frontman Eduardo has joined him on the injury list. Niklas Bendtner has only just returned after a long spell on IR, and no other Arsenal striker is old enough to drink alcohol in the United States. Thus, Arsenal shows a six-man midfield to what must have been a delighted Manchester United. 2) Arsenal is one of the few English clubs turning a profit these days. When your entire starting lineup and bench combined feature one striker, it’s time to open up the pocketbook. The current Arsenal team is spectacularly good, and still has a shot at this year’s title. But without a presence at the top, they will find disciplined defenses very difficult to break down. While there were not a glut of big strikers available in January, there were decent options. At the very least, Luca Toni is big and will keep roaming center backs honest. Steve Bruce may have turned red every time it came up, but Kenwyne Jones was on the market as well.
Wenger has earned his reputation as a fantastic judge of talent, but he has also earned his reputation as a manager that trusts his players to a fault. Arsenal’s youthful squads have struggled to last the grueling EPL season in recent years, and Manuel Almunia has had one hot streak with a mixed bag of great saves, weird hair, and disastrous decisions since being installed as the Arsenal number one (also, no Premier League goalie is worse with the ball than Manny).
How should a manager handle this situation? Many players are specialists nowadays, superior in one role but mediocre-to-subpar elsewhere on the pitch. Did Wenger do the right thing by sticking with his depleted squad, or should he have invested in a patch-my-holes striker who could come in and give a few good shifts while the injuries heal?