I bet you’ve never heard of the period in Rembrandt’s career when he gave up painting portraits and turned instead to singing bawdy ditties for a living (it’s generally referred to as his ‘blue’ period).
Or the time Luciano Pavarotti stepped away from the rigours of being the world’s greatest tenor and tried, briefly, to succeed as a tap dancer, much to the consternation of seismologists everywhere.
Or Charles Darwin’s stint as a pest control officer (and his subsequent memoir, The Extermination of Species).
And here’s why you’ve never heard of them: they never happened.
Strange as it may seem, people who find they are very good at something tend to achieve long term success by continuing to do what they are good at.
They don’t wake up one day and decide to do it all differently.
So what happened to Arsene Wenger?
In his first six years at Arsenal his teams netted three League Titles and four FA Cups, playing a brilliant brand of 4-4-2 football that combined pace, power and skill.
Now we play a very different style of football – in a 4-3-3 or, as some would say, a 4-5-1 formation which, so far, has achieved no silverware and does not look like achieving any this year either.
We are often referred to as the best team to watch. The neutral’s favourite. The armchair viewer’s wet dream.
But, being harsh, our style has actually become quite boring.
The drama in football is all in and around the goal – the shots, the headers, the saves, the game-defining moments. Yet most of our play is based on lateral movement outside the opposition’s penalty area, usually in front of their back four ten.
We play from side to side and back again, like a bunch of crabs at a line dance.
Our eventual forward thrusts usually start well (some quick passes and one-two exchanges), but such is their intricacy that inevitably one pass goes slightly astray or one run doesn’t quite come off and the move breaks down against the packed ranks of defenders.
At the very least, most teams have learnt how to counter our current playing style and it’s only the teams whose managers remain resolutely cavalier (like Ian Holloway at Blackpool) that end up getting a good pasting.
So, in simple terms, 4-4-2 was successful for us; 4-3-3 is not (so far, at least). With 4-4-2, Arsene built two great teams. With 4-3-3, he has built a great-looking team that hasn’t won a bean. So why did he change that successful formula?
After the Invincibles were broken up there was a transitional period when we continued to play a more-or-less 4-4-2 formation with Adebayor as our lead striker, but there were many occasions on which Ade played as the lone man up front. It was part of a gradual move towards the way of playing with which we are currently familiar.
The main theories for this change appear to be:
- Arsene had long been an admirer of the Ajax/Barcelona style and wanted to build his own team in that image.
- The financial constraints of the stadium move meant Arsene knew he would have to build a team from within and, if he was going to do that, it was an opportunity to train all the teams, from youth level up, in the style of play to which he aspired (youth players being less stuck in their ways than seasoned veterans, who might find it harder to adapt to a new system).
- Arsene decided that, in Cesc Fabregas, he had one of the greatest midfielders we will ever see, but to release his talents fully required 4-3-3.
- After TH14 left, Arsene has not been able to find (or at least afford) the kind of world class striker who could lead a 4-4-2 (even though Adebayor flattered to deceive for one season).
It’s probably a combination of reasons (particularly the first and third), but as this season heads for yet another disappointing end, it may now be time to call a halt to the experiment.
It has not been a failure. It has kept us competitive in all competitions for years and maintained our presence in the Champions League despite the lack of cash available for star signings.
But it has not proved capable of getting us over the finishing line in any competition, not even the Carling Cup.
I have enjoyed the ride – the attempt to be the British Barca – and I respect the courage and sense of ambition that have driven it. But now I would like Arsene to return to what he’s good at: building a championship winning group of powerful, skilful players who operate in a devastating 4-4-2 formation.
It doesn’t even need a major overhaul in personnel, although a top out-and-out striker is absolutely vital (an established big name, or another gem unearthed by the boss).
It just needs an admission that the current approach is not good enough, not in the English Premier League, and that there is no shame in returning to something that worked in the past.