It is my firm belief that the failure and near misses of the past six-years actually go back to 2006 when we left Highbury. Not because we left the spiritual home of football, although the smaller pitch did help, but due to the change to a winning formula.
The 1998, 2002 double winning sides, and the 2004 ‘Invincibles’, were all made up of 4-4-2 formations, and it is only since Wenger changed this system to a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in an advanced midfield role, and to a lesser extent, Walcott and/or Arshavin in wide striker roles, that our fortunes seem to have changed…coincidence? I think not.
All three championship winning sides operated with attacking and hardworking wide players, none of whom were traditional wingers and 2 central midfield players, one slightly more adventurous than the other. However, I feel that 1998 is the team and formation that truly teaches us the most, and can give us a pointer for the 2011/12 campaign and our current crop of talented underachievers.
There is no need to dwell on the defence at this stage, as we all know the strength and dominance of the back five Wenger inherited, but the key is the 4 first-choice midfielders. In the centre we see Manu Petit sitting and Paddy Vieira playing the more advanced role. Of course as they proved not only for Arsenal, but famously in the World Cup final, they were interchangeable, and each knew when to support the other or cover. On the left we had Marc Overmars and on the right our very own home grown Ray Parlour. So why are these four players, or in my opinion, the two wide players, so crucial, and what can we learn from them? The significance was the total difference in Overmars and Parlour and what their style and flexibility did for the team, and crucially the formation – how they interacted with the strikers, Bergkamp and Wright.
In Marc Overmars on the left, we had a skilful dribbling speed king with ice in his blood in front of goal when one on one with the keeper. On the right we had a hardworking, tough tackling, committed engine in Ray Parlour, with growing passing ability and confidence under Wenger. So in Overmars we had a far more attacking wide man and on the right the more conservative Parlour either side of two strong central midfielders in a 4-4-2 system. It was the fundamental differences in the two wide men that provided Wenger with the key to success, because whilst Overmars was always likely to over commit and effectively become the 3rd striker, Ray would always naturally tuck in, like the central midfielder he originally was, and seamlessly turned the 4-4-2 into an exciting 4-3-3 when were on the attack. Therefore, in essence, it was the players we had at that time that effortlessly and fluidly changed the formation during the game.
It was not too dissimilar in 2002 and 2004 when either Pires or Lungberg joined the attacking two, the other would moved slightly infield to support Gilberto and Vieira in midfield.