Could Arsenal, like Spain, play a formation without a recognized striker? Let’s be clear, we have already signed Giroud and Podolski – two strikers, so it is unlikely that we will not use these players, but it is still fun to explore the possibility.
There is really no such thing as a “strikerless” system. Yes, some of the top teams, including Arsenal in van Persie and Arshavin in recent years, have found success in playing unconventional forwards. Players like van Persie, Messi, Rooney are classic number 10s, but have found great success playing up top as number 9s. As their nature dictates, they tend to drop deep and operate much closer to midfield.
That doesn’t mean the striker position is abandoned. You always need the forward players to make runs and stretch play, to create space with their movement, and create passing channels. If there is no one doing a striker’s job up front (or not doing it well), it becomes to easy for the defence to squeeze the play and stop attacks.
At times we saw this with Spain, as Fabregas, Silva, Iniesta, and Xavi were all attracted to the ball, and no one made runs in behind the defence. The result was that Spain had to pass it around in front of the defence without much penetration.
In the final against Italy Fabregas played the number 9 role much better. He linked up well with the midfield, but also played higher up, and made better runs off the ball. Ther result was an early goal as Iniesta spotted one such run and Fabregas pulled it back for Silva to score. For their second goal, it was the left back, Jordi Alba, who made the forward run into space.
So as long as you have intelligent players who know what is required tactically at any given time, you can do without using a specialized striker. And it is becoming more and more common for teams to use midfielders up front because a forward is now required to do more.
For a while at Arsenal RvP and Cesc played as the number 9 and 10 respectively. But you would often see them switching roles, with van Persie delivering the passes and Cesc finishing them. When RvP dropped deep, Cesc would run into the vacated space. Theo and Nasri would also make diagonal runs in behind with one of RvP or Cesc finding them with through balls. Sometimes it was even Wilshere or Song finding themselves furthest forward.
There was really no real designated striker in a system designed to confuse defences, but midfielders took it in turn to stretch the play and make those final, scoring runs.
The poacher, the one dimensional forward, who would only play off the shoulder and do no defensive work, is dying. Now a striker needs to do more – he needs to be able to pass, to create chances, to keep possession when needed, and defend. And often times a midfielder with a knack of scoring goals is better suited to those tasks than an out and out striker.
So what if, instead of signing a replacement striker for RvP, Wenger decided to simply put one of the midfielders already available in his place? I would imagine the formation would look something like this:
Sagna Koscielny Vermaelen Santos
Walcott Diaby Wilshere Gervinho
Something like that. The two “strikers” here are Wilshere and Diaby. Both very much midfielders, more used to playing behind a line of attackers. But here they can act as the playmaker and center forward, dovetailing the way Fabregas and van Persie did. Diaby, of course, has that ability to arrive in the box to score goals, a lot like Fabregas. He also has the frame of a traditional English target man, and can hold up the ball when needed as well as win headers in the air. Wilshere has the passing range required of a number 10. Both are technically brilliant and can dribble past opponents with ease. Both are also comfortable picking the ball deep and distributing it forward or driving it up themselves.
On the wings are Walcott and Gervinho, and their presence is crucial. As Wilshere and Diaby get involved in the build up, you need players running in behind to stretch the field. Theo and Gervinho were superb at this last season, but with four midfielders involved in the center, they are freed even more and can concentrate solely on off the ball movement and generating width.
Theo is a lot like an old center forward, like Michael Owen. He uses his pace and intelligent movement very well to get in behind and finish off moves. In today’s game, his future probably doesn’t lie as a central striker, but he would do really well as a winger who drifts inside and make diagonal runs towards goal. As strikers become more technical and more creative, it seems the wingers are where the direct players are being deployed.
In this 4-2-4-0 formation, Arsenal would be able to dominate the midfield, but also score a lot of goals, while remaining defensively sound. Perhaps the best way to replace our 9 and a half is to put a 10 in his place.
So would this really work? Probably not, because it requires Diaby to be fit and available.