The general conception in the UK and all around Europe is that Arsenal play the most attacking football in England. I do not believe this to be true. I put Arsenal’s short comings down to a lack of mental strength and not a desire to play attacking football.
Arsenal play a 4-3-3 formation. The midfield trio is usually composed of a defensive midfielder (Song), a box-to-box type player (Diaby) and a playmaker (Fabregas). Song does a good job of breaking down attacks aimed at the Arsenal goal, Diaby as the box-to-box man does a good job pressing opponents – applying the pressure. Fabregas has become a more direct player over the years and his inability to replace Xavi at international level against Argentina shows this (This is not a question of his quality – Just a question of his style of play).
With a three man midfield formation, a team can effectively win games as long the roles of the midfielders at each point in time are clearly defined and two men are not doing a job one man can do thereby creating a mix of style to increase the efficiency of the midfield.
As seen by the preference of the 4-3-3 over the 4-4-2 in Europe by a number of managers in the UK, the 4-4-2 can be extremely open to breaking down. Systems such as defending in two deep banks of four have been developed but this does not stop a team from being hit on the counter unless the appropriate players are available. A number of models for the midfield duo exist which include the creator-destroyer or two destroyers taking turns to join the attack.
Manchester United play a brand of the creator destroyer model. In this system, the creator (Scholes) is the deeper midfielder. Paul Scholes is a midfielder well known for his creativity but has shortcomings on the defensive side of the game. He usually drops deep , collects the ball and delivers a direct pass to the flanks when the opportunity arises. His shortcomings on the defensive side are at fault for his rash challenges when he feels he has to break up an attack. His utilization in this role reveals the manager’s belief that his side should control the game for a good period in matches. Scholes fits this purpose because he is a forward thinking player who knows what attacking players need. Paul Scholes isn’t the only player in this role as there are many more. The thing is most of these players have more protection (Pirlo is supposed to have Gattuso and Ambrosini ) and are quite capable of defending a bit themselves (David Pizarro). Pirlo was originally a number 10 but was moved down the pitch in the earlier stages of his career.
Fletcher, the “destroyer” in this system is not the destroyer type most people are used to to. Fletcher commits himself to a good number of tackles as he is the ball winner in midfield. But due to the fact that Manchester United are usually with the ball, Fletcher’s position is usually high up the pitch. He overloads the flanks, provides an option for the cut-back cross, provides a presence in the box and is capable of the odd moment of brilliance (His goal against Everton in November 2009 at Old Trafford). Truth is Darren Fletcher has to be considered as an attacking player for United contrary to whatever Mr. Wenger might think.
Due to the fact that most teams defend against Manchester United, the full-backs overlap, the wingers cut inside (Nani, Giggs, Park), Valencia drives to the byline, Fletcher provides a presence in the box or support out wide to break down teams. This usually means Scholes dictates play alongside whichever striker drops deep to help orchestrate player. This provides a situation whereby United are easy to catch on the break. One saving grace for United is the presence of hardworking wingers who do a good job tracking back. This helps United defend better but does not save United from the counter attack. Arsenal play a defensive minded player in this role to minimize the effect of a counter attack.
Is this just plain arrogance or faith in the ability of both United’s centre halves to deal with whatever is thrown at them. I think this is the style of play which brings out the best in the team. For bigger games, Manchester United might change the set up but the system described above is the most commonly used system.
For these reasons, I do not understand why the Arsenal system is considered the most attacking in England. The failure of the system is due to the inability of the players to carry out their roles well. The goalkeeper, centre halves and even full backs are usually found wanting. If the attacking system isn’t carried out well, then it can’t be called the most attacking. A more accurate term is the most calamitous attacking football.
The philosophy at Arsenal is clearly apparent because they try to play this system every time but I think United play the most attack minded formation in England.