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Arsenal’s switch to a back four doesn’t pay dividends

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Despite popular acclaim, the switch to a back four didn’t change much

West Ham United v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

So, after all that, it turns out the back three wasn’t the villain of the peace. Arsenal switched to a back four for the trip against West Ham, and most of the issues that were present against Southampton were present again: an ineffective, slow attack, and a defence that was inches away from a self-inflicted mistake turning 1 point into 0 points. Laurent Koscielny will be thanking the cross bar after his dreadful error—a third in three games—created a huge opportunity for Javier Hernandez to win the game.

Of the changes Wenger made from the weekend, only one was enforced, with Aaron Ramsey absent due to a hamstring injury. There was, though, a complete overhaul of the side, and while presenting itself as a 4-2-3-1 with Olivier Giroud the sole striker, the shape was, in reality, more of a diamond 442 or lopsided 433. Alexis was pushed higher up, Jack Wilshere played as a #10, and Mesut Özil was forced to play deeper, as the left-sided central midfielder.

While pushing Alexis higher up would alleviate his loss of possession. But what ended up happening was a lack of movement; Arsenal effectively brought the ball to the final third, and then became static. Part of this was due to the lineup: in Alexis, Iwobi and Wilshere, Arsenal had three dribblers. The only runners in the side were the fullbacks, Maitland-Niles and Bellerin. With Giroud upfront, Arsenal couldn’t stretch play, and instead tried playing off of Giroud; without Ramsey, though, or any other player with intuitive goal-scoring movement (such as Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott or Alexandre Lacazette), Arsenal’s attack was ineffectual.

This is effectively about a lack of balance. Indeed, most criticisms of Arsenal’s back three, that it causes Arsenal to have less attacking prowess, is effectively down to problems of balance. Those problems are alleviated to an extent because of Aaron Ramsey’s prowess in a box to box role, which means Arsenal still have an attacking unit of four. More than that, though, is that Ramsey provides balance: an understanding of space and movement that means his late attacking runs create space for others or stretches play. With Alexandre Lacazette playing effectively as a “nine and a half,” the need for a secondary runner is always present. At times that can be Alexis, but his runs behind are often better timed from a right-hand position, where he hasn’t played since the tail-end of the 2015-16 season.

Without Aaron Ramsey, with Theo Walcott out of favour and Danny Welbeck on the bench, Arsenal didn’t have any runners from deep. Wenger tried changing that by bringing Welbeck. Playing on the right, though, is not Welbeck’s forte. Rather than stretching play, Welbeck often comes inside, whereas from the left-hand side he stays wider longer. This could be for a variety of reasons—coaching, player preference, preferential vision—but is a known aspect after three years at the club.

Hector Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were willing runners, but didn’t have enough penetration. In Maitland-Niles case, playing on the wrong foot meant he often had to cut back onto his right foot, and naturally narrowed width. As for Bellerin, his link with Iwobi was not as productive as his link with Mesut Özil, who so often finds Bellerin in behind defences. Özil, though, played as the left-sided interior midfielder, and was limited in his movement by the positioning of those ahead of him.

One of those was Jack Wilshere. Özil and Wilshere only found each other 19 times—a far cry from the 47 times that Özil and Aaron Ramsey found each other in the 3-1 defeat against Manchester United. Indeed, the relationship between Wilshere and Özil is not great. Playing as a number 10, Wilshere often took up positions that Özil wanted vacated in order to move into. Wilshere’s movement as a #10 is not great, and it is notable that his brightest moments came when play had to be instinctual, rather than developed through an understanding of space and movement. It is for that reason that his relationship with Alexis is more productive; both are very instinctual players. With Özil, there were none of the short, quick passing combinations, and thus, Arsenal, so often forced down the middle by a lack of width, didn’t have much creativity at the top of the penalty box.

Arsenal’s attacking issues are, in a sense, formation independent. That is because formations are neutral; one team’s 343 can be more attacking than another’s 442. It is not the formation that determines the attacking or defensive nature of a team; rather, it is the tactics, tempo and balance of a side. For much of this season, Arsenal have been an imbalanced side, playing at a slow tempo. The front three of Özil, Alexis and Lacazette have flourished on occasion with the support of Aaron Ramsey, but have often sputtered away from home. Nor does the problem seem to be abating; Wenger is often making up solutions from game to game, rather than developing a better plan. Ultimately, as long as Arsenal remain an imbalanced side, the results will continue to be imbalanced. There are players at Wenger’s disposal that can bring better balance to his side; it is up to him to correctly deploy them.