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Arsenal’s formation switch offers promise, but still requires work

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Arsenal v Manchester City - The Emirates FA Cup Semi-Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images,

For the past two weeks, Arsene Wenger has done something he hadn’t for 20 years: he played a back three. While Wenger likely remains a devoted fan of systems with 4 defenders, the simple fact that he deployed an alternative from the start of a match offers some promise, not least because Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 system is becoming stale.

However, it must also be said that formations are neutral. More important are how well the players understand their roles, are able to press or defend in a shape, and move the ball effectively. Arsenal haven’t been able to do that in their 4231 shape, as we have examined in detail several times, and those issues weren’t really resolved in Arsenal’s 3421 system.

The system, though, might better suit Arsenal’s collection of players, and may provide a boost as Arsenal play their final 7 games of the league campaign and face Chelsea in the cup final. And more than anything, it seems to have injected Arsenal’s players with the confidence to do their jobs properly.

Wenger’s decision to move to a back three was, like Antonio Conte, a defensive one. After conceding 3 goals against Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, it was clear that Arsenal needed a rethink in approach. As Wenger said, both after Middlesbrough, and more recently after the semi-final against Manchester City, “I think what I did is just to give a bit more security to a team who conceded three goals in the last three away games, at West Brom, at Liverpool, at Crystal Palace and at some stage even to focus on something different for the players recreates some confidence.”

The Crystal Palace match, in particular, showed that Arsenal needed to do something different. Sam Allardyce identifield that Arsenal pushed their center midfielders forward (on this occasion Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka), with their fullbacks also pushing forward to provide width, as both nominal wide players often coming inside.

Wenger’s solution, then, was the same as Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino’s. The Tottenham comparison is fairly apt: their wide players were only nominal wide players, with the fullbacks, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, providing the width. The natural solution, then, is to make the fullbacks wing backs, and put a third centre back into the defense. Thus, when in possession, Arsenal always have cover, with the wide centre backs, Gabriel and Rob Holding, both of whom have played full back before, comfortable defending in the wide areas.

Further forward, the system gives creative freedom to Mesut Özil and Alexis. There is one area where Arsenal are lacking: runners. This is what makes Chelsea and Spurs utilization of the system so effective: they have a creator, Hazard and Eriksen, and a goal-scoring runner, Pedro and Dele Alli. Wenger seemed to adjust in extra time on Sunday, with Danny Welbeck replacing Olivier Giroud and then playing off of Alexis, who moved to a center forward position. When Alexis isn’t at centre forward he often drops deeper to create, and while this can be valuable, it is less so without a runner like Theo Walcott. Playing behind the striker could also be a role for Aaron Ramsey. His runs into the box are an excellent feature of his play—it was his run that created space for Nacho Monreal to equalize on Sunday—and he has played the exact role for Wales. If Alexis does leave this summer, replacing his role in the system with Aaron Ramsey could be one way to alleviate his departure.

The biggest change, though, is defensively. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has excelled at wing back, doing an okay enough job defensively, and using the extra space from receiving the ball in deeper positions to more intelligently pick his runs with the ball and crosses, as exemplified by Monreal’s equalizer. On the other side, Monreal has frequently attacked the far post, which means Arsenal often have 5 or 6 in attack, but retaining more security defensively. Indeed, the attacking nature of the wingbacks is not different to how Arsenal usually play:

In their 4231, Arsenal’s fullbacks are usually the main provider of their width. By playing the fullbacks as wingbacks, it gets the two higher up the pitch without losing so much defensively, and gives Arsenal’s attacking play needed width, with Ozil in particular using Oxlade-Chamberlain:

The two outside centre backs, then, will play in positions that are sometimes reserved for fullbacks. Again, Arsenal’s centrebacks, because of the nature of their attacking play, and the propensity to build though the centre backs and fullbacks, and not the midfield, did this. Now, though, Arsenal retain a centre back in the middle, with Laurent Koscielny usually the spare man in possession and being able to defend the middle.

By no means does switching to a 343 resolve all of Arsenal’s issues. The use of Granit Xhaka has been odd, with the Swiss seemingly asked to play a box to box role that doesn’t suit him. Indeed, it was his pressing, under instructions, that saw the space created for Yaya Toure’s driving run on Sunday that ended with his shot hitting the post. Arsenal’s pressing and build up play has the same issues as before, but by switching to a back three, they hide some of their weaknesses, and also play more on the counter attack, which allows Arsenal to get players back and defend in a better block and defend the penalty box, as they did on Sunday, where City mainly threatened from set pieces and the occasional counter attack. Arsene Wenger has a history of making late tactical switches to save a season, and while it remains to be seen if Arsenal will go on the run necessary, the introduction of a 343 to Arsenal’s tacatical armoury gives them the possibility to do so.