Arsenal have won 9 games out of 10 since moving to a back three, and it is coincidence that Arsene Wenger’s big tactical change has been the impetus for improved form, culminating in a commanding performance in the FA Cup final. While initial performances with the new system were patchy, including a not totally convincing 2-1 win against Middlesbrough and a fairly poor 2-0 loss to Tottenham, the team grew into the shape and role, suiting a great many of the players at Wenger’s disposal. In the past, tactical and personnel changes at the end of the season have continued into the new campaign—the defensive partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny grew out of the end of the 2012/13 season, as did the midfield of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta, while Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla with Aaron Ramsey on the right and Theo Walcott upfront came from the end of 2014/5—and given the level of performance to close out the season, one imagines Arsenal’s switch to a 3421 shape will continue in August.
The strengths of the system were apparent in Saturday’s Cup final win against Chelsea, despite Arsenal playing against a side that had conquered all before it in the very same shape. Yet Arsene Wenger’s interpretation of the shape is different to Antonio Conte’s, and it is that differing interpretation that allowed the Gunners to impose their game on Chelsea.
Arsenal started the match on Saturday by controlling possession and moving the ball around purposefully. After a 44-pass move, Arsenal had won a corner, and from there, Alexis eventually scored the opening goal. What was surprising was not only Chelsea’s tactic of standing off—partially caused by the danger, seen in the first 30 seconds, of Danny Welbeck running behind in the channels—but how easily Arsenal controlled possession. This is down to Wenger’s midfield shape. With three central defenders behind, Aaron Ramsey had the freedom to make runs from midfield. In conjunction, Granit Xhaka started play from deep, and Mesut Özil was happy to drop deep as Ramsey pushed slightly forward, giving Arsenal midfield superiority. With Chelsea playing a flat two in midfield, and the three centre backs occupied by the darts of Welbeck and Alexis, but also concerned with Ramsey’s running, Arsenal always had a spare man in possession. Ramsey’s running was crucial here, and we’ve seen the difference in Arsenal’s midfield game when Francis Coquelin, a less adept player off the ball, starts instead. Ramsey set the record for ground covered in an FA Cup final, with an astonishing 14 kilometres, and it was that running that caused Chelsea havoc. Thus not only did Arsenal have a spare man in possession, but they were also often able to feed their dangerous creators, Alexis and Özil, into the half-spaces between the lines an astonishing amount of times, and only luck and poor finishing prevented the Gunners from being well-ahead by half time.
Chelsea, on the other hand, were unable to do so with Eden Hazard and the less creative, more direct Pedro. Chelsea were unable to stretch Arsenal, because of the lack of creativity from their midfield, and when Fabregas did come on, Chelsea shortly went down to ten after Victor Moses was sent off for diving, thereby enabling Arsenal to again control proceedings after a period of Chelsea pressure. And when Chelsea did get behind, Arsenal’s defenders, particularly Per Mertesacker, were outstanding on the day, with the German showing he has a lot to give from the middle of a back three—a completely new position for him.
Arsenal have been more secure with a back three. As I noted a few weeks ago, Wenger made the move out of defensive concern; Arsenal had been far too open at the back, with an extra defender giving the midfield more security and allowing Arsenal to still use their wide defenders in attacking areas.
As Arsenal have continued to utilize the system, though, and gained familiarity with it, the attacking play has improved. One of the features selling points is the way it not only gives Özil and Alexis freedom, but it also puts the two, Arsenal’s best players, in proximity with each other. And while Arsenal still have spacing issues in the shape, the quality of the play is improved because it suits the individuals: Alexis has freedom and starts from an inside position, Ramsey can make forward bursts, and Granit Xhaka can sit deep, spreading play. Furthermore, Arsenal usually have three centre backs who are all good on the ball, improving the build-up from the back.
Wenger has never been wholly comfortable with three at the back, and he may be quick to revert to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 system should reverts falter. But it’s a system that has worked, and a system that has suited the players at his disposal. With that in mind, he should begin the season with it, and it is notable that Arsenal’s first summer signing, Sead Kolasinac, would be comfortable in a back four and as a wingback. In previous years, an end of season tactical switch has powered an early title-challenge; the task, now, is to ensure that challenge doesn’t sputter.