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Arsenal are now playing a back three

One of Arsenal’s new innovations for the season is a new defensive system that emphasizes control

Crystal Palace v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

From Arsenal’s first two games, narrow victories against Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace, there are some patterns that are developing. Firstly, Arsenal are looking to be a more ball possession heavy team. In the first half of both matches, Arsenal had over 80% possession. In the past, Mikel Arteta has spoken of “300,000 passes” to control games when Arsenal have the lead. Now Arsenal are doing that to control games even when they don’t have the lead. Indeed, Arsenal played nearly 60 passes more against Crystal Palace on Monday night than they did in the same fixture a year ago, one finished 2-0, with an own goal adding some gloss to the scoreline.

There is another pattern, too: Gabriel, who had started 73 straight Premier League games, has not started either of Arsenal’s opening two fixtures. Mikel Arteta, when asked about the decision before Arsenal’s Premier League opener against Nottingham Forest called it a tactical decision. Shortly after, links emerged with Saudi Arabia, and then Gabriel was left out again. Initially, I was dubious of the “tactical” element of Arteta’s decision, thinking that a manager who tends to leave players out when they’re not fully on the boat was leaving out a player whose head had been swayed.

However, as time has gone on, I think there is a tactical element here. Arsenal are setting up different this season to last season. There are two key distinctions: firstly, Thomas Partey is inverting from right back. When he inverts into midfield, Declan Rice can push further up and enable Arsenal to win the ball back higher up. This is opposed to last season, when Zinchenko inverted and had much more of a free role.

Whereas Arsenal had a more defined centre back pairing last season, with Ben White helping the Gunners form a three, Arsenal are acting with a sole centre back this season, in William Saliba. Ben White goes wide in possession, as a de facto right back, and Tomiyasu plays wide on the left, in his nominal left back role. Indeed, we can see that White played on Monday night, essentially as he did last season at Palace:

At Palace, Arsenal completed more shots, had more passes, and a higher xG than they did in the same game last season, and conceded less shots and a lower xG against. Against Forest, had more possession than the same game last year, and completed more passes (716 to 580). The addition of Declan Rice to midfield, with Partey inverting from right back, has given Arsenal more control: control that was missing at the end of last season, when Arsenal could no longer dictate the tempo of matches. Yet this is only possible by playing a back 3, but in order to cover spaces well, the back 3 have to be wider; essentially, they have to be two full backs and a centre back. Gabriel, for all his qualities, is not a centre back that plays full back. But with Rice and Partey covering the central spaces, and White and Tomiyasu able to tuck in, Arsenal have the same number of players defending as they have in the past; the difference is the spacing.

That, however, doesn’t mean that Gabriel is on the bench for the rest of the season. But his presence in the team seems connected to Zinchenko; when Zinchenko comes in, Gabriel defends the left channel, and Saliba remains central. The return of Zinchenko will mean a further alteration to Arsenal’s defence and midfield, which gives Arsenal more tactical flexibility. But ultimately, what Arteta will choose will be the system that best allows Arsenal to win games. For now, with the attack slightly sputtering and looking to formulate new connections, it might be the system that gives Arsenal the best control.