As Arsenal prepare for their trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday to face Chelsea, Arsène Wenger faces a dilemma whether to revert back to a formation the Frenchman has been accustomed to for two decades or to persevere with a structure that has brought recent success, especially against the opposition they face on Sunday.
The midweek game against FC. Köln consisted of a mediocre first half. This, in which featured a back three, was quite alarming just how poor and disorganised Arsenal looked while playing with a system they should be more comfortable with given it has been deployed since April. (First used verses Middlesbrough on the 17th of April). The upturn in results which came as a consequence of the formation change at the time is in stark contrast to the recent performances by the team using the same structure.
Put simply, the purpose of a back three is to enable the front three a license to roam and be excused of defensive responsibilities. While in theory it could be said that the front three should be thus liberated of doing the usual tracking back and marking a man, in reality it’s these three that have to press to make the formation a success. If not, there is just too much space between the lines and the midfield get picked off, especially if the opposition opt with a midfield trio.
The problems faced to the midfield doesn’t help when they sometimes lack discipline. The gaping holes in midfield, specifically at Anfield against Liverpool, were as a result of Aaron Ramsey’s forward thinking runs often leaving the deeplining player Granit Xhaka an impossible task. One must wonder that surely Wenger asks if his midfield at least to remain disciplined when not only playing away but playing a Premier League giant. In comparison with Chelsea, their boss Antonio Conte often deploys different players for different games- while last years PFA player of the year, N’Golo Kanté is ever present, his partner is usually alternated depending on the team they’re facing. For instance, if coming up against a lesser opposition and at home, Cesc Fabregas is preferred to attempt to unlock firm holding defences. While Tiémoué Bakayoko is usually on the team sheet when Chelsea are up against a rival, predominantly when away from home. (Which is exemplified via the fact the only two games Bakayoko has started have been away from home against Spurs and Leicester). This partnership of Kante and Bakayoko is more than capable of filling in for their back three when they’re stretched and dragged out, it’s difficult to say the same for the offensively minded midfielders utilised in Wenger’s side. For a back three to come into fruition, two powerhouses in midfield are required particularly with a defensive mindset, something which Chelsea contain in abundances. Contrastingly, a galavanting Ramsey leaving behind Xhaka leaves Arsenal’s defence vulnerable and powerless.
Most success of the formation has been when the opposition matches up with a similar formation- e.g. when playing against Chelsea in the FA Cup final and the Community Shield and more recently with Bournemouth last Saturday, who opted with a 3511 much to the welcoming of Arsenal. When matched up, Arsenal tend to thrive as, on paper, the Gunners usually hold the greater arsenal. The fact that three out of four Premier League games and now even in the Europa League the side has ended the game with a back four must be some call for concern. Players’ performances have dipped, notably Rob Holding has suffered and subsequently been subbed off twice, which can’t be doing wonders for the youngsters’ confidence. Merely it is not sustainable to switch between formations from game to game let alone during a game; rather than always recovering from a poor position/half, it should be prevented in the first place by starting with correct formation.
What is also quite striking is how once, when the formation changed, players’ perfomences completely transformed. For example, from the midweek game, Ainsley Maitland Niles was able to offer a glimpse of his potential playing in his preferred central midfield role as appose to being placed left wing back, a position in which he is not familiar with. What seems to be apparent is that it is better to work players in your team around a formation, as appose to a fitting players in positions they’re not comfortable in to fit your ideal setup. The back four that Wenger has resorted to during games recently certainly seems to have more balance. The purpose of the back three was to fresh up the team and perhaps not be a permanent change; despite this Wenger claimed he will ‘definitely play with a back three’ in July during preseason. With eight goals conceded already in the Premier League alone in four games this assertive comment to ‘definitely’ play with a back three can be seen, in hindsight, to be possibly a little naive.
The importance of wing backs cannot be understated if this formation is to prosper.
Hector Bellerin seems a perfect fit for the position, despite sometimes lacking on the attacking however he does get in good positions, justified with his well taken finish in midweek. Sead Kolašinac in one word; beast. The man strikes fear into the opposition, even from when he came on as a sub v Chelsea (Community Shield) where he bulldozers through and again against Köln where he struck a tenacious effort past the hopeless keeper, not too dissimilar to how Lukas Podolski, a fan favourite of both koln and Arsenal used to. However, due to possessing such a top heavy physique, the inevitable for a football player is to be tired in the closing stages. While at the Emirates last Saturday, it was a little alarming how the fresh Jordon Ibe effortlessly was able to gain a yard on the Bosnian, this is something which could be used by other teams to take advantage in latter stages of the season. Another interesting point is with the sale of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as he seemed a great fit in the wing back position. Reading between the lines, allowing the sale of the Englishman perhaps alludes to the fact the back three isn’t a permanent solution.
A topic that has raised concern to Arsenal fans is that the possession Arsenal have at the moment with the back three is that it isn’t exciting. This is exemplified with statsiatic that the three Arsenal players to be in most possession against Köln were the three central defenders on the night- Nacho Monreal, captain Per Mertersacker & Rob Holding (50,49 & 50 passes respectively), this is sideways football that doesn’t create many chances or enthrall the fans and certainly not the ‘beautiful Arsenal’ so many fans fell in love with.
Moving forward, the question is whether the back three will be deployed on Sunday v Chelsea. Due to recent success and the aforemented success Wenger’s side Have had against their London rivals, presumably they will set up with a back three, to begin with at least.
Incidentally, Chelsea were one of first prem teams to deploy a back three (in consequence of their 3-0 pounding from Arsenal). In the short term the back three has served its purpose boost- i.e. to have given the team much needed morale towards the end of last season. From the words of Wenger, “It gives the team confidence to have something new to believe”, it added stability to the team which consequently resulted in increased confidence. Despite this while it can once be fresh, the opposite can also occur whereby the new ideas become old.
Undoubtedly, the players seem to be more at ease with the 4231 setup, let alone the coaches, Arsenal are not a defensively minded club, it is their offensive play which has thrilled fans for decades & what Arsenal do best. Against such a tactician in Antonio Conte, Wenger faces a great predicament as to not only who plays but most importantly what formation to opt for.