On Monday 16th April, Arsène Wenger made the move to switch from his 4-2-3-1 system to a 3-4-2-1. A three-at-the-back system he’d only ever deployed at the very beginning of his tenure at Arsenal.
This off the back of losses to Liverpool, Chelsea, Watford, Crystal Palace, West Brom and back-to-back 5-1 thrashings from Bayern Munich in the Champions League left Wenger’s side in a state of desperation and dejection. And with the continued uncertainty over the futures of Wenger, Alexis and Özil all yet to be decided, it left a dark cloud above the club’s head that just wouldn’t go away. The remainder of the year looked a grim prospect but the news of this change was a potential beacon of light in the mist that was Arsenal’s season, as they attempted to salvage a top four spot and also some silverware against the odds.
In a must-win position with an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City up ahead, Wenger’s line-up featured Xhaka and Ramsey as the core of the midfield – a partnership that had played well in the brief spurts it was chosen for prior to this. Özil and Alexis filled role of wide forwards and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain assumed the new position of right wing-back ahead of Héctor Bellerín. A result is what Wenger was after, and a result is what he got. 2-1 it finished in favour of the visitors. And in spite of Arsenal conceding higher xG chances to Boro, whose emphasis was on overloading the box for crosses from open and set plays, Arsenal showed brief signs of revival in a system that was completely new to them in every possible way.
What it offers defensively:
One of the great things about this formation was the connections and support it offered in possession. With Xhaka acting as the base of the midfield once again, he now had the required support to play there. The three central defenders behind him offered insurance to any mistakes he made, compared to the more vulnerable central pairing he couldn’t afford to make mistakes in front of before. Equally, with players like Koscielny and Mustafi, who are comfortable passers of the ball, Arsenal were equipped with the ability to play out from the back with much greater ease. What’s more, the three behind enabled Arsenal’s wing-backs to make wide runs more freely and allow them to position themselves higher up the pitch in order to stretch the opposition. The deeper positioning of Xhaka then also meant that defensive unit of four offered greater protection against counter-attacks.
Out of possession, the three at the back then became a five at the back, with Özil and Alexis dropping in to form a 5-4-1 shape, similar to the same one Chelsea performed to a tee at Stamford Bridge against Arsenal not so long before this. The shape it posed was good for many reasons, most notably it countered the opposition’s attempt at overloads down the flanks and in the half space. The wide centre-backs were now given the license to step out into the half space to support the wing-back and forward that had tucked in, which made overloads much more difficult to come by for opponents, subsequently this made it harder to break the defence down. An excellent example of this was in Arsenal’s second match in this system, where they beat Pep Guardiola’s Man City side in the semi-final of the cup:
What, initially, had been so good about this compact shape was the limited access it gave in the hole. The wide forwards tucking in, and the often narrow positioning of the centre-backs, meant any attempt to access play centrally was immediately under pressure by five Arsenal players. This mix of limited central access and wide defensive overloads worked hand-in-hand to keep out City for the best part of the match.
On a further note, the formation offered much better vertical compactness as Arsenal’s midfield and defensive lines were much tighter and coordinated. If you compare this to the disjointed 4-4-1-1 we saw at the Allianz where Hummels tore through the lines on several occasions, it demonstrates a significant improvement. However, this was not without imperfection. In the same match against City, they were able to play through us and find gaps between the lines by bringing play out again, thus encouraging the players out of that deep shape so to press the ball higher up, and although this wasn’t the source of their goal, it was a niggle of concern.
One more thing that this shape enables is an effective counter-press. Even if it’s an unrehearsed one, the tight shape across the pitch and the even spacing centred around the ball offers an to overload against the ball-holder’s options following a turnover, which has helped to maintain game intensity and sustain attacks for long periods of the game. This is mostly down to the fact that at any given time, the support of the striker and a central-midfielder to the ball-side enables a 4-man press.
What it offers offensively:
With one half of the pair sitting deep, this gives licences to the second midfielder to have a freer role and attack more advanced spaces. Aaron Ramsey has shown this to be the case with his spectacular off the ball movement and box runs. For opposition this can be a major threat as third man runs like his are not necessarily something to be expected of one of the two central midfielders. In this sense it’s different to Chelsea’s set up as their two holding midfielders have a much stronger defensive focus as a whole, so offer less offensively in the same way Arsenal’s pairing does, something that was clearly demonstrated in the cup final. This movement and these runs have proved dangerous to opposition, as the unpredictability has enabled him to find himself in great spaces and on the end of big opportunities.
A further positive of this is the attacking freedom it gives to star men Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez. As wide forwards in this system, they are generally released of most, if not all, defensive responsibilities and they have the freedom of the pitch to roam within. With such intelligent minds, it makes our attacking play that bit more lethal. With two prime creators, who also offer goal contributions and clever attacking runs off the striker, it makes them even more dangerous to the opposition. Their movement in and out of the lines is crucial in attempting to pull apart opponents and find spaces in-between the lines. As well as their somewhat rigid positioning in this formation at times, glueing themselves to one side when appropriate, they are still given the freedom to move from one space to another, and their ability to drop deep, as mentioned previously, works in effect almost as a false nine would since the width of the wing-backs and the pinned positioning of the striker confuses markers and forces them to adjust to try to prevent play going through the two key players.
When positioned correctly, the three forwards can be so dangerous. Covering the three central lanes can be crucial to linking play in the half spaces when breaking down opponents, and with the added width of the wing-backs, Arsenal can then cover all five vertical lanes at once. With such numbers placed in-between the lines, any pressure applied to the deeper ball holder then opens the route inside to one of the players positioned inside through quick combination play. Often in this formation we’ve seen Alexis and/or Özil drop out whilst Ramsey makes the run in place of them; this aforementioned movement causes confusion especially for opposing midfielders, who have to react to what’s happening in front of them where the ball is.
The positioning of the central striker is a factor that also enhances our ability to break down sides. In the 4-2-3-1, when Alexis and Özil were given free roles down the centre, there was no nominal centre-forward to pin back the opposition’s defensive line. The false nine role that the Chilean posed in required wide man runs in behind, something that wasn’t always on offer. With the only willing wide runners often being players like Walcott and Welbeck, the remaining options, like Iwobi, who prefer to offer to the ball, meant Arsenal struggled to break down the top opposition as their inability to break sides down forced Alexis deeper and deeper. This, paired with the opposition being better prepared to prevent central access, made results against the other top six sides hard to come by. This was less of an issue against lesser competition as the pressure on the ball and the positioning of the players was much more advanced, meaning neat interchanges between Alexis and Özil in the half spaces across the frontline often was successful breaking them down.
Issues with its implementation:
On paper, and theoretically, the system is great. It offers substantial improvements and benefits compared to previous or other systems in general, but that’s on paper. What good is a system if it can’t be implemented properly or correctly by the coach trying to do so? Well, Arsenal half fell into this trap at times, but that was to be expected in a structure that was almost totally new to everyone involved.
The game that signalled some of these weaknesses most was the only match Arsenal lost in their ten-game run in this system, which was a 2-0 loss away to Spurs. Something I found unnerving at times was the extremely narrow positioning of the wider centre-backs. The issue with that being that if the wing-back was beaten 1v1, then the inside lane was more exposed to the ball-holding attacker, putting them in a position for a great crossing/cut-back opportunity. With reliance then on central-mdifelders tracking this as a result, the centre-back is left recovering to get in front of the approaching attacker. This at times can subsequently leave the defence exposed to overloads despite the example listed before.
A further issue was the expectantly lacklustre defensive contribution of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez; with neither two equipped with renowned defensive qualities, this was always going to be a hard bet and because of this, it has left the wing-backs exposed on occasions when those two forwards have been caught too high up the pitch or in cheat positions waiting for the counter-attack. Spurs capitalised on this and focused their attacks down the left flank in the opening half, where they knew they could get at the absence of Özil, and then targeted the right flank in the second half when Arsenal needed to attack more and so took advantage of Alexis’ positioning higher up the pitch near Giroud.
One of the issues the side faced offensively, specifically at the beginning of this, was the spacing and general positioning of the forwards with the central-midfielders. Against Middlesbrough, there was a clear emphasis on the central-midfielder filling the space the forward vacated if they dropped deeper. Although this helped to continuously cover the central lanes, it left Arsenal more exposed defensively as the central three lacked the cover Xhaka offered and also asked something of the Swiss international that wasn’t really part of his game. This was a recurring problem that varied as games went by. In the match against Man Utd a common problem Arsenal faced in possession was the lack of presence in-between the lines. With Welbeck’s typically static central movement, failing to offer to the ball-side half space and both Özil and Alexis constantly dropping out of the line between defence and midfield, it was only ever Ramsey that offered inside, but this was often too infrequent, so United were able to frustrate play for the most part.
Another issue that arose only recently towards the end of the run, that contrasted the issues faced with this shape at the beginning, was the exposure in front of the line of defence. Wenger decided to opt for a more aggressive first line of defence with Özil and Alexis joining the central striker to press from the front, this freed up their defensive responsibilities further, however this left gaps in behind, and despite the backing of Xhaka and Ramsey covering the vertical passing options, this proved to be an issue in the defensive third where it often allowed too much space in the hole and the ability for the opposition to create overloads in wide and central areas, something that Chelsea looked to exploit of in the cup final, and did on a few occasions. With Xhaka and Ramsey having to work doubly hard to operate across the defensive line this left the ball-far side exposed whe front if Özil and Alexis hadn’t moved behind the ball.
As a result of this slight imbalance between defensive and attacking commitments, Arsenal’s xG has followed suit, with the gunners creating plenty of high quality chances (4.0 xG vs. Sunderland – a season high, 3.1 xG vs. Everton and 2.5 xG vs. Chelsea) but also conceding high quality chances as well (1.1 xG vs. Everton and 1.3 xG vs. Chelsea).
What has Wenger adapted to and how has it helped to get the best out of everyone?
With such a new approach, ideas and changes will always develop inside a manager’s mind, and it seems to me that Wenger’s subtle changes each game have proved successful and have catered to the strengths of each and every Arsenal player and the way they like to play, which is why the last few games especially have been so impressive. A lot of these adaptations are counters to issues I’ve mentioned already:
Wenger made Xhaka the base of the midfield again. In a similar way it took the manager a while to realise where it is best to play the holding midfielder, it also seemed to take a while for Wenger to realise that the Swiss is much better placed remaining deep and central, controlling the play with the ball as opposed to making runs and sweeping up counter-attacks. Having Xhaka at the base of the midfield constantly, as was the case in the cup final, it allowed him to dictate the play and spread the ball to stretch the opposition. And even in spite of Matić’s attempts to apply pressure to him, he was then forced to retreat when Ramsey’s runs in addition to those of the forwards left Chelsea too exposed defensively and highlighted a lack of vertical compactness on the day.
Ramsey was given the freedom to attack. Among the many players that benefited from this change of system, Ramsey, arguably, was the one to benefit the most from this. Having received huge criticism for a drop in form and level of performance ever since his incredible 13/14 season, Ramsey seemingly returned to form thanks to the freedom he’s been allowed in this midfield pairing. The security Xhaka offers as a deep lying playmaker has allowed the welshman to step freely into the attacking third and overload defences. This focus on Ramsey’s excellent ability to make quality third man runs has been a key feature of Arsenal’s attacking play that has allowed for an extra option in attack. And what better example of this than Ramsey’s movement in the box for the winner in the final against Chelsea. What’s more, this movement gives way for Alexis and/or Özil to drop out and find him or the central striker. This mix of defensive responsibilities and freedom to attack and move in the final third has seen the Frenchman bring out the best in the midfielder, and has helped him to find his best form since the 13/14 season.
Getting the best out of *both* Alexis and Özil. The performances of both Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil have tied together nicely, with both finding superb form at the same time. After a rather turbulent season in terms of form for the German, and a contrastingly brilliant season from the Chilean, despite a drop-off towards the end prior to this change, we’d never been able to see the two stars perform at their highest level simultaneously. But the freedom it’s given to those two has seen them create and score a high volume of chances that have been key to the success it’s brought over the last ten games. With a focus on them being positioned in the half spaces for central/wide overloads, as well as out of the line to draw apart opposition and put to use their creative abilities, the two have since proved to be a menace that just can’t be contained. Their scoring and creative output has since improved and has seen a much-needed return to form for them both, even against the big sides.
It’s been easier for defenders to settle into. Not only have the attackers benefited from the change of system, but many of the defenders have as well. For a young defender like Rob Holding, having the reassurance as a wide centre-back that there is another man who can cover behind you offers reassurance, and he’s taken to the role excellently since being given the opportunity against Middlesbrough and Man City in the first two games. The young Englishman has been able to showcase his abilities in possession as well as out of possession. The same credit could be given to Monreal who has thrived in both the wide centre-back and wing-back role when he’s been asked to play either, further highlighting his brilliantly consistent and much-needed professionalism when for settling into this formation. And, of course, a special mention must go to Per Mertesacker who stepped in magnificently for the suspended Koscielny in the cup final, playing as if he had been doing so all season. The German looked incredibly comfortable and the aforementioned defensive support that the shape offers meant that his pace was much less of an issue, so he could use his intelligence to read the play and cut out attacks time and time again.
With such success, winning nine games from a possible ten, and playing in a system that has beaten off the likes of Man City and Chelsea in the cup and Man United, which has also brought the best out of a large number of individuals, there’s no doubt that this should remain the system going forward – be it under Arsène or a new manager should he leave. However, the big questions still remain over the futures of Wenger, Alexis and Özil, and these distractions could prove costly in the club’s approach to the window in signing the necessary players. Having now dropped out of the Champions League for the first time in over two decades, Arsenal will face stiff competition in their pursuits of top players from other European clubs, but that’s not to say none are availble.
However, that did little to dissuade the all but confirmed signing of Sead Kolašinac. The Bosnian, who is reported to be signing on a free from Schalke this summer, is an accomplished Bundesliga full-back who suits the wing-back position well. So with an ageing Monreal and a out of sorts Kieran Gibbs, filling the wing-back slot was always going to be top of the list of positions to sign players for. As for the rest of the summer spending, a lot of it will most likely come down to the whereabouts of Alexis and Özil, whose futures are still up in the air as to whether they’ll stay, sign or leave this summer. Wenger’s position is also a key factor as the two players’ willingness to stay could come down to whether he stays or who replaces him and who the club brings in to strengthen the squad.
In spite of this uncertainty, I don’t think Arsenal can afford to let this deter them. Positions such as the centre-forward spot and the central-midfield spot are still in need of strengthening if Arsenal are to move forward, regardless of any departures. The likes of Real’s Álvaro Morata, Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette and Andrea Belotti potentially all on the move this summer, it would be incredibly naive not to be putting a word in for each of those names. And although Arsenal don’t boast a Champions League status, there is little reason to say the club shouldn’t be trying to compete with other sides for slightly bigger names than you would expect to see sign. Another Lyon player to have been heavily linked of late has been Corentin Tolisso, a player who seems like a great fit for that spot next to Xhaka, along with other names that have been thrown around, such as Leverkusen’s Kevin Kampl, Leipzig’s Naby Keïta and Nice’s Jean Michaël Seri.
If Arsenal manage to acquire the recruitments they need and keep the players you rely on, there’s still excitement to be had, but in the likely event that we lose star players and fail to sign the adequate profiles, it may be best to step out and build for the future and lay the groundworks for future managers.
Whatever happens, the introduction of the 3-4-2-1 has been a major highlight. It has shed light on an entirely bleak season and has brought home silverware in the form of the FA Cup yet again.