Arsenal’s switch to a back three has added some much needed defensive solidity as we enter the final stretch of the season.
In the three games since Arsene Wenger made the switch, the Gunners have conceded just two goals and registered three crucial victories.
Three games is a small sample size but there is no doubt that Arsenal have looked a more assured defensive unit since the change. This is in large part because three at the back suits the style of most of our defenders and has allowed them to become more than the sum of their parts.
Wenger has always prized defenders who play on the front foot – aggressively stepping out of defence to make interceptions, stifling attacks in their infancy. Thomas Vermaelen, Johann Djourou and Laurent Koscielny have all fitted this mould as have the more recent additions of Gabriel and Shkodran Mustafi.
The strength of these defenders has often also been their Achilles heel.
When playing as part of a back four, when a Gabriel or a Mustafi step out aggressively to engage an opponent and fail to win the ball, their defensive partner is often left one-on-one with a rapid striker.
A good example of this was in the recent home game against Manchester City.
For City’s first goal Mustafi charged out of defence to win a header deep in the attacking half. The ball fell to Yaya Toure who’s wonderful first time ball split Arsenal’s backline, exploiting the space vacated by Mustafi, and allowed Leroy Sane to race clear off Hector Bellerin to open the scoring.
These same issues were the reason Koscielny and Vermaelen could never form a coherent partnership and also caused problems when Per Mertesacker was used. Whilst Kos and Per formed a reasonably solid pairing there were times, especially in big games, when Koscielny’s aggressive style left Mertesacker and his spectacular lack of pace exposed.
On Wednesday against Leicester at The Emirates it was clear why the new system suits the talents of defenders like Koscielny and Gabriel.
Both defenders were their usual aggressive selves – not allowing Jamie Vardy or Leonardo Ulloa a moment to take a touch or bring the ball under control. Both players won the majority of their duels – both on the ground and in the air – but on the rare occasions when Vardy or Ulloa managed to win a flick on there was plenty of defensive cover.
The security blanket of having two further centre backs as well as support from wing backs means that Koscielny and Gabriel can employ their front foot style without fear of leaving vast spaces in beind them.
There are certainly parallels to be drawn between Gabriel’s success in a back three – admittedly very much in it’s infancy – with the performances of David Luiz at Chelsea.
When Chelsea re-signed Luiz in the summer there were serious concerns about his ability to play as part of a back three. His lack of discipline and propensity to charge out of defence were both cited as reasons why he would never thrive as part of a back three.
In reality, the opposite has been true.
Luiz’s aggressive style has worked perfectly with the more conservative talents of Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill, with Luiz’s habit of getting caught out of position proving far less costly when he has the luxury of two central defensive partners to bail him out.
It is perhaps too early to get massively over excited about this new found defensive aptitude and there will certainly be severe tests to follow – starting with the trip to White Hart Lane on Sunday.
However, there are promising signs that this late season tactical switch could yet see us finish what has been a difficult season on a relative high.