Since moving to the 3–4–2–1 system after losing 3–0 to Crystal Palace, Arsenal have played six games, won five and conceded only four goals.
It’s been a welcome improvement after a rocky few weeks of form, but does that mean the new tactics have been an overwhelming success?
It’s well documented that the new system is of great benefit to certain players at the club; Rob Holding is finally getting the game time his early season form warranted, Aaron Ramsey is getting the opportunity to show that his barn–storming performances for Wales are not one–offs, and Alex Oxlade–Chamberlain was showing promise in an unfamiliar position before picking up an untimely injury. Again.
But none of these were the reason why Arsenal changed to a three man defence in the first place, it’s just that they happen to fit nicely into the new jigsaw puzzle that Arsene Wenger is trying to put together.
Arsenal changed because they couldn’t maintain any defensive stability with a four man backline, and needed the extra body at the back to fill in the gaps that were being left open previously. So the shape in which Arsenal play in has been altered, but the way we play is relatively unchanged.
This is a problem.
Arsenal have always looked to exploit the flanks ever since Wenger took charge.
Whether it’s Robert Pires and Ashley Cole, or Andrei Arshavin and Gael Clichy, or Alexis and Nacho Monreal/Kieron Gibbs, the overlapping full back has been a key facet to how we break down opposing defences.
But with the new formation, there are more bodies in the middle of the park, what with Alexis and Mesut Özil playing as 1930’s style inside forwards now. But any time we have a decent spell of possession at the moment, the ball is still being swung out wide as if we have a winger and a full back trying to get around the back–line.
Because the wing–back now doesn’t have a winger beside him, Arsenal are putting far more crosses into the penalty area than in previous seasons. This would be fine if Arsenal were playing with a striker that had prodigious heading ability, but Wenger can’t pick Olivier Giroud at the moment because he just doesn’t have the ability to make the runs behind a back line during counter–attacks that make a five man defence viable in the first place.
Yes, Arsenal scored from a cross against Manchester United last Sunday, but it required Chris Smalling to have the spacial awareness of a lost boy in a toy shop for the ball to get to Danny Welbeck in the first place.
We don’t have a Diego Costa or a Romelu Lukaku who can both beat you in the air and on the ground, we have Welbeck who can do the former and Giroud who can do the latter. If only we had an attacking player who is lethal when running through the centre of the pitch during counter–attacks, eh?
Arsenal had been pressing Southampton here for the majority of the second half, but any time Granit Xhaka had the ball, he was always spreading the play out wide to a wing back that was galloping down the touchline. This is fine when crossing the ball to a target man is our best way of creating a goal, but as you can clearly see above, it isn’t.
Arsenal are far, far more dangerous when they have Alexis, Welbeck and Ramsey running directly at the heart of a defence, and Xhaka and Özil are in enough space to pick one of them out. As good as the Ox has been as a wing–back, he shouldn’t be the main creator of offence when we have so much counter–attacking potential by playing through the middle instead.
It would only take a small tweak for everything to fall into place as well.
Move Alexis back up front where he’s most dangerous, push Ramsey further forward so that we have another body running past central defenders instead of full backs (Alex Iwobi is also a good shout here), play the Ox as a central midfielder beside Xhaka and put Bellerin in at right wing–back.
Then just do what we’ve done for the last few weeks; sit back and try to pick teams off.
If we find ourselves with the ball for large periods of a game, there’s still enough players with the ability to retain possession without having to sacrifice that third centre back.
But as long as Arsenal continue to get their strategy muddled up and play crosses into a box with no target man, or counter–attack with a striker who can’t keep up with the attack, or continue to focus on playing down the flanks whilst all of their best players sit in the middle and wait for the ball to come back to them, then they’ll never be able to exploit the true potential of their new setup.
And as welcome as the recent run of form has been, it still won’t be a true representation of what this current group of players can do.
We’ll see over the last few games of the season as to whether these are just kinks in the system or another case of Arsene Wenger refusing to compromise over how he wants his sides to play football.
I really hope it’s the former, but history would suggest otherwise.