Our last two games have been a breath of fresh air for Arsenal fans. A new formation, two wins, and the sense of optimism that we can adapt stylistically to an ever-evolving Premier League. While the 3-4-2-1 formation is gaining the majority of the recognition, and rightly so, my eyes have been telling me that Arsenal has been trying to adopt different shapes for much of this season.
In the first half of the season, with Alexis as the main CF, 4-4-1-1 seemed the most common setup with Alexis and Ozil taking turns dropping deep as chief creator and running into advanced spaces. As the season has progressed, we’ve tried to evolve our shape and tactics but, as a result, team fluency and on-pitch results have mostly suffered. I’ve witnessed 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1, 4-1-4-1, and most recently 3-4-2-1 which have been implemented. Not to mention distinct off the ball shapes of 4-4-1-1 (Bayern and City) and 4-5-1 (Liverpool) deployed with the mostly failed intent to absorb pressure and then counter attack, counter press, and/or run attackers into channels.
Against Middlesbrough and City, we played three in the back and got two massive victories. This is the first time I remember us making a significant formational change and getting results this season. Defensive solidity, establishment of a platform for the front 3 to express themselves, and surrounding Xhaka with midfield bodies are a few of the advantages of this new setup. However, football is a game of fine margins. If Ayala’s header finds the back of the net against Boro, maybe we don’t stick with it against City and we’re debating whether the decision to move to three in the back was wise. Boro got plenty of men behind the ball and limited our space in their third, which we found incredibly difficult to break down. Is this still the same blueprint for success against us regardless of our tactical setup?
My biggest criticism of the team in recent memory is a lack of tactical flexibility based on opposition. At least we are beginning to see a manager and team that is willing to adapt. It’s the meaningful adoption of these altered shapes and tactics that will define us going forward, with or without Wenger. The core of this team is accustomed to free-flowing expressionism on the pitch, which will make this a challenging process, especially given our lack of an “off the ball” identity.
We are about to embark upon a challenging race to the finish line. It will prove to us if we are truly ready to adapt to the modern footballing climate or if we are content to repeat history. 2 games is too small a sample size to see if 3 in the back truly suits us as a base formation. I don’t feel we should feel compelled to stick with it every game for the rest of the season. Our approach should vary based on opposition.
Below I’ve highlighted 5 vital matches for the rest of the season with a brief description of tactics I’d like to see us employ.
4/26, Leicester (h): Leicester will certainly set up in their traditional 4-4-2 setup and look to break at pace and get Vardy and Slimani/Okazaki into space on the flanks. I would set out in our 4-2-3-1 shape and look to counter press. Play quick, direct balls forward in hopes that they stick and if not, win second and third balls. This is more than likely a “Theo game,” so we need to find a way to get him the ball in space. Let’s not make the same mistake we did against West Brom with our sideways passing and vulnerability on the counter.
4/30, Tottenham (a): Tottenham set up with three in the back in order to win the midfield battle and exploit us down the flanks back in November. Who knows if we’ll see that again. I would set up in a 4-3-3, place Xhaka at the back of the triangle with speed beside him (Ox/Ramsey). We need to fight in the midfield and attack down the flanks with our wingers when their fullbacks push up. Sanchez and Walcott can interchange in advanced spaces with Ozil. Like Leicester, it’s another game where controlled build-up will lead to problems, so direct passing with a counter-pressing emphasis is huge.
5/7, Manchester United (h): Mourinho will look to replicate the blueprint Chelsea used for years to beat us. Give us the majority of the possession and hit us at pace on the counter attack when we lose shape. I wouldn’t be surprised if Herrera man marks Sanchez like he did against Hazard last week. We should set up with three in the back to help track the runs of Martial and Rashford and stop wide cutbacks into late midfield runners. We have been making the same mistakes against Mourinho sides for years by trying to attack them centrally and with slow build up play.
5/13, Stoke City (a): A game away at Stoke is never easy for Arsenal and I hope this is the second straight game we utilize a back three. It will help defend against long balls into the box and allow us an extra attacker going forward. One of our fullbacks may be forced to tuck-in at times to negate the threat of Shaqiri, Berahino, and/or Arnautovic. We’ll need some physicality, so I would use Giroud from the start instead of as a plan B option late.
5/27, Chelsea (Cup Final): Let’s match their three in the back by implementing the same system. This time put Bellerin as RWB and Ox as a ball-winner alongside Xhaka in the center of the pitch. Sanchez, Welbeck, and Ozil can be the front three and look to run at Chelsea’s 3 center backs as well as Matic and Kante. Ozil will need to take turns dropping deep with Xhaka to distribute between the tight Chelsea lines.
Have we truly begun to adapt stylistically based on opposition or is it all just a mirage? We’ll soon find out.
Follow me on Twitter @dfresh10
31 year old based in the U.S. I am an elementary school teacher by day whose passion for teaching is only rivaled by a love for the Arsenal. I release a weekly piece each Tuesday that is oftentimes analytical but sometimes eccentric. Founder of the U.S. supporters group Syracuse Gooners (www.cusegooners.com). I enjoy interacting with any and all Arsenal-based opinions on Twitter. Have a younger brother who chose to support Spurs. Fielding suggestions for ways to disown him.