Abandon the Back Three
Arséne’s foray into a back 3 has always felt a bit like a 57-year-old man buying a Porsche. Everything he tried and had always done just wasn’t quite working anymore. So, he looked at all his hip young fellow managers and effectively just copied them. And it started to work, he was getting noticed again. People applauded him, as it seemed he found a way to compete with all fresh young bucks but like any midlife crisis fad it wears off because the ooh shiny new car stage has a very short shelf life.
Arsenal first switched to the back three, for the first time since 1997, away at Middlesbrough in April and it appeared a master stroke with an immediate upturn in form. Winning nine out of ten en route to FA cup success, beating Manchester City and Chelsea along the way. It was genuine form, it relaxed our midfields biggest problem of not being able to protect our back 4 by putting another body in the defence that appeared to make us more secure.
It allowed us to get Ozil and Sanchez closer to the opposition’s goal without sacrificing security. It gave Ramsey his licence to roam and rejuvenated the Ox at right wing back. However, the tactical nuances weren’t what Arséne first heralded after the switch, he hailed the psychological effect post the FA cup semi-final “just to focus on something different sometimes helps”. The Porsche had its effect and made the middle-aged man relevant once more.
Six months on, the paintwork doesn’t seem as shiny and it hasn’t stopped the man’s frustrations at having to wake up at 3am every night to pee. Opponents have seen that our central midfield is still very much fallible. If you are leaving two, three or even four centre backs with acres of green grass in front of them you’re going to concede goals. You’re going to look weak, you could make Nesta and Maldini look like Djourou and Stepanovs.
Xhaka’s looked poor because he’s left to cover the hole of the most crucial defensive part of pitch and without proper wingers we’ve taken away his obvious out ball in the long diagonal. Ramsey’s looked confused and as result has blown hot and cold. He needs his role defined: stay close to your partner until the ball’s progressed high enough up the pitch to safely burst forward, coaching please. Elneny’s a player I think most still scratch our heads about, what does he do well? Tackle? No. Carry the Ball? No. Break the lines with forward passes? No. Basically in a two he offers too little to this team’s central midfield that needs so much. Now 15/16 Coquelin of “win it and give it to Cazorla 5 yards from me” – yes please! – but the 16/17 variant of “pressing high to win the ball” is a hinderance.
All of our three defeats have come from teams exploiting our weaknesses in this area, Liverpool preyed on the vast Serengeti left by Xhaka and Ramsey’s ferries forward. The Stoke game, in which it could be said we were unlucky, the same spaces were exposed and exploited. Watford matched us man-for-man and once they saw we had no out ball, because we brought on Giroud who can’t run channels, they then saw we couldn’t get out and turned the screw. Our midfield didn’t have a tackle in them and couldn’t control the game with the ball.
Now for me the solution’s become more obvious due to external factors. The 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 made sense because they allowed us to deploy Ozil in his favoured ‘10’ role. But Mr Ozil isn’t signing a new deal and we don’t have to pander to his personal preferences. So, the old man needs to up his vitamins and put more stock to his obvious needs, the central midfield. Let’s go to 4-3-3, it gives our central midfield more ability and more security.
For big games have Coquelin, Ramsey and Xhaka, Ramsey can get forward leaving Coquelin and Xhaka to break up play, protect the back four and spray the ball forward. Three jobs neither of the two can do alone. Home games you can be more adventurous by swapping out a Coquelin for Wilshere to give us more creativity and carry the ball forward. Elneny can come on at 2 nil up and just help the ball tick over. It also suits our squad better, to be serious about 3-4-2-1 you need first class cover at full back to properly rotate them.
We keep going with 3-4-2-1, then Kolasinac and Bellerin are going to be broken by Christmas. Monreal’s too important in the back three to rotate out to wing back and I don’t want to see a Maitland-Niles or Nelson killed by being played out of position. 4-3-3 helps our squad depth issues. Traditional left back isn’t as much of a burden on the legs as wing back for Nacho. It brings Debuchy back into play, Mustafi and Chambers can play right back.
It will also help our Europa League youngsters integrate, Nelson can be given a proper chance to gain a spot in the team playing as a wide man. Willock, Da Silva or Maitland-Niles can be introduced to the middle 3 alongside two more senior pros. It allows us to use Theo by having a spot on the right wing and it has the natural width to make Giroud useful when he comes on.
Unfortunately, this is all theory because without the requisite effort and desire to win the team has shown recently, no formation or tactical tweak solves anything long-term. Because the middle-aged man is still a middle-aged man, no car, leather jacket or multiple games of squash are going to roll back the years. This team isn’t fighting, isn’t disciplined and isn’t gelling. And that’s not Stan Kroenkes job and it isn’t Ivan Gazidis’ job. It’s Arséne Wenger’s job and he’s not doing it anymore.
Personally, it’s painful to watch a great revered figure slowly chipping away at his legacy and it’s not that the competitiveness is gone, it’s not the lack of organization or the bizarre transfer policies. These have all been issues since the breakup of the Invincibles. I remember hearing Bob Wilson say in an interview years ago that Arsénes core belief – at the heart of his football philosophy – is he believes football is entertainment. I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m not entertained and that there is the killer.
The football’s not easy on the eye, the clinical counters and cute triangles are gone it’s just turgid and disjointed. He’s blown his chances to leave on a high and has no one to blame but himself. The 57-year-old man needs to retire from the night club scene and take up gardening.
(I apologise to any middle aged who were harmed by this article.)