“Full-backs are now one of the most crucial positions on the pitch; they often start as the ‘free’ man and also need to possess the all-round game to make a difference at both ends of the pitch. Having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning.” So said Arsene Wenger some years ago and his attacking philosophy has always given weight to those words.
It is not uncommon for Wenger to convert midfielders or wingers into full-backs. Ashley Cole, Kieran Gibbs, Hector Bellerin, Gael Clichy and Lauren are just some of the midfielders/ wingers who have moved into this role under his tutelage. Over the last decade or so, the junior sides have rarely had recognised full-backs on their roster. Usually a midfielder of some description does a turn there in order to aid his development. This is exactly how Bellerin became acquainted with the role.
Arsenal made something of an exception when they bought Cohen Bramall from Hednesford Town back in January. Wenger gushed over Bramall’s “tremendous pace” upon his capture, which suggests that he is very much seen as more of an attacking asset than a defensive one. The increasing athletic potential of professional footballers has seen the full-back role expanded over the years which, indirectly, has led to the rise in popularity of the 3-4-3 (or variations thereof).
In his book ‘The Principles of Brazilian Soccer’, Thadeu Gonçalves talks about the importance of the “lateral” (note the lack of defensive descriptor in the word) in Brazilian football. “One of the most effective ways to penetrate the offensive zone is by utilizing the lateral parts of the field…the only way to identify an open space in that zone by moving the attackers and the outside midfielders inside, carrying their markers and opening space to the full-back moving forward.”
It’s notable that, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus full-back Dani Alves was the most offensively decisive player in the recent Champions League semi-finals. I have long pondered on Wenger’s reluctance to use a back 3- largely because of the emphasis it places on the full-backs, whom the manager identifies as such a crucial part of a team’s attacking play.
The use of wing backs has changed the way that Arsenal move the ball in recent weeks, to pretty pleasing effect thus far. The beauty of wing-backs is that they are midfielders and defenders all at the same time. Arsene has exclusively described the back 3 as a defensive philosophy since deploying it against Middlesbrough last month, but the wing-backs are reshaping the attack most notably.
In the build-up phase, they serve an important purpose. They immediately open up the passing lines. With three centre halves to choose from, Petr Cech has extra options at his disposal from the get go. Most teams will not risk sparing three players that high up the pitch to pressure the three centre halves, so Cech pretty much always has a spare player in space to choose from. Though Sunderland did leave 3 high up the pitch on Tuesday to pretty decent effect, to disrupt Arsenal’s build up.
Superior technique has seen Rob Holding preferred to Gabriel in the back 3, he passes the ball much more confidently. From there, opposition attackers are left with a choice. They can man mark Granit Xhaka and close that option off. In doing so, they invariably leave a wing-back free and Arsenal can build from the flank. They prefer to do this via Nacho Monreal or Kieran Gibbs so that they can combine with Alexis as quickly as possible.
If the opposing attacker chooses to instead close off the passing lane to the wing-back, that tends to free Xhaka to receive the ball in space. Ordinarily, Arsenal’s wide players like to venture inside, but with wing backs, the team has constant width, while Alexis and Özil play like inside forwards and operate in the half spaces usually preferred by the nominal wide players.
Wenger has flitted between playing Sanchez as a striker and a winger this season, but this inside left position works as a happy medium. He has the freedom to receive the ball and move inside, but he has a shorter distance to travel. His assist for Özil against Stoke would have been far less likely in the 4-2-3-1 because his starting position would’ve been a touch wider. The killer pass for Mesut would need to have been preceded by a medium length dribble.
Adrian Clarke succinctly analysed the role Alexis played against Manchester United in the inside forward position, attracting Axel Tuanzabe inside and allowing Kieran Gibbs to run into the space vacated by the rookie United full-back. The alliance of wing backs and inside forwards has been an interesting one for Arsenal.
It has meant that a player like Alexis can move inside without subtracting any of the width from the Arsenal attack. In the build-up to Özil’s goal at Stoke, both wing-backs were involved in the sequence with touches right on the periphery of the pitch. Time and again, Nacho Monreal was able to sneak onto the back post undetected against Stoke City on Saturday, with Glen Johnson preoccupied by Alexis’ position in-field. Monreal is far better at availing this corridor of space than Gibbs.
Antonio Conte was able to free Eden Hazard by moving him inside into this so called ‘half space.’ With Marcos Alonso taking care of the exhausting leg work on the flank, Hazard is excused the defensive toil of being a wide player. He is able to plough the avenues between full back and centre half and the pockets of space between central midfielders.
It gives the opposition a problem. Do they abandon their positions to mark him and risk leaving space for the wing-backs? Or do they stand off and allow him to run at them? Suffocation or drowning? On paper, this system can work in a similar manner for Alexis. Stoke chose to stand off of the Chilean in this area of the pitch twice on Saturday. On one of those occasions he teed up Mesut Özil, on the other, he powered into the area and scored.
The added width has benefitted Granit Xhaka too. The Swiss is able to spread the play from deep and with two wing backs to hit, as well as a pair of inside forwards, his radar is enlarged and the pitch is simply made a little bigger for him. The Gunners constantly looked for the cross field ball at Stoke to spread the play and stretch the Potters’ midfield, forcing them to cede the area entirely.
Arsenal have lacked the right kind of athleticism in midfield this season too. Wenger has struggled to find a balance between energy and discipline. Moving the full-backs forward a little has helped to alleviate that problem a touch- even if it hasn’t solved it completely. The likes of Bellerin, Chamberlain and Monreal have added a pinch of paprika to the midfield mix.
All of this is not to say the new system is perfect of course, or that it solves all of Arsenal’s problems. Spurs made short work of it and Chelsea will mirror it at Wembley later this month, which will bring its own issues. Arsene has spoken a lot about the back 3 providing extra defensive stability. I think it has made the team less susceptible to the counter attack, which has been a big bonus.
But it’s still far from water tight on the defensive front. I think the most interesting development is how it has reshaped the way the team moves the ball. This has principally been achieved by the alliance of wing-backs and inside forwards, which has varied an attack that was in desperate need of diversity.