As I have documented in this column many times before, when it comes to the setup of his team, Arsene Wenger is more alchemist than strategist. He assembles his materials and figures out how best to deploy them as he goes along. In essence, he tries to build the plane while it is in the air.
Over the last two seasons, Arsene has struggled to conjure a functioning team. The loss of Santi Cazorla in the autumns of 2015 and 2016 have removed a key chemical component of the Gunners team and Wenger has struggled to readjust the formula. This season, as the man has documented himself in beleaguered post-match interviews, Wenger has toiled fruitlessly to provoke a reaction from the team with a series of subtle modifications.
He moved Özil to the left-side for the trip to Stamford Bridge and dragged Iwobi in-field- an experiment that was abbreviated. (Playing Iwobi more centrally was also something he tried at Anfield). The trio of Xhaka, Ramsey and Chamberlain looked briefly promising in the engine room, until the capitulation at the Hawthorns. Alexis, Welbeck and Giroud have all played at centre forward. Alexis was even dropped for the trip to Anfield, which could be construed as an attempt to shock the team out of its stasis.
Xhaka and Elneny impressed against West Ham earlier this month, creating cautious optimism. But they were overrun by Crystal Palace just five days later at Selhurst Park. The latter defeat begat Wenger’s most obvious and surprising alteration yet- the back 3. In the wake of that miserable evening in South London, Eagles manager Sam Allardyce was, characteristically, in the mood for self-congratulation.
“The weaknesses with Arsenal have been defensively. They leave Gabriel and Mustafi really exposed. Monreal and Bellerin play like right and left wingers,” Allardyce explained. “The wingers come inside with the centre-forward and they’re just left on their own.” It’s not a particularly revolutionary blueprint for thwarting the Gunners, but it is often an effective one.
A third centre half goes some way to addressing this issue, by not leaving such a canyon of space behind the full-backs. Yet Arsene has referenced the psychological side of the switch to a back 3 as much as he has the tactical side. To the amusement and bemusement of many, Wenger often references the psychological aspect of the game when discussing his players.
Two years ago, I wrote a piece positing the theory that Wenger’s unwillingness to discuss tactics is quite deliberate. I think he discusses psychology so often as a means of avoiding tactical discussion. He is diametrically opposed to Allardyce, in that he wants his players to believe that all praise is due to them.
To forensically discuss tactics is to play up his own role, while it is also true that he is not the most tactically rigorous manager in any case. Arsene was wedded to variations of 4-4-2 in the nineties, he adopted the 4-3-3 system well after Pep Guardiola perfected it with Barcelona and the recent back 3 again shows a man following tactical trends rather than setting them.
In discussing the move to a back 3, the manager has hinted broadly that it has been designed almost as a shock tactic, “But sometimes when a team lacks confidence, just to add something new to believe helps to focus and overall the fact that we conceded three at West Brom, three at Crystal Palace, I felt it was needed.” In other words, desperate times called for desperate measures and there was little else left for Wenger to reasonably try.
Whether the move to a 3-4-2-1 is a short term confidence trick to try and get his players over the line, or a longer term strategy, my inkling is that Arsene will keep this formation until such time that it comes unstuck. There are long term questions over how far it suits the players that he has in the medium term- assuming of course that Wenger remains in the Gunners dugout beyond this season.
There are plenty of beneficiaries in his roster. Gabriel has acquitted himself well in a back 3. The manager touched on some of the reasons for that, “He played right-back, he played centre back and he plays at the moment in a position that is between the two.” Gabriel in essence, is a pure one on one defender, he likes engaging players, making covering interventions and blocking attempts on goal.
In a back 3, where he is less exposed positionally, he can concentrate on these tasks. Mustafi potentially fits a 3 man defence for similar reasons. He often makes forays down the right-hand side and looks to cover for Bellerin’s forward runs in any case. Holding looks equally assured in a pairing as he does a trio, but the numerical necessity of the system just gives him more of an opportunity to play.
After several years of shifting positions, Oxlade Chamberlain may well have found his true calling at right-wing back a la Victor Moses. The role allows him to collect the ball in a little more space- which is one of the reasons he often looks comfortable in a deep, central role. Surging forward from wing-back gives him time to collect the ball in space and gather momentum as he bursts past opponents. In tighter spaces, this is more difficult for him to do.
Yet Hector Bellerin’s presence probably inhibits Chamberlain’s opportunity to make the role his own in the long term, because the Spaniard is likewise made for the position and has greater defensive awareness to boot. Kieran Gibbs seems suited to the left-wing back berth for similar reasons, but I think at this point he has gone totally stale and needs to change his environment. The rumours linking Sead Kolašinac to the club may help to convince him of this.
However, the manager has plenty of players who seem to have little place in a 3-4-2-1. Theo Walcott is neither wing-back nor playmaker and he has already cancelled his centre forward union membership. Against Leicester Walcott cut a forlorn figure, often standing on Bellerin’s toes on the right flank. He didn’t quite know whether to play as a number 10, a right winger or a strike partner for Alexis and ultimately did none of those things.
Olivier Giroud has been subdued in the centre-forward role in this formation too. The Frenchman has struggled to understand where to position himself with Mesut and Sanchez orbiting behind him. One minute he gets in their way, so by the time the next attack is formulated, Giroud is so scared of being an obstruction again that he isolates himself completely. His movement might need some work, but I am still of the opinion that the system needs a more mobile striker to function.
Though he acquitted himself reasonably well against Leicester, Francis Coquelin’s qualities aren’t entirely suited to this particular setup. Coquelin thrives on a lack of structure, he is there to break the game up and create chaos for the opposition when they have possession. The 3-4-2-1 requires something a little more considered from the centre of midfield.
It is a formation that relies more on positional intelligence and discipline. Elneny is a far more snug fit than Coquelin for this role, though concerns remain about how easily he is dribbled past. Elneny, Ramsey and Xhaka all share this flaw, rather unhelpfully. In my own imagining of this strategy, Alexis should play at centre forward, with Ramsey joining Özil in behind him. Against Leicester, the Chilean lacked support in the centre with Walcott isolated in wider areas.
It remains to be seen whether 3-4-2-1 is a new set of slippers that Arsenal settle into, or whether Arsene is just jamming wires together under the dashboard to get the engine revving again. Of course, the Gunners need not adopt it in perpetuity, it could prove handy for certain matches or, perish the thought, the team could switch to it mid game on occasion. I am not convinced Arsenal will line-up with a back three in August, but I’ve a feeling we’ll become familiar with it throughout May.