The Gunners dominated during the 2-1 win over Boro but were unable to find any real fluency, though that was expected given that the 3-4-3 was trained to be used in the “unlikely” event of a fuck up. Wenger probably didn’t expect it to be fucked up this bad.
In any case, he said went with this system against Middlesbrough because the team had been having trouble recently with “long, direct balls”, and that he had also expected the home side to use two strikers. Against Crystal Palace the week before, where they lost 3-0, that was particularly a problem as they were easily overloaded following the long ball and the knock-down from the striker with the two wingers coming in to join the attack.
For the first goal, both Wilfred Zaha and Andros Townsend tucked in, and after Christian Benteke won the initial header, they both combined for the goal. Here, with the 3-4-3, there would theoretically be enough men around the second-ball should the target-man win it first to avoid a repeat of that same goal. Arsenal did concede against Middlesbrough, and it came from another header, though it seems a little harsh to attach any blame to Laurent Koscielny in particular because the cross was so good.
In any case, that Arsene Wenger admitted that the decision to switch to a 3-4-3 was a defensive move – which somewhat goes against the grain of why other coaches have adopted the system this season. When the back three initially came back into favour it was used mainly as a reactive measure, as a counter-attacking force.
Napoli’s 3-4-3 was the chief exponent of that. Later it was another way of fitting two strikers into the starting eleven without ceding the midfield advantage, though invariably it meant surrendering the flanks. Arsenal in particular, tended to have lots of joy against teams who adopted the 3-5-2 system because it allowed them to move the ball relatively easily from side-to-side.
Now though, to use a back three can be seen as an attacking move because of the flexibility it provides teams when they go forward, and the 3-4-3 offers the best arrangement. In simple terms, the rise of the formation could boil down to the way it’s essentially a 4-3-3 system but in the attacking phase. That is to say when most possession-based sides build from the back, they tend to drop a midfielder into the backline anyway and push their wing-backs forward, whilst the wingers tuck in, which in effect, becomes a 3-4-3.
However, many teams tried to copy this “Barcelona” style but found it was really difficult to master, and they tended to build instead, without the pivote and two midfielders ahead, but with two holding midfielders and a number 10 ahead. It’s not the optimal way of building from the back but it provided a certain pragmatism which meant that for a long time, the 4-2-3-1 was default formation for most coaches. That placed increased importance on the centre-backs to be able play out and you can see, as a result of this increased focus on technicality, why it’s more viable now for clubs to use three centre-halves because they all can pass.
Also giving rise to the 3-4-3 might be because 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1 long had been the common match up. That meant that the free players on the pitch – the ones with the most time on the ball – were the full-backs. The 3-4-3 can be seen as a way of granting them more license as wing-backs to get up the pitch. Certainly, fitness and stamina has improved such that it’s not unrealistic to expect them to keep get up and down the pitch. Indeed, that’s probably why the 3-4-3 has the edge over other variants of the back three; because the wing-backs can keep getting up the pitch.
As I wrote in my blog after Chelsea defeated Arsenal 3-1, “it’s as if they attack with a front five at times. The 3-4-3 allows the wing-backs to take risks and join the attack because they’re not primarily tasked with pinning the opposition full-back back. Instead, unlike other traditional wing-back formations (say for example the 3-5-2, which is the generally most preferred); they have a winger in front of them to do that for them.”
That plurality going forward once moved Roberto Martinez to declare that it’s the formation of the future, that “there will be a lot of teams playing a 3-4-3, believe me”. He used the system whilst in charge at Wigan and was able to keep the side up miraculously in 2012 after switching to it midway through the season. This is how he explains the 3-4-3’s success:
When you play a 4-3-3, you rely a lot on the full-backs to get high up the pitch. You shouldn’t look at a system as away to win a football match, it is the players that play the system. Maynor [Figueroa], Gary [Caldwell] and Antolin [Alcaraz] have been so solid with a back three, and it allows [other] players to be high up the pitch, like the wing-backs. They aren’t full-backs that need to get deep and then forward to give us an extra man, they are in positions where they can do both a little bit better, and we can be a little bit more solid.
“The difference is the width that we get; before, we had to compromise a little bit, when you want to be very attack-minded, the full-backs have to push on, so you leave two players at the back. Now you’re still pushing the wing-backs on, but you’ve still got three players at the back, plus probably a midfielder. In the West Brom game, as Paul Scharner will tell you, we were attacking with seven, eight, nine players and they were surprised it, and that’s what the system gives you, without being weak at the back.
It suits our players. When you’ve got a Jean Beausejour who is a specialist in that position, you take advantage of that. The back three gives you that. Then there’s the energy we’ve got in midfield, players who can play between lines like Shaun Maloney and Jordi Gomez. It’s so difficult to play against; there’s a few clubs playing it around Europe now, Napoli are one: they play it with [Edinson] Cavani, [Marek] Hamsik and [Ezequiel] Lavezzi this is the advantage of this system; it goes where the danger is…it’s not in defensive lines, it’s not working as a unit of four, it’s not man-marking.”
For Arsenal, the 3-4-3 seems only a temporary fix. There seemed some benefit in implementing the system because of the way Arsenal tend to build down the flanks. It can leave the team exposed, something which Sam Allardyce targeted when Crystal Palace beat them, there’s “space behind the full-backs.
Arsenal have been weak defensively, they leave the centre-backs exposed. With three at the back against Middlesbrough, there was little chance of that happening.
In that, the 3-4-3 did it’s job.