When Arsene Wenger first arrived in England, he quickly earned himself a reputation as a tactical innovator. However, that faded over the following two decades, with his teams growing worryingly predictable.
Fear not. In the last few months, “Le Professeur” has made a thrilling return to his strategic experiments. Back in the spring, he finally dispensed with his preferred back four to deploy a new-look back three. The new system worked a treat, with Arsenal embarking on an impressive run that saw them defeat Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea alongside winning the FA Cup.
For the first time in years, Arsenal looked solid. However, the new set-up appears to have been far too sensible for Wenger’s cavalier tastes. He is not a coach enamoured with the defensive side of the game, and now it seems he’s spent the summer in his London Colney laboratory, tinkering with a seemingly successful formula to reintroduce some of that trademark Arsenal chaos.
In the first two games of this season, Arsenal have already been beaten once and conceded four goals along the way.
Somehow, Wenger has managed to find a way to make a formation with three central defenders perilously porous.
It’s a staggering achievement. Wenger has taken a system popularised by the watertight defences of Chelsea and Tottenham, and made it truly his own (ie. a mess). This is the complete Arsene Wenger guide to how to transform the 3-4-3 into a dangerously front-footed formation:
1. Wherever possible, avoid using actual centre-halves
The basic principle of the 3-4-3 system is that it enables you to have three central defenders on the pitch at any one time. In its most rudimentary form, football is a numbers game, and this set-up ought to offer Arsenal the added security of an extra centre-half to counter the opposition attack.
Wenger has plenty of centre-halves at his disposal too. Although Laurent Koscielny has been out suspended, against Stoke he had the likes of Per Mertesacker, Rob Holding and Calum Chambers available for selection.
However, the Arsenal boss is too sophisticated to simply put actual centre-backs at centre-back. That’s just what the opposition would expect! Instead, Wenger put left-backs Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac in alongside Shkodran Mustafi.
Club captain Mertesacker, the hero of Arsenal’s defensive performance in the May’s cup final, was left on the bench, while Holding and Chambers didn’t even make the match-day squad. The result? An Arsenal defence lacking in positional sense and organisational ability. Textbook.
2. On no account use a defensive midfielder
Most teams who pick three central defenders will shield them with a defensive midfielder. With the wing-backs bombing on, it makes sense to provide some cover by putting a destroyer in front of the back three—especially away from home. The likes of Nemanja Matic and Victor Wanyama performed that role to perfection last season.
The catch is that Wenger would hate to be accused of copying Chelsea or Tottenham’s path to success. With that in mind, he’s decided to play this formation without any natural defensive player in his midfield.
Remember when Wenger switched to a back 3, went on a small run at the end of the season and AKBs said we'd be title contenders? 😂
— ThatGuy-Norm (@Goonertren) August 21, 2017
Arsenal’s first choice midfield pairing sees Granit Xhaka alongside Aaron Ramsey. Although Xhaka operates as the deeper of the two, he is neither a particularly good tackler nor quick enough to keep pace with runners from midfield.
Against Stoke, he conceded possession before charging up the field in pursuit of the ball, leaving the defence hugely exposed. As for Ramsey, he is probably the only central midfield player in the Premier League who appears to be granted a ‘free role’. Allowing Ramsey to operate as a ‘false 8’ leaves Arsenal light in the middle of the park.
3. Playing wing-backs in their proper position is so 2016
The wing-backs are a vital component of any system with three at the back. They’re a crucial attacking outlet and the main hope of getting in behind the opposition defence.
In theory, Arsenal have a terrific selection of wing-backs. Kolasinac’s performances in that position earned him a spot in the Bundesliga team of the year, while on the right-hand side there is genuine competition between Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
So far this season, Wenger has confounded expectations by somehow managing to complicate this extremely simple situation.
Kolasinac is yet to play a game at wing-back, having been used as a centre-half in all his competitive appearances to date. Instead, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin have been asked to play out of his position on the left flank.
This is arguably Wenger’s most audacious achievement. It should be straightforward to pick one of Monreal or Kolasinac on the left, and one of The Ox or Bellerin on the right. Somehow, he is still managing to force square pegs into round holes.
All in all, it’s a radical new interpretation of the system. You have to admire Wenger’s commitment to chaos. He’s taken one of the most solid systems in the game and managed to make it vulnerable. It’ll be fascinating to find out what his tactical tweak is. Perhaps next week he’ll introduce a rush goalkeeper, or play Danny Welbeck as a sweeper. We await his next move with interest.