They haven’t lost a match in nearly four months, and today, they sit fourth in the Premier League and first in their Europa group. Nonetheless, while Unai Emery has had a successful start to life in England, tactical issues continue to pervade the Gunners. From an inability to start games off on the front foot, to switching off defensively at crucial moments in the game (nobody in the top five has conceded more goals), Arsenal must correct these flaws if they are to clinch Champions League football.
Nonetheless, a streak is a streak, and what has defined this 18-game unbeaten streak has been a certain mesh of flexibility and a pseudo-steeliness not seen since the previous decade, before the last few years of Arsène Wenger’s era. It is no coincidence that the emergence of Lucas Torreira as vigilant watchdog for an otherwise erratic defense is reaping rewards, and as much as Arsenal have been labeled as flat track bullies, you can only beat what’s in front of you. Apart from the games against Crystal Palace and Wolves, Arsenal haven’t dropped points against a single mid-table side. By this time last year, they had already lost to Stoke City and Watford (and were about to draw to Southampton and West Ham).
Arsenal have mainly lined up in a 4-2-3-1 this season, with other formations like 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 being used sparingly. Against Qarabağ on October 4, the Gunners went with a 3-man backline for the first time in the season, with Nacho Monreal, Sokratis and Rob Holding in defense, Sead Kolašinac and Stephan Lichtsteiner combining on the wings with Alex Iwobi and Emile Smith Rowe, and with Mattéo Guendouzi and Mohamed Elneny working as a midfield pivot. However, the 3-4-3 experiment only lasted 45 minutes. By the time halftime had come, Emery had seen enough of Qarabağ finding space in behind Kolašinac and Monreal, and switched it back to a 4-2-3-1.
It would not be for nearly two months that Emery would test the 3-man backline again. On November 25, against the surprise package of the Premier League season, Arsenal went with the 3-4-3 at Bournemouth’s Dean Court. This time, Arsenal had its first choice line-up rather than rotational squad players, with the exception of Mesut Özil and Alexandre Lacazette.
Emery changed his gameplan to counteract against Eddie Howe’s tactics, aiming to shut down their wing-based play. Arsenal were more vulnerable at the back, and failed to convert high-quality chances. However, Emery’s tactical switch saw Arsenal dominate the wings, which was his intended goal. Kolašinac and Iwobi combined well, with Iwobi tucking in and the Bosnian wingback offering support and crosses from the left wing. On either side, the attacking midfielder would receive between the lines, and tuck in by making a diagonal run, while the wingback would have the freedom to make a vertical run in behind the Bournemouth fullback.
Nonetheless, Arsenal found themselves vulnerable to Bournemouth counters, unable to transition quickly enough defensively. Bournemouth’s attack found acres of space behind the 3-man backline, but the performances of Sokratis and Lucas Torreira added enough protection for them to see out a victory. In addition, Arsenal’s aggressive pressing from both its wingbacks saw Bournemouth fail to progress play from the wings, and in midfield, they failed to create anything of substance.
Arsenal’s summer business has been lauded and rightly so; Bernd Leno, Torreira and Sokratis have broke into the starting line-up, while Mattéo Guendouzi and Stephan Lichtsteiner have been reliable rotational players. However, without a marquee signing at the front end of the pitch, the bulk of the creative workload remains on Mesut Özil’s shoulders. Özil has been shunted out wide at times to bring that certain spark required, but he doesn’t have the quickness to beat fullbacks down the wing. Arsenal do not have a single winger in their squad, and this has hindered their progress under Emery.
Moving to a 3-man backline, however, can mask, if not solve their lack of a true wide man, at least until January, where Arsenal can then loosen their pursestrings again. Whether it be a 3-4-3, a 3-5-2, or a 3-4-1-2 with Özil moving centrally, these experiments have the potential to become the first-choice system, rather than a mere test. Apart from unleashing Bellerín and Kolašinac’s attacking potential, this system allows for improved balance in midfield. One can also draw comparisons between the title-winning partnership of Kanté-Drinkwater and Torreira-Xhaka, the relentless ball-winner and the pass-happy holding midfielder.
It is vital that the wingbacks adapt to the physical demands as well; when defending, they need to drop into a 5-man backline and protect the wings, but when attacking, they must shift up to a 4-man midfield, offering penetration on the wings. Given the fact that Arsenal’s backup fullbacks, Lichtsteiner and Nacho Monreal, are aging, slow, and less apt at providing this energy and dynamism, Arsenal must dip into the market for new fullbacks, especially with both of its backups set to leave at the end of the season unless the club offers them new deals.
At the moment, Arsenal only have three fit center backs, with Laurent Koscielny still recovering from injury. They could shoehorn Monreal in at defense, but apart from him, they don’t have any backup options should one center back get sidelined with an injury. In addition, neither Sokratis, nor Rob Holding, nor Shkodran Mustafi are skilled at defending wide areas vacated by the wingbacks. Thus, apart from just offering much-needed depth, Arsenal must ensure their next defender purchase is capable of acting as an outside center-back, a la César Azpilicueta or Jan Vertonghen.
While Emery has opted for a 3-4-3 during these experiments, a 3-4-1-2 would allow both Aubameyang and Lacazette to play centrally, with Özil remaining in his preferred #10 role, without having to be shunted wide, and with the ability to feed forwards into space. In addition, with the wingbacks playing further forward, they would be forced to defend less space behind them as they would in a 4-man backline, and this is a crucial advantage for Kolašinac. While the Bosnian found success as a wingback at Schalke, he has struggled to adapt to the Premier League while playing in a back four. Playing him as a wingback would paint over these defensive shortcomings and get the most out of his style of play.
Arsenal may still have some issues defending transitions, but that can be sorted out with training and time. The 3-4-3 gives Arsenal more options going forward and more cover at the back. Until they sign a true winger, the 3-4-3 should remain, and as we saw against Tottenham and Manchester United, Emery is certainly in agreement.
Thus, it was unsurprising to see Emery stick to the pseudo-retro 3-4-3 going into this Spurs game. The Spaniard chose this formation to prevent Bournemouth’s 4-5-1, and after succeeding, he believed it could also stop Spurs’ 4-1-2-1-2. The game started with the Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi pressing high up the pitch and forcing Hugo Lloris to play long, and with essentially four midfielders spread across the pitch and three center backs back to cover, winning the ball in the air was one of Arsenal’s easier tasks on the day. They began to open up Spurs’ defense, and if Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were a bit more efficient, Arsenal could have been clear at early on. Nonetheless, they went up 1-0 early with Aubameyang converting his penalty kick.
Pressing in a 5-2-3 shape, Arsenal stifled Spurs’ deep buildup, with the inside forwards closely marking the center backs, Aubameyang pressing Eric Dier, and the wingbacks pushing up onto Ben Davies and Serge Aurier. In midfield, Xhaka and Torreira sat back to cover space, only occasionally pressing to knock Christian Eriksen or Moussa Sissoko off the ball.
The wingbacks started affecting the game right from the get go, as most play switches weren’t to Iwobi or Mkhitaryan, but to Bellerín and Kolašinac. This was evidenced by Xhaka’s quick freekick in the 17th minute to Kolašinac, wide open in the final third, which then degenerated into a chance of a pull back for Iwobi, who failed to beat Hugo Lloris with his effort. Right the next minute, Kolašinac once again found himself in an advanced position on the left to cross to Bellerín . The 3-4-3 was in full swing both for the press and to counter attack.
With traditional wingers, there’s always the tendency to do too much and sometimes, the attack is overcooked by selfish wing play. However, these wingbacks, who essentially double as full backs in defense, don’t have as much responsibility or license to create on the ball; instead, they are considered as pressure release outlets. As evidenced by Kolašinac’s last ditch clearance from Eriksen early on in the game, this this position requires a high level of energy and intelligence, both in defending and attacking. Throughout the first half, the wingbacks were Arsenal’s primary outlets of creativity, finding space in behind Spurs’ high line.
Arsenal stifled Spurs’ build-up, outnumbered Spurs on the counter, and still recovered in time to prevent Spurs from carving out any clear-cut opportunities. It was clear that, with more training, Arsenal weren’t making the same mistakes they did against Bournemouth; when the wingback was caught too high out of possession, one of the wide center-backs (Mustafi or Holding) would push up to intercept and prevent the ball-carrier from dribbling forward.
And yet, despite being outplayed throughout the first half, Spurs went into halftime ahead. Arsenal eased off in pressure, allowing Spurs more time and space as their fatigued players failed to press them. Tottenham ended the half on the front foot, targeting Arsenal’s shorter players aerially, while also getting the better of them in the press. Nonetheless, Arsenal should have ended the half tied up, with Aubameyang missing a golden chance before halftime.
Having trailed 1-2 at the break, Emery went full retro, opting for the traditional 3-5-2, which in attack devolves to the 3-4-1-2. With Ramsey and Lacazette coming on for the bland and tedious duo of Mkhitaryan and Iwobi, Emery was playing his hand early and it was a symbol of clear intent. Ramsey slotted into the principal creative role behind the two center forwards, with Lacazette given the license to drift wide. With the 3-5-2, Arsenal matched or outnumbered their counterparts in every area of the pitch. Upfront it was 5 vs 4, in the middle it was almost a 3 vs 1, and in defense 5 vs 5.
As the creative fulcrum, Ramsey manifested his influence in the 51st minute after a brief spell of pressure and adjustment. With both Spurs center backs focusing on the strikers, with Lacazette dragging Vertonghen both deep into midfield and wide right, Ramsey had plenty of space to execute his pinpoint runs. Spurs were defending better, but their 4-4-2 diamond hurt them both going forward and defending; allowing Arsenal to win the battle through the wings. Both wingbacks had plenty of time and space to pick out through balls, and this led to Arsenal’s eventual equalizer.
With Lacazette dragging Foyth and Vertonghen wide, Bellerín played a gorgeous ball into Ramsey, who was unmarked, splitting the defense with his run. Ramsey tapped it in for Aubameyang, who careened his shot into the net. 2-2.
Mauricio Pochettino had to do something. Eric Dier was drafted into an incognito center back role, yet joined the midfield when Spurs were in possession. This created even more space for Torreira, and while Spurs dropped off in pressure, aiming to grind out a draw, Arsenal continued to dominate the midfield battle, aiming for all three points.
With Mustafi’s injury, Arsenal were forced to change set up for the third time in the game. Arsenal brought on Guendouzi and switched to a diamond 4-1-2-1-2 with Xhaka at the midfield base. Once again, it was Ramsey who created the third Arsenal goal as he pinched the ball off the inexperienced Foyth to play Lacazette in, who fired home Arsenal’s third.
Pochettino made a few changes, bringing on Lucas Moura and Harry Winks, but it was of little consequence. Fast-forward a few minutes and the diamond 4-4-2 which had pushed Torreira even more forward in midfield saw him drive past Dier and the makeshift back three and smash in the fourth. One thing, among others, was clear from that day: Emery out-coached Pochettino.
Against Manchester United, Emery continued the formation, only this time, with Guendouzi in for the suspended Xhaka, and Ramsey in for Mkhitaryan. United’s aggressive press stifled Arsenal’s build-up early on, but eventually, they began to play out of the press successfully, mainly finding success on the left side. With Iwobi and Ramsey dropping down into the half-spaces, Arsenal began to create overloads and beat United’s press, which eventually dropped off in intensity.
Kolašinac consistently tormented Diogo Dalot, who was making his full PL debut, finding space between Bailly and Dalot. This was partly due to the fact that Ander Herrera’s pressing left plenty of space for the Bosnian to run into. He consistently threatened United’s defense, but due to the fact that Aubameyang was always caught surrounded in a sea of United center backs, he didn’t have plenty to work with.
This would change early on in the second half, with Lacazette coming on for Iwobi, and this time, with Aubameyang moving to the wide striker position. Aubameyang would focus his runs on dragging Dalot inwards, allowing more space for Kolašinac to run into. With Mkhitaryan on as well, this was a far more attacking line-up from Arsenal. Arsenal carved out plenty of opportunities, only to be denied by De Gea, who recovered after his early mistake.
After his man-of-the-match performance against Spurs, Mourinho sought to shut down Torreira’s influence by positioning Lingard behind Rashford and Martial, and closely mark the Uruguayan. Lingard often received in behind Torreira, but Arsenal had even greater success playing between the lines, exposing United’s decreasing pressure and disjointed midfield press.
With Rob Holding’s season now looking in jeopardy, there is a chance that Emery may revert back to his 4-2-3-1, or, play Monreal in the left-sided CB role, and pushing Mustafi to RCB. Whatever the case, while Arsenal are in need of reinforcements in January, it’s clear as day that this 3-4-3 could be a viable short-term and long-term solution for Unai Emery’s Gunners.
By: Adagunodo Olumuyiwa
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images