To three or not to three

Some months ago, prior to the IPO, I decided to try the Snapchat app once. I wanted to understand what the hype was all about and why is it that it seemed to reverberate so much with the kids of today. I stuck around with it helplessly and with the first cat filter photograph that I saw, it became a question of when, and not if, I would exit this social network. This long drawn muse personifies Arsene and his three at the back experimentation in my mind. The back three has some structural requirements which make me question Arsene sticking with this formation in the long term.

Firstly, the 3-4-2-1/ 3-4-3 system predicates a directness of approach due to the relative heaviness of the top and bottom in the formation. Defensively, our 3-4-2-1 drops into a 5-2-2-1, while on attack, it feels more like a 3-1-4-2. These imply that the emphasis on defense and attack lie significantly on wide spaces, as against the center. The central midfielders and defenders are largely expected to hold shape. If you look at Conte’s successful teams in Juventus, Italy and Chelsea, the central midfield predominantly holds shape and empowers the three forwards to run the attack. Prior to this season, I seldom remember an Arsenal central midfield which was not the playmaking hub for the team. The current formation recognizes our weakness in central midfield to create chances and carry the ball into the final third. However, the best Wenger teams playing Wengerball have the central midfield running the show, be it a powerhouse like Vieira or a pass-and-move playmaker like Fabregas. The crucial playmaking areas in our current formation lie in the space between the half- forwards and their respective wing backs. We should expect more crosses and direct long passes for the forwards to run onto in our play in the coming weeks.

Another important aspect of this formation is the equally distributed presence of players across the pitch. There are no concentrated shapes in the formation which lie closer than the rest. For instance, a 4-2-3-1/ 4-3-3 is built around the close triangle in the central midfield. Such a formation allows for a tiki-taka pass and move style through the closely knit players. On the other hand, a formation which is vertically well distributed like 3-4-3 encourages a direct style of football. The goals scored against Manchester City and United especially emphasize this.

To add to all this, it is important that Arsene calls this formation change as a “mind trick”. It feels as if Arsene had instructed the wide-backs in our four defender formation to stay on an alternating basis to provide additional solidity during our current fragile form. This would have created a natural presence of three players at the back to provide cover while holding onto the four defender formation. However, seeing the lack of discipline, Wenger decided to take the choice out of the players’ minds. By playing a back three, he ends up having three defenders at any time. However, when you call it a mind trick, it also means he will undo it once he feels that there is enough natural confidence for the team to control the game.

In short, the back three addresses our current weaknesses in a pragmatic manner, and as a compromise, diminishes Wengerball. When Arsene feels his team is ready to play the football that he loves, he will go back to our default formation. It was not a surprise Arsene going to 4 at the back when we were chasing a goal against Leicester. The three at the back formation is a pragmatic verse in the French poet’s works and will go back to dreaming at the first available opportunity.

Vikas V (@ArsenalView_)

One Response to “To three or not to three

  • Alo Chatterjee
    5 months ago

    It may well have started as a mind trick but I doubt he will change a system if it is working. Not until, as you point out, the underlying problems (lack of personnel to play wengerball and defensive discipline) are sorted out. He is a dreamer, but even he will not expect problems to magically solve themselves.

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