For most football clubs, whole seasons are often described as roller coaster affairs. It is seldom feasible to expect any team to maintain maximum levels of performance throughout a season that could run up to over 60 matches for those that compete in Europe. Even the very best clubs throughout history have experienced difficulties trying to keep their form bang on point for the entire season, as in Arsenal’s famous “Invincibles” season, one that included a fair few draws that held the team off the top spot of the Premier League for large swathes of the early season, even as they refused to lose a match.
With that said, very few teams in history can match the distinct trajectory of Arsenal during the 2016/17 campaign. After capitulating to Liverpool in their opening match and slogging through a goalless draw against an uninspired Leicester City side on a championship hangover, the Gunners went on a tear, destroying hapless teams like Hull City in the process, as well as thoroughly outclassing eventual League Champions, Chelsea during their scorching run of form.
But alas, as is often the way with Arsenal, a November injury to Santi Cazorla, originally only thought to be a knock, with him expected back for the next match, and a slight dip in confidence led to a catastrophic falling off the pace. Throughout the winter, with embarrassing slips ups coming in December, January and February, Arsenal looked a totally different side: uninspired and one dimensional in attack and utterly shambolic on defence, and somehow even worse when defending the counter attack. The look of utter pain and disbelief in Arsene Wenger’s face was palpable for his sympathisers and uber-octane racing fuel for those fans of the belief that the Frenchman was passed it. Arsenal, whose fan base had been growing increasingly impatient at the familiar patterns of failure, was well and truly falling into Civil War.
It was at this point that Arsene Wenger, a man who had developed a reputation for stubbornly non-reactive tactics and a penchant for beautiful but soft and ultimately, failing football, decided to shed this image from his second Arsenal decade, and return to his first: that of a student of the game and innovator. As many fans are aware, Arsene Wenger switched to a new, more stable defensive system, that in its most summarily basic form is a 3-4-3 (much, MUCH more to come on what this system actually entails in Part 2). After a bit of an adjustment period, the results started to improve with each passing match, eventually culminating in a hugely impressive and emotional FA Cup victory, the last two matches coming against giants Manchester City and Chelsea. It was a season of two dizzying peaks and one devastating trough, nearly forcing Arsene Wenger to walk away at the end of his contract.
Depending on their age, football fans in Europe and further afield have seen 3 and 5 man defensive back lines in their infancy, later followed by a brief rise to prominence, buoyed by some of the games most legendary players enjoying a specific role in the formation. After a new, more vertical school of a back three setup was born in Argentina, the fad began to fade, with elements only remaining in isolated pockets and in the tactical chess matches of many a Serie A match in Italy.
It all started (at least in the modern game, as Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman’s famously innovative “W-M” technically had a back three but bore little resemblance to the free-flowing tactics of today) with die Mannschaft, the German national team of the 1970’s and legendary sweeper, Frank Beckenbauer, who experienced near limitless freedom to start attacks and control a match from his unique role. On a club level, a 3-4-3 with a diamond shaped midfield was part of the great Johan Cruyff’s Ajax sides and “total football” philosophy in the Netherlands, whose lineage is directly visible through the histories of Barcelona and even the present day Ajax and their high-paced 4-3-3 derivative. It would find its way into the tactics of Dutch manager Rinus Michaels, with Ronald Koeman this time as the star sweeper of a successful international side, winning Europe in 1988.
In the mid-80’s, both with Carlos Bilardo’s 1986 World Cup winning Argentina side, and the mercurial Marcelo Bielsa leading Newell’s Young Boys at club, a new, more vertically aggressive, three at the back system started to be seen. Bielsa in particular would repurpose this Central European idea into a jail breaking, frantic high-press system. Unlike its European counterparts with its rigid defensive tactics and possession-based interpretation, Bielsa would choose instead to dominate the space on the pitch , sacrificing time on the ball for lethal counter attacks, with individual skill and improvisation also playing an important role (an element that should prick the ears of Arsene Wenger fans).
Bielsa, similar to Pep Guardiola, has maintained his reputation for frantic, passionate and uncompromised hard work and marked improvements to his team, followed by near complete burnout and a corresponding sabbatical and inevitable change of scenery. Like modern, all-action managers like Guardiola and Juergen Klopp, mental and physical exhaustion is a very real issue for players and coaches alike, but their clubs often achieve new heights in the process. Because of his manic style, Bielsa has never achieved the global success that a man of his unique talents perhaps deserved, but his legacy will live on tenfold through the managers that he influenced, including the aforementioned current Premier League bosses, as well as Andre Villas-Boas, Mauricio Pochettino (a former pupil of the legendary coach as well as a manager of similar philosophies), and even Arsenal’s resident polarizing figure, Arsene Wenger.
In Italy, perhaps most famously at the club level in the 1990’s, a hyper-organized and tactically advanced form of the system was popping up. The Italian game has long been known for its unique pacing and tactical nous, but at the time, it offered a particular contrast to the way the game was played in England. It is here where we start to see the true dual function wide midfielder or wingback start to come to prominence, with these players sometimes moving into the back line and functioning essentially as a back 5 when defending, but still covering many of the responsibilities of a wide midfielder when in possession. It is here that current Chelsea boss, Antonio Conte would cut his teeth as a player, as well as absorb some of the tactical concepts that would go on to inform his current 3-4-3.
Throughout the 80’s, in England and elsewhere in Europe, when teams would usually play two strikers, either in a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, the extra man at the back created essentially a 2v3 for teams on attack, and it wasn’t until the new millennium when single striker formations would render such systems obsolete, opting instead to create a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch, where the outcome of many international and club level matches were dictated by control of the midfield. This was clearly represented by Jose Mourinho’s total take over of England with his 4-3-3 midfield commanding matches against the traditional two man box to box pairings common in Britain at the time. In fact, it was a desire to match and nullify the advantages of a traditional 4-3-3 that lead to the last great tactical proliferation: the 4-2-3-1. In its most common form, the 4-2-3-1 essentially designates two holding midfielders to mark and close down the two, more advanced creators of a midfield triangle. This allowed the rest of the players on the pitch to essentially man mark opposing players in corresponding areas.
From 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1: A Tactical Stalemate Leads to Fresh Ideas
In truth, it is not hard to see why so many teams in the Premier League began to favor a 4-5-1 in some form, but specifically the 4-2-3-1. The formation itself is incredibly versatile, even allowing teams to modify each position and role depending on personnel. For instance, a team can chose to deploy their wide midfielders as true wingers, inside-out/outside-in wide forwards, or as part of an interchangeable and creative trio of playmakers in behind the striker. The central midfield pairing could be that of two box to box threats, two traditional holding players, or on stopper and one more forward thinking partner, and up top could reside either a pacey striker on the back shoulder of the defenders, or even a target man, allowing the attacking midfielders to make runs in beyond the striker. All of this, and many more indivualistic variations can be performed with very little change to the shape of the team, but with tremendous variety in width.
Arsene Wenger, it must be said, pre-dated this trend with some of his tactical wrinkles in Arsenal’s otherwise traditional English 4-4-2 in the mid to late 1990’s. with Dennis Bergkamp a creative force in as many ways as he is a goal threat, Arsenal essentially used him as a hybrid support striker/target man/number 10, in which he would drop off into the midfield or occupy a central defender while Thierry Henry would drift wide to the left, creating a favorable angle for a long through ball to spring him in on goal. The two wide midfielders, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg played their positions far more as they are done today than as traditional wingers. Both played with their dominant foot on the inside, creating favorable shooting angles when cutting toward the box.
So as the league transitioned into a more continental approach to tactics, Weger had very few adjustments to make indeed. Aside from the fullbacks having even more license to go forward, much about Arsenal’s title winning squad in 2004 held true, tactically speaking, a decade later. What changed instead for Wenger was the type of player that he favored for those roles, financial restrictions forcing the Frenchman to focus on a particular style of play. But just as Barcelona and Spain were rewriting the book on possession based football, a model that clearly appealed to Wenger, the 4-2-3-1’s widespread adoption helped to nullify to traditional focal point of attack and Arsene Wenger’s favorite position: the Number 10 creator.
With 2 holding midfielders, the formation is perfectly suited to matching a team playing with a number 10, because both players can either switch off or combine to limit the space a playmaker gets on the ball. This was even noticeable when the world class Mesut Ozil first joined the club, with Wenger choosing to protect his slender creator by keeper my him out of the middle, a punishing place to be in the Premier League. As Ozil adjusted to the strength of the English game, he was able to move back to his favored role, but too often teams that had strong holding players were able to nullify the German’s threatening contributions. Arsenal, as a result, suffered in matches where the opponent was able to keep their defenders compact and compete organized, often lacking a plan B when the intricate passing combinations failed.
2016: A Stab at Diversity
Heading into last season, Arsene Wenger clearly recognized the need to offer up more attacking variety, as well as tighten up a very leaky defence. In response, Wenger pushed Mesut Ozil further forward, into a true support striker role to Alexis Sanchez, who would lead the line from the middle consistently through the autumn into the winter. Coming off a year in which the German potted a near record 19 assists, Wenger wanted to see more of a goal threat from Ozil last season. His pushing further on allowed the remaining 8 outfield players to drop back into two banks of four in defense, with little switching necessary, and the two talismanic attackers poised and waiting for the counter attack.
Counter attacking football, once such an enormous part of Arsenal’s devestating attacking repertoire, was almost phased out completely as the team trended toward smaller, more quick than fast players all over the pitch. It was hard to ask an undersized and skillful team to defend in a compact, organized way, but with last summer’s signing of Granit Xhaka, a long ball specialist and midfield enforcer, and the previously mentioned tactical shift, it was clear the counter attacking was back on the menu at the Emirates.
For a time, it worked. After a sluggish opening two games sent many fans into a panic, the team figured it out and hit their stride, with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez looking to be the two best creative forces in England. A total massacre of eventual champions, Chelsea followed, and Arsenal looked like a real title contender.
As previously mentioned, a second consecutive major injury to Santi Cazorla and a major crisis of confidence coinciding with a rather serious illness striking players down throughout the Holiday season left Arsenal reeling, unable to hit their stride again until Spring. As the team wavered in belief, everyone became over reliant on individual moments of brilliance from Alexis Sanchez, and after recovering from illness, it would be a while yet before Ozil would contribute in a meaningful way.
What had happened, born out of the initial success of some brilliant goals on the counter, particularly against Chelsea, was that Arsenal became, once again, far too one dimensional. Though Olivier Giroud was healthy again and already scoring goals at a heroic rate per 90 minutes played, Wenger was hesitant to move Sanchez away from his central role that he had taken too so well in case he might ruin the one positive the club had going for it at the time. But other teams had figured the Gunners out. Whether it a demoralizing quick strike off of a counter, in which Arsenal had committed nearly the entire team forward and left their centre halves in a bind in the process, or whether it was through the patient breakdown of an erratic and disjointed Arsenal defence, the goal leaking continued.
It soon became apparent that a change was needed. Even more than that, a radical change was probably needed: nothing seemed to be working. But elsewhere, both in England and throughout Europe, there was something else, not exactly new, and certainly increasingly common in the Premier League, but it was working. Wenger needed more defensive stability without sacrificing his attacking options, and if he could inject some fresh life into that same attack in the process, then all the better. So it was at this time, in April of 2017, that Arsene Wenger would decide to do something many fans had started to believe him no longer capable of doing.
He was going to totally change the way one of his teams lined up for the first time in over twenty years. Arsene was going to trot out a team with three at the back. “The Stubborn One” was going to take a chance.