Thank you, Arsenal, for giving me something new and interesting to write about. Not just because they managed to win a game of football, but because they tried something very different to put things right.
The Teams
Cech; Gabriel, Koscielny, Holding; Chamberlain, Xhaka, Ramsey, Monreal; Ozil, Alexis; Giroud
Subs: Martinez, Gibbs, Bellerin, Elneny, Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott
Guzan; Barragan, Ayala, Gibson, Fabio; Leadbitter, Clayton, de Roon; Downing, Negredo, Ramirez
Subs: Konstantopoulos, Bernardo, Friend, Forshaw, Traore, Bamford, Gestede
Arsenal join the 3-at-the-back club
There was a unanimous surprise when the Arsenal Twitter account revealed the evening’s team lining-up was not the traditional 4-2-3-1, but a 3-4-3. The first time since 1997, according to the ever-eager stats gurus at Sky.
The back three has been en vogue this season. Chelsea’s dramatic change of form post-switch to a 3-4-3 has a sparked a trend where over half the teams in the league have, at some point this season, used the formation. Arsenal were one of the few to buck the trend by sticking to a back four. In this game, however, Wenger saw the need for something different.
His reasoning was twofold. Before the game, he highlighted Arsenal’s recent struggles against aerial balls and set-pieces and cited the extra security of an additional centre back as the main reason for the change. One of Arsenal’s centre-backs were able to step-up and contest and aerial ball knowing there would be sufficient cover to deal with any flick-ons. After the game, Wenger said the change was necessary to combat the team’s damaged confidence. The sheer novelty of the formation roused the team’s interest and, maybe, made them more enthusiastic to play.
Whatever his reasons, it was clear that Wenger was desperate for things to improve, and desperation can make even the most stubborn of men do crazy things.
Frailties still on display
It’s difficult to assess how well, or how poorly, the team performed in this new shape given how their play was hindered by a lack of confidence. Even with an extra defender, Arsenal were anxious in defence and made a number of errors that a better team may have punished. With the ball, Arsenal were hesitant, often taking an extra touch or second to move the ball and producing few dangerous combinations. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was their most threatening player, as he arrived late onto the ball from his wing-back position and found the space to whip in dangerous crosses.
Arsenal’s attack improved in the second half as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez combined more on the left-hand side. Though they weren’t making many chances, they were able to prise open Boro’s defence and create a vital winning goal.
A vulnerability on set-pieces was still present, and Boro will be kicking themselves over their failure to take advantage of it. This, again, seems to be down to confidence. A team that’s become accustomed to conceding had clear nerves whenever the ball came into the box.
Not a great performance, but huge win
So all-in-all, it wasn’t a convincing performance but it was enough for Arsenal to get a huge win. It keeps their fading top four hopes alive for another week and ensures they’ll go into Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City in much better mood.
The big question now is whether Arsenal will continue using a back three, or whether they’ll revert to the more familiar back four for the big games to come. Wenger was ambiguous about it, and to use it against the likes of City and Spurs would be a very brave thing to do.