Finding balance in the Arsenal midfield

After last disappointment at Anfield and the end of transfer window, spirit is at its lowest in Arsenal. It’s even more dramatic with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s departure and Alexis Sanchez rumours.

However, there is still hope: after the surprising tactical change of Arsene Wenger with the transition from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1 at the end of last season, Arsene Wenger could find the way to keep Arsenal at the top.

I see the anti-Wenger brigade coming, saying that he is no longer at the level, that he is too old, that he is surpassed, etc…. What Arsene Wenger tries actually is to do what Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool (and Manchester United now) have managed to do by changing their tactics, thanks to money to bring new managers and players despite losing their identity as an English club.

Arsenal is the only club that has succeeded to keep a certain financial balance while also keeping the same game identity; maybe the only team that succeeds to do the same is arch-rivals Tottenham, but mostly thanks to Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival.

The common point between all these teams is their game plan, based on three centre-backs. Here we are going to see how Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino evolved the game of their team thanks to the switch to three in defence and tactical alternatives and how Arsenal could do as well in a short time.

Chelsea mastering the 3-4-3

Firstly, let’s look at Chelsea. This is the first team that changed its tactical system to move to three center-backs in defense, thanks to Antonio Conte. The Italian coach won the title afterward and many other clubs have adapted by changing their systems too.

The keys for Chelsea, and generally for a team that plays with three center-backs, are players on the wing. With Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, Antonio Conte has the perfect players for these positions. But the real added value in Chelsea’s lineup is its midfield: Cesc Fabregas partnered with Ngolo Kante (or Nemanja Matic last season) is the perfect combination.

When Chelsea get back the ball, the two midfielders stay in the middle to keep control of the field and then distribute the ball. This control allows them to keep the balance in the team and let the wingbacks go ahead to overload the opponent.

It’s, even more, a good tactic with Cesc Fabregas playing a bit like an Andrea Pirlo in Juventus as a “regista”, asking for the ball from the centre-backs and then passing out the ball to the attack. When the ball is loose, N’Golo Kante is in charge to gather the ball as quick as possible thanks to his quality to press and tackle, always in movement.

Here are some video clips to illustrate Chelsea tactic when they recover the ball. Note wingbacks movements while defense and midfield take care of the ball.

Tottenham flexible formation

Spurs follow the fashion of 3 center-backs based tactic but with some flexibility. In fact, Tottenham tactic looks more like a 4-2-3-1 than a 3-4-2-1. The strength of Mauricio Pochettino’s tactic is its flexibility :

Like he did in Southampton with Victor Wanyama, Mauricio Pochettino uses a strong central midfielder as a centre-back, letting the wingback go forward. In Tottenham, this role is alternatively played by Eric Dier or Victor Wanyama, depending on the opponent.

This flexibility allowed the team to play with four real defenders when it doesn’t have the ball, and overload opponent in attack thanks to wingbacks holding extreme width, letting offensive players like Dele Alli, Heung-min Son or Christian Eriksen to do their work in the heart of the game. It’s even more clear with the transfer of Serge Aurier from PSG, who is the perfect player to play on the wing.

How Arsenal is close to these tactics

If you compare Arsenal team with the two above, you see that the team has already players to play in 3-4-2-1 (maybe with a lower level in defense).

But what actually lack in Arsene Wenger team is a good balance in the midfield. Actually, it’s composed by Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, but this combination is not solid enough to play in this kind of scheme. In fact, Granit Xhaka is alone in the midfield and when teams like Liverpool exert pressure he can’t find a good solution to escape from it.

Looking at the position of midfielders against Liverpool shows that it’s not in this way that Arsenal will succeed in mastering the 3 centre-backs formation. Although Aaron Ramsey is a good offensive player, he is still a little lost in this midfield and not patient enough , going too quickly in attack and hasn’t got the spirit of a defender (look at the first goal against Liverpool) :

Arsene Wenger wanted to keep a very technical and offensive midfield, but like Chelsea or Tottenham, Arsenal need a strong midfielder to play in a 3 based defenders plan.

To balance the midfield, the easiest solution would be to replace Aaron Ramsey with Francis Coquelin. Arsenal will certainly lose in skills but with Coquelin they would find a balance, a little bit like two seasons ago with the Frenchman staying back during attacks.

The riskier option would be to put Jack Wilshere instead of Aaron Ramsey, while the Englishman already said that he would like to play lower on the field plus he is quite aggressive in the recovery.

As we saw with Tottenham, the solution would also be to go back to a classic 4-2-3-1 plan and let the wingbacks go forward while a strong midfield (Francis Coquelin) stays to cover the defensive area. This last solution would be the best because it sticks perfectly to the Arsenal style. It lets free Alexis Sanchez, with Granit Xhaka as a deep playmaker and Mesut Ozil in his preferred “10 position”.

Arsenal are not too far off achieving this tactical change, even more that the team has already the right players. This change already proves its value while it allows to achieve a good end of season for Gunners. Adding some balance in the midfield should solve actual Arsenal problems, at least on the field.

About the Author

Benoit Pimpaud

Writer for Arsenal Insider and sometimes for By Far The Greatest Team, Ben loves tactics and catches details into the data. As a student in Data-Science, his background allow him to create its own visualizations to make things as simple as possible.