In unveiling Arsenal’s new 3-4-3 formation on Monday, Arsene Wenger accomplished two things. The first was most importantly that Arsenal earned three points and kept their nascent top four hopes alive. The second was to show that their manager is strategically woke and can adapt to the hot trends in modern soccer. Yet as Arsenal fans plot the mathematical probabilities of how to finish fourth, there are some underlying worries for how the Middlesbrough match progressed.
First, we need to acknowledge that Boro are poor and will rightfully be going down. Even an Arsenal team mired in a slump should have won the match although that was in doubt for a time. I am noting this as a way to point out that the Arsenal 3-4-3 experiment cannot be completely judged by this one match’s result.
What worked well? Arsene found another way to utilize Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The kind-of central mid worked well on the right wing when Arenal had the ball and was an option to cross the ball in for Giroud or Ozil. The English national has good distribution skills but was at times overrun in the midfield, unable to really serve as a holding or effective box-to-box midfielder. On the wing, he was able to show off his strengths although he struggled on defence. When Hector Bellerin comes into form, that spot likely is his.
What worked kind-of well? The back three was ok. Mustafi was no longer a tenable starting option and Rob Holding was the next man in on a back three. They held their own ok but against a better set of forwards they would need to improve their game.
What didn’t work well? Arsenal even in a new formation fell predictably into their old possession based style of play. Too often the ball seemed to start in the back, rotate in the midfield, and move backwards until the wingers were free. Against Boro, this is a fine strategy. But as Arsenal lined up, their formation is easily defensible against a better club. Ramsey is better as an advanced, attacking midfielder and Granit Xhaka struggles as both a distributor in the Premier League and as a holding midfielder. A better club against this 3-4-3 would be smart to spread the field, force the back three to funnel the attack through the middle, and quickly pounce on turnovers to switch the field and cause the shaky backline problems.
And this presents an important next step for Arsenal. Whether you want to blame injuries or overrated players or those and more, Arsenal do not have the players to have a set formation in which can dominate. So Arsenal, like the midtable team they are, need to tweak their formation based on who they are playing, to try and gain tactical advantages. Arsene Wenger in recent years has been reticent to do this, so it will be interesting to see if he continues to drag out a 3-4-3 until it fails or if he tweaks to a 5-4-1 for example depending on the opponent. Essentially, Arsenal need to start acting like Juventus until they can fix what ails them; ironically that may be Juve’s manager.