The right balance between attack and defence is something that has alluded Arsenal for many years. In the last two years, we have heard both Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta publicly address the struggle to find the right balance. We as fans can see the struggle playing out on the field. I have read and heard Arsenal fans likening it to a short blanket which can cover either your feet or your chest but not both at the same time.
That is to say, when we set up to be potent up front we look vulnerable at the back. When we look to shore up the defence we look toothless in attack. In this article, I will take a look at the five up five down approach, now made famous by Guardiola’s City sides, and why the back three is not the answer moving forward.
If we want to be very simplistic, a football team has 10 outfield players. It makes mathematical sense for half of those outfield players to be attacking players and the other half defensive players. Football, however, is not so simple. The devil is in the details. That is to say, how we end up with five up five down makes all the difference.
Among football fans, the five up five down approach has become famous in recent years through the obvious use of it by Guardiola’s City sides. They set out with a 4-3-3 formation in which the two centre-halves sit, the full-backs tuck in either side of a deep central midfielder, and the two creative midfielders join the front three to make up a line of five players on the edge of the opposition 18-yard box, effectively becoming a 2-3-5 in possession. We can all clearly see that they intend to attack with five, with five sitting deeper to solidify midfield and defence.
But Guardiola did not invent this five up five down approach. Indeed, Arsenal used a five up five down approach as far back as the Invincibles run. That Invincibles team would set up with a 4-4-2 in which the wide midfielders together with the front two would make up four attacking players who would then be joined by one of the full-backs or a central midfielder at any given time. When a full-back overlapped, the central midfielder on that side would slide over and sit in the full-back position, the other central midfielder would sit in front of the two centre-halves, and the opposite full-back would tuck in, effectively creating a 2-3-5 in possession.
When the ball was in central areas and neither full-back was overlapping, a central midfielder, usually Patrick Vieira (what a magnificence player he was), would make a run from deep to create jeopardy in the opposition defence, while the fullbacks would sit or tuck in.
The difference between that Invincibles team and the current City side is that City’s system is very rigid – you know who the five in the attacking areas are going to be – while the Invincibles were much more flexible, and any of the full-backs or central midfielders could become the spare man at any given time. I became an Arsenal fan watching those Invincibles so I am partial to seeing that kind of flexibility rather than a rigid attacking system.
But the question for us today is “how did we go from a system that had that kind of balance and flexibility to where we are now?” In my opinion, this balance was seriously toppled when the quality of central midfield deteriorated, specifically with the integration of Granit Xhaka. All cards on the table, I am no Granit Xhaka fan. I do not think he is the sole reason for Arsenal’s decline in recent years, but I do think he is one of, if not the foremost, contributing factors.
In the summer of 2016, Granit Xhaka arrived at Arsenal for somewhere in the region of £30-35 million as a 23-year-old deep midfielder with lots of promise. It was a huge transfer at the time for a position that had been begging to be improved for years. Four years on and I think most Arsenal fans would agree that he is a flawed player. He is a midfield player who likes to sit deep in front of the defence but is not good at defending.
Arsene Wenger struggled to find a solution to the defence being so badly exposed. In my opinion, the right thing to do would have been to drop Xhaka, but Arsene persisted with him. Many have argued Wenger’s persistence with him implies that Wenger believed him to be an excellent player. But Wenger, commenting on Kylian Mbappe in 2017, said, “Nobody will buy a player for a 100 million and say, ‘Come on, sit in the stands.’” In my opinion, this suggests that for Wenger dropping Xhaka so soon after such a massive transfer fee was not an option. He was determined to make his investment work out.
But what could he do? His big money transfer was a deep midfielder. He couldn’t put a midfielder behind him that was more defensive. But he needed to do something to make sure the defence was not so exposed. His answer was the back-three. This allowed him to keep his expensive deep midfielder as the deepest midfielder while plugging a hole in defence.
This move changed the overall balance of the team. The five up in attack became three attacking players and two wing-backs, while the five down became the three centre-halves and two central midfielders. This made the attack heavily reliant on the wing-backs for attacking threat. Nacho Monreal recorded 6 goals in the 2017-18 season, by far his highest goals return in his career. The problem, of course, is that wing-backs are no substitutes for players who are attacking players by trade. Instead of having four players whose main focus and strength was on the attacking side of the game, we only had three joined by two players who developed as defenders now being asked to bomb forward and be as creative as an attack-minded player. The attack could no longer remain as potent as it had been.
Arsenal’s solution for the lack of attacking threat came in the form of Aaron Ramsey, Xhaka’s partner in midfield. He would constantly bomb forward and join the attack. He scored 11 goals that same season. The problem now was that Arsenal played with a six up four down system with Xhaka functioning as the lone midfielder for long stretches of games, and was heavily exposed once again. Arsenal conceded a ridiculous 51 goals in the league that season. Eventually Wenger gave up on the back-three and reverted to the back-four before he was sacked, and the managers who came after him have been trying to find balance ever since.
This brief look at how the balance of Arsenal was disrupted also highlights the shortcomings of a back-three. As alluded to above, any formation with a back-three relies heavily on the wing-backs for creativity. But most wing-backs are full-backs by trade, trained to be a defender who can occasionally join the attack and be dangerous as a spare man. Even the most attacking wing-backs like Marcos Alonso for Chelsea are not as creative as a good attacking midfielder or winger like Pulisic or David Silva.
That is why teams that employ a back-three tend to be teams that look to be solid defensively first and foremost, and hit teams on the break. Teams that look to dominate possession and play on the front foot tend to play with a back-four. I believe the same sort of logic is behind why Guardiola has his full-backs tuck in rather than overlap. He would rather have five genuinely attack-minded players in attack, rather than four or three joined by one or two overlapping full-backs. The creativity he can get by having DeBruyne and Mahrez on one flank and Sterling and Silva on the other with Aguero in the middle is much greater than what could be achieved by an attacking five of say Aguero, Silva, DeBruyne, Mendy, Walker, which is what he would have if he were playing a back-three.
Both Arteta and Emery were not back-three managers when they took over at Arsenal. They both began trying to implement a back-four, but when confronted with the defensive issues at Arsenal turned to the back-three out of pragmatism rather than philosophy. And I can respect that. And both had varying degrees of success.
But overall, you would have to say that the back-three has not really improved the team. Arsenal are a mid-table side whether we play with a back-three or a back-four. And you can’t really expect to be any better if the defenders are giving away goals regardless of formation. The only difference is that with a back-three we play a style that looks like it belongs in mid-table. The problem with Arsenal right now is more with the quality of the personnel than the system.
We can utilize the back-three to shore up at the back and sacrifice attacking threat, but such a move can only be temporary. Arsenal fans will not tolerate defence-first football for too long before they demand more adventurous and exciting football that dominates possession and pushes the opposition back into their defensive third.
The way forward has to be a back-four.
As we briefly looked at above, it is perfectly possible to have balance with a back-four. In fact, the ideal balance can only be achieved with a back-four. It just takes competent footballers in every position to implement it. And if that is the case, Arteta should try to implement that system for the last couple of games of the season. Certain players will be exposed, but that should provide further clarity for which players are not suitable for the club and which positions need improving over the transfer window.