After starting Project Restart with consecutive defeats, Arsenal have turned things with four wins in a row, three of which were away from home. Mikel Arteta has changed his side’s shape, deploying a back-three with wing-backs for the first time since he assumed the reins in December. The tactical tweak has paid off thus far, and it just might reignite Arsenal’s hopes for European qualification.
Back in 2017, the switch to a 3-4-3 formation turned Arsenal’s season around, ultimately culminating in a record 13th FA Cup trophy. The new system was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise disappointing year, which was Arsene Wenger’s penultimate season. Wins against Manchester City in the semi-final and Chelsea in the final delivered the last major trophy of Wenger’s illustrious career in North London.
Three years later, Arsenal now find themselves in a somewhat similar situation, with a chance to salvage something from one of the club’s worst seasons in decades. And Arteta, like Wenger, has turned to a three-at-the-back formation to shake things up after defeats to Manchester City and Brighton.
A back three has many benefits. Arsenal have looked more compact defensively and are more effectively restricting the opposition’s chances. When looking at our personnel, it is clear to see why this is the case; the team lacks an elite central defender and there is currently no obvious strong partnership at the back.
The likes of David Luiz and Shkrodan Mustafi are prone to individual errors and look especially vulnerable when given a large amount of space to control; naturally, they are less exposed in a system which is designed to limit their space. In fact, Luiz was at his best under Antonio Conte at Chelsea during their 2016-17 title run, starting 33 league matches as the spare man in the center of a back three.
Looking to the future, one interesting consideration is that William Saliba, the 19 year-old regarded as the future of Arsenal’s defense, has featured in a back three for Saint-Étienne. He could potentially slot seamlessly into this role for Arsenal next season.
Further up the pitch, the wing-backs provide added width to the attack, with one of Bukayo Saka or Kieran Tierney on the left and Hector Bellerin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, or Cedric Soares on the right. This also plays to the strengths of the two wide forwards, Nicholas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, both of whom are more effective when drifting inside, which the wing-backs enable through their overlapping runs on the flanks.
Pepe in particular looks far more threatening when he is allowed to play in the inside right channel; too often in the past has he been left isolated on the wing with little to no support.
Of course, Arteta has shown that he is willing to make tweaks whenever necessary based on how he feels he can best exploit the opposition’s weaknesses and nullify their strengths. We will therefore likely see different formations and gameplans utilized for different opponents.
Nonetheless, the three-at-the-back system has led to back-to-back away wins for the first time since May 2019, so it should be no surprise if Arteta sees it as the way to go moving forward, at least for the remainder of this season. It paid off once before in 2017; perhaps it can bring the Gunners some success again.