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Arsenal had gone 20 years playing over 1,000 matches without using three at the back.
Then Arsene Wenger shocked everyone by using a 3-4-3 in a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium this past April.
Although the squad was not used to playing in the new system, it had worked. It was an important three points as Wenger’s future hanged in the balance.
Before Wenger took charge of Arsenal, the Gunners had played three at the back on a regular bases. It had worked well enough for them, but Wenger had other ideas, as he wanted to change the 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 system.
Initially, players rejected the change and Wenger compromised for his first season to play three at the back.
The following season, he got his wishes to play his 4-4-2 and it worked quite well. Arsenal went on to win the league and since then, continued to play the back four up until times got desperate.
Flash-forward to April 2017, Arsenal’s situation was dire.
Wenger’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 continued throughout the remainder of the season. It seemed to have saved his job as he got his contracted renewed for two more years—a controversial decision as supporters were divided.
But as the summer transfer is under way, and rivals Premier League clubs improving their squads, Arsenal will be under a lot pressure to perform well this upcoming season by at least returning to Champions League Football.
And many Arsenal supporters and pundits are wondering if Wenger should continue playing a back three.
Answer is more complicated
The answer is a lot more complicated than yes or no.
Arsenal had won the FA Cup and kept pressure on Liverpool and Manchester City for the coveted fourth position playing with three at the back, but it was not smooth sailing.
Arsenal had to ride their luck at times, but it held up. It seemed to be a bend but don’t break motto.
Their best performance came in the most crucial time, and it was with three at the back. Against Antonio Conte’s “unbreakable” 3-4-3 in the FA Cup Final, Arsenal controlled the game by playing a 3-4-2-1.
What’s more interesting, Per Mertesacker—who had not started for Arsenal in 392 days—anchored the back three.
The Gunners had to deal with a suspended Laurent Koscielny and injured Gabriel Paulista and Shkodran Mustafi, so they had no choice but to use Nacho Monreal and Rob Holding as their other centerbacks.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin played as wing-backs. Together, the five were able to keep Chelsea at bay, and when they were attacking, there was more creativity and room for Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez, and Mesut Ozil.
Got the players to make it work
Arsenal does have the players to play with three at the back.
Wenger could mix it up with the centerbacks they have—their best being Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, and Gabriel Paulista or Rob Holding. They could use another elite centerback to sure up the back three.
Wenger also has a solid, but nothing special, midfield at his disposal for a 3-4-2-1. Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka will hold down the midfield as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez leading the attack.
For a frontman, Wenger spent the money. Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette will be making the move to the North London club for a club record. An offensive push of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, and Alexandre Lacazette will be deadly.
Then there are the wingback positions. Hector Bellerin and newly acquired Sead Kolasinac—2016-17 Bundesliga team of season—would fit the job as starters.
For a back three to work, everyone must do their job. Does Arsenal have the mindset?
Arsenal has the talent to successfully use three at the back, and why not? Wenger’s four at the back has not done much in the last several campaigns.
Then came to the switch at the end of this past season, and it worked.
Wenger should continue what is working. So, if Arsenal really wants to be successful, they go out and buy players who will be great in a 3-4-2-1.
Written by Steven Jotterand
Follow Steven on Twitter @StevenJotterand
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