November 2016: Could Arsenal play 3-4-3?

By Simon Rose

Revisiting an autumn analysis on a potential change in formation

(Edís note - In Issue 262 of The Gooner last season, published in November, after Chelsea had switched to three at the back, we ran an article by Simon Rose pondering whether Arsenal could adapt to the same formation. With the change actually taking place some five months later, weíre running the piece online to see how the idea compared to the reality.)

Chelsea will win the league this season, because they have devised a ground-breaking 3-4-3 formation which has instantly left rivals floundering in their wake. That sums up the current perceived media wisdom, anyway. When a new football fad is pioneered, rivals are immediately floored for a while until they feel compelled to hijack the bandwagon, or pretend that they were on it too. Coaches donít like to appear usurped, or for it to seem that a peer has conceived something fresh and inspired. Some claim they had been thinking of doing that new thing anyway and others posture that they had done it before, so theyíre not really copying anyone. But plagiarism has long been rife in football, be it formations, terrace songs or goal celebrations. Suddenly, 3-4-3 has become the celebrated formation du jour for football hipsters. Could Arsenal play 3-4-3?

Few football formations are new, of course, and 3-4-3 has been tried before, plus the slightly more conservative 3-5-2, but other formations have been the accepted best practice of the day. For years, 4-4-2 was the universally-approved formation. The idea of two main strikers has become devalued, in favour of variations based around one striker. Unconvinced 3-4-3 will catch on? Well, 4-5-1 became the global norm, plus its variations, like 4-3-2-1 and 4-1-4-1, but perhaps that fascination is wearing thin. Chelsea opted for a back three after we dismembered them 3-0 and the formation has been serving them tremendously well ever since, with five successive league wins and no goals conceded. But is 3-4-3 a viable long-term strategy, or a sticking plaster to heal wounds? Do Chelsea intend to stay faithful for the foreseeable future, as if they have struck on a rare winning formula before others can suss it fully (like Leicester did last season), or would they drop 3-4-3 like a stone if some results went amiss? Do the benefits of 3-4-3 outweigh its limitations?

The main benefit is an extra body in midfield, for a front seven, rather than a front six offered by 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. That offers a dual purpose: an extra person to boost attacks when going forward and an extra body to shield the defence when on the back foot. It could be overwhelming for opponents to handle, either way. Score more, concede fewer. You can see the attraction. An extra body to press defences fast, an extra body to soak up attacks coming back at you and start raiding again. But, to pull it off, you need the middle four to work efficiently as a balanced unit between the two needs and to keep its shape. If the front seven is overstretched or pierced, the opposition is through onto three defenders, rather than the classic four, and that is clearly a risk.

Given that it only takes one person to score a goal and one person to assist, you could ask how many players do you need attacking. Is the potential vulnerability of a three-man defence worth the risk? The midfield four need to work as a disciplined unit, to move up and down in a consistent shape. When supporting attacks, the four need to provide a foundation for the forwards and sweep up to restart attacks. When defending, it needs to drop back as one to block the gaps, supplementing the exposed back three. Lose the shape and you are open.

How does the back three work? When under attack, should the three expand to spread across the pitch, which risks leaving gaps behind, or shift somewhat as a unit across the pitch towards the danger, which could leave the far flank exposed? This illustrates that it is crucial within 3-4-3 that the outside defensive duo needs to have full-back capability. If the back three were all central defenders, they could lack the awareness to cover width. A central defender with at least a background at full-back understands naturally when to stay tight and when to spread wide to cover danger. Many suggest that Chelseaís current success is partly down to Azpilicueta taking the wide right berth in their back three, as he can handle the right-back element of the role. Similarly the wide two of the midfield four need to get up and down the flanks, so they need pace and as much willingness to defend as to attack, to provide width on the break and to act as extra full-backs when defending. Alonso and Moses are doing this for Chelsea, as ideal wing-backs.

You can see how this might suit Arsenal. In defence, Koscielny and Mustafi pick themselves, as both are superb and have been in tremendous form this season, so that is two of the three spots filled. Is the gap on the left or on the right? On the left, Monreal looks a natural fit with his left-back background. Bellerin is faster, but he would be ideal wide right in the midfield four, which means in turn that he would be ideally complemented on the left by Gibbs. Bellerinís pace to cover back would be vital, as Mustafi showed against Son of Spurs that he is vulnerable to pace from deep. The midfield two would then be a combination of riches from our various central midfielders: take your pick from Xhaka, Cazorla, Coquelin, Elneny and Ramsey. Xhaka and Coquelin look delicious there for me, but you could argue for, and use, any of them. Up front, there is a feast of attacking players who can feature wide and centrally, affording all sorts of combinations to suit the occasion and options for switching during the match, to confuse opponents. Sounds good, right?

Chelsea turning successfully to 3-4-3 doesn't mean that we have to drop everything to copy them. The formation might suit them more than it suits us. Chelsea dropped some players and brought in others, to make it work. We may not wish to do that from the off. I wouldnít want to see Arsenal contrive our players into awkward formations, just so that we can say that we are up there with the current idioms of modern football. 3-4-3 should be a formation variation that we could shift to gracefully, like changing gears, either before a match, or during it. We donít need to drop our entire philosophy just to match Chelsea's, but instead just find a workable way to switch seamlessly between systems and personnel during a match.

3-4-3 requires the right players, with a desire to work hard, show energy and keep disciplined. There is no reason to ditch a consistent formation just to throw all your eggs into the latest basket, but its success gives a focus for analysing how useful a different formation could be in certain contexts. Think not what you could do with 3-4-3 formation, but more what 3-4-3 could do for you. Switching to 3-4-3 doesn't need to be a complete change in philosophy and initial team selection, but a fluid variation. For example, Gibbs on for Iwobi transforms 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3 with one change, as players shift to create the new formation. Iím a big fan of catching opponents unaware, so donít telegraph your intentions with obvious starting line-ups and readable tactics, sticking with them come what may. Use the element of surprise.

How well any team can play 3-4-3 comes down ultimately to the intelligence of its players. Footballers do not tend to be the greatest minds of our time, so they need to understand how the different formations work and need to know their jobs. Can they switch to 3-4-3, from an existing 4-2-3-1? Even more impressively, can they switch between the two during a match with just a targeted substitution? Now that would be something. If Chelsea are able to maintain their early success using 3-4-3 for last the whole season, Arsenal will at least need to match their results. Being able to operate dual formations and switch between the two might keep us immersed in the title race. The 3-4-3 formation, with Gibbs coming on wide left in midfield and Bellerin pushing up on the right, must just be what Arsenal need as the final ingredient to kill games off or to close them down, to land the title itself.


13th June 2017 10:37:27


Comments and Reaction

User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.

equalizer  11:46am 13th Jun 2017

"But people who have managed zero games have opinions, and we have to live with that"- Arsene Wenger 2014 - Post No. 108011

Yes its Ron  13:34pm 13th Jun 2017

Its very true that 343 calls for intelligent players, but i think these so called formations are a bit over hyped arent they? Its never 3 at the back when the teams under the cosh and under the old 442, the strikers often had to drop back to help the middle men. The formations are quite loose really to me and theyre only easily identifiable when every thing on the pitch is going well. Even Chelsea looked panic stricken at times in games and certainly did in the FAC Final too. The rolls royce 3 at the back often looked ragged but credit Conte for effecting it so well in the main. For me, footballs more about players understanding the basic tenets of their own position, within the team than the overall system. My big thing with ASFC for instance has been the apparent lack of understanding of our full backs for years and years of how to assist their central defenders and knowing/not knowing when not to advance over the half way line. This has always been the betrayer of the Clubs lack of good coaching defensively in my view.Playing CB for AFC this last 12 yrs must be bloody hard whoever has worn the shirts. - Post No. 108015

MAF  13:36pm 13th Jun 2017

ok guys that pees me off, that whingers entire Coaching Team stays as is. surely we saw a huge amount of evidence something needed to be changed? Whinger has done it again, pulled the wool over the board's eyes the season's last 6 results..... - Post No. 108016

mbg  17:25pm 13th Jun 2017

November 2016 : Revisiting an Autumn analysis on a potential change, We want wengr out we want wenger out. - Post No. 108019

mbg  17:51pm 13th Jun 2017

MAF, of course he has mate, duped yet again and more so the fans (and a hell of them fooking deserve it) he always does, it's very easy to do with these fans that have their heads so far up his skinny arse they can see and hear nothing, the fans that haven't have been saying it all season and the season before that and before that, for years now, nothing changed and nothings going to change whatsoever, and with the same old over the hill yes men still in place just proves what we already know/knew, he's duped us all again alright, but not all of us a lot of us knew he would and knew what was coming, and that/this is just the start there's worse to come, and any one who thinks it isn't and it's going to be different is just deluded, at the end of the day they deserve it, unfortunately proper fans don't. We want the duper out. - Post No. 108020

CORNISH GOONER  19:46pm 13th Jun 2017

What's the bleedin' point of this - does Mr Rose still believe L'Arsenal is a sporting club? No Director of Football, no changes, same old summer. Coalition of Footballing Chaos. Will they be able to keep the old do-re-me coming in next year? - Post No. 108021

mbg  21:14pm 13th Jun 2017

Sorry something I intended to put in at the end of my post 108020 but forgot, every morning wenger gets up and every night he goes to bed he must be laughing his f*****g arse off at the fans off this club. Wenger out. - Post No. 108022

Exiled gooner in Pt  21:53pm 13th Jun 2017

Same old bollox ,good old Ivan full of ****e ! The smug zip fiddler gets his own way again and countless morons who call themselves supporters of this once great club carry on watching the latest transfer news, as everyone else gets the players Wenger wants the fans to think he is going for!! When we all know it aint going to happen same old summer same old ****e .Wenger out the board out same fooking useless yes men on the coaching staff out !!!Groundhog summer number 10 has begun. - Post No. 108023

Exiled gooner in Pt  22:09pm 13th Jun 2017

Nice to see the wonkers at puma keeping to the tradition of fock the club colours lets make some more money from the tourists with new ridiculous colour away kits. Everything stinks at this club , board out Wenger out. - Post No. 108024

mbg  17:02pm 14th Jun 2017

Exiled, indeed, the AKB's are glued to Sky waiting for news of signings from their messiah who remember is working non stop day and night without sleep, LOL, to bring in top top qualittee (i hope those commas are in the right place) idiots, more to be pitied than laughed at, but you better be careful mate calling them morans might offend some of them. Wenger out. - Post No. 108044

Issue #269 - Out Now!

Gooner Editorial

16th February 2018

Frozen North Provides Relief For Arsenal

Rare comfortable away win for Gunners v Ostersunds