Arsene Wenger was forced to change his tactics last spring when Arsenal found themselves in possibly the most contentious period in its history. For the first time since 1997, Wenger used a three at the back system hoping to make a late season push for both Champions League and an FA Cup. We all know the rest: FA Cup glory, dampened by Europa League football for the next season. One thing for certain, the change brought new life to the squad and a tactical plan for Wenger and the club going into the next season. With the 2017/18 campaign underway, the new formation has continued to bring largely positive results, but has also left supporters wondering if it forces too many players out of their natural positions, causing a struggle to solidify the back line as a cohesive unit. Modified positioning can sometimes be a positive thing in football and test the resolve and focus of players, but too much can cause chaos and disarray, as we saw at times against Leicester City Friday night.
So, where do Arsenal stand in this regard? Most can agree the new system has created an excellent run of form, but is Wenger forcing a system on a squad that can’t cope with “unnatural positioning?” Before we can decide, let’s take a look at a few key players who have undergone positional changes to accommodate the three at the back and how their abilities might fit the mold of the new system, or leave them lost in no man’s land.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should stick out as a key member of the squad who has been thrown into an entirely new world. Arguably most comfortable out on the right wing as an attacking midfield player, the Ox has seen time at both wingback positions over the past few months. For a player looking to become a true central midfielder, it may not have initially been an ideal change. However, it has brought out the best in a player who has shown raw ability for years but never quite made it click. Out on the left, or right (at the moment it doesn’t seem to matter), the Ox is showing power, pace, technique, and a dynamic ability to move up and down the flank. He has looked strong and effective defensively, an aspect of his game many were uncertain he could handle. On the front foot, he is a constant danger and springs counter attacks at every chance. Although the Ox might one day, perhaps even now, have the ability to be a true central midfielder, in Arsenal’s new system he has shown to be a high class and powerful player. His stock has risen dramatically since the change and will continue to do so if he stays at the club, remains healthy and committed to his new role. Conclusion: Flourishing
Hector Bellerin’s rise into the first team has been a dream for the player and for supporters. His blistering pace and active presence has made him among the best right backs in England and among the most valuable young defensive players in the world. But, is he best suited as a right wing back? Bellerin’s pace makes him dynamic out on the flanks, but he is still young and improving his playmaking. Wingbacks often need the attacking skills of wingers in order to put in strong crosses and begin attacking play, but Bellerin lacks in this regard. Up to this point, the new system is hurting him as a player, but it is also forcing him to improve his link up play and most importantly his crossing. Because he is such a high-quality player, even with slight discomfort in his new role, he is performing admirably and will continue to get better. However, until he can consistently put dangerous balls into the box and find attacking players in front of him, he won’t be an all-around wingback. His transition to the new system will take time. Conclusion: Accommodating
Nacho Monreal has seen an interesting new role develop for him over the past few months. Most of last season, he was constantly exposed out on the left. He seemed to have lost a step and didn’t have the physicality to push off opposing attackers. Many supporters, myself included, felt his time at Arsenal was up, but the new system offered him a fresh start and interesting opportunity. In most of the matches he has played since, he has found himself on the left side of the three playing as a “centre-back” and has done quite well. It’s important to mention that, in the opener against Leicester, Arsenal’s defense was in shambles with Monreal in the center of the three. Thankfully, he won’t have to take on this role when Koscielny and Mustafi return. It was an important lesson for Wenger because although Monreal has improved his play at the left centre-back position, he doesn’t have the size, strength or experience to play directly in the middle. It is quite possible that if Wenger had never changed from a back four, that Monreal might be at a different club, or perhaps stuck with the reserves. His days as an out and out left back for Arsenal are likely over, but as a left centre-back he has truly found new life. Conclusion: Flourishing, as a left centre-back
The Tank, Sead Kolašinac. A defensive juggernaut and Bosnian international looks to be the smartest piece of transfer business Arsenal have conducted in years. He has quickness, hunger, frightening strength, and quality attacking play, both in the air and with his smart passing and runs. He is a perfect player for the new system as he can boss the left flank on the wing or physically hound opposing strikers as a centre-back. Although he isn’t a traditional centre-back, similar to Monreal, he has what most left backs and simply what most footballers don’t: a physique made of stone. One concern about his play at centre-back is that he absolutely loves to get involved with the attack and make runs forwards, an admirable characteristic until the opposing team springs for a quick counter and smashes it past Petr Cech. If Oxlade-Chamberlain can take the left wingback and Kolašinac can take the left centre-back and remain discipled, Arsenal can crunch opponents on the defensive end and fly by them on the attack. Wenger must focus on creating a safety net for when Kolašinac comes forward as a LCB, or simply tell the “Bosnian Tank” to stay back with the other defenders in open play. Conclusion: Flourishing, while discovering his role
Danny Welbeck can be both brilliant and frustrating about a dozen times in a single match. He has pace, physicality, aerial play, but lacks the confidence needed in a consistent number nine. Alternatively, he’s seen time out on the wing but isn’t a great crosser, so when he inevitably runs around his defender he isn’t sure where to go. Arsenal’s new system hasn’t changed just the defensive set up, it has also created an attacking front three consisting of two attacking midfielders set behind a striker. Welbeck has been tested as an attacking midfielder and has done surprisingly well. His linkup play has been strong and he’s been active in the attack. You might also argue that with a player to his side and one in front, he doesn’t feel the pressure to find the back of the net every game, rather he looks to be feeling the freedom of an attacking playmaker able to make smart runs and slip through balls in for others. The new system has given Welbeck a much clearer and more manageable objective in the first team. If healthy he could provide excellent depth from the bench and contribute whenever Wenger puts him on the pitch. Conclusion: Flourishing
At first glance, Arsenal’s new system puts certain players in brand new roles. Some might call them “unnatural,” and for some players, like Hector Bellerin this holds true. However, for others like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kolasinac, Welbeck, and even Nacho Monreal, their skills sets might truly be of better use in a not so traditional system. In many ways, the Ox isn’t a traditional rightwing, Welbeck isn’t an out and out striker, and Nacho doesn’t have the pace needed on the left side of a back four. Arsene Wenger won’t be forced to play Nacho Monreal in the middle of a back three every game, and in many ways, the defensive chaos shown in week one isn’t indicative of the new formation and players roles within it, but points towards critical absences that prevented Arsenal’s backline from performing like a solidified group. As I wrote last week in, “Wenger’s Dilemma in a Closing Transfer Window,” Arsenal still need a defensive addition at centre-back to make a run at the Premier League title, but in their new modern system, the majority of players forced into unnatural roles have proven they aren’t so “unnatural” after all.