Is Arsenal's three-man back line proof Wenger can embrace modern tactics?
There are various ways of summarising Arsene Wenger's astonishing longevity at Arsenal, but here's a particularly prescient one.
There have been two entirely different eras when using a three-man defence has been in fashion: the first in the mid-1990s, the second in the mid-2010s. They came 20 years apart, meaning that no player has genuinely played a significant part in both eras. But Wenger has been around so long he has witnessed a tactical development that's effectively come full circle.
This is relevant, of course, because Wenger has suddenly decided to deploy a three-man defence for the first since his debut campaign back in 1996-97. It remains to be seen whether this experiment will effectively bookend his Arsenal career or kickstart his tenure by firing Arsenal to yet another FA Cup victory. Should Wenger triumph with a back three, however, it would be among the unlikeliest of ways for him to succeed.
Wenger, after all, has never truly been a proponent of a three-man defence, which is why he spent 1000 matches always starting with a back four. Indeed, when Wenger touched down in London in 1996, he was hugely surprised to see Arsenal, and many other Premier League clubs, using a 3-5-2 system. In an interview for Arsenal's programme for the 2-0 victory at Sunderland in Sept. 1996, when Wenger had signed for Arsenal but not officially taken charge, he implied the Premier League was essentially out of step with Europe's leading clubs.
"It's quite ironic," said Wenger, "that while the rest of Europe are moving to the flat-back four, more and more sides in England are adopting the old continental approach using sweepers and wing-backs."
Indeed, Wenger's first significant decision as Arsenal boss was switching from a three-man defence to a back four before he'd even officially taken over. For a UEFA Cup match away at Borussia Monchengladbach, Wenger travelled with the team but was supposed to be merely observing, with future assistant Pat Rice in charge. But at half-time, with the score at 1-1, Wenger suddenly took over despite having not yet taken a training session.
He ordered Arsenal to move from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2, a move that backfired badly as the team lost 3-2. His captain, Tony Adams, was furious at the sudden intervention and persuaded Wenger that Arsenal were comfortable with the 3-5-2. The side generally played in that shape for the rest of the campaign, but ahead of 1997-98 switched to a 4-4-2. Arsenal won the league and Wenger never used the three-man defence again.
That is, until last week. That 20-year absence of a three-man defence has not been a surprise -- it's not simply that Wenger doesn't like it, it's that he doesn't particularly like dramatic formation changes at all. Wenger has also, for example, not once used a midfield diamond, and his formations have always been very simple; the early 4-4-2 (which might now be considered a 4-2-3-1) for the first decade, a period around 2007-08 where he sometimes shifted to a 4-4-1-1, a move to a 4-3-3 a couple years later, and a 4-2-3-1 from around 2010 onward, with a 4-3-3 used as an alternative for big matches over the past couple years.
The three-man defence is something entirely different, though. The whole structure of the side changes and almost every player has a completely different role. Wenger decided to use that shape for the trip to Middlesbrough because he believed Arsenal would be facing two traditional No. 9s, following the old maxim that a three-man defence works well against a front two.
"I felt we were recently a bit vulnerable defensively and I wanted a bit more reassurance to the team," he explained. "Recently we have faced many direct games and I thought before the game maybe they would play with [Rudy] Gestede and [Alvaro] Negredo and go for a very direct game. That was the reason," he said. Even in his prematch interview, however, after he realised only Negredo was playing, Wenger suggested Arsenal would have to "adjust" their system, which suggested he was having second thoughts about the back three already.
It worked reasonably well; Arsenal had few problems before half-time at Middlesbrough, but later looked poor when defending crosses. They came away with a 2-1 victory, but the fact that Wenger changed the system was a story in itself. His changing systems to nullify the opponents' strengths (and Boro have scored fewer goals than any other Premier League team) suggests Wenger has changed his tactical approach, learning from the success of the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham, who have both played that 3-4-3 system effectively this season.
It was more surprising that Arsenal kept the 3-4-3 for Sunday's FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City, who play with one man up front and pack midfield. In the opening stages Arsenal looked completely bewildered by City's passing combinations, in particular those orchestrated by the wonderful David Silva. But after the Spain international's departure through injury, Arsenal grew into the game and battled back from 1-0 down to clinch a 2-1 extra-time victory.
Arsenal's two best players were those who most logically benefit from this new shape. Gabriel has previously looked dangerously impetuous as a centre-back in a four-man defence, but on the right of a three back he has more license to push forward and close down opponents who drop into midfield. His performance was his best in an Arsenal shirt.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, too, suits the right-wing-back role. A hard worker with his energy and constant up-and-down running, Oxlade-Chamberlain is also a fine crosser, as he demonstrated with his far-post ball for Nacho Monreal's volleyed equaliser. He was the man of the match.
Further forward, things are more debatable. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have played the supporting roles but haven't influenced games significantly in those zones, and it was notable that Arsenal lacked running in beyond the City defence with Olivier Giroud playing as the target man. Danny Welbeck's introduction for the France international meant Arsenal improved significantly; while Welbeck made some poor decisions in possession, his speed meant City's defence was forced backwards. Arsenal grew into the game and eventually dominated.
It remains to be seen whether Wenger and Arsenal continue with this new system at home against Leicester on Wednesday night -- and, more crucially, away to Tottenham on Sunday. But Wenger is keen to show a different side to his approach. The use of the back three, he says, "shows you that even at my age you can change," which seems a play for the support of those who claim he's too old to embrace modern tactics.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.