Arsenal away record needs a remedy - Wenger should try three at the back
There were a couple of unfamiliar elements in Arsenal's starting XI for Sunday's 2-1 defeat at Newcastle.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were paired together for the first time, while teenager Joe Willock was handed a Premier League debut. However, as far as the defending goes, this was the same old Arsenal. If the Gunners are to improve their fortunes on the road, perhaps Arsene Wenger should consider reverting to the back three that provided some much-needed stability last season.
Wenger might contend this was Arsenal's first defeat in seven games. However, it's worth pointing out that five of those games were at the Emirates. This was Arsenal's fifth consecutive away defeat in the Premier League, equalling a record that has stood since 1984. Arsenal are on course to record their worst travelling points tally in their Premier League history.
On the face of it, there is not much for Arsenal to play for in the Premier League. They have no chance of catching the top four, and even fifth-placed Chelsea look out of reach after the weekend's events. However, they need to ensure they pick up some points to avoid the ignominy of finishing below Burnley -- and the bad news is that three of their remaining league matches take place outside London. Something has to change in how Arsenal approach their away trips, especially with fixtures at Atletico Madrid and Manchester United still to come.
Perhaps it is time for Wenger to turn back to the formation that bailed him out around this time last year. In recent months, he's abandoned the 3-4-2-1 system to play with more attacking emphasis. However, while that has prompted an upturn in Arsenal's goalscoring threat, they are struggling to cope at the other end of the pitch.
Shkodran Mustafi is the man taking the bulk of the criticism, and understandably so. He was poor at St. James' Park, allowing Ayoze Perez to run across him for Newcastle opener then ball-watching for the eventual winner. However, it is possible to offer some words of mitigation: for starters, Mustafi is being asked to play with a different defensive partner in each game. In the space of a week, he played alongside Calum Chambers, Laurent Koscielny and finally Rob Holding. That lack of consistency does not help him.
Moreover, Mustafi is far better in a back three than a back four. He is at his best when he is free to challenge strikers aggressively early and high up the field, and having two covering centre-halves enables him to do that. He's hardly alone in that respect: arguably every single Arsenal defender looks more comfortable in that formation. Koscielny copes better when he has another two defenders to share the physical load, while Chambers and Holding benefit from being surrounded with experienced players. Even Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin are more natural as wing-backs than full-backs.
There are other potential advantages to the system for Arsenal. At the moment, if Wenger wants to deploy two strikers, one has to fill one of the wide berths. However, if the width is providing by the wing-backs, he could select a narrow midfield with a front two. It's possible that Arsenal could go to Old Trafford with Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil behind a front two of Aubameyang and Lacazette.
Add in the three central defenders at the base of the side, and in theory Arsenal sound stronger at both ends of the field. After the Newcastle match, Wenger admitted: "I have to be realistic enough to say that maybe our balance offensively and defensively doesn't work."
Perhaps going back to a defensive trio would be a very simple way to remedy that problem.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.