3-4-3 formations in focus as Chelsea and Arsenal meet again
For a managerial rivalry that is just a year old, the meetings between Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte have produced a series of fascinating Arsenal vs. Chelsea clashes that essentially tell the story of the Premier League's most significant tactical shift during that time: A shift from clubs being fixated upon four-man defences, to an increasing dominance of the back three.
Sunday will mark the fifth meeting between Wenger and Conte since the latter arrived in London. In the league last season, Arsenal triumphed at the Emirates and Conte got his revenge at Stamford Bridge; Wenger came out on top in the FA Cup final and, after a penalty shootout, in August's Community Shield. The nature of the matches, however, says considerably more than the mere results.
After all, when Chelsea made the short trip across London to the Emirates last September, there was no doubt that both teams would deploy a conventional four-man defence. Arsenal had started the campaign in their customary 4-2-3-1, while Conte had deployed a 4-1-4-1.
Chelsea initially struggled under Conte, however, to the point there were question marks about his future at the club. The performance at the Emirates was their worst of the campaign, with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez counter-attacking speedily to put the Gunners 3-0 up by half-time.
The story of what happened next has become famous: Ten minutes into the second half, Conte withdrew ex-Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas, to inevitable jeers from the home crowd, and introduced Marcos Alonso.
It wasn't an attempt to get back into the game, but effectively a training session for Chelsea's next match; it was the first time they'd deployed a 3-4-3. Chelsea lined up in that system in a win at Hull, then won every game for the rest of 2016 and stormed their way to the title with the second-highest points total -- 93 -- in Premier League history.
Their stunning run owed much to their new formation and one of the most obvious goals that stemmed from the adjustment, coincidentally, came from Alonso when he headed the opener against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in February.
The immediate focus was on whether the goal should have stood, as Alonso's challenge on Hector Bellerin resulted in the Arsenal right-back being substituted with concussion.
But watch the goal again and it shows how Chelsea overloaded Arsenal five-against-four: Nacho Monreal was dragged towards Victor Moses, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi picked up Pedro Rodriguez and Eden Hazard, leaving Bellerin overwhelmed at the far post against both Diego Costa and Alonso. Foul or no foul, the right-back never stood a chance.
By the time the two sides met at Wembley three months later for the FA Cup final, Wenger had switched to his own 3-4-3. He refused to credit anyone in particular for his dramatic change of system, but the fact he deployed a three-man defence for the first time in 20 years was clearly linked to the success of Conte.
Wenger was essentially learning from a manager two decades younger than him, which perhaps outlines the idea that, while he is somewhat behind the times tactically, he remains open to new ideas.
Indeed, not only did Wenger copy Chelsea's formation, but he actually managed to beat them at their own game; Arsenal's performance in the final was considerably more dominant than the 2-1 scoreline would imply.
Danny Welbeck's pace up front stretched the play, while Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez pulled N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic one way and Granit Xhaka and the onrushing Aaron Ramsey dominated midfield in the other direction. Most importantly, Arsenal's three-man defence held firm and Chelsea's closely-tracked wing-backs were no longer an issue.
The Community Shield took a similar pattern and Arsenal seem set to deploy the 3-4-3 again this weekend, despite speculation about whether they would revert to a four-man defence after the shambolic 4-0 defeat to Liverpool and the departure of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs, who both appeared suited to wing-back roles last season.
But last weekend's 3-0 victory over Bournemouth was genuinely impressive, to the extent that Wenger's opposite number Eddie Howe was forced to change his system in the first half because his team were getting dragged out of shape between the lines and down the flanks.
No-one has entirely found the answer to stopping 3-4-3, aside from deploying it themselves and so, this weekend, Conte's tactical task is essentially to find the weaknesses in the system he helped to popularise.
Arsenal's version is far from perfect, with a lack of consistency among the centre-backs and serious problems with protection from midfield. Conte will deploy striker Alvaro Morata but will surely shy away from using Fabregas against a team that outplayed his midfield at Wembley.
In his absence, Chelsea's key player will surely be Eden Hazard. With freedom from defensive responsibility and allowed to leave Bellerin to Alonso behind him, the Belgian international should have license to drift inside and find space between the lines.
If Arsenal's shocking lack of compactness against Liverpool is repeated on Sunday, Hazard could run the game as an extra midfielder and win it as a bonus forward, while taking advantage of his relatively free role.
Hazard hasn't yet shown the requisite intelligence to play that way on a consistent basis. He's often marked out of games too easily, both by midfielders like Manchester United's Ander Herrera and defenders like Arsenal's Rob Holding.
Moreover, Hazard's lack of spatial awareness has been surprising, to the extent that one suspects Conte has instructed him not to wander out of position too regularly for fear of the system falling down.
But managers must give their most talented attackers some level of autonomy, something Wenger appreciates more than most. Perhaps, in that respect, Conte can learn from his opposite number, thus continuing the cycle of influence between the two coaches.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.