24 April 2017

About this 3-4-3 of ours, is it the Arsènor's New Clothes?

It was a shift borne of desperation. Having conceded 25 goals across nine fixtures, some kind of shake-up was desperately needed, if only for the sake of shaking things up. After all, it's one thing to conceded five to Bayern. It's quite another to concede three to West Brom. Or again to Crystal Palace. Whatever the case, the shake-up had to happen. The only real question was whether this would happen in the squad or the front-office. With Arsenal's fortunes fading fast, we at least got the former. Whether the latter is still necessary is an open question. For now, let's take a closer look at how well this 3-4-3 worked. After all, we won two in a row for the first time since January. Surely, there's something in it?

In which Ramsey tried to dribble three defenders.
The play in question came from a corner and the ensuing melee. As you can see in the screenshot above, all three CBs—Holding, Koscielny, and Gabriel—were in the box, presumably for their height (standing 1.89m, 1.86m, and 1.86m, respectively). Monreal, deployed as a wide midfielder and standing a mere 1.79m, had dropped back along with Xhaka. As Ramsey attempted to dribble through a thicket, Touré dispossesed him. In this moment, Holding, Kos, and Gabriel are still inside the 18. As Touré controls the ball, Xhaka steps forward as if he intends to challenge Touré. However, it quickly becomes clear that Touré is going long. As you can see in the image below, Monreal and Agüero have already broken in anticipation of Touré's pass. There can be no way that Monreal was hoping Agüero would be ruled offside; they're both well above midfield, and Monreal never once gesticulates for an offside call. Xhaka offers a lack-lustre pursuit.
The ghost of Agüero...
Here's the question, then: given that our three CBs were in the box for the corner, why was it Monreal—hardly a speed-merchant—left largely alone against Agüero? As a follow-up, why were Monreal and Xhaka both in the no-man's land halfway between midfield and the 18? These issues beg other, larger ones: should we have played a 3-4-3 for just the second time against this opponent? We were exposed on a similar counter-attack from Boro in which all three CBs had pressed higher up the pitch (and again, it was Monreal who was desperately chasing the man on the ball...). If we are to commit to a 3-4-3, shouldn't at least one pacier defender be on the pitch? While it's true that Bellerín and Gibbs are out of form, none of our other defenders has the pace to both get up the pitch to contribute to the attack and recover to stymie a counter.

No less an authority on the issue than Martin Keown has weighed in, saying after the Middlesbrough match that "Ramsey and Xhaka did not offer enough protection to the back three". He went on to add that "to play with a back three, you have to know the system inside and out. It is not something you can simply adapt to overnight." That we've twice won with the formation is no more revealing that a broken clock that is still right twice a day. It's hard to say that this formation, though novel and undefeated, is in fact an improvement over the accustomed 4-2-3-1.

The model for the 3-4-3 has of course been Chelsea, who have won 21 of 26 Prem matches since switching to it after losing to us 3-0 in September. Their defensive midfielders, Kante and Matić, focus on protecting that back three. They also have a manager in Conte with a reputation for defensive strategy. At our end, Steve Bould's in the fold, but does he exert enough influence over Arsène to make this new formation work? Do we have the personnel to implement it? Although the results on the surface seem to say yes, we've twice been exposed in two very different ways. Also lurking beneath that shiny surface is the fact that City had a goal wrongly disallowed and struck woodwork twice. It's therefore hard to draw any deeper conclusions about our nascent resurrection.

Our CBs do look like they can handle the basic elements of the formation. Koscielny is still among the best in the Prem, Gabriel seems to be coming into his own, and Holding is a bit of a prodigy. The real issue, then, may not be with the back three but with the middle four. Can we count on some combination of Xhaka, Ramsey, Elneny, and Coquelin to shield that back three to the same degree that Kante and Matić do? These early returns do put a damper on things; none of the aforementioned four offer the discipline or tenacity of Kante or Matić, and absent Nacho's exertions, no one else in our midfield seems aware or inclined to defending with any intensity.

In other words, don't mistake motion for action. We may have moved a few things around, but that doesn't yet prove that we've achieved anything. We have just one more match—home against Leicester—before crucial, campaign-defining matches away against Tottenham and home against Man U. Apostasy-alert: we will not overtake Tottenham. Setting that aside, will the 3-4-3 enable us to overtake Man U and/or Liverpool? If it does, does that settle the Arsène in/out question for another year or two? Can your correspondent shoe-horn any more rhetorical questions?