Switching to a defensive triumvirate appears to be in vogue across the world of English football right now. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, who deployed such a formation with both Italy and Juventus reverted to his tried and trusted tactic back in October to obvious success, while Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino has introduced a similar system to his wonderfully vibrant young side at White Hart Lane.
Meanwhile, England boss Gareth Southgate gave the Three Lions a much-needed shot in the arm with a similar formation during his first game as official full-time manager of the country in a friendly against Germany. While it was the first real time England had used that way of playing since the Glenn Hoddle days, they seemed to adapt relatively well to it.
In fact, such a tactical shift has proved so seductive of late, that even Arsene Wenger has been swayed into deploying a three-man defence. Indeed, the Gunners operated in such a fashion for pretty much the first time since 1997 during their win over Middlesborough earlier this week in somewhat of a watershed moment for the club under Wenger’s stewardship.
Rarely does the vastly experienced Frenchman tinker to this extent and, while such a change does take some adjusting to, at least it showed a willingness on Wenger’s behalf to grow.
Clearly, merely using the formation will do little to yield instant results, though how exactly would Arsenal’s version of it work? The Gunners are never likely to be as solid as Chelsea or Tottenham, so perhaps looking towards the systems used by the likes of Jorge Sampaoli. Now in charge of Sevilla, of course, the Argentine achieved great success with the Chilean national side, leading them to their first Copa America title on home soil.
Though Alexis Sanchez’s future at the Emirates remains unclear, the former Barcelona forward was a major part of Sampaoli’s team and perhaps utilising him in a similar fashion would help the Gunners in keeping him this summer.
Obviously, the summer transfer window represents a chance to bring in players who better suit this system, though below we’ve compiled what we believe would be the best way of setting up with the players currently at Wenger’s disposal.
Back in the 2014 World Cup, Chile left a mark on world football when they defeated then-holders Spain in a pulsating performance to indicate to the wider public just how far Sampaoli had taken them. Fluidly moving between a 3-4-3 and 3-3-2-2, La Roja indulged in another modern phenomenon (the high press), though structured it accordingly to suit his high defensive line.
Sanchez is well-suited to terrorising the opposition in areas deep into their half and, while Aaron Ramsey is struggling to replicate the sort of dynamism he showed at EURO 2016 with Wales, does also have that locker. Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, is unlikely to bust a gut, so the disjointed nature of the front three when pressing could make it easy for the opposition to play through Arsenal’s first line of defence.
So, having the likes of Granit Xhaka, Santi Cazorla and Mohamed Elneny available in central midfield berths to afford another band of three if that indeed does happen. Pressing with a front six has a number of different benefits, with Arsenal largely likely to be on the front foot throughout domestic competition.
With Sanchez constantly pressing the opposing ‘keeper, one of the front six could then move into his position when the ball is played around the defence, allowing athletic wide options such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin to push up and cut out passing lanes, penning the opposition in. Should the opposition choose to simply go long, the high defensive line and a defensive midfielder should be enough to deal with that, barring any silly mistakes.
Alexis Sanchez. Though he didn’t quite spearhead the attack for Chile under Sampaoli as he would here, there’s little doubt he’d be best suited to pressing the defence.
Meanwhile, though not much has been expected of Rob Holding this season, the England U-21 international impressed on Teesside in this kind of system, able to press up into midfield when needed, as well as boasting the passing ability you’d expect of an Arsenal defender.
The likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin, operating as wing-backs, would surely relish those kinds of roles and give the Gunners a wonderful outlet, as well as freeing Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil of some defensive duties.
That’s not to say this is by any means a perfect system. Pressing high hasn’t been Arsenal’s game for what now seems like an eternity and the central midfielders, in particular, may not have the sort of discipline required yet ingrained in their minds.
However, Wenger desperately needs to improve if he is indeed going to stick around next season, and utilising this formation could help get the best out of players who have so often let him down.