Unai Emery has tried a plethora of different formations this season, but his favoured seems to be the 3-4-1-2 formation, a system that doesn’t work as successfully without Nacho Monreal.
Emery has played a 3-4-1-2 in victories against Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Napoli and Valencia and it seems the system covers all the bases of Arsenal’s strengths and papers over the cracks of their weaknesses.
Arsenal have no wingers, so the width is provided by their wing-backs Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac. The Gunners’ centre-backs have struggled so the inclusion of a third gives more protection. Emery’s side boast two wonderful forwards who both get to start in their favoured position, and they even have depth in the number 10 role, Mesut Ozil being their main man who can float and create with wide options and two strikers to target.
The Spanish coach’s preferred back three includes Nacho Monreal with club favourite Laurent Koscielny and summer signing Sokratis. Despite the other two being more renowned for defensive excellence, it’s the ex-Malaga man who’s so vital to ensuring Arsenal execute the system correctly, making it easier for his two partners to his right.
Monreal brings two key elements to the back-three system that allows the Gunners to play it as effectively as possible.
The first is his history as a left-back. Similar to Cesar Azpilicueta at Chelsea, both Spaniards have been converted to central roles in a back-three perhaps less for their stature and dominance and more for their intelligence and the balance they bring to the defence.
When the wing-backs get forward, it’s so vital that either side of the defence is covered by someone able to get across from centre-back, but also someone familiar with the role and positioning a defender needs to take up when protecting the channels.
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Monreal’s understanding of what to do in these areas of the pitch allows Sead Kolasinac to attack far more comfortably knowing that there’s suitable defensive cover.
The second part to Monreal’s job is his distribution from the back. In modern football, we see holding midfielders become more and more gifted in possession as they’re expected to be more than ball-winners and start attacks from deep for their side. In the back-three Arsenal play, the Gunners don’t have this luxury as there is only a midfield two sitting ahead, so there’s no natural deep-lying playmaker.
This means Monreal, advantaged by being left-footed in that position, has the responsibility to step up into midfield and thread balls through to the pivot. He can do this confidently as the back three will have more defensive cover with the extra partner. The right and left centre-back are charged with the responsibility of beginning a phase of attacking play and using their intelligence and passing range to pick out players in space.
None of this can be done as effectively if the defender in question isn’t capable on the ball or has the intelligence to understand how to cover the areas vacated by marauding wing-backs. This is why Arsenal have looked a lot better defensively all season when Monreal has played as part of a three, rather than when opting for a more natural centre-back like Shokdran Mustafi to slot in at left centre-back instead.