7th March 2016, UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd leg, Arsenal are already 5-1 down after a pathetic 2nd half 10 minute collapse in the 1st leg in Munich. But for 53 minutes before Koscielny got sent off, there were signs of promise that with this current set of Arsenal players the 4-3-3 is the way to go forward.
Arsenal weren’t really troubled by Bayern Munich and Thiago didn’t dominate the game the way he did like in the 1st leg, but then again they were winning by a great margin. However, the way Xhaka, Ramsey and Oxlade Chamberlain managed to hold their own, it was clear their respective skill sets complimented one another. Xhaka as the regista playing passes through the thirds and wide areas, helps Arsenal progress up the pitch; in the 4-3-3 system Arsène Wenger employed Xhaka wasn’t as exposed compared to the 4-2-3-1, as he wasn’t asked to defend big spaces and had two mobile partners to cover him. Ramsey looked to make runs beyond the Bayern backline as well as break up play, with Oxlade Chamberlain looking to break the lines with his powerful runs from deep winning all his 1v1 duels. The trio’s stats combined were 78% pass accuracy, 10 dribbles, 4 chances created, 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 17 ball recoveries. A complete performance and one that should give Arsenal fans encouragement.
Arsenal’s system this season has seen Alexis play upfront in the usual 4-2-3-1. When deployed earlier in the season, it worked like a charm; with Alexis dropping deep, Özil and Walcott would then attack the space left in behind and this has shown in their respective goal returns, as well as Alexis who’s currently averaging a goal or assist per game. He’s the team’s top goalscorer, most assists, most take-ons won and chances created: he is the man of the moment.
However a problem with this system is that 4-2-3-1 very very quickly turns into 4-4-1-1 plus with the fullbacks pushing high again. With Coquelin this season attempting a 1 man press when Arsenal lose the ball in final third play 4v3, 5v3’s always occur. With the profile of players within Arsenal’s squad especially in midfield – Xhaka, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, El Neny, Iwobi and Özil – a 4-3-3 formation would suit them perfectly as their strengths would be amplified in this system. All can play within a compact triangle in the middle of the pitch to break the lines with give and go passes, off the ball movement and dribbling against the opposition’s deepest lying midfielder and defense for the spaces to open up for their teammates to run into.
The 4-3-3 system is built to gain control of the midfield allowing freedom and diversity in attack. The midfield three consists of the following profiles, #6,#8 and #10. #6 (DM) is usually a deep lying playmaker (regista). Their main tasks consist of taking part in the build up. When they receive the ball they attempt complex passes like diagonal and through passes as well as passes between the opposition midfield and defence. They must be able to tackle and intercept when needed. #8 (B2B): a central midfielder who has excellent mobility and must be able to attack and defend when required. They must be able to defend near the 18 yard box and hold their position within the system’s respective shape. They also need to take part in the attack and engage in pressing when out of possession. #10 (Playmaker/Needle Player): the creative spark of the team whose touch, vision, awareness makes the difference. They must be able to create chances, provide assists and score the odd goal now and again. Needle players are able to retain the ball in tight spaces, using their low centre of gravity, receiving the ball at all angles/speeds and they must have good vision to be able to see what direction the player must move into to lead the attack on.
The three forwards in the system are composed of the following profiles; one inverted winger, who cuts in to shoot/pass, attacking the defenders to make the space. One out and out winger, who looks to get in behind the defence and a central striker who needs to be able to stretch the defence with their movement, looking to drift into space pulling man markers out of the central zones opening up space for the most advanced midfielder and wingers to run into the spaces. An example of the three-man forward line which has had great success, was the great Barcelona side of 10-11 with Messi, Villa and Pedro all interchanging positions and Messi breaking the lines with his phenomenal dribbling and close control at pace. Another example is Real Madrid 13/14 when they won La Decima with BBC, Bale and Ronaldo playing on opposite flanks capable of using their weaker foot with Benzema dropping deep making chances for the 2 flanking him. Arsenal over the years have used a 4-3-3 system and it has had some success.
Arsenal around 2010-11 managed to be in contention for four competitions until after a disastrous run of form after the League Cup final against Birmingham, played with a 4-2-1-3 system with Song, Wilshere and Fàbregas midfield with the latter playing as a roaming playmaker who could drop deep to progress the play as well as popping up in advanced central areas to play the killer pass or make a darting run in behind the defence looking to score a goal. Nasri worked on the left as the wide playmaker looking to work the half spaces to create chances, using his impressive close control/dribbling ability to retain the ball in tight spaces, Walcott out right making the out to in run getting in between the left back and left centre back, getting shots off on goal or playing the cross in the box to a teammate. Robin van Persie was left to make clever double movements taking the centre backs away from him; making space for himself to get a shot off or for teammates.
Arsenal in the 2014-15 season played a 4-1-4-1 system which turned into a 4-3-3 attack after the batterings they took the season before away from home. This shored up the defence, as they lacked the athleticism in midfield to cover those big spaces as a consequence of Wenger’s game plan giving the 3 attacking midfielders in his 4-2-3-1 total freedom as well as the FB’s pushing up providing width. The common theme in those defeats is that one of the Arsenal midfielders would lose the ball in an dangerous part of the pitch and teams would break on the Arsenal defence with such ferocity, with wave after wave of counter attacks. Agsainst City away in 2015, the Gunners defended diligently as a team, the fullbacks didn’t bomb forward – if one went, one stayed – Coquelin was a revelation destroying everything in his presence and playing simple but effective passes to Ramsey who’d then play it to Cazorla, who would push the team up the pitch with his close control and locomotion and play the pass onto the Arsenal wide men on the day (Oxlade Chamberlain and Alexis). Arsenal completely outplayed City and won 2-0.
You may ask, with this 4-3-3 where will Özil play? He could play as a winger in this system. In the usual 4-2-3-1 system he usually drifts lateral to the flanks looking to overload the space looking to play a cutback or cross to teammates in the box this is done to stretch the opposition. He is always looking for the space, he is a central winger looking to exploit the space and he’s one of the best in the world in this aspect. He has played left and right wing for Germany and Real Madrid both successfully; Löw and Mourinho respectively have made full use of his technical ability in tight spaces, vision, creativity and his threat on the counter attack. Fellow playmakers like De Bruyne, Silva and Lallana have all made the transition to playing interior in their respective teams’ systems, and all have transferred their abilities such as touch, vision, close control especially under pressure and have added work rate and defensive nous to their repertoire.
It’s a clear trend that if you use 4-3-3 you are more likely to be successful in competing long term. It’s time for Arsenal to realise that 3 is the magic number.