Would a back-three work for Arsenal?

Vermaelen, Koscielny, Gibbs

Reports suggesting that Arsene Wenger could opt for a back-three instead of a back-four at Arsenal might, on the surface at least, make sense – but, as history shows, he’s been there, done that at Arsenal.

Roberto Mancini’s tinkering at Manchester City has re-opened the debate on formation – the traditional 4-4-2 has fallen out of favour amongst the top Premier League clubs with the majority operating a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3 equivalent.

However, the Italian coach is short on first-choice defenders at the moment and finds himself top-heavy with a squad that boasts an abundance of attacking options and has, subsequently, opted for a change of shape in recent games.

But, as the Daily Mail has suggested, Arsene Wenger has considered using a back-three – against Schalke in the Champion’s League and domestically against Manchester United – but he changed his mind, concerned that there wouldn’t be enough time to prepare and effectively implement the new tactic.

The same article also points to the famous Arsenal back-four that Wenger inherited form George Graham – Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, and Nigel Winterburn.

But, a brief flick through Tony Adams’ autobiography “Addicted”, I found a quote that suggests quite the contrary,

“I can’t say I was overly impressed by Monsieur Wenger’s initial contribution. At half time he came into the dressing room, took over from Pat Rice and changed us from the 3-5-2 that Bruce had introduced to a back four and we went on to lose the game 3-2 and the tie 6-4.

A lot of my old angry thinking was resurfacing: ‘What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. Does he even speak English properly?”

Whilst Adams’ blatant xenophobia might not surprise that many, the assertion that Arsenal were using a 3-5-2 long before Wenger had got his foot through the door might raise an eyebrow or two. Synonymously, Arsenal’s glory years came out of a 4-4-2, a formation that now seems a tad antiquated and is seldom operational at the North Londoners who now prefer to dominate play via three central midfielders and two wingers.

But Wenger has stated his claim that he believes 4-4-2 is the most ‘rational’ of formations and, from someone with a degree in Economics, he’s surely one of the most qualified when it comes to theories on efficiency.

“I think 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases," said the Frenchman in a conversation with former Chelsea man Gianluca Vialli.

"In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are covering 60% of the space.”

However, with Kieran Gibbs out injured and Andre Santos proving himself to be inadequate defensively, Wenger has been playing captain Thomas Vermaelen as a left-back and, although he learned his trade there at Ajax, he doesn’t look all that comfortable there either.

Could a return to the old 3-5-2 benefit the current Arsenal team who are, so far this season, haemorrhaging goals? There’s certainly a case for playing that formation, given the excessive number of midfielders they have within their ranks and given the number of ‘wingers’ demanding to play as strikers at the moment.

They could conceivably play Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Vermaelen as the back-three, then Arteta, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, and Podolski as the five ‘midfielders’, and Giroud and Walcott up front.

They could but they probably won’t – Arsene Wenger has earned a reputation as not the most flexible of tacticians and, besides which, I think he’s right about the lack of time to appropriately prepare and implement a completely new system.

What do you think? Should Arsenal experiment?

image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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