Arsenal’s away form has been really poor lately. So Wenger decided to beef up the defense on Monday by relying on a back three. The tactical shift paid off as the Gunners edged Middlesbrough 2-1 for their first away win in the Premier League since Jan. 14 and a 4-0 demolition of Swansea.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
In times of crisis, you need leaders. Cech and Koscielny made their return from injury to bring back some calm in the Arsenal team. The manager made 6 changes to the side that was hammered 3-0 at Crystal Palace a week ago with Cech, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud replacing Martinez, Mustafi, Bellerin, Walcott, Elneny and Welbeck in the starting lineup.
The Gunners matched Boro’s commitment, making 11 interceptions compared to 13 for the Smoggies, and winning 19 tackles and 26 aerial duels compared to 17 tackles and 24 aerial duels for the hosts, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal proved the better side in the first half and deservedly took the lead before halftime. But it could have gone either way in the second half. In fact, it was an even contest with each team creating 7 chances and Boro finishing the game with 13 shots compared to 12 for the Gunners.
Cech pulled off a couple of fine saves to prevent Boro from adding a second goal. The Czech goalkeeper stopped Ayala’s header with a reflex save in the 61st minute, parried Negredo’s low strike in the 79th and was lucky to see Gibson muster only a tame effort in the 87th. Arsenal will need to work harder on the training ground as those 3 chances came from set pieces.
In his first season at Arsenal, Wenger frequently played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. Then signing Petit in the summer of 1997 helped the manager switch to the 4-4-2 system he was known for during his time at Monaco.
More room for error
It’s kind of funny that a poor run of form finally led Wenger to use again a 3-4-3 system he has discarded for 20 years. Young managers like Pochettino and Guardiola are more flexible and frequently change formations throughout the season because of injuries or tactical concerns.
Koscielny played as a safety in that back three while Paulista was on the right side and Holding on the left side. On paper, you have more room for error: if Paulista or Holding covers the wingback, you still have two central defenders. In a back four, if Koscielny covers Monreal on the left flank, there’s only one central defender left.
A 3-4-3 system gives you numerical superiority at the back and makes it harder for the opponent to press high up the pitch. That’s why the Gunners enjoyed 65% of ball possession. The problem then is how to avoid sterile possession. Chelsea can play the ball out from the back because Azpilicueta and Luiz are comfortable on the ball. By contrast, Paulista has limited passing skills while Koscielny and Holding are average. Mustafi and Monreal have better passing skills but Mustafi was not in the squad because of an injury while the manager preferred to start Monreal in the wingback position. In the end, Arsenal’s passing game really looked tentative at best and shambolic at worst.
Despite the victory, the performance of the Arsenal defense wasn’t really convincing. Whatever formation used by the manager, you still have to win duels. Koscielny missed his clearance in the 50th, allowing Negredo to volley home Downing’s cross for Boro’s equalizer. The France centerback attempted an acrobatic clearance because he didn’t want to head the ball out of play. Obviously, that was not the safe option.
Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback
Koscielny made no tackle mostly because he was the sweeper. He won 4 of 7 aerial duels and led all players with 4 interceptions. I’m not sure Koscielny enjoys that kind of role. In a back three, the sweeper is usually an organizer too. The best example is Sammer in the Germany team that won the Euro 1996. Sammer had good tackling skills but could also play as a midfielder because of his technical abilities.
The other two centerbacks, Holding and Paulista, combined to win 6 of 11 aerial duels but performed poorly on the ground, winning none of the 6 tackles they made, according to Squawka. Paulista looked the more uncomfortable of the two. The Brazilian defender missed his clearance in the 87th when Gibson had a goal attempt. He also let Friend run past him in the 55th. The Boro substitute fired a diagonal strike that Monreal deflected into the path of Downing, who missed the target from 8 yards.
Oxlade-Chamberlain had a good game as a wingback, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and winning 2 of 5 tackles and 2 of 3 aerial duels. He walked a tightrope after receiving a yellow card for a late tackle on Fabio in the fourth minute but showed enough self-discipline to avoid a second booking. Defensively, the Ox killed a Boro counterattack with a timely challenge as the last defender in the 62nd. Offensively, he tried to feed Giroud from the right wing. In the 28th, Giroud knocked the ball down for Ramsey, whose volley was headed out by a Smoggie. The Ox enjoyed more freedom when Bellerin replaced Ozil in the 89th. He could have scored on a counterattack in stoppage time but was denied by Guzan.
Sanchez as a playmaker
Monreal is a more defensive wingback than the Ox. The Spaniard won 4 of 6 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made 2 interceptions and no dribbling attempt. He has been struggling to stop crosses since last season. That flaw led to Boro’s equalizer as Downing had plenty of time and space for a cross. Monreal’s declining pace was also exposed when Traore replaced Ramirez in the 68th. The speedy Boro winger dribbled past Monreal in the 69th but dallied on the ball and lost possession.
In midfield, Ramsey and Xhaka combined to make 3 key passes and 3 interceptions and win 3 of 11 tackles and 2 of 6 aerial duels. We’re very far from the standards set by Vieira, Petit and Gilberto when Arsenal could truly boss the midfield. The partnership formed by Kante and Matic at Chelsea or Wanyama and Dembele at Tottenham looks more convincing.
Walcott was the player sacrificed by Wenger in the 3-4-3 system. There are two interesting things that we have learned from Monday’s game. First, Ozil and Sanchez contributed defensively on the wings just like Hazard and Pedro do at Chelsea. Ozil won 3 of 5 tackles compared to 1 of 5 for Sanchez. In the modern game, creative players need to share the defensive burden too. Maybe the Christmas tree or 4-3-2-1 formation is the only system that would require very little defensive work from Ozil and Sanchez.
And second, Ozil played again like a second striker while Sanchez took over the playmaking duties. Sanchez hit 4 accurate long balls out of 5 and 1 accurate through ball out of 2, according to whoscored.com, whereas Ozil did not attempt any and made no key pass. Ozil mostly focused on his runs in the final third and had very little impact on his team’s passing game. In fact, 7 Gunners made more passes than Ozil (46): Xhaka (93), Paulista (73), Ramsey (67), Koscielny (56), Sanchez (50), Holding (49), and the Ox (48).
European football in July or September?
Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead with a dipping free kick in the 40th. He then created the winning goal in the 71st with a cross that Ramsey chested down for Ozil, who buried the ball into the near corner. The Chile striker also had 9 turnovers, including two that led to Boro chances. Ozil could have scored in the 63rd when he collected a through ball from Sanchez but Guzan denied him.
Up front, the misfiring Giroud had none of his 3 shots on target but proved useful as an outlet, winning 6 of 11 aerial duels. In the 29th, Giroud redirected an Ozil corner toward Sanchez, who fluffed his volley straight at Guzan. In the 81st, Sanchez found Giroud, who cut inside to curl his shot wide. Giroud should have been awarded a penalty in the 18th when Ayala held him with both arms on a corner. Arsenal can thank Giroud for the three points as the Frenchman put off Gibson in the 87th.
That victory might be too little too late for the Gunners, who sit in sixth place in the standings, trailing Liverpool, Manchester City and the Red Devils by 9, 7 and 3 points respectively. Arsenal could end up playing in the Europa League for the first time under Wenger. They would participate in the preliminary round in July if they finish sixth in the Premier League. Or they could qualify for the group stage if they win the FA Cup. I don’t think the club will be able to keep Sanchez and Ozil without the prospect of Champions League football.