Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin like Michael.
– A Tribe Called Quest, Excursions
When Arsene Wenger first took over at Arsenal in 1996, the formation preferred by Arsenal was the trusty old 352. In the first match of the 1995/96 season, Arsenal drew 1-1 with Middlesbrough with a formation of Seaman, Adams, Bould, Keown, Dixon, Merson, Parlour, Platt, Winterburn, and with Bergkamp and Ian Wright in the attack. Ian Wright scored Arsenal’s only goal on the day.
By the end of Arsene’s first double, in the FA Cup Final v. Newcastle on 16 May 1998, Wenger had transformed the club from is old 352 into a modern 442. The starting lineup on that day was Seaman, Dixon, Adams, Keown, Winterburn, Overmars, Parlour, Petit, Vieira, with Anelka and Wreh up front. Wenger had given up Steve Bould for more attacking play.
That last sentence seems a bit weird, but hear me out.
In Jonathan Wilson’s seminal work Inverting the Pyramid we learn that the history of football has been one of ebb and flow. From attack to defense, from chaos to organization, from pass to dribble, back and forth, the history of football is a story of two diametrically opposed forces vying for control. The title of the book, in fact, refers to how the very first football systems had 5 attackers, 3 midfielders, 2 defenders, and 1 keeper and how that slowly switched to having a lone striker up front, a crowded midfield, and a flat back four – or even a back five. That is, incidentally, the exact lineup that Newcastle played against Arsenal in the 1998 FA Cup final: five defenders, four midfielders, and Alan Shearer plowing a lone furrow up front.
The reason teams played a third center back was (and is) to combat two forwards. Numerical superiority in defense is important to help control space and to cover for each other in case of mistakes. But once teams switched to one center forward, having a third center back simply meant having a guy stand around and do nothing to contribute to the attack.
So, how do teams like Chelsea, City, and Liverpool play a third center back these days ad get away with it? The answer lies in the ball-playing center half.
David Lulz has spent his career clowned for his defensive frailty. He’s often too eager to go into challenges and has had his positional awareness questioned many times. What he’s never had questioned is his ability to play the ball. In fact, in his first stint at Chelsea, after several years of struggling at center back they played him as a defensive midfielder. And if you think about it even for a second, you realize that this is a natural shift: the defensive midfielder should be able to drop in and play center back and also should be able to carry the ball forward as a midfielder.
Still, as a DM, Luiz proved to be “not really good enough with the ball to play in midfield” and since he couldn’t really play in the CB role with just two CB’s he was shipped off to PSG for two seasons.
Interestingly, what Lulz provided Chelsea in that DM role in 2012/13… Azpilicueta now provides them in the CB role. You thought I was going to say Luiz, but looking at Chelsea’s stats it’s actually Azpilicueta who is handling their passing responsibility. Luiz is there to provide defense for the Spaniard and to act as stopper. Last season Azpilicueta was a fullback and now that he’s withdrawn, he’s under less pressure and so has more time to make his passes, and because he’s playing as part of a back three, he has two players around him to help cover his defensive lapses.
So, how would Arsenal play a back three. The quick answer is that they won’t. Wenger only conceded to a 352 in his first season at Arsenal because Tony Adams convinced him to slow down the pace of change and allow the old guard time to adapt. Perhaps it could happen but I’m more likely to see Donald Trump call for a single-payer health care system than to see Arsene Wenger “re-invent” himself into a manager who plays a 352. That said, a back three is an idea that has some merit for Arsenal.
First, the 352 relies on two wingbacks – at Chelsea that’s Vic Moses and Marcos Alonso. Wenger already plays with sort of wingbacks with Bellerin and Monreal – both players are required to join in the attack, high up the pitch, sometimes you will even see one cross the ball and the other fullback collect the pass. Bellerin is a natural wingback, whilst Monreal is one of the top technical footballers on the team.
What I think would have to happen is for Wenger to move Monreal to the Azpilicueta role and play two bigger CBs with him. Mustafi’s line-breaking passes are great when he pulls them off but unlike Azpilicueta, who is a 50% + long ball passer, Mustafi is only connecting on 33% of his long balls this season. He has the vision, and this is by far the lowest % of long ball completion in his career, but his passes are just off the mark. It’s not a knock, he would still be a great passer for Arsenal and along side Monreal and, say, Koscielny, would make three of the best passing CBs in the League.
Arsenal have plenty of backup choices here in the CB role as well: Holding is a decent passer and good in the air, Gabriel is an aggressive player, and Chambers might actually thrive in back three where he’s not as exposed for speed.
The problem with the 352 at Arsenal is actually a problem no matter what formation Arsenal chooses: who will play fullback? Bellerin is a shoo-in. Check. And after that? Debuchy is done and Jenkinson is not at the technical level required to play football on a squad challenging for the League title. Ox and Walcott do not have the defensive awareness to do the job and of those two only Ox has the technical ability to play wide. Joel Campbell is a real option here if Wenger hasn’t written him off entirely. Campbell has the speed and trickery, the attacking ability, and has shown great defensive acumen in the past. If Campbell isn’t returning then Wenger has to buy a right back this summer regardless of formation. A 352 might appeal to him in this regard because buying a full on attacker is expensive, while a player like Victor Moses (Joel Campbell) is significantly cheaper.
On the left, whether we move him centrally or not, Monreal can’t do it forever. Gibbs is a decent defender and not bad in attack for a fullback but he’s not quite a wingback and surely Wenger has enough sense not to play Alexis as a wingback – it would be such a waste of his talent. So that leaves Iwobi and Welbeck or someone from the academy. Iwobi has never once shown me the defensive awareness needed to play left back (Iwobi is actually a liability) and Welbeck doesn’t have the required fitness to play 90 minutes 35 times a season running up and down the sidelines, putting in tackles, and playing an integral part in the offense and defense.
The intriguing thing for me about the 352 is that I think it provides cover for the one weakness inherent in Wenger’s system. Wenger loves to play a high line but because he also sends the fullbacks forward, he often leaves the two center backs alone in the midfield. A third center back immediately offers cover.
The other thing a 352 would do for Arsenal is allow Wenger to capitalize on Arsenal’s strength in depth in midfield. If they are all healthy Wenger has the following players all trying to play centrally: Ox, Ozil, Ramsey, Coquelin, Elneny, Xhaka, and in theory Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla. In theory, three in the middle and three at back means that Arsenal’s defenses are better covered and with two wing-backs Arsenal have strength in numbers in the midfield. This is what Chelsea do very well and why their defense is best in the League.
Where Arsene would suddenly have a huge selection headache (which he already has to be honest) is in forwards. In a 352, Wenger can no longer shoehorn Welbeck, Walcott, Ramsey, Iwobi, and Perez into the team by playing them wide. And actually, if you think about it, this is part of the reason why Arsenal have such an imbalance between attack and defense. Playing so many forwards is naturally going to cause problems in defensive balance. But in a 352 he has to play just two forwards: Özil and Alexis, or Alexis and Giroud, or Perez and Özil, etc. That means there are forwards who (are already complaining and) might not get as much playing time as they want and it also means that those two forwards have to get the job done or there will be a lot of boring 0-0 draws.
No system is perfect and a change of formations at Arsenal would require summer purchases and a rethink by a manager who has doggedly refused to use the 352 for 20 years. But a 352 at Arsenal is intriguing to me because it addresses the problem Arsenal have had with getting the defensive balance right for the last 12 years.