Arsenal play like a team for the first time in months

I have recently developed tendonitis in my achilles. This malady followed on the heels of sciatic pain which was preceded by back pain. I was worried that something was wrong so I went to see the doctor and she assigned me to physical therapy. After a few days of physical therapy I figured out the problem: oh yeah, I’ve not been exercising much less stretching at all for the past three months. In short, I’ve been lazy and at my age and with my health history, I can’t do that.

One thing about my achilles tendonitis is that I am constantly walking around on eggshells, afraid that I may step funny and then the throbbing pain will start in my legs. I try to avoid stairs if I can and climbing hills is also right out. As well, walking on flat ground is terrible. And if I sit for too long in one position, I basically cringe in anticipation of pain as soon as I start to get up to go do something.

Much like my own aversion to confrontation, Arsenal seemed like a team that was walking around on eggshells. As if someone wanted to say something, to do something, but were afraid that any confrontation would send shooting pains through the squad. Alexis cut the worst of figures, posing as Rodin’s thinker on the pitch after Arsenal conceded a goal and walking off the field in a huff when Arsenal lost.

My decline into sloth coincides with Arsenal’s dip in form. Since losing to Watford, Arsenal have played 14 matches and have lost 7. Arsenal have conceded 28 goals in that time, including 10 to Bayern Munich and an additional 8 to Watford, West Brom, and Crystal Palace. Arsenal have kept just three clean sheets in the last 14 matches and have slipped in the Premier League table down to 7th place.

I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast yesterday morning and one of the guests said something which struck me. It was a bit about how even on a losing sports team there are star players. All teams have star players but the crucial difference is that on the losing team, as the team declines, the stars start playing just for themselves while on a winning team we find that the best players lift the others around them, they play for the team.

It was clear that Arsenal’s star player, Alexis, was focusing too much on himself for the last three months. He was not playing to lift the others around him but was instead trying to do it all. It was selfish, petulant and not edifying. Though there is part of me that wonders if his strops were a catalyst for the change that was needed at the club.

After yesterday’s win over Pep Guardiola’s Man City, Wenger spoke in veiled terms about this period saying:

People questioned us, we went through tough times. In these times you can be divided or united and today we have shown the right response. People can question my decisions but not my loyalty and commitment to the club. We went through a difficult period. I will talk one day about that.

And later in another interview alluded again to something negative,

We have gone through a very difficult period, we faced some adversity that made the situation more difficult from inside as well. We showed a united response, not a divided response. Mentally we were in a fragile position.

That “right response” that Wenger spoke about came in the 101st minute of the game. Alexis Sanchez put away a goal from 5 yards out and ran over to celebrate in front of the Arsenal supporters. And for the first time in months, the entire team came over to celebrate with him. It was a feel-good moment but the very best part of the celebration was when Nacho Monreal arrived, put his finger to his head, and shouted at his teammates to “stay in the game”. Arsenal had taken the lead but they needed to stay focused for 20 more minutes and Monreal was there to remind them.

On the sidelines Wenger made a similar gesture, urging his team to stay mentally focused for the last 20 minutes. Urging his team to just finish this out and they will see themselves get to the FA Cup Final, which is exactly what they did.

I don’t read the papers (just the Guardian) and I have missed out on all of the gossip. Actually, I haven’t missed anything. I’m just where I want to be with the gossip, that is, not knowing any of it.  We don’t know what has transpired in the last three months with Arsenal. Maybe one day Wenger will write his “tell-all” book and break down this episode along with explaining about Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity, the Suarez transfer saga, selling Cesc, why he didn’t buy Cesc back, and dozens of other stories (he could probably fill 20 books if he wanted to). But until then, I’m content just seeing the team play as a team once again.

On the back three

Wenger has played a back three  now for two straight matches and I hope that he keeps this going for the rest of the season. Wenger’s natural proclivity toward attacking and pushing his fullbacks forward leaves his team vulnerable to counter attacks. Having a third center back doesn’t ensure that you will always have great defensive cover but it does mean that Arsenal will typically have an extra defender against two attackers or at least even numbers against a front three.

The drawback is, of course, that because arsenal are playing with a third center back, they are losing a midfielder and thus making it more difficult to control the ball in the game. This puts extra pressure on finishing for the forwards and means that Arsenal are sometimes overrun in midfield.

For Wenger to accept this represents a much more pragmatic approach from the boss. It may not produce the eye wateringly beautiful pass and move football from 2007 but Arsenal haven’t been playing that way in a few years anyway so it makes sense for Arsene to change things up.

Some players are responding especially well to the new formation and some are struggling. In yesterday’s match against Man City that weakness in midfield was especially apparent in the first half.

Xhaka should be well protected in a 352 and have plenty of outlets for short, simple passes to keep the ball moving. But I think Wenger is playing a 343 in attack, which means that Arsenal have all of the midfield problems of a 442, where Wenger’s two center mids are often required to play against three or more opposition players. The result is that Xhaka looks slow (he is) and in the crowded midfield, he’s not able to carry the ball, so he’s caught in possession. Its quite the problem how to get the best out of this player: he can’t be left alone in a Pirlo role because he is caught on defense and in a more crowded midfield he looks kind of useless as he doesn’t have time to make his great long passes. Probably Wenger’s biggest problem right now is solving his midfield puzzle.

On the other hand, both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rob Holding are thriving in this new system. Many want Ox to play central and I can understand why, because his close control and dribbling is so fantastic. But the center mid role requires a specific type of passing mind, one that Ox hasn’t developed yet (I’m sure he will).  In the mean time, his speed and trickery with the ball is maximized by having him start his runs from the deeper right wing-back position. And his crosses are excellent. Easily the best on the team. Ox is the reason why you play a wing-back: if you’re going to play your fullbacks forward (like Bellerin and Monreal do) then they should at least be really good at crossing the ball and beating their opponents in a 1 v.1. Bellerin is ok at those things but Ox is great at them.

And finally, a shout to Rob Holding. I really like this youngster. He’s great  in the air and not afraid to get stuck in to a challenge. He also showed some great ball control yesterday taking on City players with his dribbles and his passing. All around this is a player who really benefits from the back three and who adds some grit to an Arsenal defense which is often slightly soft. I don’t know who said it but it’s true: Holding is the player that the British press think John Stones is. And for 1/10th the price.

I honestly hope Wenger plays Holding the remainder of the season and will be peeved if Mustafi claims his place.

Arsenal have a horrible schedule ahead. Four matches against Leicester, Spurs, Man U, and Southampton. If Arsenal want to get back into the top four, they have to win every match and still hope that Liverpool, Man U, and Man City drop points. They are going to need every ounce of this new found camaraderie and a decent helping of luck to achieve that goal this season.



  1. I think the first match with this determination and team spirit, including from Alexis came vs Middlesbrough. At the end Alexis ran back onto the pitch to celebrate with the entire team, who really seemed to have a weight lifted off their shoulders, and also went to the fans. (Which he does semi regularly I think)

    We just had an extra week of preparation for this game, so we looked more cohesive during the game. It was still a fighting performance, especially in the first half, but I thought we deserved the victory. Despite some good fortune.

    Holding has consistently looked excellent. I think Mustafi should take Gabriel’s place, if at all. Also, try 1/25th the price of Stones (2m vs 50m) Shows we can still scout the odd gem. Maybe the lower leagues represent a better opportunity nowadays.

    If we win all our games, we should finish top 4. But that’s a big if. I’m just hoping for us to build on these performances and play some good football again. Top 4 would be a bonus at this stage.

    Oh, also, I disagree about Xhaka. I thought he looked comfortable on the ball, but there was a lack of options and control in the first half. We looked much better in the second half. Don’t know if the stats bear that out but I really think Xhaka is going to be a great player for us.

  2. I am not very good at spotting players individual ability levels.

    Wondered what Tim and others felt about Holding and whether he is the real deal, or is in a similar position to Chambers when he started. I recall we were similarly enthusiastic about Chambers in the early games. That said, maybe Chambers is actually ok and will perform well within a back 3 at Arsenal?

  3. I am glad that Wenger and Arsenal are seeing positive benefits from the changes that Wenger has implemented. While we beat Man City with the 3-4-3, we also had so luck (the Fernando crossbar strike) and we didn’t have Martin Atkinson on the pitch. We need to evolve our game to where luck and crap officiating cannot steal our joy.
    The Ox brings a balance to our attack that was missing with Walcott. We now see offensive threat potential from both sides our attack. Our CF threat has been wanting looks aesthetically better with Welbeck rather than with Giroud’s hand wringing and anguished mien after every CB challenge.
    We all knew that Holding was a good player from his early season performances but he was the victim of the numbers game. Now he gets his chance when the number 4 becomes 3 and fair play to him. Soon the English media hype machine will descend with stories about “bigger” sides swooping in for him, etc.
    We are now a side looking to park the bus and nip a goal off set plays and the supporters seem to be okay with that if it means we are winning.

  4. 343/352 winners and losers:

    – Ox. Has found a place in the team that takes advantage of his strengths, and is thriving.
    – Holding. Would otherwise be on the bench. Is taking his chance with both hands.
    – Gabriel. Similar to Holding, is taking his chance in a system that suits him better.
    – Koscielny. More protection, able to sit deep.
    – Ramsey. With an extra CB, takes the place of Coquelin who would otherwise be in there.
    – Ozil. A change in role may suit him.

    – Mustafi. Temporarily at least, he went out and the team looks good. Will probably find his way back in.
    – Bellerin. Has most of the skills needed for the role and will provide strong competition for Ox, but suddenly not an automatic starter.
    – Coquelin. Less need for a DM in this formation, at least in theory. A big loser here.
    – Walcott. With Ozil as the right-sided attacker, where does Walcott go? He loses this battle every time.
    – Giroud. Doesn’t look comfortable up there; Welbeck may take his place. Or Alexis?
    – Iwobi. With Ozil out right and Sanchez on the left, it will be tough to win his place back unless Wenger tries Sanchez in the middle again.
    – Lucas Perez. Hard to find a way into the last formation, even hard to find a way into this.

    1. Mustafi is a winner in a 3-back system; a mobile CB who has played RB for his national team, he’s a perfect 3-back system type player.
      Chambers is a winner; a three back system means there might be home for him at Arsenal after all
      Bielik is a winner; a young CB that’s done well at U23 he now has a path into the team with an added CB spot.

      Iwobi is the big loser here unless he displaces Ozil.

      I’m not a fan of the 3-4-3, it rarely gets pulled off. Would prefer a 3-1-4-2 and then Giroud can still be effective partnered with another more mobile striker that can play off the second balls.

    2. I think it’s a bit too early to say definitively who’s going to be losers in this formation, until we see a few more performances with it, especially from some players who haven’t gotten game time in the new formation but who I assume will be given some eventually.

      As TeeSong points out below, the biggest change in terms of what it all means for our personnel is just that instead of 4 out-and-out attackers, we now only have 3 (as he also points out, that’s actually what happens in a 4-3-3 as well). So, you’re right that on some basic level, central defenders are the big winners here and attackers the losers.

      But it’s not obvious to me that just because, e.g., Iwobi would most naturally play in the positions that Alexis and Ozil are currently occupying, he’s a big loser here (more pertinent is just that Wenger hasn’t used him very much for a month, presumably wanting to pull him back from too much media scrutiny and give him a breather). Yes, the system only uses 3 attackers, and yes, Ozil and Alexis tend to be ever-presents, but a) one or both of them might leave in the summer, and b) that still leaves one more spot, and it’s far from obvious that Giroud is the man to regularly fill it. I think the system would thrive with a mobile centre forward (e.g. Costa at Chelski) whose movement would allow the two other attackers to float free from their inside forward “lanes”. Neither Ozil nor Sanchez has been bad in the 3-4-3, but neither has been at their best either, in part because, with Giroud in the lineup (and with constantly overlapping wingbacks outside them) their positioning has been surprisingly static. I expect them to be freed up by the system once they adapt to it, but it would help if they had a more skillful, mobile attacking partner to combine with.

      We could replace Giroud with Welbeck or Lucas, but, at least until the summer, our best best might be to return to Alexis playing up top, in which case either Iwobi or Lucas could come in as one of the inside forwards, a position that would suit either of them, given that it’s a bit of a hybrid, combining the role of the winger with that of the number 10/false 9.

      So here’s where we get to the one obvious loser: Theo–not simply because there’s one fewer attacking place in the team, but because the obvious role for him, as on the right hand of the attacking three, isn’t actually a good fit in this system. We saw early in the season that in a 4-2-3-1 (e.g. with Ozil and Iwobi providing the creativity) Walcott can get away with making little or no attempt to come to the ball and get involved in the buildup, instead concentrating entirely on either staying wide as a winger, or making his trademark runs in behind between the fullback and center back. But in the 3-4-3, with one fewer attacker AND only 2 midfielders (the latter is where it differs from the 4-3-3), the team is a bit light on men in the center of the pitch with the skills to transition up the field with skillful combination play and passess on the ground. So, ideally, BOTH wide attackers (what I’m calling “inside forwards”, as they resemble that position from the old fashioned W-M) have to be somewhat skillful, creative types–at least if you plan on being a possession team at all rather than a pure counterattacking unit. And Theo just can’t do that, at all. (One might suppose that Danny Welbeck, at least insofar as he’s asked to play as an outside rather than central attacker, will similarly struggle to adapt to the system, since he’s hardly the best coming to the ball to create, though he is much stronger on the ball than Walcott.)

      1. One last word on the limitations of the 3-4-3 regarding being a passing/possession team, and how this relates to Xhaka maybe struggling in this system.

        I and others have compared the formation to the very old-fashioned W-M, at least in the attacking phase when the wingbacks push high up (the big difference is that they have way more defensive responsibility than classic wingers ever had, but then the likes of the Ox and Moses are probably way better athletes, and way, way fitter, than the average English winger was in the 1930’s, so their bodies should be able to handle the extra running).

        As readers of Inverting the Pyramid and any number of other books on the history of football tactics will remember (Paul Gardner’s got a nice simple discussion of this in The Simplest Game), the W-M was adapted from the Pyramid when Herbert Chapman withdrew one of his three midfielders into the backline, giving the team 3 instead of 2 defenders (this not unlike the switch Wenger, seemingly grudgingly, has made in the last two games, in the name of pragmatism and defensive solidity). But to compensate for the loss of the team’s creative star, the old-fashioned centre mid (the quarterback, basically), Chapman also withdrew his two inside forwards from the 5-man forward line into attacking midfield positions. So then you had 4 central “midfielders”, 2 deep, 2 in “high midfield”, who formed a box, the creative hub of the team. If that box was functioning properly, the team should be playing well.

        So, the moral of the story is, in the current team, Xhaka, Ramsey, Alexis, and Ozil, should be our 4-man box. Ozil and Alexis shouldn’t have the responsibility to play on the wing as much as they do in the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, since they’ve got wingbacks careening down the line outside of them at every opportunity. So their job should be primarily to take on the creative responsibilities of the team together, like dual number 10s, positioned just wide of centre. Sure, they will also have to act as forwards, supporting the CF with runs in behind, etc, but Ozil and Alexis already do these things instinctively. The role demands versatility–dropping deep one moment, pushing forward or wide the next–but the point is it’s almost entirely attacking versatility. They should be largely free from serious defensive duties (as much as this is ever the case in elite modern football!), but in return, the system is set up such that almost all the creative responsibility of the team falls on their shoulders.

        I don’t think Alexis and Ozil have quite adjusted to the system yet (Ozil somewhat in Ox’s shadow on the right, Alexis mostly very high and wide as a winger on the left), but when they adjust–if Wenger plays the system right–my guess is we’ll see both of them dropping into little pockets of space in front of the opposition’s defense, providing Ramsey and especially Xhaka with the chance to play those line-breaking balls from low to high midfield, such that the deep midfield two don’t look so overwhelmed.

        But maybe I’m being way too optimistic right now…

  5. I’m resigned to zero points from the next 3 league fixtures regardless of 3-4-3 or any other formation.

    I will be mightily impressed if we manage any continuity in confidence, composure or discipline to get any points from Leicester, S@#rs or Man U.

    1. I think it’s going to be W/L/D. Spurs are frankly a better team that we are and Mourinho knows how to get draws away from home; he’ll be keen to finish ahead of Wenger for his ego’s sake.

      That’s why I expect Wenger’s contract extension to be announced before the Spurs game.

  6. It was the blog writers and positiv (sic) posters wot dun it, they lifted the team and got the win, I bet they are eternally gratefull, well done to all the malcontents!!

  7. I didn’t think we could pull off a win yesterday until I saw Fabian Delph coming on to play. How is that guy still a City player? Yesterday was a good example of why it’s important to have a deep bench. We were able to substitute effectively while City struggled without Silva and Aguero.

    The title of the article says it all really. We did, finally, play like a team. The MF is still too open for my liking but that’s where the extra defender came in handy. Question is can we play possession football using a back 3 against a good team? I know City are a great possession team and we did improve a lot in the 2nd half but I do wonder if we need to find a David Luiz type of defender who can act as another MF player. I wouldn’t also mind seeing Sanchez upfront and Iwobi given a start in this new formation. Iwobi’s best attribute seems to be linking the MF and attack, and if he can add runs into the box to meet Ox’s crosses, we may be able to add a bit more dynamism to our attack.

    1. Delph is not an awful player, but he’s a bit like Wilshere: not as good as he thinks he is and clearly not good enough for a top drawer team. Also, I wouldn’t go bragging about our depth. Had it been Ozil and Sanchez that we lost yesterday, we would have lost just as much edge as they did. The Silva injury in particular was a huge blessing for us. He is a unique player on that team.

  8. If we do play a back 3 my ideal guy at the back is Per, always composed and reads the game well. On the right: Kos and left:Holding.
    I wonder how our midfield will cope when we are pressed hard like Liverpool or Chelsea. Cazorla as a partner to Xhaka in this role would be amazing. If Ramsey can be more disciplined, we will be fine, but as you say, we can never control a game. I guess its another way of playing.

  9. While three/five at the back is a significant change and offers certain advantages, I believe the bigger change is actually fielding only three out and out attackers. Whether it was the Invincibles 4-4-2 with Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, and Lundberg to our current 4-2-3-1 with Sanchez, Özil, and two of Walcott, Giroud, or Iwobi he’s been fairly consistent in fielding four attackers with six defenders/box to box players. The 3-4-3 fields only three attackers by pushing Özil to the right of a forward three away from his favored central role behind the forwards. That leaves seven who are either outright defenders or players who’s duties include both defending and supporting the attack.

    Earlier this season, I and others wondered about moving Özil to the right of a 4-3-3 and replacing one of the four attackers with a midfielder who would perform a more all around role to add some defensive stability and help in the crucial transitions between possession changes. Wenger has gone even further with 3-4-3 by replacing an outright attacker with an outright defender. For me, 4-3-3 could work as well but the most important change is Wenger accepting that he needed to remove an attacker in order to gain defensive stability.

    1. Very astute. Totally agree. I still like a 4-3-3 better, because of its ability to help us dominate the ball. I’m not opposed to eschewing sterile possession and attacking with swift counterattacks, a la the current 3-4-3, but in an ideal world, our central midfielders would be of such quality that we could play 3 of them in a 4-3-3 and that would provide sufficient defensive cover, even with very attacking fullbacks, to not require more than 2 CB’s behind them (would also be nice if Wenger could/would coach his fullbacks not to both get stranded incredibly high up the pitch at the same time…). We could have our cake and eat it too.
      But–ironically, given the worries early in the season that we had a glut of quality central midfielders–the collective failure of those in that position over the last few months (Coquelin can’t keep possession; Elneny can, but can’t defend; Wilshere ran away to Bournemouth; Santi is crocked; Ramsey lacks discipline both with and without the ball; Xhaka is slow; Ox is still too green to dominate in that position against top quality opponents; etc) has made the more pragmatic 3-4-3 make a lot of sense, at least for the time being.

  10. I hope that the 3 central defenders formation is here to stay (although it didn’t help us much that a simple ball over the top from Yaya put Aguero clean through, of which, more later). There is so much threat and athleticism on the flanks. Gabriel was very good in Sunday but I agree with Jack — Mustafi is a better long-term solution. Heck, he has the game to absolutely thrive in that system. Debuchy is done, so in Jenkinson, and you know, Chambers may have a way back. The left of the back 3 is understocked. Gibbs can’t really play there. Monreal can, because Arsene gave him experience there (instead of properly filling the shortage).The beauty of a back 3 is three tall-ass (or proper) centre backs, rather than 2 big blokes, and two small guys who can run up and down the wings.

    No matter how much we improve, we still have too many nearly players, and in that I include the much improved and recently outstanding Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. At 23, he still seems to be learning touch and control, but my goodness, what a burst of pace and cross he has on him. Giroud and Welbeck (unless you clone them), are not going to win you the league. I don’t get the Danny love. Marcus Rashford is twice the player he is. Doc says elite strikers are hard to get. So they are. I’d expect the 5th riches club in the world to be able to procure one in the 5 years since we sold the last decent one we had.

    And speaking of nearly players… folks, we have a goalkeeping problem. Cech is done. The guy we bought is not the one Chelsea had in their glory years. Looked like Methuselah coming out to challenge Aguero. Should have done better.

    1. Cech isn’t ‘done’, but yeah, I think we should get a new keeper to take over, or at least challenge for the starting spot. I’d like that to be Szczesny who seems to have matured well as a keeper, but I wonder if his transgression was so great that Wenger isn’t going to play him again. In any case, I think Ospina is on his way out and Cech and Martinez won’t be good enough, so we need a new keeper.

      Ox has had his progress interrupted by injuries. I think he’s making good strides and has worked on his game. He’s keeping his head up more for one. He’s also making more of an effort to track back and not needlessly give up the ball in deep positions. The trouble is he’s also only got one year left on his contract and has the same agent as Sterling. Seems to have a better head on his shoulders so there’s hope. Wenger was emphatic in wanting him to stay.

      If we are getting Kolasinac, he can play as a CB too.

  11. Arsenal 3-4-3 / 3-4-2-1 is reminiscent of how Chelsea have been playing this season. The biggest difference between the two sides (based on little evidence we have from Arsenal playing the formation twice) is the mid field.

    Chelsea have ball interceptor cum recycler cum passer cum mid field engine in Kante. The only player I can think of emulating that role in current Arsenal ranks is Ramsey although, its been a while since, he has really convinced in Arsenal colors.

    The next cog in their mid field has been either a strong presence physically in the form of Matic or, an expert passer in the form of Cesc depending on the opposition. The Kante-Matic axis has protected their back three and provided cover across the defense covering any lapses by Luiz and co. They have been instrumental in beginning attacks for their side as well. We have options in Santi and Xhaka to choose from however, I feel Xhaka needs to up his game and start proving to be more of a presence.

    Coming to the attack, a combination of Hazard with either Willian or, Pedro provides two mobile auxiliary forwards behind a classic center forward. I feel any of those combinations works like a charm for this Chelsea squad disrupting opposition defense as they move forward. Coming to Arsenal, we have Alexis who is a world beater when it comes to mobile forwards. Though, in support we do not have the same quality. Ozil is a classic 10 capable of operating on the wings but, he seems diminished in this auxiliary role.

    If this system has to work for Arsenal, they need to play the right players who would compliment the system or, tweak it to make sure the players’ performance are maximized. With the right amount of focus, this formation may just work.


  12. Only recently started suffering from sciatica myself Tim. It’s the first physical issue i’ve had that makes me feel old and knackered. Sounds like I’m getting off lightly compared to you. 🙁
    Hope the physiotherapy/exercise helps you get some mobility back dude.

  13. Hey Tim, if you want some specific advice on how to treat the Achilles tendonosis (tendinitis is an acute condition, the tendon breaks down and weakens over time and it becomes a tendonosis) your welcome to send me an email. I have a lot of experience treating the condition and can at least put you on the right track. Briefly, though there is some underlying contributing factors that need to be resolved for any individual (ie. lower limb biomechanics and foot/ankle mobility issues) the key with any chronic achiles tendonosis is restrengthening (especially where sciatica has preceded the problem and likely contributed to the weakening of the calf complex). If you haven’t been given slow eccentric loading exercises (slow calf lowering exercise using body weight over edge of stair) you probably need a new Dr and Physiotherapist. I won’t bore your readers further with more specifics or parenthesis but I would be happy to help and look forward to hearing from you if you wish to take me up on my offer.

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