4-3-3 to a 3-4-3: Why our change of shape has been so effective of late
By Rob Worthington (Senior Writer)
Before I begin, let me just say how good it feels to be back writing for you guys on a Thursday! Throughout lockdown, this was my usual slot and, strangely, I've missed having the freedom to write about whatever I want concerning Arsenal. That being said, the last few weeks may have been hectic but it's been incredible to write about actual football matches again. Anyway, onto the article.
After Arsenal’s disastrous loss away at Brighton last month, Mikel Arteta decided change was needed. However, it could be argued that the few personnel modifications are not the main reason his change has been so effective. Instead, there is clearly ground to believe that the change in system is responsible for the upturn in form. But why has the shift to the 3-4-3 been so transformative? Well, contrary to common belief, the 3-4-3 isn’t an inherently defensive formation. It actually holds many similarities to a Guardiola-esque 4-3-3 system. The role of the defender in the middle of the 3 plays a role that can be compared to that of the base player in a midfield 3. Then, the two central-midfielders sitting in front of the defence play regista-type roles. Would you really look at Man City’s system and think that it’s particularly pragmatic? No. The fact of the matter is that right now we don’t have a squad which is particularly well-suited to a 4-3-3. The key problem here is our midfield. There is no obvious candidate to come in and play as the anchor whilst the majority of our offensively-minded midfielders prefer to operate from deep. So, the 3-4-3 system quashes these conundrums emphatically.
A key player within the set-up is David Luiz. The enigmatic Brazilian, on his day, is arguably the best in the world at operating as the central-defender in a back three. His superb range of passing allows him to dictate play from deep, just as a regista does in a 4-3-3. This role also takes a defensive load off David Luiz’s back as he is only instructed to defend in wide areas if need’s must. Thus, the likelihood of a comical Luiz error decreases tenfold when he is deployed in this system. Then, of course, Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos look like they are thoroughly enjoying playing within the 3-4-3. Why? Because it allows them to do what they love. Operate from deep, whilst not being burdened with too much defensive responsibility. The marauding roles of the wing-backs mean they provide the width required to support the wide-forwards. In a 4-3-3, there is an onus on the mezzalas to push up high and wide at times in order to help the wide men, something which Xhaka and Ceballos’ aren’t naturally inclined to do. Thus, the likes of Tierney and Bellerin perform this aspect of a mezzala’s job, allowing Ceballos and Xhaka to remain deep. Simple but genius. The front 3 found in the 3-4-3 is also well-suited to our attacking personnel. As inside forwards, there is a small defensive weight taken off the shoulders of our wingers and they get to operate closer to the centre-forward. For Pépé on the right, this is helpful as he performs at his best when there are plenty of red and white shirts in and around him. On the left, Aubameyang is given the opportunity to play in a striker-like role while continuing to keep the threat he poses coming in from the flank. Just how well this system suits us is quite remarkable.
Still, the areas for concern are clear to see. Firstly, left and right centre-back. If we had Pablo Marì available to us the concern may not be quite so prominent. However, he is not, which has meant Sead Kolasinac has had to play as a centre-half, a position the Bosnian looks really uncomfortable in, not offering enough in his distribution, and thus not really contributing to the extensive build up play he’s involved in. On the opposite side, Mustafi of course is a natural centre-back, and he has delivered some really promising performances lately, but he lacks the ability to concentrate for a full 90 minutes. Both players were partially at fault for the concession of Jamie Vardy’s goal on Tuesday night. Then, despite Xhaka and Ceballos’ lack of attacking prowess being disguised in this system, the fact they are two very similar players is slightly problematic. Yes, their builds are completely different and Ceballos is a bit better technically, and more well-rounded. But, the strongest aspect of both their games is ball progression through passes rather than ball-carrying. We really do lack a player who can single-handedly drive our team forward and this could be a key reason for the problems we face between minute 45 and 70. That being said, the positives we’ve seen in recent weeks in this system override the concerns. I still believe that Mikel Arteta’s long-term plan will be to convert to a 4-3-3 but it’s great to see that the talented young coach has found a system which gets the most out of the tools currently available to him. Long may the defensive solidity and flashes of stunning attacking play continue.