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Breaking Down the 3-3-3-1 Formation: Could Bielsa’s Bold Tactics Influence Arteta’s Arsenal?

By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)

Does Adrian Clarke annoy anyone else?

Okay, that’s really not the way to start an article, is it? Let me rephrase. Those of you who follow Arsenal anywhere on social media have seen his pre-match and post-match analyses of our play, formations, and other aspects of the beautiful game.

And for those of you who know me, and know my writing, you know I’m a person with agendas. I’m a season ticket holder of Narratives FC, a card-carrying member of the Bundesliga recruitment club, and I love Rob Holding more than most. One of those personal agendas is that I find Adrian Clarke rather insufferable, but sometimes, the dude just gets it right.

He wrote a tactical writeup (wrote a writeup, who would’ve thought?) on the formations used this season in the Premier League, and I must say, I really enjoyed it. Per Clarke, chopping and changing formation was especially popular this season in the Premier League, and he mixes fun facts with genuinely decent analysis as to why flexibility is the key to tactics in this day and age.

Only 4 teams used the same formation in over 75% of their matches this season, and only Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl stuck to his beloved 4-4-2 in every match played this season. Fifteen of 20 teams used both a back three and a back four over the course of the season. Carlo Ancelotti was the least secure in a single shape, using no formation more than nine times, and Graham Potter's selections were the most varied, using 13 different formations throughout the season. Clarke also touches on the transition of the ever-popular 3-4-3 into the slightly narrower 3-4-2-1 (to allow for overlapping fullbacks, and an increase in defensive solidity) and the 3-4-1-2, used for the same reason, but prioritizing two strikers or forwards up front, with slightly more central support.

So where does Bielsa come into this?

Under the heading “Innovation,” Clarke has this to say about Marcelo Bielsa’s creative use of formations.

“A total of 21 different systems were used in 2020/21, an increase of three on the previous season.
One of those new shapes was 3-3-3-1, used five times by promoted Leeds United.
It is an innovative formation synonymous with Marcelo Bielsa, who will station two inverted wing-backs either side of his holding midfielder.
Playing this way allows his three centre-backs to split wider when building moves from the back, without leaving holes in the middle.”

Cheers Adrian, I’ll take it from here. The 3-3-3-1 is a very flexible formation. It allows for a solid five-back out of possession, or a transition into a four with a central midfielder either tucking in from the wide positions or stepping up from the backline. It also allows for wingers and fullbacks to interchange heavily, with creative forwards able to drop deeper to facilitate high runs from the wingbacks.

Furthermore, it's designed for systems where the centre-backs and holding midfielders are key in building moves from the back, but alleviates the risk of your progressive players being stuck behind the lines, as opposed to deploying them between them, to facilitate progressive movement and limit your opponent's ability to establish their shape. Any of this sounding familiar to you? Here's why.

When Tierney was injured toward the end of this past season, Arteta often deployed a 3-3-3-1 in game, adjusting his tactics to hide the weaknesses of various players. Granit Xhaka would deploy at left back in the Starting XI, but would drop into left-centre-back, with Calum Chambers and one of Dani Ceballos or Willian dropping from the midfield into a more defensive role, with mixed results.

If you’ll recall, Chambers thrived in that role, convincing Arteta he should become the first-choice right-back. Conversely, Ceballos convinced just about everybody at the club that he should not return. Remember the nightmares that Joe Rodon gave him charging up from right back? Yeah. He was playing that inverted role, unsuccessfully. And Willian just got in the way, to my great surprise.

As a formation, it found mixed results, but I’d argue much of that was down to personnel. Ceballos lacked the pace to fill large gaps, and Thomas Partey couldn’t cover the entire midfield on his own, especially when Chambers stepped up into forward areas. But I believe the 3-3-3-1 could be an intriguing option this upcoming season, and I’ll show you why.

Below are three Arsenal formations, using the players currently at our disposal. On the left is a 4-2-3-1, and on the center and right are two similar takes on potential 3-3-3-1 formations.

I wouldn't want such a rigid structure as might originally be considered with a Bielsa 3-3-3-1, and much of that comes down to Kieran Tierney. The Scotsman loves to play on the touchline, and though I think he would be excellent in an inverted role, his best work comes beating players out wide. Assuming Arteta continues to work with his normal 4-2-3-1 shape next season, I believe that moving Saka centrally would allow Smith Rowe and Tierney to interchange beautifully on the left flank, as shown above. Not to mention, Bukayo Saka would be a wonderful No. 10, no?

Many of you will question Mo Elneny at central centre-back, and you're right, it's not perfect. But in a dream scenario, we're bound to sign a midfielder to cover for that particular hole in the team. For the sake of argument, I'll bring up to two potentially touted signings that seem to be gaining some traction.

I believe Yves Bissouma would slot perfectly into that central slot. He's a pure No. 6, and in possession, could use his mobility and passing range to back up Thomas Partey, stepping centrally if the Ghanaian is called to clean up a mess on one of the flanks. His defensive nous goes without saying, but you certainly want Bissouma on one side of the ball—preferably facing it—and not overextended, as that's where he does his best work.

And if Arsenal were to sign Manuel Locatelli, that left centre-back role would fit him to a tee. Though he is also right-footed, his long passes and specifically switches of play are his greatest strong suit. The Sassuolo man completed (yes, not attempted, you read that correctly) nearly seven switches per 90 minutes this season, and is most comfortable lying deeper on the left side a midfield, raking the ball to the feet of anybody available on the far touchline. Given Chambers' technical ability and Pépé's penchant to receive a progressive pass, it would be a perfect fit, and Gabriel has the pace to cover for the Italian if he steps up into the midfield. Not to mention, William Saliba could easily step into that setup as well.

And if Tierney didn't play for one reason or another, Smith Rowe could quite easily step up to the left, allowing whichever midfielder had dropped into defense to fill his original role, and potentially even freeing up Thomas Partey, with Tierney's replacement filling in on the left side, or stepping up into the midfield with Calum Chambers sliding back. Flexibility is at a premium, and it's exemplified by the 3-3-3-1.

I'm not saying this should be the be-all-end-all of Arsenal's 20201/22 season. We shouldn't even use it out of possession, except against the counter attack. And to be clear, I believe a 4-3-3 is the best way for this team to move forward. But it's something to consider.

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