Can Arsenal play in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system?

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Is 3-4-3 becoming en vogue?

In the process of being spanked 3-0 by Arsenal back in September, Antonio Conte made a tactical change which did not change the course of the game, but changed the course of the season. Switching from the Premier League favoured 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3.

Chelsea still lost 3-0, but since the tactical change, have won 7 Premier League games in a row, seen the team concede just once, scoring 19 and conceding just the one. They have also gone top of the league.

3-4-3 was Conte’s favoured formation at both Italy and Juventus. Pep Guardiola occasionally played it at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The turn around in fortunes at Chelsea under this formation are remarkable. It is incredible to think that after the defeat to Arsenal, Conte was the bookies favourite to be Next Manager Sacked.

Tactics are a bit like clothes, they come in and our of fashion.

Up until the mid 00’s, you would struggle to find a team not playing 4-4-2. Then Jose Mourinho came along and started to play 4-3-3. He won the league and suddenly 4-4-2 was dropped, with every Premier League side mirroring Mourinho’s tactics. This formation then evolved to the 4-2-3-1 that nearly every Premier League side now plays.

It is usually a case of following the best side in the league. And it extends further. Look how many times tried to copy Barcelona and Spain with their Tiki-taka football. The trick is you can only mimic a formation or tactic if you have the players to do so. Like England showed, there is no point trying to play possession based football if you do not have the players good enough to pass.

Germany and Bayern Munich under Guardiola saw a slight move away from Tiki-taka and a return slightly to the power and pace of the 90’s. This was of governed by the players he had at his disposal. Whilst Bayern did play possession based football, it was not as strict as Barcelona and they often made use of the pace and power of the likes of Robben, Muller, Lewandowksi and Ribery. Guardiola adapted his own tactics to the players he had at his disposal.

And now we come to 3-4-3.

Chelsea are already using it to good affect. We have seen Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester City all have minor spells where they switched into this formation. One thing is for certain, if Chelsea continue to be successful with the formation, more teams will follow.

Over the next 18 months, if Chelsea clean up at home and in Europe, 3-4-3 will spread like wildfire through the continent.

Without going into the tactical positives and negatives of the formation too much – there are a lot more knowledgeable and better tactical bloggers out their than me (go to The Highbury Library to read them) – the only thing I will say on it is it is a misleading formation.

By having just 3 defenders, many will think it is a more attacking formation than the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 that many sides currently play. This is often incorrect.

The way Arsenal currently line up, the full backs are often pushed past the midfielders auxiliary wingers. This often leaves the side with just 2 defenders, the centre backs. So whilst in 3-4-3 you usually have 3 staying back, in 4-2-3-1 at Arsenal it is often just the 2. So do not think “3 defenders means more attacking” it does not.

A few years back now, many Arsenal fan’s were calling for the side to play with 3 at the back. This was back in the day of us having Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen in the squad.

The rationale was simple. We were struggling to keep clean sheets, all 3 were decent defenders with strengths, but all had their weaknesses.

You play Mertesacker in the middle of the 3 with his height, leadership and organisation skills. Either side of him you have Koscielny and Vermaelen. One naturally right sided, the other naturally left sided. Both weak positionally in defence, but both very good coming out with the ball. With Mertesacker leadership, it could have moulded, it could have worked.

Arsene Wenger stuck to 4 at the back, and probably rightly so. At the time it was when we only had those 3 as centre back options. There was no back up to them. Had one got injured, which they so often did, it would have left us relying on the likes of Bacary Sagna or Nacho Monreal as the back up centre backs. It would have meant that we would have gone to the market and signed at least another 2 centre backs.

Roll forward a few years and 3-4-3 could be back on the table.

Should Arsenal follow Chelsea and change up the formation? A lot depends on whether we have the players.

Defence

The biggest argument a few years ago against 3-4-3 was that we did not have the strength in depth to play with 3 centre backs as we only had 3 of them.

In 2016 it is a different story. Arsenal have Koscielny, Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, Gabriel, Rob Holding and on loan Calum chambers.

In the current 4 set up, Mustafi and Koscielny have looked good, but they do tend to give opponents a chance. It seems very easy for a striker to find space between the two. Arsenal are 5 games without a clean sheet.

Mustafi is brilliant on the ball. He is the real deal. Twice the player of John Stones at half the cost (nearly). He would excel on the right side of the 3. The left side is a bit more problematic.

Koscielny is a right sided centre back. He is only playing on the left side as he is more versatile and senior to Mustafi. Could he do a job on the left hand side of a 3? Or should we look to purchase a left footed left book? For now Koscielny would play there.

In the middle, it is a straight choice. Gabriel with his aggression and lack of discipline. Mertesacker with his leadership, height but lack of pace.

Personally I think that Mustafi Gabriel Koscielny would be too similar. Mertesacker would give the side more balance. But it would also be about which of the 3 gels the best, which you will only discover in game situations.

For now, if everyone was fit, it would be:

Mustafi Mertesacker Koscielny

Midfield

Hector Bellerin would be the best right wing back in the world. It would not even be a debate. He has the pace, the composure in the ball, the ability to get up and down the picture. 3-4-3 would suit him down to a tee. The left hand side is a little bit of a worry.

Nacho Monreal is a left back, not a left winger, so he is out. Potentially relegated to a role of back up left sides centre back. Kieran Gibbs is a better option, and perhaps had he played as a wing back throughout his career, he might have had a more fruitful one. Going forward has always been his strength.

On the left you could also have the option of playing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Even more attacking than Gibbs, less of a defender, could he develop like Victor Moses did? The major question mark over him would be whether he has the fitness to get up and down.

In the short term, Kieran Gibbs would probably come in, but it would be an area of weakness and you would like to see Arsenal target someone like Ricardo Rodriguez.

The middle two are important. Chelsea play Matic and Kante in the middle of the park. Both are hard workers who cover the ground. With them often being 2 v 3, they need to be focused on keeping the middle strong. However with 3 centre backs behind them, you do have a little space to not have to play out and out defensive midfielders.

The most natural partnership would probably be Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. Both very good central midfielder who can both defend and get forward. They would probably work well in the system, as the 3 defenders behind them would make up for any defensive frailties they might have.

In Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny, you have good back up for the 1st choice pair.

Where this would leave Santi Cazorla is unknown. He would struggle in the midfield two. He just does not have the legs to cover the full back and then get back inside to the middle of the park/

Bellerin Ramsey Xhaka Gibbs

Forward

Upfront is fairly interesting. If you have been keeping up, you would realise that we still have Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi at our disposal.

The common set up for a 3-4-3 sees the midfield and forward line make Herbet Champion’s famous M shape:

untitled

3-4-3 would mean the death of the number 10. No more Mesut Ozil. No more Santi Cazorla. So how do you fit everyone in?

Alexis Sanchez starts. You make space for him and he is capable playing in any of the front 3 positions. The question is whether you try and accommodate Mesut Ozil by pushing him out wide?

He is a talented player, and I would try everything in my power to accommodate Ozil, but when I try too, it does feel a bit too much like putting a square peg in a round hole.

The best combination would be either Walcott Giroud Sanchez or Walcott Sanchez Ox. Personally, if we were keeping the M forward line, I would go for Walcott Giroud Sanchez, with Danny Welbeck potentially coming in, either as centre forward our wide left, when he is fit.

But then that leaves Ozil no-where. Whilst I am sure this will please a lot of our boo boys who are still moaning about him, even when Arsenal won 3-1, we could maybe try a spin on the forward line to accommodate him.

Rather than play the M we could like to play a dice like 5 formation.

cdscds

This would allow the inclusion of Ozil, given a free role to float left and right. Up top we would then play the two forwards narrower than they play in a free, with Ozil feeding them both. You would need the pair to be mobile as they will be expected to cover both the centre and drop out wide. It is for that reason that Sanchez and Walcott (or Welbeck) could be the ideal situation in my newly invented 3-4-DICE formation. An evolution on 3-4-3.

So how would Arsenal line up in Arsene Keenos’ revolutionary 3-4-Dice formation:

34dice

And if we went for a standard 3-4-3:

343

Keenos

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