It was early April 2017 when Arsene Wenger made the move from 4 at the back to 3 at the back.
We had just been taken apart away from home to Crystal Palace, and were on a run of just one win in 8 in the Premier League. We had also been knocked out the Champions League 10-2 on aggregate by Bayern Munich. Things we bleak.
Against Middlesbrough, Wenger tried out 3 at the back. We were unconvincing in a 2-1 victory.
The next game cemented the formation change, as Arsenal beat Manchester City in the FA Cup. A victory against Leicester followed before Arsenal went to White Hart Lane and lost to Spurs. That defeat would prove to be Arsenal’s lone loss post-Palace as the side won 8 out of 9 games, including the FA Cup Final against Chelsea.
Fast forward 8 months and it feels like we are at a crossroads once more. Having failed to win 7 out of 16 games, Arsenal are out of the title race by December.
It is not just how many points we are behind Manchester City that it is a concern, but how many games where we have looked shakey at the back, and toothless upfront. Even games which we have won this season, many have been unconvincing victories.
Is it time that Wenger dropped 3 at the back at returned to 4 at the back?
There are many things to consider
One of the losers in the switch will be Nacho Monreal.
The Spanish full back has been one of our players of the season playing on the left hand side of a 3 man defence, but playing in a 2 man partnership is very different to playing in a 3 man partnership, and Monreal will lose out.
Sead Kolasinac has also been a stand out performer, and it would be illogical to drop him for Monreal.
On the other side of the pitch, Monreal’s international team mate would actually benefit from the switch.
Bellerin has been poor this season. He has neither the skill level or crossing ability to be our main outlet out wide.
In the back end of last season, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain excelled at right wing back, as he bought an attacking players ability to the wing back position. Bellerin is better in defence, but not as good going forward.
Returning to 4 at the back would see Bellerin play a less important role going forward, and this will be a positive.
Who in the middle of the defence?
Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny looked shakey in a two together last season, and time is winding down for Per Mertesacker. Rob Holding and Calum Chambers look further away from the first team than at any point in their Arsenal careers.
That would lead to Mustafi and Koscileny being the only option. But is it solid enough?
Formation, formation, formation
If we go to 3 at the back, there is a huge debate to be had as to the make-up of the midfield.
Once view is to go 2 up top. Play Alexandre Lacazette and Olivier Giroud together. Mesut Ozil in behind, then a solid midfield 3 of Grant Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey (who is now injured) and Jack Wilshere.
Whilst the midfield 3 would certainly provide more cover, the midfield would end up very narrow. And then what is the point of playing Giroud with a narrow midfield – he relies on service from out wide.
The answer would then be that the full backs provide the service, but that in turn exposes the defence which at that point will have two central defenders rather than the current 3. And it brings Bellerin back to being the main creator on the right.
The second option would be to go back to 4231 with Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez and Ozil playing in behind a loan striker. There is some debate as to whether it would be better for Lacazette or Giroud to be that loan striker.
4231 would also see old problems be exposed as Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka are incapable to shielding the back 4.
A final solution could be the old Christmas tree. Play Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka in central midfield, with Ozil and Sanchez ahead, then Lacazette up top on his own.
Whilst this would put expectation on the wingers once more, Ozil and Sanchez would be able to drift out wide to assist them – Like they have done this season when we have bought Giroud on to chase games. Also the lack of Giroud would mean that our game is no longer all about getting the ball out wide.
And what if someone leaves?
Ozil or Sanchez leaving (and depending on who would come in) could also alter the decision making process.
Someone like Thomas Lemar is an old school winger, he will get quality balls into the box. He would suit someone like Giroud.
Whilst the likes of Julian Draxler and Leon Goretzka are more centrally based players who would suit the narrower formation of playing Lacazette, and the flexibility to drop into wide positions when required.
Time to sacrifice the league?
Maybe the long term solution will be to sacrifice the league this year? We are not going to win it, so perhaps we should use the Premier League to experiment and prepare the team for the Europa League and FA Cup.
We have 7 games until Nottingham Forest away, and then another potential 8 games until we face Ostersunds.
That is plenty of time to decide on, train and implement a new formation to concentrate on competitions that we still have of winning.
One thing is for sure, it is not going to be as easy as simply going to 4 at the back. There is plenty to think about.