Like many a seasons during Arsenal’s English Premier League barren run, the Gunners have consistently put on a superb showing in the last 10 matches of the season.
The catalyst of that upturn in form changes from year to year; sometimes it is the return of players to the first team, sometimes it is the catharsis that comes with defeating Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena and almost knocking them out despite losing the first game at home, sometimes it is the pure desire to celebrate Saint Totteringham’s day.
Last season it was Arsene Wenger doing an Antonio Conte and switching to a three (read: five) man defence. That run of form in the final 13 matches of the game culminated in the apprentice defeating the master of the three-man defence at Wembley in the FA Cup final as Chelsea were decidedly second best all over the pitch.
A sort of vindication for the defensive approach was sullied by the fact that Arsenal had failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time under Wenger.
A relatively quiet summer, compared to other clubs, saw Arsenal bring in Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac in a move that would suggest Wenger wanted to play the three-man defence in the long-run.
Poor defending in the first three matches, which yielded only one victory in the form of a 4-3 win over Leicester and included a hammering to remember at Liverpool’s hands, led to calls for Wenger to go back to a back-four.
But if Wenger is anything, he is stubborn.
Wins over Bournemouth and Koln averted talks of a full-blown crisis and subsided the #WengerOut calls and vindication, once again, came in the form of a performance-of-the-season against Chelsea.
A 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge when Arsenal were being touted to be hammered by the defending champions is a positive result in everybody’s minds, but if this was the best performance of the season, then Wenger and Arsenal have some soul-searching to do.
The main reason this works so well for teams is that it allows the smoothest of transitions between attack and defence. The seven-man defence suddenly becomes a seven-man attack. But for that transition to take place, every team needs an outball. That outball usually translated to a tall targetman up front that plays with his back to goal.
That though, holds up play and defeats the very purpose of a 3-4-3 and it’s various variants — fast transitions.
The outball, therefore, is a tricky player playing out wide, that dribbles with the ball at speed while others rush forward in support. He typically has a bouncing partner up front that he can do a quick 1-2 with if he can’t dribble his way through.
For Chelsea, see Eden Hazard. For Barcelona in that famous PSG win, see Neymar. For Juventus, see Paulo Dybala. For Arsenal, that man was a certain Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez was instrumental in that late run and was a constant threat in that FA Cup final.
This time around, he has watched mainly from the bench after his move to Manchester City never materialised. He has been replaced by Danny Welbeck, who has impressed but certainly isn’t Sanchez’s replacement in anybody’s books.
Sanchez’s unhappiness means Arsenal do not have that all-important outball.
The other problem comes in with what this formation means to ‘The Arsenal way’ of playing. Many fans welcomed this way precisely because it represents a shift away from that fragile nature, as proven at the Bridge where the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka bullied Chelsea’s central midfield.
Many would argue Ramsey’s run into the boxing was quite akin to the Arsenal Way of old, with Patrick Vieira famed for such runs. Others, with a snide smile, would also argue that Lacazette’s miss from six yards out with Thibaut Courtois nowhere to be seen in goal is also symptomatic of the Arsenal way.
But while Vieira bull-dozed his way through such defences, Ramsey often blunders his way through. The end result may sometimes be the same but the aesthetics are decidedly different.
And Arsenal, at least Wenger’s Arsenal, have always been all about aesthetics.
The 3-4-3 is not built for pretty passing since it takes one man from midfield and puts him in defence, leaving the team light in the middle. Managers like Wenger have thrived by putting an extra body in the middle of the park, whether in the form of a forward falling deep to receive the ball or a defender running forward to join the attack.
A 3-4-3 is not meant for patient, beautiful build-ups, it is meant for the quick incisive strike — it awards ruthlessness and efficiency, not exactly two traits associated with Arsenal.
By placing an extra body in defence, Wenger is sacrificing that one rule he has had for more than two decades at Arsenal; beautiful football.
In doing so he stands to tarnish his reputation.