ARSENAL’S 2-1 win over Middlesbrough at the Riverside on Monday helped them keep their slim hopes of a top four finish alive.
But the most interesting aspect of the win was Arsene Wenger’s decision to switch from a back four to 3-4-3.
Football Whispers look at what made the change so successful and why it’s the new formation of choice after 4-4-2 was cast aside.
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Antonio Conte was always going to change Chelsea to playing three at the back… there is a chain of thought that suggests the Blues’ early struggles were part of his master-plan.
It paid off massively and despite their slip-up at Old Trafford on Sunday, the Italian boss and his 3-4-3 is on the verge of winning the Premier League title at the first attempt.
Conte had previously used 3-5-2 at Juventus, something that has become a very valid option at The Old Lady under both himself and Massimiliano Allegri.
Even at Euro 2016, it was Italy’s 3-5-2 that made them so hard to break down and although unspectacular, one of the most effective teams in the competition.
After Arsenal lost 3-0 to Crystal Palace and the players were berated for their lack of effort and apparent sense of giving up, something had to change and this was the move that no one saw coming.
On the formation switch for the Boro game, Wenger said: “I felt that we were recently a bit vulnerable defensively and to give a bit more reassurance to the team.
“Recently we faced many direct games, I thought before the game maybe they’d play with [Rudy] Gestede and [Alvaro] Negredo and go for a very direct game. Those are the reasons.”
Moving Nacho Monreal to left wing-back and protecting Laurent Koscielny with Rob Holding and Gabriel either side worked and Wenger was happy with the results.
He added: “It worked well in the first half, we didn’t give any chances away and we were quite solid on set-pieces.
“In the second half on one or two occasions, I felt we could have been a bit more dominant in the air.”
The French boss, who is believed to be on the verge of signing a new contract extension with the Gunners, had spoken about his desire to still adapt his game and continue to change and learn.
This was a clear sign that he capable of breathing new life into his career.
Using a formation for the first time in two decades takes guts and proves he’s still fighting for the fate of the club.
Wenger went on to say: “The first time in 20 years, that shows you that even in my age you can change.
“But sometimes when a team lacks confidence, just to add something new to believe helps to focus and overall the fact that we conceded three at West Brom, three at Crystal Palace, I felt it was needed.”
Playing 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 is somewhat of a throwback to the olden days of defensive Italian football, but with the way the modern game has developed it is the perfect formation for the Premier League.
Gone are the days of full-backs whose priority is defending.
In the modern game, players like Hector Bellerín, Kieran Gibbs, Arsenal transfer target Sead Kolasinac and Marcos Alonso, are built to go forward.
All too often this will be exposed in a back four, but with extra protection, they are giving the freedom to attack at will and it brings the best out of their qualities.
One of Jose Mourinho’s biggest criticisms over Eden Hazard at Chelsea was the Belgian’s defensive contributions.
However, playing 3-4-3 at Stamford Bridge gives the wingers a player behind them, meaning they can also play more facing the opposition goal, rather than being asked to protect the defence.
With 14 goals and five assists, it’s safe to say that the former Lille attacker is feeling the benefits of Conte’s system.
A long-term switch to 3-4-3 would give Wenger the chance to play Alexis Sanchez on the wing, letting him cut inside on to his right-foot, but without the Chilean having to pull back.
You are then allowed to have a two or a three-man central midfield.
You don’t need two holding players building a shield in front of two centre-backs, so you can have one player, like N’Golo Kante, but give your team a chance to be creative through the middle.
It is the sort of system that should help players like Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil flourish.
Even Liverpool target Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be put to better use in a 3-4-3.
At right wing-back, he could be as productive as Victor Moses or he would have the protection to play in the centre of the park, a position where he looks quite natural and where he could finally produce his best.
Playing 4-4-2, unless you are Leicester City with Kante covering the ground of two men, can become easily exposed and lack creativity and the ability to get players in between the lines.
If your wide midfielders cut inside, like at Monaco in Ligue 1, you rely on the width coming from the full-backs, which Manchester City and Dortmund showed, can leave you very exposed behind them.
No formation is perfect, and football – much like fashion, music and hairstyles – has followed trends and reinvention.
With the way modern football is evolving, playing three at the back, with attacking wing-backs seems to be the future.
Now, Wenger has the chance to be bold once again and try his new look side against Manchester City and try and book Arsenal’s place in the FA Cup final.