Arsenal win again with three at the back, but what's changed?

Alistair Tweedale
Gabriel looks far more at home in a back three - Rex Features

It has been clear for a while to many Arsenal fans that a change of some sort was necessary.

The 'Wenger Out' brigade has become louder and angrier than ever, with Champions League qualification an increasingly distant possibility and the same problems that have plagued the club in recent years appearing again.

Then, at Middlesbrough last Monday, Arsene Wenger sprung the biggest tactical surprise he has made in years - or possibly ever.

He has before selected a player that nobody expected - take Yaya Sanogo's inclusion against Bayern Munich in 2014, for example - but an entire change of system is very rare indeed.

At the Riverside last week it was the in-vogue three-at-the-back that Wenger changed to. Beating Boro was no great achievement, but that decision was patently taken with Sunday's FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City in mind.

Again they played in a 3-4-2-1 formation, and again they won.

Arsenal 2 Manchester City 1 - player ratings: Who impressed at Wembley?

It wasn't anything revolutionary from Wenger: plenty of other Premier League sides have used a three-man defence this season, but it was a surprise to see him changing formation at all. He has steadfastly stuck to a 4-2-3-1 for years; a sign of inflexibility that, combined with poor results, has only added to calls for him to leave at the end of the season.

Arsenal have been considered a rather feeble side defensively for a while now, but they looked markedly stronger at Wembley, with the main beneficiaries of the switch central defenders Gabriel and Rob Holding.

Neither has been hugely impressive playing in a back four this season. Gabriel's introduction away to Bayern Munich was the catalyst for Arsenal's capitulation, while Holding looked some way off being a complete defender.

21-year-old Rob Holding had a very impressive game Credit: Rex Features

But the security of another centre-back has helped those two, with the chances of being left exposed, one-on-one with an attacker, significantly lessened.

Arsenal defended deep and narrow, with their wing-backs dropping into full-back positions to form a back five when out of possession. With four midfielders in front of them, it was hard for City to find space through the middle.

They were forced wide and crowded out in the penalty area when crosses came in.

Arsenal made a total of 31 clearances over the course of the match. Holding and Gabriel were the top two players in this column, with eight and six, respectively.

Manchester City crosses

The most difficult positions to play in this formation are the wing-backs, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had one of his best games in recent memory, setting up Arsenal's equaliser for the man on the other flank, Nacho Monreal, with a beautiful cross to the back post.

They ran tirelessly, providing attacking outlets with the ball and a solid defensive line without it. Oxlade-Chamberlain created more chances than any other Arsenal player, with three, and dribbled past more opponents than anyone on either team, doing so six times.

Finding his best position has been a long time coming, and though it is early days, the signs from the last couple of matches have been promising.

There wasn't a great deal of evidence that Olivier Giroud was comfortable playing in the new formation, but he has been out of form for a while and may just need a bit of time, but Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil enjoyed being able to come off the flanks and float between the lines, as well as launching counter-attacks.

Whether Aaron Ramsey can play regularly in a midfield two remains to be seen Credit: Reuters

Central midfield could provide the biggest potential problem, as Aaron Ramsey was continually caught out of position and Granit Xhaka was caught in possession a few times. How they will contend with facing the likes of Chelsea's Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante could decide where the FA Cup goes.

It was hardly a complete performance, with holes that will need plugging in time for the final - and more imminently Sunday's north London derby - but there were plenty of positives to take.

A switch to a back three might not change the minds of many fans who have turned on Wenger, but it could bring a strong end to the season and maybe even some silverware. Maybe Wenger isn't so stubborn after all?

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