Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City could prove to be a nightmare for Arsene Wenger if Pep Guardiola gets the better of Arsenal’s back three, former Gunner Martin Keown has warned.
For the first time since May 1997 Wenger deployed his Arsenal side with a back three on Monday in a 2-1 win at Middlesbrough, Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the wing-backs with Rob Holding making a rare start alongside Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny at the back.
The 3-4-3 was designed to protect Arsenal’s rickety defence, which had leaked 16 goals since the start of March, and was largely successful, albeit against a Middlesbrough side that possess the Premier League’s most toothless frontline.
Tottenham and Chelsea have already enjoyed great success with a back three this season but Keown, who played the 13 minutes against Derby that was Arsenal’s previous game in the formation, doubts it would be the right approach for his former side at Wembley.
“It would be safer for Arsenal to play with a four,” he wrote in the Daily Mail. “They can push their defensive line higher to reduce the space between the midfield and the defence.
“If Arsenal go back to what they know, it would give them a better chance of imposing their game on City. Guardiola’s side play an open game and their defenders can be left exposed.
Keown added: “If City are afforded similar time and space at Wembley, Sunday could turn into a nightmare for Wenger.
“But if Wenger wins, he would be on course for his seventh FA Cup triumph. It would be viewed as a major victory and would be a good chance for him to announce his future plans.”
Guardiola has also experimented with a back three at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City, where he has struggled with as many defensive issues as Wenger at Arsenal.
However the Manchester City manager has twice outfoxed Wenger in their league meetings this season – Arsenal were fortunate to claim a 2-2 draw at home earlier this month after their 2-1 defeat earlier in the season – and Guardiola will doubtless be well prepared regardless of the Gunners’ formation.
“Pep Guardiola is a master tactician whose teams have switched formations and personnel regularly this season,” Keown said. “They know how to exploit a back three — especially against a group of players who have little experience of the system.
“Arsenal could easily become outnumbered in midfield if they play with a three.
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“City’s wingers - Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling - will pin Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all the way back.
“It would leave Arsenal’s two central midfielders up against Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Fernandinho. Arsenal would need Mesut Ozil to drop back into midfield to help out but I do not know if he is equipped to do that.”