Arsenal’s team-sheet for last month’s clash with Middlesbrough raised a few questions for supporters as, for the first time in 20 years, the Gunners lined up with a three-man defence.
Rob Holding, Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel Paulista lined up in the back-line while Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain featured in the wing-back roles that have been given so much more prominence in the Premier League this campaign.
Arsene Wenger’s tactical shake-up did the trick as the north London side left the Riverside Stadium with all three points thanks to goals from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
Such a formation is being given more chances in England this year but which Arsenal players benefited from the change, and which ones will now be fearing for their roles in the new set-up?
Aside from a well-taken free-kick, Sanchez’s all-round game in this new system seemed to favour the Chilean’s style of play. The 28-year-old didn’t need to operate as the main striker but neither was he forced to start from the wing either, giving Sanchez the freedom he craves and thrives on.
Sanchez was able to take control of the game when in possession, and his turn of pace was a consistent issue for Middlesbrough throughout. Arsene Wenger’s new three man defence takes the leash off of Sanchez, to the peril of Premier League defenders.
Ramsey’s come into some serious stick for his efforts this season, especially given how well he performed at Euro 2016 with Wales. The three-man defence was one Chris Coleman used in France, that Ramsey excelled in, and there’s no reason he can’t do so again with Arsenal.
One thing Ramsey does bring is an abundance of energy and in a two man centre midfield that is essential. A switch to this new system worked wonders for the Welshman and the only way it could get better is if he had the chance to push into the attacking midfield role he often fills for the Dragons.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has been moved across the team all season but the England international may have finally found his natural home. Against Middlesbrough the Ox was given plenty of space to work with, with the hosts playing very narrow football, and the 23-year-old covered every blade of grass on the flank.
Coming from a deeper position when attacking allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to build up serious speed and power driving forward, for which the Middlesbrough defenders had little answer. Defensively he needs a little work but the wing-back role is about energy, pace and penetrating force, something he possesses in abundance.
Rob Holding made only his fourth league start against Middlesbrough but the youngster looked at home on the right of a three man defensive unit.
The 21-year-old was confident with the ball at his feet and pushed forward, almost into midfield, when the play allowed, but never overstep his boundary by swaying too far into Koscielny’s territory or up through Granit Xhaka and Ramsey.
Some fans will have queried if Holding was ready to try such a job but the former Bolton defender did so excellently and, if Wenger persists with the 3-4-2-1, Holding would be deserving of retaining his place.
Monreal’s season compared to last campaign is such a switch that an uninformed individual would question if it was the same individual playing on the left of defence for Arsenal.
The Spaniard has never been blessed with blistering pace either and this unfamiliar set-up didn’t suit Monreal at all. He looked uncomfortable with the amount of space ahead of him, got inside his own head overthinking his new responsibilities and was massively at fault for Middlesbrough’s equaliser in the second half.
Monreal’s form in recent months is more than a dip now and, if Wenger wants to continue down this route, a replacement at left wing-back is needed.
It was a strange showing for the Arsenal defence really – an outing of individuals trying to come to terms with a new tactical option. Gabriel was one of the uncertain ones.
Positioning appeared to be an issue for the Brazilian, as did communicating with the likes of Laurent Koscielny and Oxlade-Chamberlain. He didn’t seem to know what his primary responsibility was, who to pick up at set-pieces and where to move to when Arsenal had possession.
Gabriel’s outing can be described in just one word – uncomfortable. Uncomfortable for the player and uncomfortable for the spectators.
Prolific, tricky and unbelievably fast, Theo Walcott has been defined by the speed he has and therefore is perhaps the most natural winger in the Arsenal squad.
Unfortunately the 3-4-2-1 doesn’t deploy wingers.
Walcott doesn’t have the strength for the right wing-back role either and, while he’s filled in as a striker before, there are question marks as to if he could fill the same role in this set-up.
Arsenal’s successful transition into this new formation could be bad news for the man who captained the club to a 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace.
Bellerin’s recent showings has seen the young right-back heavily booed by a section of Arsenal supporters, something Wenger has moved to quell, but Oxlade-Chamberlain’s showing on Monday evening has shown these fans that there are other options.
The Ox comes with more power and more directness, which is likely to cost Bellerin his place in the team. Sadly for the Spaniard he doesn’t possess the tactical nous to make an Azpilicueta-esque adaption to centre-back either.
That means, unless Oxlade-Chamberlain is switched to the midfield role he played so well earlier this campaign, Bellerin’s stint as first choice right-sided defender may be over.