It might be too late to get Arsenal in the top four this season, and might have been a late sign of desperation from Arsene Wenger to show he’s willing to change, but something had to be done after the humiliation at Selhurst Park. The manager decided that the formation would be the big change and for the first time since 1997, sent an Arsenal team out with a back three.
Ordiniarly, on seeing Arsenal were trying out 3-4-2-1, I’d have been very worried, but given everything else has gone wrong in recent weeks, it seemed worth doing just to mix things up. Whether it is a permanent change remains to be seen as part of me thinks that Arsene Wenger decided to make the change as a way of refocusing the minds of the players. With a new system to work out and learn, it might have been the different thing needed to freshen up training and give the squad something new to think about. It’s harder for them to sleep walk through a game if the players are having to really concentrate on the tactics and system, and while Arsenal were far from fluid on Monday night at Middlesbrough, the attitude, effort and concentration seemed a lot better than in recent weeks.
With Shkodran Mustafi missing through injury, although it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for him to be dropped after the performance at Palace, Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding made up the back three with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal as the wing backs. It meant that if the system failed, it was easy enough to switch back to a four with those players on the field. But it wasn’t needed as the Gunners did enough to get a 2-1 win. Of the three, Holding was particularly impressive. His composure on the ball meant he could step out of the three if necessary and there was slightly less pressure on the youngster because of the extra man in the defence alongside him.
There were moments of worry in the second half, particularly from crosses into the box as Petr Cech had to make some smart saves, which means the switch can’t be described as a complete success. I’d be surprised if it gets used at Wembley against Manchester City, but it was good to see the manager try something to stop the rot away from home. After conceding three goals in away games so many times in recent games, something had to be done.
With the extra emphasis on the defence, there was a bit missing from Arsenal’s attack. For a lot of the game, they looked like a team incredibly low on confidence and lacking fluidity. With an onus on the wing-backs to be switched on defensively while also providing service to Olivier Giroud, the Gunners missed the overlapping full-backs to create space in wide areas. But it did free up Alexis Sanchez to have some more freedom in attack, although a lot of his passing remained wasteful.
He did, however, produce the moment of real quality in the game with a fantastic free-kick just before half-time to give the Gunners the lead. After Xhaka was fouled, Alexis managed to get dip and swerve on the ball to get it over the wall and past a motionless Brad Guzan.
After being pegged back to 1-1 in the second half, Arsenal’s other heavily-scrutinised superstar found the net to seal the win. Alexis’ ball into the box was excellently chested down by Aaron Ramsey, allowing Mesut Ozil to crack the ball into the net at Guzan’s near post.
Arsenal had chances to kill the game off on the break, but Middlesbrough couldn’t find a second equaliser. The reaction of Arsenal’s players at the end of the game was interesting as it wasn’t as subdued as you’d expect for a win against a team looking doomed for relegation. In the previous victory over West Ham, the players had been quite muted at the end of the game. On Monday night, the players looked much more pumped up the victory, with Alexis in particular looking chuffed. Taking a cynical view, it could have been a bit of a PR charm offensive after the fans turned on the players at Palace. But I think something must have happened behind the scenes in the last week. The players were hurt by the criticism from supporters at Crystal Palace, as they should have been, so hopefully the win on Monday is the start of a recovery for the rest of the season.
The change in formation focused the minds for Middlesbrough, but after Arsenal’s recent win over West Ham, they followed it up with a horror show performance. The next game is the FA Cup semi-final. There really is no excuse for not being mentally ready for a game like that. Arsenal will be underdogs against Manchester City and on current form probably won’t go through, but the players have to build on the efforts on Monday and restore some pride in the club.