The notion that the 3-4-3 could be a formation of the future for Arsenal is one that is continuously overlooked. Instead, many point towards the idea of Mikel Arteta’s side shifting towards a more ‘progressive’ system. There have been suggestions that Arsène Wenger’s favoured 4-2-3-1 will be welcomed back at Arsenal or perhaps Pep Guardiola’s innovative 4-3-3 system will be Arteta’s eventual preference. Such arguments somewhat discredit a 3-4-3 set-up which has served our Spanish head coach incredibly well in recent times.
Since the 2016/17 season, each permanent Arsenal manager has experimented with the 3-4-3 at some point during their tenure. Wenger used it to strong effect in order to bring home Arsenal’s thirteenth FA Cup in 2017. Then, Unai Emery used it consistently throughout his first season in charge at Arsenal. And finally, Mikel Arteta has incorporated it superbly of late. However, each time these Arsenal managers have used the 3 at the back system, there has always been an overall expectation within the Arsenal faithful that it’ll eventually be fazed out.
One of the key reasons for this is due to the myth that the formation is inherently defensive. The additional centre-back combined with a double pivot sitting in front of the back three suggests the formation is slightly pragmatic. Yes, of course, it does help to create a solidified defensive structure. As shown by the dogged nature of our FA Cup semi-final showdown against Man City. Nonetheless, it doesn’t prohibit a team from playing attractive, dare I say, progressive, attacking football.
The role of the wing-backs in a 3-4-3 is a pivotal factor regarding why it is formation that is often attractive to watch a team operate in. The added security of a wide centre-back sitting behind a wing-back enables players in this position to fly forward. Thus, if you have two offensively oriented full-backs, there’s a good chance this formation will work for your team. They can carry the forward charge which is taken away from central areas as there isn’t a traditional attacking midfielder in this formation. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso took full advantage of their extra opportunities going forward as wing-backs during Chelsea’s 16/17 title win. It’d be cruel to brand Antonio Conte’s league-winning side as ‘defensive’.
Just as the 3-4-3 suited the 16/17 Chelsea side remarkably well, it also works well with our current crop. David Luiz’s role as the middle centre-back in a back three is where he works best. Granit Xhaka operates really nicely on the left-side of a double pivot. Meanwhile, the inside forward roles suit Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé down to a T. In Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin, we also have two wonderful offensive full-backs. William Saliba and Gabriel Malaghaes also have all the ingredients required to excel as wide centre-backs. Arteta has clearly realised that using the 3-4-3 is the way to get the most out of his current options.
Still, despite the success the formation has brought for us, there is understandably debate over whether the 3-4-3 can be used to fulfil Arteta’s vision at Arsenal. Upon his arrival at the club, Arteta proclaimed that “I want the ball, I want to attack as much as possible.” With a two man midfield, it’s difficult to dominate a game for ninety minutes as your midfield will inevitably be overrun by a three man midfield. There will always be points during a game when operating in a 3-4-3 when you have to sit in. Arteta’s quote infers this won’t satisfy him.
There’s also discussion over just how effective the formation is against a low block. The absence of an out and out creator role within the 3-4-3 means you often lack a player who can single-handedly break open a defence. This means a team often finds themselves failing to penetrate a back line as the central midfielders just aren’t capable of providing the required creativity. Perhaps Willian, who is more than capable of playing as an inside forward, would help to nullify this issue. However, it’s doubtful that a single addition would quash the creative problems we faced when confronted with teams who played with low blocks at the back end of the 19/20 season.
In addition, there are question marks over whether we have a complete enough striker to operate with the 3-4-3 in the long-term. Alex Lacazette ties up play together nicely but he isn’t a notable threat in the penalty area. The ability to find players in the box through crosses is a fundamental requirement in a 3-4-3. Yes, Aubameyang’s aerial threat has increased tenfold this season and Nico Pépé likes to latch on to cut backs but the void Lacazette leaves in this area is perhaps too substantial. Many have suggested that signing someone in the mould of an Odsonne Edouard or Moussa Dembele would help to solve this issue.
So, the answer to the question posed in the title is likely a ‘no.’ Arteta’s desire to dominate games means the 3-4-3 just doesn’t really match up with his vision. Additionally, as per The Athletic, Arsenal reportedly want to add a #6, a #8 and a #10 to their squad which infers a three man midfield will be returning. However, for now, it’s doubtlessly our best option. Given the success we have endured whilst using the 3-4-3, there is straightforwardly no point changing things up until we are one hundred per cent ready.