There is renewed sense of positivity around Arsenal this week. A productive January transfer window, combined with a convincing 5-1 victory against Everton, have fleetingly dissipated the clouds that have enveloped the Emirates for much of the season.
Inevitably, fans are determined to label this a new start. In light of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s debut, supporters are already moving to write off Alexandre Lacazette. And with Arsene Wenger having reverted to his preferred 4-2-3-1 against Everton, many fans have also declared this the end of the three at the back experiment. However, they should be wary not to speak too soon — this weekend’s north London derby looks like an ideal time to employ a back three.
It’s strange that Arsenal fans seem so keen on the club adhering to one system, when for so long they have decried Wenger’s lack of tactical versatility. Perhaps nostalgia is a contributing factor: Arsenal’s title-winning teams of the early-2000s consistently deployed the same 4-4-2 formation. However, back then Arsenal had the personnel to ensure they could impose themselves upon any opposition. These days, a weaker Gunners XI need to cut their tactical cloth accordingly.
Against Everton, Wenger used a back four of Nacho Monreal, Sead Kolasinac, Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin, with Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka holding midfield ahead of them. It was an effective set-up, with the full-backs overlapping to provide width and Ramsey granted sufficient attacking license to get forward and grab a first senior hat trick.
However, it would be naive in the extreme to believe Arsenal will be able to play in the same manner at Wembley this weekend. Everton were, by Sam Allardyce’s own admission, disastrously bad at the Emirates. Tottenham will provide a far more stern test of Arsenal’s credentials, particularly on the defensive front. Given that the Gunners couldn’t even keep a clean sheet against an awful Everton, Wenger should strongly consider drafting in a third centre-half.
After all, Harry Kane and company are likely to offer a far greater threat to Petr Cech’s goal. What’s more, Arsenal experienced great success using a back three against Spurs back in November, coasting to a comfortable 2-0 win.
It’s a system that’s brought them great success at Wembley before, enabling them to grind out results against Manchester City and Chelsea. Now, it’s surely the safest approach to take for the north London derby. It’s also a good chance to give the formation run-out for its like deploying in the Carabao Cup final later this month.
It’s a simple switch to make. It simply means Monreal shifting in-field alongside Koscielny and Mustafi, with one of Kolasinac or Ainsley Maitland-Niles coming in at left-wing back. Given the Bosnian’s struggles for form, it might well be the youngster who is again called upon in a high-pressure scenario.
It shouldn’t detract too much from Arsenal’s attacking potency. Assuming Ramsey and Xhaka are paired again in midfield, there’s still room for Aubameyang, Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan ahead. The man most likely to miss out would be Alex Iwobi, and despite his improved performances of late there surely wouldn’t be too many Arsenal fans bemoaning his omission.
For most of the season, Arsenal have lacked a tactical identity. Wenger has alternated between back four and back three, desperately hoping something might spark Arsenal into form. However, the consequence of that flailing is that he now has a team who are equally adept in either system, and able to switch easily between the two. He should embrace that flexibility, and tailor his team according to the occasion.
The Everton match was a devastating display of Arsenal’s attacking prowess, but Wembley promises to be a different challenge.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.