The tail end of the 2016-17 season will have provided a sense of frustrating déjà vu for Arsenal supporters.
Despite a run of nine wins in the final ten games of the season in all competitions, the Gunners were consigned to their first season out of the Champions League in nearly 20 years, finishing one point adrift of fourth placed Liverpool in the final Premier League standings.
The excellent late-season form, coupled with a race for a place in the top four, stirred memories of years gone past, with Arsene Wenger’s side once again attempting to make up for damaging defeats in the weeks and months before.
With fan base discontent and media criticism reaching a peak after a sluggish 3-0 reverse to Crystal Palace on Monday Night Football, Wenger deployed a formational switch that may yet come to be viewed as an historic tactical shake-up.
Aaron Ramsey & ‘the circle of life’
Although picking up a routine win against relegation strugglers Middlesbrough is nothing unusual, there were immediately noticeable improvements to the rhythm of the Gunners’ game.
Central to this was the increasingly versatile role filled by Aaron Ramsey, with the Welshman making excellent use of the increased space made available to him by the defensive focus of midfield partner Granit Xhaka.
Ramsey achieved an impressive 91% passing accuracy rate on the night, in addition to providing an assist for Mesut Özil’s goal. For large parts of the season, the 26-year old had been confined to a defensive midfield berth in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Ramsey’s increased freedom has further allowed Özil to focus on his favoured no.10 role, rather than having to cover large parts of the central midfield area, as the German was required to with two wide players alongside him in the 4-2-3-1.
The formation also provides Granit Xhaka with defensive support from the two full-backs that can drop deep, in addition to Ramsey breaking up play further upfield.
It is this kind of systematic flow throughout that has led to the formation being dubbed ‘the circle of life’.
Newfound defensive stability
By moving to three at the back, Wenger has allowed for increased defensive stability. A momentous flaw in Arsenal’s four-man defence had been that their offensively-minded full backs had somewhat neglected their defensive duties, leaving centre-back pairing Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny increasingly exposed.
By using wing-backs, Wenger achieves an easily transferable formation that plays to the strengths of both Héctor Bellerín and Sead Kolašinac as threats down the flanks, while simultaneously allowing for the possibility of implementing a five-man back-line.
Wenger has clearly taken this defensive versatility into account in the transfer market with the signing of Kolašinac, who in addition to scoring five and providing nine assists for Schalke in 2016/17, has the physical frame typical of a powerhouse centre-back.
Since the move to three at the back, Wenger’s men have conceded an average of 0.7 goals per game, almost identical to the 0.68/game average of the Premier League’s best defence, North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
Wenger’s tactical naivety
The switch to 3-4-3 has led to merited results and the unexpected capture of the club’s third trophy in four years in a remarkable performance against 93-point champions Chelsea at Wembley.
Gunners fans will be hoping that the tactical changes enacted by Wenger will result in the systematic balance that has been lacking in Arsenal teams for over a decade.
With the formation playing to the strengths of players in key positions and providing the team with interchangeable alternatives in-game, fans may be forced to admit that aside from the now-solved absence of a blockbuster centre-forward, it may have been merely tactical nativity holding them back.
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