How Emery has used 3 centre-backs to cover Arsenal’s biggest weakness
Since arriving Unai Emery has developed a reputation for being a tinker man. All season reporters and pundits alike have tried, with little avail, to guess his formations and team selections.
As the season has gone on and Emery has learnt more about his team’s strengths and weaknesses there have been signs of certain patterns emerging, though. One pattern is certain triggers in the opposition that tempts Emery into playing with a 3 at the back formation.
These triggers seem to be when playing against teams that have great strength in their wide players or teams that play with multiple central strikers.
Bournemouth – The First Test
The first time we saw Emery experiment with this was when we played Bournemouth away on the 25th on November last year. Bournemouth played a 4-4-2 that boasts impressive wide midfielders in surprise top assist candidate Ryan Fraser and David Brooks who has impressed many this season.
They also have two accomplished strikers in Callum Wilson and Joshua King who both possess real pace and are genuine threats in the box.
To combat this Emery overloaded the areas that Bournemouth is dangerous in with a 3-4-2-1. A back 3 of Holding, Sokratis and Mustafi were backed up by wingbacks Kolasinac and Bellerin who had Iwobi and Mkhitaryan ahead of them on the flanks.
This meant that Mkhitaryan and Bellerin could double up on Fraser while Iwobi and Kolasinac could double up on Brooks and that would still leave the numerical superiority of 3 centrebacks to occupy the 2 Bournemouth strikers.
An impressive 2nd half display was enough to secure a 2-1 win with Aubameyang’s winner.
Spurs – The First Big Success
In our next premier league game, Emery persisted with the same formation to combat Tottenham at the Emirates. Spurs were lining up with a 4-4-2 diamond formation with Harry Kane and Heung Min Son up front, Dele Alli playing as their #10 and Eriksen, Dier and Sissoko making up the rest of the diamond.
Welcoming Spurs in his first North London derby was a huge test in Emery’s credentials and he didn’t disappoint with a performance that had incredible, intensive pressing which was backed up by very effective tactical decisions.
As a back 3 Holding, Sokratis and Mustafi crowded out Kane and anticipated the channels that Son attempted to run into very consistently and the width that Kolasinac and Bellerin gave us stretched Spurs into uncomfortable wide areas that created pockets to play into. A fantastic performance that ended in a comfortable 4-2 victory.
Liverpool – There Is No Progression Without Pain
One game Emery didn’t use a 3 at the back in was the 5-1 loss to Liverpool at Anfield. Instead of opting for a 4-4-1-1. Despite taking an early lead through Maitland-Niles we are dominated in wide areas by Liverpool. Liverpool constantly bypassed our midfield and high wingbacks to find their wingers on the touchlines who often found our defensive midfielders and centrebacks in uncomfortable situations.
Arsenal’s press was inconsistent at best and Liverpool overloading wide areas exposed a soft underbelly that was exposed with the Salah. Mane and Firmino having a plethora of space to drive with the ball into.
This lead to a 5-1 loss that left a lot of fans questioning Emery as it was so reminiscent of a lot of the very poor performances in big games we’ve come to expect in recent history.
Manchester United – Learning The Formula
When we played Manchester United in the FA Cup who played a 4-4-2 diamond like Spurs was potentially another game we may have benefitted from 3 at the back – United scored 2 quickfire goals in the first half which, similar to Liverpool, came from keeping their width and hitting the spaces behind our advanced wingbacks on counter attacks.
Despite improving towards the end of the half and pulling a goal back just before half time we weren’t able to trouble Romero anywhere as much as we’d have wanted to and got caught with what felt like an inevitable sucker-punch from Martial late on to lose 3-1.
Emery clearly learnt from this in the most recent game vs United and went to a 3-4-1-2 formation to play against United’s 4-4-2. We dominated the early goings of this game with the shape being able to outnumber United’s strikers, match up their flat midfield 4 and create passing triangles to find Mesut Ozil brilliantly between the lines. It was only 20 or so minutes before Solskjær felt obligated to change to 3 in midfield to have a way to try and pin down the free-roaming attacking trident of Arsenal.
United had good spells and forced Leno into some superb goalkeeping but the team stuck to their task and after Aubaumeyang converted a penalty to make it 2-0 we dug in superbly to limit very little opportunities to manifest any kind of comeback.
The Next Big Test
It’s because of these reasons that I strongly believe Emery will persist with playing a 3 at the back formation when we play Rennes at home in the 2nd leg of our Europa cup tie. Rennes wide-men in Bourigeaud and in particular Ismaïla Sarr gave us huge problems. Obviously, this will have mainly been down to Sokratis’ red card but these are issues we’ve seen a lot this season and it would be foolish to not take them into account.
A huge performance will be needed to turn over a 3-1 home deficit. The news that Lacazette’s formerly 3 game suspension has been reduced to 2 games will be a huge morale boost to the squad and he’ll be dead set to make up for the dismissal vs BATE by helping Arsenal overturn another poor first leg result at the Emirates.