For me it begins just over an hour before every Arsenal match. It’s the perfect blend of excitement and anxiety that gets my blood boiling. I open Twitter and refresh my feed constantly with the hope of being one of the first to see the official Arsenal starting XI. Days of speculation and analytical buildup come to an end as our questions about on-pitch personnel are finally answered. @clivepafc calls the time thereafter “the crazy hour” due to the polarizing viewpoints and general outpouring of personal opinion on social media. I couldn’t agree with him more yet I love every second of it.
As we approach our massive FA Cup final with Chelsea, one thing that almost certainly will be the case during “crazy hour” is that both Chelsea and Arsenal will announce a back 3 formation. I understand there is an argument about re-establishing a back 4 given our CB suspensions and injuries, but our 3-4-2-1 has rejuvenated the squad and helped cater to more players’ individual strengths.
While each team’s formation will look the same on paper, the approach and tactics employed within their respective frameworks could not be any more different. For me, the juxtaposition of the Arsenal and Chelsea 3-4-2-1 system is fascinating. One team uses it to ensure a control base while the other needs it in order to re-instill healthy team values in a possession oriented side. The team that gets the most from its respective playing style will end the day with Silverware.
The Chelsea 3-4-2-1
Chelsea uses this setup, first and foremost, to provide a platform. Players’ comfort off the ball is evident as they move as a unit while having an innate awareness of their defensive distances. As often as they can, players look to use their stable base as the springboard for a direct counter attack. Chelsea’s primary objective is to free its attackers of rigorous defensive responsibility and let them thrive in open space. They like to use Costa as a direct outlet that the ball can stick to or run wingers into vacated channels. Chelsea is also more than capable of attack through possessional build-up, expansive play, and set-pieces, but the counter-attack has been their identity this season.
The Arsenal 3-4-2-1
This setup has placed a bandage over many of the systemic shortcomings of the last few years. When our 4-2-3-1 was firing on all cylinders it was a joy to behold. Players were well aware of their distances and proximity partner relationships for the system to produce free-flowing attack mixed with a viable defensive shape. We lost the ability to thrive in this system for long stretches throughout the last few seasons.
Using a 3-4-2-1 formation has forced us to re-develop good habits. Offensively, it translates to the ability to play with width and create viable passing options by elongating the midfield with wingbacks. We are finally able to get players to the byline to play crosses in.
Additionally, it has allowed Alexis and Ozil to get into creative pockets in the half spaces between the center forward and the midfield. This is a natural fit for each player as they each like to freely show for the ball, much like a number 10 type without many constraints. Finally, this system has allowed us to build play from many different areas on the pitch and not just deep-lying midfield. We now have organic triangular passing options as our ball-playing CBs can initiate attack throughout deep lying midfielders or our wide options.
From a defensive perspective, Wenger switched to this setup to help us stop leaking so many goals. This season we have conceded 44 goals in the league, which is our highest total since the 11/12 season (49). We now always have an extra CB body back when we become stretched, and added midfield bodies means it’s more difficult to break our lines. Xhaka is surrounded by runners and players that can cover horizontal distances to help him with ball recoveries and tracking runners. The burden of defensive responsibility, much like with Chelsea, has been lifted from our front 3 attackers. They now have creative license to read the game and position themselves to thrive transitionally.
The 3 Keys to Beating Chelsea
- Solidify Our Right Side: Chelsea is proficient attacking down either flank, but our right side could be especially vulnerable in this match. More than likely, it will be Holding, Bellerin, and Ozil as our players lining up closest to this touchline. We often build play down the right, which could also make the right side more susceptible. Holding’s inexperience combined with Bellerin and Ozil’s general advanced positioning could leave us exposed during Chelsea’s transitional play. We can’t fall victim to Alonso’s advanced runs and overloads on our right side.
- Start Welbeck Up Top: Arsenal needs to find a way to stretch the compact defensive shape that has become associated with Chelsea. The Matic/Kante shield leaves little to no space between the midfield and defensive lines for teams to exploit. The threat of Danny Welbeck running vertically should keep their back line honest, not allowing Chelsea defenders to advance too high up the pitch while providing space for Ozil and Alexis to occupy. The last thing we want from our two stars is them dropping deeper and deeper as the game progresses. I’d also like to see Alexis and Danny interchange between ST and LW as both are suited to the roles and Alexis is sure to draw attention wherever he is on the pitch.
- Ramsey Selectivity: Aaron Ramsey needs to choose his moments well. We all know of Xhaka’s limited mobility and Ramsey is vital in the center of the midfield to help prevent the direct distribution to Costa, Hazard, and Pedro when we lose the ball. Chelsea has averaged only 53.7% possession this season, which means it thrives and looks to initiate attacks from defense. If players are allowed to break our lines easily and get our defenders running backwards in space, this game will be over quickly. Ramsey also provides an extra body in the box due to his advanced runs, but he needs to exercise caution and a self-awareness of his surroundings on Saturday.
An hour before kick-off, in preparation for “the crazy hour”, I’ll be hoping for the likes of Welbeck and Mustafi to be in the XI. This is one game that Arsene can’t afford to get wrong tactically or personnel-wise. We’ve struggled mightily against Chelsea in recent years and a trophy is the only thing that can salvage the season. Looking back, years even decades from now, it would ensure the ‘16-’17 season isn’t deemed a complete failure.
Follow me on Twitter @dfresh10
31 year old based in the U.S. I am an elementary school teacher by day whose passion for teaching is only rivaled by a love for the Arsenal. I release a weekly piece each Tuesday that is oftentimes analytical but sometimes eccentric. Founder of the U.S. supporters group Syracuse Gooners (www.cusegooners.com). I enjoy interacting with any and all Arsenal-based opinions on Twitter. Have a younger brother who chose to support Spurs. Fielding suggestions for ways to disown him.