Analyzing the Early Returns of Arsenal's Back Three

Analyzing the Early Returns of Arsenal's Back Three

Much has been made of Arsene Wenger’s decision to move from his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-2-1.  While there has been much discussion of the fact that the change happened, the real question is what effect the change has made?

Since Arsenal went to a back three against Middlesbrough they have three wins from three games.  Based on that it seems like the back three has been working to perfection, but when you look a little closer the outlook on the system becomes much less rosy.

Arsenal have beaten Middlesbrough, Manchester City, and Leicester City since switching to a back three, outscoring them 5-2.  However, the Gunners have been out-shot 40-33 in those matches, according to Whoscored.com.  Considering two of the three teams they’ve played are in the bottom six, that’s quite a worrying sign.

Feasibly, the negative shot difference could be a case of the Gunners choosing to take lots of high quality shots and forcing their opponents into low quality shots, but the numbers suggest that that is not the case.  Using expected goals, a metric that measures shot qualities based on historical shot data (For a more specific explanation from the creator of this model, Michael Caley, see here) we can see the quality of the shots being taken.  It doesn’t look good for Arsenal.

According to Michael Caley’s model, the Gunners have racked up 3.2 expected goals in the last three matches, while their opponents have registered 3.9 expected goals.  The shots numbers aren’t lying, Arsenal have been getting matched, if not outplayed, in their matches using the back three.

One of the reasons Wenger stated in his press conference after the Middlesbrough match for his switch was to add “a bit more stability,” to his side.  Whether that has actually happened is up to debate.  While Arsenal have conceded only two goals in those three matches, they have conceded nearly four expected goals.  On top of that, they have allowed 40 shots in 300 minutes or 12 shots per 90 minutes, which is higher than their league average of 10.9 shots allowed per game.  It has to be taken into account that one of those games did come against Manchester City, one of the strongest offensive teams in the league, but it still doesn’t look great and their trouble with Middlesbrough, one of the weakest offensive teams in the league is a possible sign for concern.

Going forward, Arsenal have struggled to get their strikers into the game since switching to this formation.  Olivier Giroud started up top against Middlesbrough and Manchester City, while Alexis Sanchez started there against Leicester.  The striker in the formation is yet to score a goal.  It’s not just a product of bad finishing either.  In the three matches Sanchez and Giroud combined for seven shots, with only three of the seven from inside the box, and only two on target.  Their inability to get their striker into the game is a problem that will need to be solved if they are going to stick with the formation.

All this obviously has to be taken in the context that Arsenal have been working on this system for less than a month.  There are always going to be kinks to work out when a team is working with a new formation.  As the system is worked on more, the players will start to understand their positions and get a better idea of where their teammates will be.  That said, when speaking about the back three so far, it should be acknowledged that, while the results have been good, Arsenal’s performances have been unconvincing.