Arsène Wenger has, in the past, often been derided as a rigid manager, one hell-bent on established principles and generally hostile to the idea of change. The criticism was a fair one — for many years he steadfastly refused to veer from a 4-2-3-1 shape, while his team’s style of play has not been genuinely modified for quite some time.
However, in the 2016/17 season – one that may yet prove to be his last with the club – the Frenchman altered his team’s formation, implementing a rough 3-4-3 towards the end of the campaign. The results following the alteration were impressive.
Not only did Arsenal win seven of their final eight Premier League games in the new system, but they defeated both Manchester City and English champions Chelsea to lift the FA Cup. As a consequence, a difficult campaign ended on a positive note, with some small shred of hope for the future.
However, if the 3-4-3, along with Wenger, is to stay on into 2017/18, some improvements in personnel may need to be made.
The 3-4-3 shape Arsenal utilised in the latter stages of the campaign was, in truth, more of a 3-4-2-1. The shape featured a back three, wing-backs on either flank, two central midfielders, two inside-forwards, and one centre-forward.
Wenger had to fill some round holes with square pegs, however. For instance, he played career full-back Nacho Monreal at left centre-back; midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in both wing-back berths; and Aaron Ramsey in a more restrictive central midfield role.
It’s also worth noting that several key players may leave this summer, with Alexis Sánchez’s ambiguous post-FA Cup final comments providing no certainty over his future at Arsenal.
“I don’t know, my friend,” the Chilean told BBC Sport after the win over Chelsea. “[I’m] so happy for the win and the FA Cup, happy for the players, now I don’t know.”
With his contract due to expire at the end of next season, it is not unfathomable that Sánchez may leave should a significant transfer fee be offered for his signature this summer. And he may be joined out the exit door by several others.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has been linked with a move to Liverpool, Wojciech Szczęsny to Napoli, Mathieu Debuchy to Marseille, and Lucas Pérez to Deportivo La Coruña. In addition, Theo Walcott doesn’t fit the new system and thus could be moved on, while Santi Cazorla and Yaya Sanogo are coming to the end of their deals.
Were all of these players to depart, there would be substantial gaps in Wenger’s squad. However, it would also free up funds to invest in talent that could both fit and enhance the new system.
The back three could be boosted by the return of Calum Chambers. Despite suffering relegation, Middlesbrough had the best defensive record in the Premier League’s bottom half, conceding 53 in 38 games. The on-loan Arsenal youngster was pivotal to this, impressing with his displays.
Wenger himself commented on the player’s development, saying that: “I think he is a player who is a good reader of the game and of course I believe where you improve at his age is in the quality of the challenges…in taking responsibility when you have the ball to play and in making no stupid mistakes.
“The target for him was to play in the Premier League a full season. He has done that extremely well because he was a regular player and achieved that. It’s of course very positive.”
— Jonathon Taylor (@JonathonTaylor1) May 22, 2017
With Laurent Koscielny present, Shkodran Mustafi enjoying a fine debut campaign in the Premier League and Rob Holding showing remarkable maturity to adjust to playing in a back three, Wenger need not add in central defence.
Between the aforementioned trio, Chambers, Monreal, Gabriel Paulista and Per Mertesacker, Arsenal have plenty of quality and depth in this area.
Cazorla’s absence will not be felt in the line-up; the Spaniard has been injured for a long while. However, his departure will need to be taken into account by Wenger, whose central midfield options are limited technically.
Granit Xhaka has not quite justified the transfer fee paid to sign him last summer, but the Swiss ball-winner and –player has shown subtle hints of his class. He should hold down a regular role going forward, but his potential partners don’t inspire confidence.
Ramsey is more suited to a free, creative midfield role, while Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin offer plenty of graft without real craft. Unless Wenger does what Germany national team boss Joachim Löw experimented with last year and drops Mesut Özil into a central berth, an addition is necessary here.
The ideal solution would be Olympique Lyonnais’ Corentin Tolisso. The 22-year-old is composed on the ball, plays incisive passes and occasionally drives forward to support attacks. He is also physical and capable in challenges, and is versatile enough to cover Héctor Bellerín at right wing-back if necessary.
Meanwhile, it is widely reported that long-time Arsenal transfer target Sead Kolašinac will join the club on a free transfer from Schalke this summer. The Bosnian played at left wing-back for the German club throughout 2016/17, and could fill in the same role for the Gunners.
Assuming Sánchez does indeed move on in the summer, the Gunners will need to identify his successor in the left-sided inside role he has inhabited to good effect in recent weeks. The player for the job could be Thomas Lemar.
Arsene Wenger and Alexis Sanchez after Arsenal win the FA Cup. pic.twitter.com/0yon3XZsEi
— Chris Wheatley (@ChrisWheatley_) May 27, 2017
The creator was a key member of an extremely exciting, and effective, Monaco team. Operating for the most part from the left wing, he scored nine goals and set up ten in 34 Ligue 1 appearances. And, having caught the eye of several clubs, he could follow former team-mate Bernardo Silva out the exit.
While Lemar lacks the energy and scoring threat of Sánchez, he would bring pace, skill and – most importantly – intelligent movement between the lines. He could form a devastating playmaking double act with Özil, but who would take the chances they create?
Currently, Arsenal’s striking options of Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud offer aerial power and work ethic, but more finesse is required. Andrea Belotti would be just the tonic, and thus recent reports linking him with a move to the Emirates are highly intriguing.
The Italian is a tactically intelligent bulldozer of a centre-forward. He is conventional in style, holding the ball up well and using his strength and athleticism to beat markers. He is also an increasingly deadly finisher, as shown by his hitting 26 Serie A goal in 35 outings in 2016/17.