It was hardly the sort of coded message that required the talents of Alan Turing to decipher. Ivan Gazidis stated on April 2 that Arsene Wenger must become a “catalyst for change” if he was to continue as Arsenal manager; by April 17, the Frenchman deployed a formation he had not used for two decades.
“It’s the first time in 20 years I’ve played it,” Wenger said after a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough, which a run of four consecutive away defeats. “It shows that, even at my age, you can change,” he added, making sure to emphasise the punchline for effect.
It was a final roll of the dice, a life-saving operation with every chance of failure. And to Wenger’s credit, it worked: the Gunners continued with a three-man defence until the end of the season, hoisting Chelsea by their own petard in the FA Cup final at Wembley. Champions League qualification could not be salvaged, but something approaching a feel-good factor had returned.
The next surprise was that Wenger chose to ride that wave of positivity even as the tide came in. As stubborn as the Frenchman is, the old dog could not help performing his new trick, even when he landed on his face each time.
If the defensive frailties displayed against Leicester, Stoke and especially Liverpool were not enough to shake Wenger’s belief that his new formation can deliver success, a painful first half at the Emirates Stadium against Cologne on Thursday will surely see his latest experiment abandoned.
The Gunners might have been expecting a straightforward test against the Bundesliga’s bottom side, but this was anything but. Trouble instigated by the 20,000-strong travelling support saw the kick-off time put back by one hour – although Arsenal’s start suggested that they had delayed their own kick-off even further. It took Jhon Cordoba just nine minutes to open the scoring.
Arsenal were disjointed, limp. They barely created a single meaningful chance in the first half. Their three highest passers were central defenders Nacho Monreal (50), Rob Holding (50) and Per Mertesacker (49), who were often forced to recycle possession between themselves. Alex Iwobi was neat in central midfield, but neither he nor Mohamed Elneny provided anything approaching a link from defence to attack.
I hope that’s the last time we see the back three. We so clearly need the extra man in midfield, not there.
— arseblog (@arseblog) September 14, 2017
It was not the “change” Gazidis had in mind when addressing over 200 fans at a forum in April, but Wenger did at least act at half-time. Holding was sacrificed for Sead Kolasinac, round pegs were placed in round holes, the formation was switched and the tide had turned once more. Kolasinac equalised, Alexis Sanchez scored a wonderful goal, and Hector Bellerin rounded off a victory that was anything but routine.
Jamie Carragher spoke of his “surprise” that Wenger persisted with a three-man defence into this season. The Frenchman himself even admitted after that Middlesbrough win that the change in formation was little more than a trick to boost morale. “It gives the team confidence to have something new to believe,” but while it was once fresh, it can quickly become stale.
With two central defenders, two full-backs, two central midfielders, and three players floating behind one central striker, Arsenal had a focal point, a clear purpose and plan. It is a system the players are more accustomed to, and the manager has years of experience in coaching. Jack Wilshere and Reiss Nelson would have looked out of place as substitutes in the previous formation, but instead flourished in familiar surroundings.
It is rather fitting that the Gunners face Chelsea on Sunday, the fathers of the formation that might well have saved Wenger’s job. But Thursday provided irrefutable proof that it was never a long-term plan. The unmistakable stench of Cologne will linger around north London, but Wenger’s flavour of the month system surely will not.