I feel as if I m not contributing much to my own website but is the guest writers continue to write better then me I guess no one will be complaining. Today we have a tactical piece, which I usually feel is my strength, but this article is superb. It looks at perhaps the only formation that will allow Wenger to retain his 3 man midfeld, and still have a 2 man strike force.
Yes today we are assessing the possibility of Arsenal using the classic 3-5-2 with a twist. Ironically given that this past week has been Kenya Gooner week ,my guest writer was born in Kenya but has spent most of his life in America. His father was always on business in Italy and England so he was instilled with a passion for Juventus and Arsenal in equal measures but his first trip to London was as a 10 year old in 1997. In reality since then he has been a die hard Gooner. I am delighted to introduce Hamza Mohamed, better known to many for his insightful and invariably positive contributions to the debate on twitter as @BornGunner
This is a long feature but I urge you to enjoy not only the quality of the writing and the conclusions, but equally the research undertaken and the knowledge that shines through…..
Some formations come and go, in and out of fashion, others fade and disappear. There are good reasons for that and yet defying the prevailing wisdom. Today am here to discuss the 3-5-2 system, and how it can help Arsenal overcome their defensive fragility. It’s a system that has been used by great successful sides in the past, many thought the system won’t be put into practice anymore, but thankfully we have seen the resurgence of this formation. It helped Napoli qualify for the Champion’s League a season ago. In the process their attacking play, ball retention, quick and effective counter attacking and collective defending displays earn plaudits from across Europe Furthermore, who can forget one of the biggest achievements last season ; Juventus winning their first Scudetto unbeaten since ‘Calciopoli,’ the match fixing scandal of 2006. It was a brilliant first season for Antonio Conte, as former captain and idol he knew he had a difficult job in hand when he was hired to guide Juventus back to their glory days. He was considered as a disciple of the 4-4-2, the new signing Andrea Pirlo didn’t appear to fit his system, but the mastermind Conte showed his skills as a tactician by ensuring versatility, he found a place for Pirlo by switching to a 4-3-3. However Conte’s attention to tactical detail, meant he was prepared to alter the 4-3-3 to suit the opposition, as a result he used 3-5-2 in key against Napoli and Udinese, teams that also used this formation. The formation was additionally utilized a number of times throughout the season and has had a big hand in the Scudetto triumph.
Personally I am a big fan of the system after seeing great sides including the Brazilian sides of the 90‘s winning tournaments in style. I have been in contemplation for a while and examining the possibilities of Arsenal switching to or utilising a 3-5-2. The thought first occurred last season, in a period when we lost all our fullbacks and their backups through injury. I remember suggesting it on twitter but many could only disagree, I expected Wenger to be a bit audacious and at least go for a change in formation as it was evident we struggled playing through the flanks and in turn affected our fluidity in attack and creating chances . Walcott’s form in particular deteriorated when we lost Sagna, then Coquelin, with neither Koscienly nor Djourou comfortable supporting the attack effectively. At a club like Arsenal where we are used to seeing fullbacks playing higher up the pitch and spend most of the time in the opposition’s half, this was unusual. We depended on our central midfielders to provide the necessary creativity through the middle, and unexpectedly Song came into play , occasionally marauded forward , put in beautifully lofted passes to the usual customer in van Persie. He received wide praises for his numerous assists at the time but as many of us criticized him for neglecting his defensive duties. I think we can safely say we fans are never satisfied.
Before coming to the question of Arsenal switching to a 3-5-2, I’ll do a brief introduction of the system, using some historical examples of its effective use and set up:
It was used by Carlos Bilardo (coach of Argentina in 86) for his Argentina World Cup champions 1986. Bilardo was as system-driven as any coach, putting him in charge of an Argentina side featuring one of the greatest individual talents there the game had ever seen, seemed like football’s greatest joke. It was a big challenge but his solution was to develop a new formation to accommodate him. Wingers were in decline at the time so they switched to auxiliary midfielders. Bilardo asked the question, “What is the point of fullbacks? Why not just reassign them as midfielders?”
When he read out the team to face Switzerland in 86 World Cup first match people questioned his decision to switch to 3-5-2 – “They told me I was wrong that I named three central defenders” he said
“I told them I was not confused. We were going to use three defenders, five midfielders and two forwards. We had practiced for two years and now I am going to put it into practice in tough matches.”
Carlos Bilardo and Diego Maradona at the 1986 Wolrd cup
Switzerland were beaten 2-0, as were Belgium and Argentina won 3-1 against West Germany. Bilardo then retreated from the 3-5-2 and was constantly tinkering until it came to world cup quarter finals against England. Bilardo said
“You can’t play against the English with a pure centre forward , they’d devour him, and the extra man in midfield will give Maradona more room.”
His playmaker became a second striker as shape shifted from 4-3-1-2 to 3-5-2, below is Bilardo’s Argentina team in a 3-5-2:
The system spread, and variants of the 3-5-2 won the World Cup in 1990(West Germany) and 1994 (Brazil), the European championships in 1996(West Germany).
Germany’s 3-5-2 that beat England’s 3-5-2 to World Cup
Even England, the great stronghold of the 4-4-2 experimented with the formation; Bobby Robson listened to players in 1990 world cup after injury to Bryan Robson. He Added Mark Wright as libero behind Des Walker and Terry Bucher. The wing backs were Paul Parker and Stuart Pearce. We have seen it being used lately in a major European competition by Italy just last week in their group opener vs. Spain. This match in particular, was a perfect example of the merits and draw backs of the system but I will come to that a bit later.
Modern day use and organization of the 3-5-2
On paper three players start at the back, five midfielders, and a goal keeper. In the pitch though the system is altered a bit, depending on when the team is in possession of the ball, or defending without the ball. The defensive unit is organized with two players who mark the opposition’s forwards, they are known as ‘markers’ and a sweeper behind them known as a ‘libero’. The midfield unit consists of two wingbacks and three central midfielders, who can organize themselves either in a line or with a defensive (mediano) or offensive midfielder/deep lying playmaker (regista). The two attackers are positioned well up the pitch and function as a central and floating striker, or a lone striker and a trequartista.
3-5-2 in practice recently; Italy vs Spain
For the first time in a long time Italy were struggling at the back, Barzaghli who has been superb for Juventus last season was sidelined for the opening game due to injury and there were question marks over Chielini’s fitness. The Extraordinary decision to switch to a 3-5-2 was a stroke of genius from Prandelli, his bravery and intelligence cannot be underestimated. As a result Italy turned in a brilliant performance, in a tactical system that played the opposition perfectly.
De Rossi was playing the libero (sweeper) role, Chielini and Bonucci as markers, Maggio and Giacherini as the wingbacks. Both did very good job defensively, were also very explosive on the counter. Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio were the Mediani (Defensive midfielders), Motta broke well from midfield and worked in a box to box tandem with Marchisio on either side of Andrea Pirlo who was his usual meticulous self in the midfield with his excellent ball leading to Di Natale’s goal, Cassano and Balotelli dropped deep occasionally to keep the shape and make it difficult for Spain, they pressed from the front with one dropping to defend and one holding up the play. They interchanged roles, often pressurized likes of Busquets and Alonso when on the ball, this led to them making unusual mistakes.
De Rossi Libero v Spain
My main focus was in the defensive department though and their organization. Daniel De Rossi starred at the back, he was ably flanked by Chielini and Bonucci . De Rossi reinvented the libero role by not only winning tackles but also playing a key role in distribution of the ball towards the front two and the overlapping wingbacks. Andréa Pirlo was swamped by the constant pressure from the Spanish midfielders. De Rossi‘s accurate passing was vital in instigating quick moves forward from the back. The two wingbacks, Maggio and Giaccherini occasionally pinned the Spanish fullbacks deep in their half. This in turn resulted in Spain playing so narrow with six central midfielders in the pitch, Jordi Alba was the only one who provide a width option, he made few runs down the left flank but this mainly neutralised by the tracking midfielders.
Arsenal in a 3-5-2?
This system in the EPL may not be as successful as in the Serie A or international football, because the premier league is more tactical. The system has its advantages and disadvantages in equal measure. Last season Arsenal’s defending was somewhat shocking judging by the stats on goals conceded. This was as a result of individual errors coupled with injuries to important first team players that we struggled to replace. I have given the whole Idea a deep thought after considering a major factor that held us back last season and made us vulnerable at the back.
As Carlos Bilardo asked the question “What is the point of full-backs?”
Full-backs historically stayed in defence at all times, until set pieces. Modern full-backs however, take more attacking roles, overlapping with wingers down the flanks. Something that we witnessed frequently the season before last with Nasri and Sagna, and last season with Sagna and Walcott.
Some of the key roles and responsibilities of a modern day full-backs include:
Providing a physical obstruction- this is done by shepherding the wingers towards an area where they exert less influence. We have seen Sagna and Gibbs do this on numerous occasions, they maneuvered in fashion, and this causes the opponent to cut in towards the centre back or the tracking midfielder. In the modern day, a right footed player who is exceptionally gifted technically is played on the left wing; he’ll often try cutting in on his favored foot and curl one or pick a pass. The right-back’s smart positioning may simply pin back the winger in an area where he is less likely to exert influence. This is where our makeshift full-backs struggled , Koscienly did fairly well although he was forced to making un necessary rush tackles that may have cost us eventually, Djourou was extremely poor in this role, he allowed the wingers to cut in numerous times, also jenkinson struggled a bit in this. Both Djourou and Koscienly are not natural full-backs, they did the job that was asked of them without any hesitation, which was to fill in for the injured players and judging them on their performances in an unfamiliar territory is totally wrong.
Making off-ball runs- full-backs are expected to contribute to attack, making runs into spaces down the channels and supplying crosses into the opposition’s penalty box. This where Sagna has been effective, he grabbed a few assists, when much play didn’t go through the middle vs. teams that crowded the central area of the pitch, he was our escape route. Notably, last season at Anfield in a half that we contributed a little in terms of attacking, his famous inch perfect cross to van Persie brought us back to the game. Both Gibbs and Santos also contributed to attack last season, not as much as Sagna/Jenkinson, but that may be explained by the fact that we prefer our play to go through one wing over the other, Wenger used Benayoun/Ramsey on the left wing/left midfield to play a conservative role , having an extra technical midfielder to help in defending when not in possession and retaining possession ; which was a genius tactical move by ‘Le Boss’ by the way, worked perfectly against teams who defended deep and narrow or parked the bus, and playing in narrow pitches.
Marking wingers and maintaining tactical discipline – this is where both Sagna and Santos have been superb, aiming to quickly dispossess wingers who have already breached the defensive line with a sliding tackle from the side. Like that Gibbs vital tackle against West Brom in our last premier league game that probably guaranteed us a Champions league football. In maintaining tactical discipline; many of our full-backs have been poor at times, it’s about the communication with the central defenders, Sagna vs. Milan at the San Siro for instance when he inadvertantly played Ibrahimovic onside.
Providing a passing option down the flanks- for instances the quick one twos that Santos is known for and the extra attacking flair that contributes to a sequence of passes that moves the attack forward.
Those are a number of qualities that we missed in the period in last season when we had no fit full-backs plus their direct backups, the trend seems to continue for the opening months of next season as reportedly Sagna might not feature for us until late September due to injury. Wenger might be counting on Jenkinson to step up and prove he is ready for first team, many might call on for the obvious solution which is ; dig into the transfer market and bring in a new right back, the resulting question is what happens to him when Sagna comes back?
I am of the opinion that we should give it a go at 3-5-2 for the start of next season, to counter the injury problems, by introducing wing-backs; it will keep us tight at the back and provide more fluidity in midfield and upfront. The formation also works best against oppositions using two strikers, we struggled defending against teams who use two forwards, for example against united with Rooney and Welbeck upfront, was also evident vs. Tottenham a season ago when we were leading 2-0 at half time, Harry Rednapp introduced Defoe in the 2nd half and we failed to cope with the pace and energy upfront, in the end we dramatically lost 3-2. In a 3-5-2 though, using three Centre Backs will allow two to man mark the centre forwards and the third to pick up any attacking midfielder.
There are many representations of the 3-5-2, you can go for two markers at the back like Juventus last season and Italy in the Euro with a libero behind them, or with two libero’s and a marker that also contributes in midfield as well e.g. like Napoli. In midfield you can go for one AM/deep lying playmaker(Regista) and two DM(Mediani) or two AM and one DM, in attack you can opt for two upfront who support each other, or a lone striker and a trequatista who often drops deep and helps in midfield.
Having explained how the system works above, here is how I think the system will perfectly work for Arsenal at the start of next season if ever Wenger decides to give it a go.
There has mistakenly been a general consensus that teams who played this system were adopting an ultra defensive approach. That incorrect view should have been brushed away by the teams who have used it so effectively lately. Who played an exciting football plus defend well in equal measure, such as Napoli and Juventus. The latter managed an average ball possession of 60% last season in the Serie A and won the Scudetto undefeated while playing that system for most parts.
Mertesacker – Libero? Santos – Wing Back?
You can play total football with this system; the three who play at the back need to be competent as well with good vision. Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Koscielny possess that. A big responsibility is placed on the wingbacks to defend when not in possession, to provide quick pace and support in attack; Jenko and Santos are capable of that. They will drop back when we are defending, to switch to a sort of 5-3-2 (shades of Anfield 89.) They will be supported by two defensive central midfielders and have 2 centre backs and a sweeper to clear up the mess. This will improve us defensively. The central midfield need to have skill, good first touch, accurate long range passes, ability to shoot from distance and a good vision for cutting a pass. Song, Jack and Arteta have this attributes between them. The two striker’s biggest responsibility is to defend from the front, close in on defenders, deny the holding players to start passing from the back, RVP and Poldi have the work rate, power and skill between them and both are very capable of that.
There will be plenty of chances created with this formation, as it has been evidenced in Juventu’s Scudetto triumph last season. Goals will be shared in the team and this will change our habit of relying solely on van Persie to score goals, which is crucial for us next season as Dave has pointed out only recently on this blog.
Above all the team must all work really hard when not in possession, add the skill factor in our ranks, you can adapt to this system , while also continue playing ‘ Sexy football’.
Libero: this position that doesn’t really exist in the modern game, in English it’s simply a ‘sweeper’. Juventus legend Gaetano Scirea was probably one the best libero alongside Beckenbauer.
Mediano/Mediani (plural): it simply means a defensive midfielder/s, one who recovers the ball and breaks up play, usually don’t dribble or pass to well but their role is very vital e.g. Gattusso, Gilberto Silva e.t.c
Regista: it literally means director, a deep lying playmaker that sits back and directs/dictates the play, Andrea Pirlo is a perfect example, and also Paul Scholes has been immense in this role over the years.
Trequartista: literally means 3/4ers referring to their position, not in the final quarter of the pitch but just behind, in layman terms, they are the classic number 10s who play behind the strikers. They are good with the ball at their feet, very creative and have an eye for goal. Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero were among the best in this role.
So I hope that has given you some food for thought. It would certainly play to some individual players strengths, Mertesacker and Santos spring to mind. Also there are superb variables in so many of the positions in this formation. Alex Song could easily play as a sweeper if M’Vila was to arrive and Diaby or Ramsey can play the advanced role. Rosicky could of course play the advanced central role but could equally play wide on the right as could Sagna. What I like about it is that it keeps the 3 in the midfield, which Wenger obviously likes, but allows 2 strikers. This formation could finally unleash Theo as the advanced striker. AOC could also pay the right wing back role of the central role. So may options and such fluidity but let’s hope it does not work too well for Italy on Sunday when we can see the formation in action against England.
So That just leaves me to thanks Hamza and suggest you engage with him via twitter @BornGunner or via the comments
Until next time thanks for reading.
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