Last season, during a dip in form, Arsene Wenger dropped the conventional back four in favour of a three and it made quite an impact at the tail end of the season. Not a radical or revolutionary idea in any sense, but it worked well and the side went on a decent run, clocking up a series of wins.
I termed that decision to alter the defensive formation from 4 to 3 a ‘happy accident’, because it was born out of desperation but it actually worked wonders for the team.
It hasn’t fared so well this year for one reason or another. Mainly because players have been out of salts and suffered injuries at key stages of the season and that continuous upheaval has caused inconsistencies, which morphed into a crisis of confidence.
It’s been an incredibly difficult spell for the club, one that has seen 41 goals hit the back of the Arsenal net and if that were to continue, it would be a rather unwelcome record for the under-pressure Gunners boss. Arsenal are in need of an urgent solution to their defensive deficiencies, having already tried all the various permutations and available personnel.
Against Watford, who were very much in the game for three-quarters of its duration, Wenger’s side gave as good as they got and were competitive enough to wear down their feisty opponents and close out the game with a decidedly flattering scoreline.
In truth, Watford made four glaring mistakes, three defensive lapses and a missed penalty, which saw the Gunners win comfortably. Xhaka and Elneny, in particular, looked the part in front of a back four and the Egyptian was extremely creative, linking up beautifully with Mesut Ozil.
Xhaka for his part was solid, more switched on and less wasteful with his passes. He kept it simple and in football, simple is best if you want to win and keep your opponents at bay. With AC Milan due at the Emirates on Thursday, could it be that Wenger has found a pairing that can settle into the side and make them less fragile?
It’s hard to judge by this one performance and against opponents like Watford, who are, let’s face it, no AC Milan but surely he must be tempted to keep the changes to a minimum because the side had a genuine flow about it. Maitland-Niles also looked assured with an exceptional performance on Sunday. He looked comfortable on the ball and was able to attack and defend as the situation developed with equal success.
There’s no doubt that he is one of the stars of the future but Wenger might consider overlooking Bellerin if fit because even though he played out of position, his contribution was composed and his distribution good. Bellerin, on the other hand, is great in attack but he drifts away and his positional awareness is poor at times, leaving him to rely on his speed to get him out of trouble.
Maitland-Niles seems more aware of the dangers, perhaps from his observations from a midfielders perspective but he has pace as well, so Wenger has a solid option in the right back position. Where this leaves Wilshere and Ramsey is arguable but one would assume that they will only appear as substitutes on Thursday and rightly so.
The team will obviously be missing Aubameyang, which is the main concern. The striker has settled in remarkably quickly and is starting to look like the attacking force that the Gunners have lacked for so long. What a pity he is cup-tied and Lacazette is still injured, this alone could cause major problems for the North London club because the only recognisable replacement is Danny Welbeck.
I like the enthusiasm Welbeck brings and he is a menace on the flanks, but he will not present AC Milan with the same threat. In fact, Welbeck requires ten chances per game to convert one opportunity which at this level is a liability.
His second half scuff against AC Milan summed up his ability for thousands of Gooners, who no doubt laughed out of embarrassment as he charged towards the area and cut in on his right to take a shot. Instead, he stubbed the ball firmly into the ground and watched as it rolled tamely into the Milan penalty area.
He looked up bemused and bewildered, then seemed to accuse the turf of foul play or perhaps the groundsman for not cutting the grass to the right length.
Whichever it was, Welbeck illustrated that he is more winger that striker. Wenger’s temptation is to make at least one extra change to accommodate the former United striker and if that’s the case, perhaps Ramsey will get the nod.
Lacazette can not return quickly enough and I’d go as far to say that success in the Europa league will depend on it. Arsenal can get goals from elsewhere but chances may be few and Milan will certainly throw caution to the wind. We could all be in for another torrid evening at a three-quarters full Emirates.