Given his general resistance to reactionary change, Arsene Wenger’s decision to employ three at the back against Middlesbrough on Monday came as something of a surprise.
While the move may not have proved the panacea to all the ills plaguing the team at the moment, it did prove itself pretty solid in the first half and, above all else, resulted in a much yearned-for victory away from home.
The real conundrum facing the Gunners boss now, however, is whether to stick with the new system for Sunday’s clash with Manchester City at Wembley.
Personally, I can’t see that there is any way back for Arsene now, having committed to the change. He has put himself in a situation where allowing a return to the old system so soon would open him up to even more strident criticism should City pick us apart.
That remains a distinct risk even if we retain the 3-5-2 but the Frenchman’s willingness to change has at least earned him a little credit with those wavering in their support for his continued tenure.
It is clear that a good deal more work is required on the training ground to fine tune this new way of playing for the current Arsenal side. While defensively it may have worked well enough in the first half at the Riverside, there remained several issues that could have cost us quite dearly after the break.
At times, we still found ourselves horribly exposed to the counter attack and our tendency to give the ball away in suicidal positions showed no signs of going away.
From an attacking point of view, removing a man from the defence also robbed us of a passing option when Boro pressed high and, more often that not, resulted in us going backwards into a position where we were no threat to the hosts.
While Boro were pretty effective with their press, Manchester City will doubtless be much more efficient and dangerous from any turnovers so it is crucial that if we go three at the back again, that there are more options for moving the ball forward.
Our attacking threat was also a little diminished by employing the new system, with precious few quality chances created throughout Monday’s match. Fortunately, two moments of real quality allowed us to bury what opportunities we did create but we won’t always be so efficient in front of goal.
On a positive note, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain excelled as a wing back and often found his way to the byline, putting in a good number of decent crosses. Nacho Monreal wasn’t quite so effective and was often a little exposed defensively as Alexis Sanchez wandered into space in the attacking third, that will be a key factor against the likes of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.
With more work on the training ground this week, the players will continue to adapt and will, hopefully, get better at working within a system that has proven so effective for a number of sides in the Premier League this year.
If a fresh approach on the pitch also inspires a little renewed confidence and spirit in the side, so much the better.
But there is no getting away from the fact that sticking with the 3-5-2 for the weekend’s FA Cup semi-final is still a big gamble. Had we switched to three at the back after the second Bayern Munich hammering, we may well be better adapted by now, so the inexperience remains a worry.
But if there is one advantage to having made the change, it is that Pep Guardiola will be forced to change his own plans. There is an air of unpredictability about a side that has for so long been cripplingly predictable and that could yet work in our favour.
Arsene Wenger is handsomely paid for his hard work and for his judgement and, this weekend, he will have to earn every penny.