Being questioned about tactics is never Arsène Wenger’s favourite thing. On his list of irritations that must be tolerated as part of the job, it seems to be a high flyer. So in the immediate aftermath of Thursday night’s chaotic Europa League game, with questions flying around about the handling of overcrowding, ticketing, fan behaviour and a kick-off delay, when the Arsenal manager was politely asked about whether he was leaning towards a return to a good old back four after his recent dalliance with a defensive trio, he looked a little irked. It says a lot that he was probably more comfortable dealing with the issue of crowd control than how he wishes to set up his team strategically.
On Sunday Arsenal face another of those worrying away fixtures against top sides that tend to be bring out the vulnerabilities in their make-up. Stamford Bridge has not been the scene for a happy excursion for a while, with five Premier League defeats in a row on Chelsea’s turf (at an aggregate score of 15-2). If Arsenal are to attempt to make sure they can compete with more substance than they managed with their meek trip to Anfield last time they hit the road, the way they set up is important.
Wenger introduced the back three last season to try to provoke a bit more steel and resilience at a time when his team were suffering from an outbreak of serious defensive flakiness, and it was a helpful tool to improve matters for a few weeks and set them up to win the FA Cup by defeating Manchester City in the semi-final and Chelsea in the final. But the evidence of this season suggests the manager is far from convinced that it is the best long-term plan. In each of Arsenal’s games so far this season they have started with a back three plus wing-backs, but seldom finished that way. Switching to a back four at half-time of their European match against Cologne made a clear difference – particularly in giving more balance and ballast to the midfield area that tends to get stretched and overrun.
Wenger has a decision to make before the trip to Chelsea about whether adding a man to the defence or midfield gives his team a stronger structure, a better platform, an improved chance of hanging on in there in a difficult away assignment.
It is a concern that Arsenal have not won on the road against a team in the upper echelons of the Premier League since January 2015. Despite that unwelcome statistic the Arsenal manager resists the idea that games on enemy territory should bring too much of an extra psychological test. “I don’t really believe in that,” he says. “The pitch is 105 metres long and 68 metres wide everywhere, and never in my life I could accept or understand that it’s different away from home. It’s just a question of how much you want it, it’s about football, it’s a good opportunity to show that and that we have that quality.”
The heavy defeat at Anfield, he says, gives Arsenal some extra impetus to try to put things right. “I believe we had a bad performance at Liverpool, I never deny that, it should be an even greater motivation for us to turn up with an even better performance on Sunday. We’ve analysed Liverpool well, we know what we missed there, it’s important we correct it.”
Rather than focusing on any inferiority complex because of their bad sequence at Stamford Bridge, Wenger is urging his team to keep in mind recent victories over Antonio Conte’s team. “Basically, in the last few years, Chelsea has had great teams so it was always difficult to win there but our record against Chelsea has been good, we won here last year, we won the FA Cup final, on penalties in the Community Shield, so let’s focus on the quality of our game and not too much on where we play.”
Several players rested for the Europa League will be back in contention, but team shape and attitude will be just as important as personnel selection.