4-2-3-1: Nacho/Xhaka in midfield, Alexis/Iwobi on Wings, Ozil/Lacazette in Middle | Time for Tactical Change v West Ham


Most football followers consider the 3-man defence as providing a greater defensive solidity than a 4-man defence, though the numbers say differently (3 versus 4). It is a popular belief fuelled by the potential of the 3-man defence to transform into the 5-man defence when under attack thereby creating a numerical superiority over the 4-man defence (5 versus 4). Note that the critical word in the last sentence is “potential”.

The efficiency with which the 3 transforms into the 5 is therefore critical. Clearly, the solidity of the 3-man defence depends on the quality of the two wing backs. If they are regularly caught upfield when the back line is under attack, then the 4-man defence with dedicated full backs is defensively superior. On the other hand, when the wingbacks operate with high tactical intelligence, the 3 invariably transform into the 5 when necessary, to give it a superior defensive edge over the 4-man back line. The 3-man is therefore a more sophisticated (adaptable) formation, but it’s balance sits on a knife edge.

For comparison, we look at our stats over the last 6 seasons (17/18 inclusive) after 16 premier league games (FM = Formation).

12/13——-4-MAN—–16——26——16—- +10——-24——7th
13/14——-4-MAN—–16——33——17—- +16——-35——1st
14/15——-4-MAN—–16——28——18—- +09——-26——6th
15/16——-4-MAN—–16——29——13—- +16——-30——2nd
16/17——-4-MAN—–16——37——17—- +20——-34——2nd
17/18——-3-MAN—–16——30 —–20—- +10——-29——5th

Goals against (GA) column shows that we have actually conceded more goals in our only season using the 3-man defence than in any of the other 5 preceding seasons where we used the 4-man back line. However, this is not enough reason for us to revert to the back-4. What we should be comparing is the effect that changes in formation have on the overall performances of the team and not just on the defensive numbers. Points garnered and even more so, the goals difference (GD), are better indicators of the performance level of a team on the whole.

Let us then compare the stats of this season (3-man) with the average stats of the preceding 5 seasons (12/17) after 16 games.



The table shows that after 16 matches, playing with the 3-man back line, we had conceded more goals (20 to 16), scored marginally less goals (30 to 31), garnered marginally less points (29 to 30) and achieved less goal difference (10 to 15) than we did with the 4-man back line (for a period covering the 5 preceding seasons over their first 16 matches).

Are these enough reasons to declare our 4-man better than our 3-man defence? Not necessarily so.  Rather, it is the kind of personnel we have that should determine which is better for us to use. If we revert to the flat-4, the wingbacks revert to fullbacks which, being essentially a more defensive role, means to me that Debuchy should supersede Bellerin and Monreal placed ahead of Kolasinac. Smooth transition at the back if you ask me. The problem area, however, would be the central midfield where Xhaka and Ramsey are our first-choice pairing.

The 3-man back line suits Ramsey to a tee, so much so that he should be one of the first names in the starting eleven. In the 4-man formation Ramsey needs a partner who is competent in the defensive part of the game, obviously not Xhaka. On the other hand, the back-4 that goes with front wingers suits Xhaka’s long raking passes (observe that those long passes have all but vanished in the 3-at-the-back formation). In my opinion, the flat-4 back line demands that our central midfield be manned by Ramsey or Xhaka and never by Ramsey and Xhaka. The big question is who should partner either of them. I have looked around for that suitable partner and I think he is somewhere in the market. But meanwhile, Coquelin is decent enough but should never be used against the high pressing teams. Apart from him my first choice, from our present squad, is Mr Consistency. He defends well. He passes well. He reads the game very well. He knows when to take a card on behalf of the team. Ageless Nacho Monreal, the full back, the wing back, the central defender and now the defensive midfielder. Desperate times
need desperate measures if we want to return to Europe’s elite competition.
If we can get our selection right, it is back to the back-4 for me. It’s beginning to get ridiculous the way we abandon the back 3 and scamper to the back-4 at the sound of the first shot, each time.

In our midweek match against West Ham at the Olympic Stadium the team (with Ramsey out injured) that I would like to see is;


submit football lineup

SUBS: Ospina, Chambers, Bellerin, Coquelin, Wilshere, Welbeck, Giroud.

Gooners, we all have a way of seeing the same thing differently, so what’s your take on these?


By Pony Eye.

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30 Responses to 4-2-3-1: Nacho/Xhaka in midfield, Alexis/Iwobi on Wings, Ozil/Lacazette in Middle | Time for Tactical Change v West Ham

  1. TotalArsenal says:

    Great stuff, PE. Well done for collecting all those figures and making the comparisons. It looks like there is not too much in it to justify a change back to four at the back, but I still believe we should do it. Arsenal teams are most successful if they boss the midfield and play compact. At the moment, playing 3-4-3 really leaves us exposed at the back and our WB do not contribute enough in attack to justify this. I also hate to concede early and us having to chase the game (and leaving the defence even more exposed). So four at the back it is for me too. I reckon rather than Nacho in midfield we should play Kola there. He has the physical attributes to protect the back four and his passing is impressive too. Furthermore, he has that burst forward that could unlock an opponent’s midfield in a flash. But Nacho is also a good call. I would be happy to play Rambo, Xhaka or ideally Jack next to such a midfielder. Ozil in the hole works for me, and why not give Iwobi a chance to shine?

    Ideally, we revert to 4-5-1 and win games by bossing the midfield again:

    4-5-1 (all players available)
    Bellerin – Mustafi – Koz – Nacho
    Rambo – Jack – Kola – Ozil – Alexis
    ———— Giroud/Lacazette———

    Wont happen, but boy I would love to see these eleven start against ANY team!

  2. TotalArsenal says:

    The above line-up is my ideal one, but clearly not suitable for tomorrow due to one or two current injuries…

  3. jw1 says:


    Reading my mind per Kolasinac. All the makings of the classic deep-lying DM.

    Tomorrow gents, I’ll be undergoing an outpatient procedure (expected)– requiring anesthesia.
    While I’ll be be ‘out’ of the outpatient part before the opening whistle– I’ll still be woozy.
    So I’ve asked my-decidedly-better-half to take us here to watch the match:
    (Sorry about the lengthy link, but wanted to have you see the photos first!)


    The Bull & Bear Tavern has really good food– here’s the website:
    This is about 2 miles from our home.

    Click the ‘Full Menu’ link and scroll down to ‘Foreign Affair’.
    Think you’ll be surprised what you can find in Houston.

    Gotta run– work beckons!


  4. TotalArsenal says:

    JW, good luck with the procedure and hope you will enjoy the game a lot.

  5. 17highburyterrace says:

    So, J-Dub, you will be at the gastro(pub) for the 2nd half, albeit in a woozy condition?… Be sure to chime in as you can… Or have the better half do so… The menu looks good too… And the prices compare (very) favorably to similar fare in the posh-er parts of California…

    I was at a hospital today myself… (Or in line at the pharmacy in the hospital, I should say…) and I read some Arseblog. He had a good analysis about keeping the Jack-love (and even the Theo-love) at least somewhat realistic. He also talked quite a bit about hatred too… 😦 All of it pointed to those guys able to do more in a formation that feature a traditional back 4. He also noted the pressure on Xhaka in the current formation. I see that some folks… Including even his champions–my finger points your way, TA… 😉 are ready to drop him from their best 11s…

    I dunno, I like my avatar guy (Elneny) and I think Le Coq has some utility as well. There always seems a lot of temptation to throw in strong, ball-playing full-backs into MF. (I’m remembering a post about Kieran Gibbs in particular…) We should remember how they (most likely) became touchline players–and it’s probably not because they enjoy taking throw-ins… (Answer: they tend to be extremely one-footed…) Anyhow, as much as I love both Nacho and Kolasinac, I say Xhaka, Elneny, Le Coq and (even–more winkies…) Jack would be my preferences…

    Anyways, I could go on and on (of course) but–just this time–I won’t…

  6. Pony Eye says:

    Thanks Eris. Am home, dry and and sipping my tea.

    The message in the post is mainly for dispelling the general belief that our 3 at the back formation has made us defensively better. If anything it has made us worse there …. at least the stats say so.

    Our winning streak at the end of last season might have been due to the “beginners luck”. And that streak is now holding us prisoners in the back 3 formation. Time is overdue to brake jail. A back-3 needs exceptional wingbacks.

    I buy TA’s idea of emphasizing our CM which can be achieved by a 4:3:3 formation. The MFders move up and down the field to cause overloads at both critical ends. The extra body in the MF would help negate the fact that we don’t have a good enough defensive midfielder.

  7. Pony Eye says:

    The post has the line up that I would like to see. The one I expect (Wenger’s) to see is;


    Subs; Ospina, Bel, Kola, Chambers, Wilshere, Welbeck, Giroud.

    I expect a return to a back-4. Meanwhile Burnly have move to 4th on the table and if we as much as loose 2pts we might find ourselves at the 7th position.

  8. Jnyc says:

    I wanted to try going back to a back four when we were seriously short of center backs. I dont know about now.

    Our results haven’t been terrible, but i really don’t understand the direction this team is going in. With very unsettled stars, and starts for Welbeck and Iwobi, but not for Wishere. Ramseys been most valuable all season, I’ve warned about his hamstrings, but he never gets rested in the league , with Jack sitting waiting for a start. Are we saying that none of Xhaka, Ramsey, or Ozil could get a rotational rest?

    I hope there is e plan behind the scenes. Front office moves give me some hope. With the level of competition, this just isn’t good enough. Can anyone answer this question? Next season, is our squad likely to be better or worse?

  9. jw1 says:


    Hold that (those) thought(s).
    I’m trying not to over-promise– but believe there’s rational explanations for the club’s decision-making on the operational side. Hope to put forth a premise that can support the weight of expected skepticism. The piece I’m contemplating is a couple of weeks off presently.
    (Hint: Everything, is connected.)


  10. Pony Eye says:

    Jw, if I guess you right “Everything is connected” should mean there is a plan. The issue is how good is the plan. I have faith.

  11. njk84sg says:

    PE, the stats did not say much about 3 at the back and 4 at the back. However, we did better when we have 3 at the back when we have a defensive minded player like Elneny in the DM position.

    So, it is not just a flat 4 that needs more defensive minded players to complement the defense. The whole team needs to help each other out. Not inter-position, but intra-position. Meaning everyone needs to defend and attack at times of need.

    We do not seem to have a plan these few games. We just go on to the pitch and try to play and see how the opponents attack us. We must be sharper and play the ball from the word go.

  12. Pony Eye says:

    njk, conceding more goals in the only season we employed the 3 at the back as against any of the 5 preceding seasons that we employed 4 at the back, to me, is a loud statement.

    And you are very right that every formation is enhanced with defensively able midfielders.

    Something tells me we are not too far from clicking. A minor tweaking somewhere or maybe just one player short. But the starting point for me is a return to the back-4.

  13. Waldo says:

    Really good article PE. For me, whether it is 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 or 5-2-3/3-4-2-1 Arsenal have and continue to struggle to challenge for the title largely because of the following:

    1. The team lack and have lacked a clear attacking and defensive strategy;

    2. The players selected on match day frequently fail to compliment the relative strengths and weaknesses of each other;

    3. The team frequently fails to play to the strength of its key players;

    4. Arsenal don’t and haven’t for at least the past decade had central midfield options within their squad who individually possess the combination of defensive skills (tackling and interception skills) and transitional skills (long range passing or forward dribbling skills) required of the modern central midfielder;

    5. Arsenal’s fullbacks options, either directed or by choice, occupy far too advanced positions and have lacked a natural balance between attack and defence (i.e. they are either ultra concervative (i.e. Sanga, Monreal, etc) or have little regard for their defensive responsibilities but their attacking output is poor (e.g. Bellerin, Eboue, Santos, etc)). The result of which, practically speaking, is that Arsenal end up play with either 2 or 3 at the back, depending upon whether they notionally setup to play 4 or 5 defenders.

    As to the question of whether 3 or 2 central defenders is preferable, I presonally prefer it when Arsenal play 3 at the back. That change was really the first time in the past decade where Wenger has actually acknowledged Arsenal’s porous midfield for what it is. Reverting back to a 2 central defenders system now would, for me, indicate regression in terms of acknowledging the team’s shortcomings.

  14. jw1 says:

    Short answer PE? True.
    Of? When results are judged, the phrase: “Everything, is connected.”
    Were more closely attributable to Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson– than Dirk Gently.


  15. henrychan says:

    Hi all.. Hi PE.. Great post..
    Our last two Pl games were bad.. Specially for our 3 CB.. But were it really because of the formation..?? I don’t think so. It’s because we started slow.. We must attack as soon as the battle begins.. Never let them attack us first.
    And for the CB, better to kick the ball long away front than try to keep them..

    But we still can try the 4-3-3 or 4-2-1-3 or 4-2-3-1 schemes.. But I’m afraid not tonight against the Reborn Hammers..
    And if Ramsey is really injured then Wilshere not Monreal who should replaced him.
    And if Walcott also fit, no way will Iwobi played.

    WHU last two PL games were very special.. Hope they don’t play as good as their last two games.. We certainly will control the game.. Let’s hope Ozil, Sanchez and Wilshere find the way to deliver the ball.. Cause we need Win and we must WIN.. Period.
    Go Gunners.. VCC

  16. henrychan says:

    But wait.. We have the winning (second) team.. And not winning team.. Hehehe..
    Why don’t we try our winning team to play tonight.. It will surprise everybody.. Hehehe..

  17. Jnyc says:

    JW, i hope you’ll have something positive to say about our overall situation when the time comes. Like i said, i hope the new executives are a good sign, and that the owners give them some financial backing. Also, that we at least have something good to talk about later today. I wont get to watch live, but will see the recording later.

  18. allezkev says:

    Interesting post PE.
    To me, Arsene switched last season to a back three out of necessity, it stopped what was a dreadful run of results and maybe helped us win the FACup?

  19. Pony Eye says:

    Kev, beginners luck it now looks like. Seems we are now trying to get out through the back door.

  20. allezkev says:

    PE, we may as well climb out through the window mate, until Arsene grasps the nettle and signs a proper def/mid, we’re gonna be like a Malteser, with a soft center.

    Tonight we visit The London Stadium, although why West Ham changed it from the Olympic Stadium I really don’t know as it had a certain class about it imo.
    Stratford has gone through unbelievable changes over the last 10 years, it really used to be a dump, now after having millions spent on it, it’s a posh dump. 🙂
    Not really, it’s ok now in some places, especially the Olympic Park, but Stratford in general is a poor working class area.
    West Ham has always had a strong connection with its working class fan base and the area it came from, West Ham fans don’t live under illusions each season, but give them some good football and a few heroes to watch and they’re happy. Upton Park used to be a tough place to visit, you never knew what to expect when West Ham entertained Arsenal. I’ve seen some quite varied matches there, from Charlie George and Alan Ball destroying the Hammers to Stewart Robson making his debut as a 17 year old, Vladimir Petrovic playing in a team using a fluid 3 at the back system (yes really) and going 3-0 before West Ham knew what was happening, Michael Thomas and Rocky smashing the Irons 4-1, to seeing Patrick Vieira getting wound up by Neil Ruddock and getting sent off, Liam Brady in a West Ham shirt inspiring the Hammers to a 3-1 win, Wilmot was in goal for us that evening, remember him 17tino.
    Cup ties are equally unpredictable, the FACup final of 1980, Alan Taylor at Highbury in 1975 breaking our hearts on a mud heap of a pitch, then Alex Manniger starring in our penalty shoot out victory at Upton Park. It’s quite open between the clubs in cup ties so our League Cup later this month is a real banana skin game.
    Which Arsenal is going to turn up tonight, please tell me as I haven’t a clue?!
    We could go there and get well and truely turned over, if our defence goes missing again.
    Alternatively this Arsenal team is quite capable of sticking 5 in the West Ham net.
    You just never know with this mob, they blow hot n cold with the weather.
    To be honest with you, I doubt that Arsene knows what to expect half the time.

  21. retsub1 says:

    Wow Kev you really have dragged up the memories there. The 1980 final when the ball hit brooking on the head. Willie Young’s tackle on Paul Allen in the last minute. I think he was booked. Today he would be banned for a year.

    But how can you talk like that about St Ratford.? I spent 10 years working above the shopping centre in The old Morgan Guaranty building. Lunch at the Two Puddings and bowls at lunchtime. I think it was at West Ham Park?
    And a snooker club at lunchtime when we were warned keep our eyes on our own table and avoid anything that went on around us. Not that I ever saw what went on anyway.

    Anyway great post P
    E with a great deal of detail. I really hope we stay awake for the opening half hour. Even Moyes will have taken in what happened in our last few games.

  22. jw1 says:

    Kev, Retsub– I dig when you guys do this.
    Handing down vivid tales to we wide-eyed youngsters.
    (Hey, age is too relative.)

    Jnyc– No worries. Likely to lean too optimistically for some.
    (Always been a fan of foreshadowing. AKA ‘teasers’.)

    US television viewers Universo NBC Spanish channel; Comcast 554) showing the match live at 2:00pm CST. Thinking I may watch it from my home theater chair cocooned in refrigerated cool packs– instead of the pub.


  23. retsub1 says:

    I watched them play at the weekend. Mikael Antonio who I think had been injured was so knackered he couldn’t walk. Very surprised to see him starting tonight.

  24. TotalArsenal says:

    Testing testing… 17ht trying to put up a live-blog post…

  25. retsub1 says:

    Thanks Jw1 I enjoy the banter very much and someone needs to keep you young whippersnappers in order

  26. Pony Eye says:

    Back to back-4!!
    Line up
    Bel, Kos, Nacho, Niles
    Jack, Xhaka, Iwobi
    Ozil, Giroud, Alexis

    Subs: Osp, Chamb, Kola, Coq, Eln, Welbz, Lacaz.

  27. jw1 says:

    Good job on the Back-4 prediction!
    Whomever guessed the entire lineup– go to the Cashier’s Window and pickup your certified check.


  28. Pony Eye says:

    The entire line up correct is as distant as hitting the Mega Lottery jackpot.

  29. TotalArsenal says:

    Interesting line up, PE. It’s either 4-1-2-3, so very, very attacking, or 4-5-1 effectively. Let’s see how close the players play together, and who plays in the hole.

  30. 17highburyterrace says:

    Hey fellas… I gotta catch up with the comments here, but let’s move this over to the live-blog on the…


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