2nd June 2017. By Edward Stratmann.
Arsene Wenger would've felt a palpable sense of vindication in his decision to deploy his back three in the FA Cup final, which he's done throughout the closing stages of the season, as the Gunners recorded a famous triumph over imperious Premier League winners, Chelsea.
Despite Arsenal suffering a defensive injury crisis going into the game, that saw Laurent Koscielny, Gabriel Paulista and Shkodran Mustafi all unavailable, putting his capacity to play three at the back in doubt, Wenger stuck to his guns anyway. And his decision emphatically paid off, with Rob Holding, Nacho Monreal and Per Mertesacker performing brilliantly to nullify Chelsea's multidimensional attacking unit.
Mertesacker, in particular, deserves special mention, as he hardly put a foot wrong in what was his first start of the season. Playing ostensibly the role of a sweeper at the heart of Arsenal's defence, the colossal German's ability to read the play, experience and immense concentration were crucial in him being the glue that held the backline together.
When Arsenal's side backs were forced to deal with the dropping movements of Diego Costa or the infield excursions of Pedro and Eden Hazard, Mertesaker duly slid across to cover the spaces they left behind to ensure structural security. As a result, he could mop any through balls that were played in behind the recently unoccupied spaces in the channels or through the middle. Moreover, his penchant to perfectly time his interventions and snuff out the danger only served to amplify his effectiveness here too. Indeed, in the aforementioned scenarios, his lack of pace was certainly made up for by his speed of thought that saw his astute positional sense prevail on countless occasions.
In a physical sense, the Gunners' backline completely outmuscled Chelsea's more diminutive front line, as they all combined to dominate their adversaries in battles of strength and especially in aerial duels. The conviction, success and intensity in which the triumvirate undertook their work was well illustrated by the fact they made a combined nine aerial duels, eight tackles, five interceptions, four blocked shots and completed 17 clearances.
Cohesive, well organised and disciplined, there was no doubting what a profound influence Arsenal's defence played in the compelling victory, as they supported one another superbly throughout. Mertesacker gave a fascinating insight into the success of the methods used, especially when dealing with Costa, in his post match comments. "You have to say it couldn't have gone much better for us. The team's performance was incredible. I don't know how many would have expected that," he gleamed.
"We went to work on Diego Costa. Rob was giving him a really hard time. I kept patting him on the back, being friendly, while Rob kept on talking to him. A good-double act. It was very exciting to see how quickly things can turn. What was really important was that we kept on running with Costa, to make sure those long balls didn't get to him."
To add further polish to their display, they also played a key role in facilitating Arsenal's build up out from the back. Seeing as Chelsea were rather passive in the first phase, this meant a 3v1 superiority was present for Arsenal to bypass Diego Costa and dribble forward using the left and right half spaces. This instigated their offensive play nicely, and once the ball moved upfield, they acted effectively as beacons through which to retain and circulate possession through.
In Wenger's recent musings on the success of the back three, he explained that he believed it had a lot to do with giving the players a new layer of learning, focus and direction, insisting: "I believe that what it did was get the focus on the players on something that's concrete and got rid of the uncertainty."
"Just to focus on something different sometimes helps on things that might be better. We realised we have to come back and fight like mad to win our games. Recently we've lost a lot of direct fights centrally and so it will get us a bit stronger in the air."
In the aftermath of the final, a delighted Wenger, who had just secured his seventh FA Cup final trophy, had to fend off questions about whether or not he'll remain at the managerial helm next season. But with his decision recently announced that he'll stay on for another two years, he and his players can now focus all their attention towards the 2017/2018 campaign.
With the success of his back three, that's seen Arsenal win nine of their last 10 matches, this looks like a great foundation to start with as the Gunners hope to begin another charge at Premier League glory next season.
More from Edward at Licence to Roam.
The Arsenal Back Three: Key to FA Cup Success and Contract Extension for Wenger
2nd June 2017. By Edward Stratmann.