Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says his tactical switch to three at the back brought more stability to the team in Monday’s 2-1 win at Middlesbrough, but hinted that it won’t be a permanent solution.
Wenger responded to Arsenal’s 3-0 loss at Crystal Palace by switching formations to a 3-4-2-1, playing with a three-man back line for the first time in his 21-year reign as Gunners boss.
It provided the result the Gunners so badly needed, although it wasn’t a particularly convincing performance as Wenger’s team still looked vulnerable defensively at times.
Alvaro Negredo was able to equalise in the second half after Nacho Monreal failed to close down Stewart Downing and Laurent Koscielny couldn’t deal with the cross into the box, and Petr Cech had to pull off a couple of late saves after Mesut Ozil had restored Arsenal’s lead.
But Wenger said the tactical switch had the desired effect.
“I felt that it added a bit more stability on the long balls. We knew we’d face a direct game and recently we’ve been punished on that,” Wenger told Sky Sports. “Of course, the opponents had a bit more of the ball than we’re used to. We lost two games against West Brom and Crystal Palace where we had 70 percent of possession, and today we had a bit less.”
The new formation meant Rob Holding made his first Premier League start since August alongside Koscielny and Gabriel Paulista, with right-back Hector Bellerin dropped to the bench.
Asked if this could be the way forward for Arsenal, Wenger said: “No, we want to have the ball. But sometimes when a team lacks confidence, just to change the system can help to believe in something different.”
In the end it was Arsenal’s two big stars who made the difference, rather than the system. Alexis Sanchez curled in a perfect free kick to give the Gunners the lead in the first half, then helped set up Ozil for the winner.
Sanchez floated a ball over the top into the box that was downed by Aaron Ramsey into the path of Ozil, and the German finished with a right-footed shot past Brad Guzan.
The win should boost Arsenal’s confidence somewhat going into this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, and kept their hopes alive of climbing back into the Premier League’s top four. But Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who played well in a right wing-back position, said the most important thing was to show the right mentality after last week’s disheartening defeat at Palace.
“We knew today it didn’t matter how we won, we needed to go out there and get back to the basics. And that’s making sure that our commitment levels are right to play for this football club. It’s a massive honour to play for a team like Arsenal and maybe that had been slipping in the last few weeks. So that was the first thing we needed to get back to tonight,” Oxlade-Chamberlain told Sky Sports, before paying tribute to the travelling away supporters for standing by the team.
“Obviously in recent weeks it has not gone well for us. And to see our fans travel all up the way here on a Monday night, it means everything to us for them to stick by us. It was only right that we could get them three points, so we’d like to thank them. … We need to keep fighting for them.”
Boro are six points adrift of safety and without a win in 15 Premier League games, but caretaker boss Steve Agnew is refusing to give up hope.
“This group doesn’t know how to give in, they will never, ever stop,” he said. “I couldn’t be any more proud of the players. They gave every single ounce of energy that they had throughout the 94 minutes.”