For Unai Emery and Arsenal, there are two numbers (or, more precisely, two sets of numbers) that will matter most before the end of the season. The first is 3-5-2, which is the formation that Emery has finally settled on over the last month and which has worked remarkably well. The second is 5-2, which is the ratio of away games to home games that Arsenal have left in the Premier League. The question is whether 3-5-2 will work well enough to counter the 5-2. In other words, will Emery and Arsenal’s new set-up be strong enough to work as well away from home as it has at The Emirates?
Arsenal’s Away Form Can Improve Under Unai Emery’s 3-5-2 Formation
Rennes Away Was The Nadir
Since the nadir of the Europa League last 16 away match against Rennes, which Arsenal lost 3-1 after losing a man (Sokratis) to a red card and apparently all sense of how to play away from home, the Gunners have undoubtedly recovered magnificently in their three next games. They rode their luck to beat Manchester United 2-0, they eventually defeated Rennes 3-0 in the second leg to win the tie 4-3 on aggregate and earlier this week they beat Newcastle 2-0.
The only problem is that all three of those matches were, of course, at home. Almost every team plays better at home and this Arsenal side are no exception. Indeed, one of the few exceptions was the Arsenal double-winning side of 2001/02, which lost three matches at Highbury but went unbeaten away for the entire season, in a foreshadowing of the Invincibles season of 2003/04. Now Emery and his Arsenal side must prove that their new tactical set-up can work as effectively at other teams’ grounds as it has at their own.
The Advantages of 3-5-2…
For Arsenal, there are numerous advantages to adopting a 3-5-2 formation, especially at home. Playing three centre-backs rather than two reduces the likelihood of any one centre-back being caught out of position and being taken on (and probably beaten) by an opposition attacker in a one-v-one situation. In midfield, it allows the deployment of both a pair of defensive midfielders (two from the three of Lucas Torreira, Mateo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka) and a pair of attack-minded wingbacks in Sead Kolasinac (who is a far better wing-back than he is an orthodox full-back) and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (who is a far better option at either wing-back or full-back than the ageing Stephan Lichtsteiner).
Most importantly of all, 3-5-2 allows Emery to top-load his team with attacking talent, which, rather than defensive solidity, is definitely the strong-point of this Arsenal side. By playing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front together, with Mesut Özil scheming behind them, Arsenal have both great goal-making and great goal-scoring power, as proven by the aggregate score of 7-0 to the Gunners over their last three home games.
…And The Drawbacks
However, there are also potential difficulties in using such a formation, especially away from home. The most obvious and important one is that it can leave room on the flanks for an opposition team’s wingers to exploit, especially if the wing-backs are caught upfield in an attack. That might become evident in Arsenal’s very next away game, against Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday, as the Toffees, for all their other faults, have a relative abundance of wingers, or wide attackers as they are often referred to now, in Richarlison, ex-Arsenal man Theo Walcott and even the young but precocious Ademola Lookman.
After a frankly disappointing season overall under new manager Marco Silva, Everton have certainly improved in recent weeks, especially at home, where they have drawn with Liverpool and beaten Chelsea. Although Arsenal’s record at Goodison is a good one (they have only lost twice away to Everton in the last ten years), given the incredibly tight nature of the battle for Champions League places, with only three points between Tottenham in third and Manchester United in sixth, even a draw for the Gunners could be potentially damaging.
Other Tough Away Games Lie Ahead
Of course, Everton is not the only tough-looking away fixture that Arsenal have left. They also have to go to Watford (either side of the two legs of their Europa League quarter-final against Napoli), to Wolves (who proved again this week in beating Manchester United that they are the best side in the Premier League outside the top six) and Leicester City (who are resurgent under Brendan Rodgers). Just to complete a potentially tricky handful of away games, Arsenal’s last game of the season is at Burnley, who may still be fighting relegation at that point and, if that is the case, will surely fight to the last against the Gunners.
Emery’s Arsenal have undoubtedly improved dramatically in the last month, to the point that they briefly moved up to third in the Premier League after beating Newcastle United, although they are now back in fourth, albeit with a game in hand, after Tottenham Hotspur beat Crystal Palace. However, a trio of home wins, even if one of them was against Manchester United, is not the best guide to how they will now perform away from home.
Away Form is the Final Frontier
Emery has done much to improve Arsenal since taking over from Arsene Wenger, both in attack and defence, culminating in the win against Newcastle, which was their tenth successive home win in the Premier League. As has been widely reported, that was the first time since 1997/98 (Wenger’s first double-winning season) that Arsenal have achieved that landmark. The final frontier, as it were, remains the away form. If Emery’s new 3-5-2 formation (perhaps with a few minor tweaks) can achieve the same results away from home that it has at The Emirates, then Arsenal have an outstanding chance of finishing in the top four. However, until that new set-up is truly tested away from home for the first time at Everton, that remains the biggest of ifs.