Arsenal: Why Unai Emery should return to a back-five to stabilise Gunners’ wobbly defence

The return of Hector Bellerin and arrival of Kieran Tierney give the manager the perfect opportunity to return to a surer formation

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speaks after Manchester United draw with Arsenal

Arsenal crept back into the top four with a point at Old Trafford on Monday but yet again, they failed to live up to Unai Emery’s “protagonist” label from his induction as manager.

Getting through their opening two games of the season with maximum points, the Gunners hit a wall after falling to a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool. Since then, performances haven’t been convincing over 90 minute periods but they have still managed to pick up points.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been the club’s shining light this season, with seven goals in the opening seven games, but those behind him have left reason for concern. This was also the case last term, which made Arsenal one of the most unpredictable teams to follow. Not just in terms of results, but also when it came to selection and formations. One week, Emery would set up with a back four and then with a back three the next.

Over the course of the 2018/19 season, he used a back four 25 times and a back three 13 times.

Rather than chop and change this year, however, the Spaniard has used a back four in every Premier League so far. But on reflection from last season, and with the additions he could soon have, a final change may help Emery’s Arsenal become ‘protagonists’.

The pull for Emery using a back three was the defensive stability it brought with an extra centre back. This worked out well as it improved the team’s 52% win ratio with a back four to 61% when the extra man was there.

That added security allowed Arsenal’s wing-backs to push so far forward, they were almost wingers. With Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney close to returning to full fitness, this could be the perfect time for him to revert to a back three. Bellerin – who is one of Emery’s five captains – excelled in the role last season, matching his Premier League assist record (five) by January.

An electric motor and vicious delivery was also a huge reason why Arsenal spent this summer pursuing Tierney’s signature. He showed some of that on his debut against Nottingham Forest, skinning his marker before whipping in an inch-perfect cross for Emile Smith Rowe. But, with even more licence to venture forward, Emery would have incredible attacking assets. Especially as in his last full season, Tierney registered seven assists (four in 2018/19).

Hector Bellerin is set to make his long-awaited return from injury 

Seeing as Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac provided a combined eight assists last year, Arsenal’s attacking intent down both wings was clear and could be replicated.

Moving further back and the addition of David Luiz this summer would help Emery if he decided to switch again. The Brazilian has shown he is still prone to error at times, conceding penalties against Liverpool and Watford, but has also shown why he could help propel Arsenal forward in the middle of a back three, where he was coached to play as a youngster at Vitoría in Brazil.

“In Brazil at that time, the dominant formation was three centre-halves due to the success of the 2002 World Cup, and I thought David could be the libero. It worked because he had two good defenders either side of him.” Then-Vitoría youth director Joao Paolo Sampaio told The Independent in August.

Having been taught to control games in that role, utilising him there must be an option at some point for Emery. Time and again this season, he has showcased his tremendous passing-range, linking up with Aubameyang to put Arsenal on the front foot. Having that approach, paired with the danger down the flanks will give the Gunners more dynamism in an attack which has become reliant on their star striker.

David Luiz's attacking creativity can flourish at the centre of a back-five (Getty)

Calum Chambers has also fully embraced the chances given to him this season. He kept a clean sheet on the opening day at Newcastle, equalised against Aston Villa and created three of Arsenal’s five goals against Forest. Playing him just to the right of Luiz rather than at right-back could benefit the 24-year-old even more after initially impressing when called upon.

When Emery deployed a three-man defence last year, Aubameyang often paired Alexandre Lacazette up top. With Nicolas Pépé still finding his feet in the Premier League, bringing him closer to the striker may help take the pressure off and allow him to get more involved in games.

He has impressed in patches out wide, however, and as Bukayo Saka – who has three assists and a goal in three games – continues to make his mark in the first team, that could be enough for Emery to stick to his guns.

Even though the youngster and Aubameyang have impressed, overall team performances haven’t had the same effect. A move to a back three could bring more balance to Arsenal and help them take charge of games more easily. Whatever happens, Emery’s Arsenal urgently need to start taking a stranglehold on games if they are to maintain their place in the top four come the end of the season.

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