Can I dispel the myth that Arsenal’s formation is defensive?

Defensive formation myth by Joe Allysons

Hey Hope, y’all good.

So, there’s been this notion going around that we are playing a highly defensive formation, because of three centre backs. When one is looking to feed their narrative, they’ll go as much as saying we play 5 defenders.

Now in as much as it is 5 defenders, it isn’t in the least a defensive formation. Most advocates here claim that we are an attacking team and should play a midfield 3 which would be more attacking. Today’s article is meant to show you how the back 3 or 5 is more attacking than the back four, while also showing you the advantages that come with it.

Let’s start with the defensive phases of the game. Without the ball, we have a compact unit of 3 centre backs in the box. This means that if we are playing a team with two strikers, we have both marked before a delivery arrives, and we have an extra centre back to actually win the ball without having his concentration split. This formation comes even more alive when we play a team that plays a front 3. This is because a front 3 depends on a wide forward exploiting the space behind a fullback or between fullback and nearest centerback to use his pace and get into scoring and creative positions. With 3 at the back, the fullback is far out enough to meet the wide forward early, or cut out passing lanes, and the centerback has the space in behind covered. This was meant to just remind us all of the defensive advantages that come with the formation.

Now let’s hit the transition. The best scenario for a transition in recent times is our first goal against Man city. It greatly shows the advantage of the system.

Man, city was on attack, with De Bruyne ball at feet. At this point, Arsenal were in proper defensive shape, with the centerback deep enough to block the ball across the goal, as well as have an extra man or two to confront De Bruyne. Being the smart player he is, he figured, “if they are this deep, there must be space at the lip of the box” so he tries to play the ball in there , which gets intercepted by Xhaka. Right at this point, you notice Bellerin move into a wide midfielder position, Mustafi goes wide of the 6 yard box to receive a safe pass , Luiz goes the other way and Ceballos and Xhaka keep cycling at the edge of the box to give the centerback passing options. The moment Martinez plays the ball out to Xhaka to beat Jesus, we see the back 5 become a front 5. Tierney goes to the touchline to take up the wingback formation, Bellerin sprints through midfield to join the attacking group and both of these are just in supporting range of their wide forwards.

The above description is to show you how tactically beautiful, and yet simple the formation is. Because of the way it causes overloads in unexpected areas, without players having to interchange roles too much.

Does it result in less possession? yes of course it does. This is mainly because of the fact that we have one less central midfielder than our opponents mean that the midfield two are more of supporting cast players than protagonists. They support the defence when we are under attack, and they ensure that the ball gets to attacking players almost immediately. That’s why you’ll notice most of their passes going straight to an attacker. But this isn’t exactly a bad thing. In attack, we literally have 5 players. All of whom are more often than not good with the ball at their feet. They should be able to combine and create chances for each other.

We could go in a lot deeper by describing scenarios and what not, but that’s what the comments section is for. If you came this far, big thank you. Cheers



  1. A very interesting article Joe and one which is very appropriate with the Cup Final looming.Both Arsenal and Chelsea have experimented with a back three system this season mainly because of the lack of top quality centre backs on either side which has resulted in ongoing defensive issues and losses.In the case of Arsenal , the lack of pace , technical ability and positional sense has given Arteta little alternative but to deploy this system particularly with the injuries to Chambers and Mari.Basically we cannot risk playing a high line flat back four as our centre backs would be left floundering by pacy opposition .I could write at length on the subject but would probably more our readers to tears.In any event Joe to back up my case for playing a conventional flat back four when, or if ever we have suitable players, I would simply mention that is it not significant that the best sides in Europe virtually all play with that system,e.g. Liverpool, Man City,Barca, RM, Bayern, PSG etc.On that note I rest my case.

  2. It sounds all right in theory but it is also useful if defenders knew how to defend.How many shooting opportunities did Watford have inside our penalty area yesterday. Surely a defenders job is to stop that happening.The sooner we sign top world class defenders not over the hill overpaid rejects from other clubs the better.

  3. Joe I would add that the absence of a dedicated quality DM is one of the reasons for our poor defensive record.We have lacked a player of stature in this area for a decade or thereby, indeed I would suggest that the recruitment of someone like Partey ,Sakaria or N’diti should be our first priority for next season.Although Ceballos and Xhaka are intelligent midfielders they are one paced and are not the ball winner we badly need in front of our centre backs.

  4. We are not a defensive minded team, we dont have a defensive minded midfielder and we only have one maybe two good taclers. What do people expect. Mistakes abound from Bellerin, Mustaffi, Luiz and Xhaka and some people still think we can improve.

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