I was all set to hit “send” on a column focused on Chelsea’s undoing at the hands of their former manager. It was taking me a little longer to author both because I had a lot going on in my day job on one hand and, on the other, it honestly wasn’t that compelling a premise. Yes, Chelsea had a bad match. Yes, it was shocking that Eden Hazard was marked out of the match as seemingly easily as he was by a player, who while good, we don’t associate with N’Golo Kante levels of defensive awesomeness. Yes, Antonio Conte failed to come up with even a decent Plan B with Hazard on the ropes.
There are lots of good stories from the Manchester United victory but as soon as Arsenal released their starting line-up for the match against Middlesbrough, I had to erase it all and shift focus entirely to the potential fantasy and real world implications of Arsene Wenger rolling out a 3-4-3 line-up for the first time in 20 years. Let’s start the unpacking.
First, to the real world. FINALLY! Given the failings that Arsenal have had at the base of midfield, this has seemed like an obvious thing to try for some time. If you look at the benefits that Chelsea have reaped in covering over many of the inadequacies that we’ve seen in previous seasons from Gary Cahill and David Luiz by adding a third central defender it doesn’t seem unreasonable that whatever central trio that Arsenal has healthy at the moment could benefit similarly. Given that Coquelin and Xhaka aren’t going to be mistaken for Claude Makelele or N’Golo Kante a three-man central alignment at least makes sense to experiment with. It isn’t like Arsenal were churning out mistake-free clean sheets playing 4-2-3-1.
The results against Boro weren’t as transformational as they were for Chelsea early in the season but after four consecutive 3-1 road defeats it stopped the bleeding. The interesting evolution will come as Arsene Wenger gets his full side back. The obvious changes from what we saw against Boro will be Mustafi and Bellerin, both playing below their best for months now, coming back into the mix. Perhaps the less obvious change would be switching Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain over to the left side of the formation. As much as Mustafi and Bellerin have been struggling, the biggest drop off of the season has been Monreal who was very good as recently as last season. A formation that allows Wenger to de-emphasize the defensive importance of the wide left position can be seen as nothing but a win given the personnel. He can start “big” matches with Gibbs for a slightly more defensive posture and with Ox for a more attacking posture but in neither case would the formation depend on Monreal to defend resolutely.
The fantasy implications of a potential change aren’t guaranteed. Wenger has implied that it isn’t necessarily a permanent change (although he should give it more time for all the reasons above). Obviously this could mean one more center back starting for Arsenal (presumably Gabriel) at the expense of an attack-oriented player (it was Walcott on Monday). None of these are particularly important changes for Perfect XI or other salary cap-type games but in draft leagues this could be a pretty big deal down the stretch. Arsenal have a challenging run-in but with challenging matches comes the opportunity for passes intercepted, tackles won, aerials won, and clearances. So long as Arsenal don’t get completely overrun by the likes of Leicester City, Spurs, Manchester United, Everton and Southampton a newly minted starter at center back could be a solid play.
Finally, I understand that anything that involves staring into the crystal ball related to Arsenal is murky at best. Given uncertainty about Wenger’s future and how the club might engage with the transfer market it’s hard to say anything even reasonably definitive. That said, with the rumors abounding that Sead Kolasinac will be coming to the Emirates next season you might be looking at next season’s Marcos Alonso from a fantasy point-of-view. Just something to file away for the second or third round of your draft league next season depending on how the summer plays out.