MARTIN KEOWN: Arsenal MUST return to five at the back

MARTIN KEOWN: Arsenal MUST return to five at the back to get through these stormy weathers… Mikel Arteta’s long-term plan is to play 4-2-1-3 but for that to work he needs two world-class central midfielders

  • Mikel Arteta’s plans for long run is clashing with Arsenal’s current predicament
  • His decision to switch to a back four certainly has not worked in recent matches
  • Playing that way in the last four games, they have lost three and drawn one
  • Arteta needs to revert to a back five to stop this alarming rut at the Emirates

Mikel Arteta’s long-term vision is clashing with Arsenal’s current predicament.

It is something of an understatement to say his attempt to switch to a back four has not worked. The last four Premier League results playing that way are: lost three, drawn one. It is relegation form and Arsenal are in crisis.

Going into the Aston Villa game last month, Arsenal had the best defensive record and had just won at Old Trafford for the first time in the league since 2006. All with the back five with which they won the FA Cup and Community Shield.

Manager Mikel Arteta needs to find a way immediately to stop Arsenal’s relegation form

True, they lost against Villa with a back five and the lack of creativity in a game they should have bossed was alarming — but I don’t think the manager needed to change it because of one result.

Clearly Arteta’s plan is to play 4-2-1-3. But for that to work he needs two world-class central midfielders. He may have one in Thomas Partey but the Ghanaian is out for a while after being rushed back too soon from injury for the Tottenham game.

Arsenal are still searching for the right balance in centre midfield, unlike Spurs, who have the perfect duo in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Moussa Sissoko, prepared to go to war for their manager.

Which brings me to Granit Xhaka. Of course, he will be under fire after Sunday’s sending-off against Burnley, and rightly so. He just does not get around the pitch quickly enough. He has made some huge mistakes — so many in fact you would be surprised if there is a way back under Arteta.

Arsenal concede from a corner as Burnley run out 1-0 winners at the Emirates on Sunday

If the experienced players cannot do it, it is time to trust a youngster in the heart of midfield. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is an England player and he was superb in that position against Rapid Vienna. He has great pace, is good in possession and can defend.

When Arsene Wenger was manager he sat us down at the start of the 1997-98 season and told us he was changing from a back five to a back four. But he had Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit so he knew he could dominate in the centre of the park.

Also, it was a clear plan. There were bumps in the road but we worked through it. There was no chopping and changing and we won the Double. With Arteta it has been back five, back four, back five, back five. The defenders’ heads must be spinning.

You could see from the goals Arsenal conceded against Tottenham that the full backs were caught out, perhaps thinking they were still playing five at the back and had protection from three centre halves. They didn’t and Spurs outnumbered them on the break. When you are switching formations it is the full backs who are most under pressure to adapt.

Granit Xhaka isn’t the world-class central midfielder Arteta is looking for in 4-2-1-3 formation

Arteta has an idealistic view of how to play the game. But Arsenal have become a percentage team pumping balls into the box. It is not the right service for the forwards. We assume Arteta wants to play as City do, with triangles, little passes, trying to get round the back or down the sides of defences but I’m not seeing that. It is just crosses from deep. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang wants players at the byline cutting it back or passes down the sides of the centre half. But he had to wait until the 90th minute for a chance like that against Spurs.

I admired Willian at Chelsea but it is like he is on holiday at Arsenal. The first thing I would do is play him on the left where he was a success at Chelsea. And play Bukayo Saka on the right where he looks more effective.

Against Burnley, Arsenal were trying to play out from the back but the players looked so uncomfortable. It looked hazardous and Burnley sensed they would get a chance from an error.

Arsenal play Southampton on Wednesday and their high-press, high-energy forwards will be relishing the thought of the Gunners playing out from the back.

This is a tough time for a rookie manager but Arteta has to be strong and show real leadership, show some fire and spark.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles is an option to replace Xhaka and Co in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield

The problems behind the scenes do not help. With players like Mesut Ozil, Sokratis and William Saliba frozen out, it feels it could become toxic as results slide and fingers are pointed.

Some of these problems Arteta inherited. Close to £100million was spent on Pepe and Saliba, who has not played. The £72m for Pepe is alarming when you have Saka, one of the best young players we’ve seen in years, coming through.

And then there is Ozil. If Arsenal stick with 4-2-1-3 the German could come back into the picture. He can be the No10 that Arsenal are missing to provide some creativity. At the moment Arteta is asking Alexandre Lacazette to play that role but that is not the future for the Frenchman. He does not work back and tackle any more than Ozil did.

Arsenal are in a crisis of confidence and without the right midfielders maybe Arteta has to switch back to a back five.

The 4-2-1-3 should be put on ice while he navigates the team through these stormy waters. Then he can implement his long-term vision.

Willian’s move to Arsenal from London rivals Chelsea certainly hasn’t worked out




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