With the ‘disasterclass’ still menacingly hovering over Arsenal’s dismal Premier League restart, whispers emerged from the Emirates that the target of such scorn and ridicule was being rewarded with a contract extension.
Manchester City mercilessly pounced upon David Luiz’s sloppy outing at the Etihad as the experienced Brazilian was at fault for Raheem Sterling’s opener before he conceded a penalty and received his marching orders in the space of 20 first half minutes.
Suffice to say, the reaction was not overwhelmingly positive when fans discovered Luiz and his exploits were to be tethered to the club for another year. Yet, Luiz’s future at the club may not exclusively consist of a personal quest to singlehandedly revive Danny Baker’s ‘Own Goals and Gaffs’.
Obviously he has his limitations – as any player does – but Luiz particularly struggles when he is forced to marshal large swathes of open space. A shift to a three man backline is not the divine solution to instantaneously absolve Luiz and Arsenal of any and all defensive woes, but it may be a step in the right direction.
If Luiz were to be flanked by two central defenders, the front-footed Brazilian would be able to rely upon one of his defensive colleagues to mop up behind him if – or, more appropriately, when – he misses a tackle. This role also allows Luiz to regularly unleash his booming diagonal switches of play – a perfect example of which came in the build up to Granit Xhaka’s second goal in Arsenal’s recent 4-0 win against Norwich City.
After almost exclusively deploying a 4-2-3-1 following his arrival in December, the Norwich victory was the third successive game in which Mikel Arteta has deployed a back three, as the Spaniard uses the season’s addendum to decipher his best lineup.
Back in 2016/17, Antonio Conte decided his best Chelsea lineup would use a 3-4-3 with Luiz at the heart of the defence after suffering a first half pummelling at the hands of Arsenal. On the way to the Premier League title, Conte’s Chelsea won their next 13 consecutive league games – with Luiz playing every minute of each.
That season, Conte explained – as quoted by the Independent – why Luiz was so suited to this particular role: “I think this position is perfect for David to play as a central player in three defenders. This is the best position for him because he has good technique, he’s strong, he can start our possession and [he has] the personality to do this.”
Conte’s tactical tweak spawned several imitations, including – surprisingly – at Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal. When the two London sides met in that year’s FA Cup, Arsenal lined up with a three man backline to face Chelsea – and Luiz – in the Wembley showpiece. On the right-hand side of Arsenal’s defence that sunny May day was Rob Holding, who delivered one of his best performances for the club – this points towards his ease in that system.
While Luiz’s recent extension inevitably grabbed the headlines, Arsenal also secured the services of Pablo Mari. The left-footed Spaniard may be ruled out for the rest of the campaign, but, in his short time at the club, he has already won over Arteta and would provide some balance to the defence on his favoured side.
Next season will also bring the arrival of teenage centre back William Saliba. Despite the 19-year-old’s limited exposure to first-team football, the Frenchman also has experience in a three man backline coming through Saint-Étienne’s ranks.
This change of system did garner wins against a woefully out of form Sheffield United and relegation-bound Norwich. But with a devilish four match run against Wolves, Leicester, Tottenham and Liverpool on the horizon, there is no room for the defensive lapses which have peppered Luiz’s debut campaign in north London.
Simply turning to this tactic is not the solution in and of itself, but it may be the best way to maximise the defensive talent at Arteta’s disposal.