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3-4-3 formations in focus as Chelsea and Arsenal meet again

3-4-3 formations in focus as Chelsea and Arsenal meet again
From ESPN - September 17, 2017

For a managerial rivalry that is just a year old, the meetings between Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte have produced a series of fascinating Arsenal vs. Chelsea clashes that essentially tell the story of the Premier League's most significant tactical shift during that time: A shift from clubs being fixated upon four-man defences, to an increasing dominance of the back three.

Sunday will mark the fifth meeting between Wenger and Conte since the latter arrived in London. In the league last season, Arsenal triumphed at the Emirates and Conte got his revenge at Stamford Bridge; Wenger came out on top in the FA Cup final and, after a penalty shootout, in August's Community Shield. The nature of the matches, however, says considerably more than the mere results.

After all, when Chelsea made the short trip across London to the Emirates last September, there was no doubt that both teams would deploy a conventional four-man defence. Arsenal had started the campaign in their customary 4-2-3-1, while Conte had deployed a 4-1-4-1.

Chelsea initially struggled under Conte, however, to the point there were question marks about his future at the club. The performance at the Emirates was their worst of the campaign, with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez counter-attacking speedily to put the Gunners 3-0 up by half-time.

The story of what happened next has become famous: Ten minutes into the second half, Conte withdrew ex-Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas, to inevitable jeers from the home crowd, and introduced Marcos Alonso.

It was not an attempt to get back into the game, but effectively a training session for Chelsea's next match; it was the first time they'd deployed a 3-4-3. Chelsea lined up in that system in a win at Hull, then won every game for the rest of 2016 and stormed their way to the title with the second-highest points total -- 93 -- in Premier League history.

Their stunning run owed much to their new formation and one of the most obvious goals that stemmed from the adjustment, coincidentally, came from Alonso when he headed the opener against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in February.

The immediate focus was on whether the goal should have stood, as Alonso's challenge on Hector Bellerin resulted in the Arsenal right-back being substituted with concussion.

But watch the goal again and it shows how Chelsea overloaded Arsenal five-against-four: Nacho Monreal was dragged towards Victor Moses, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi picked up Pedro Rodriguez and Eden Hazard, leaving Bellerin overwhelmed at the far post against both Diego Costa and Alonso. Foul or no foul, the right-back never stood a chance.

By the time the two sides met at Wembley three months later for the FA Cup final, Wenger had switched to his own 3-4-3. He refused to credit anyone in particular for his dramatic change of system, but the fact he deployed a three-man defence for the first time in 20 years was clearly linked to the success of Conte.

Wenger was essentially learning from a manager two decades younger than him, which perhaps outlines the idea that, while he is somewhat behind the times tactically, he remains open to new ideas.

Indeed, not only did Wenger copy Chelsea's formation, but he actually managed to beat them at their own game; Arsenal's performance in the final was considerably more dominant than the 2-1 scoreline would imply.

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