Football: Wenger shows change is possible

Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez giving his match shirt to a young fan after the Gunners' 2-1 win at the Riverside. The Chilean's opener from a free kick was his 19th league goal of the season.
Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez giving his match shirt to a young fan after the Gunners' 2-1 win at the Riverside. The Chilean's opener from a free kick was his 19th league goal of the season.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Arsenal boss switches to back three in win over Boro to keep top four hopes alive

LONDON • Arsene Wenger issued a reminder that you do not have to be young to be modern after his side ended a run of four successive away Premier League defeats with a 2-1 win featuring a brand-new formation at Middlesbrough on Monday.

Arsenal's manager arrested his slide by showcasing an unexpected back three against spirited opponents fighting to avoid relegation.

"It's the first time in 20 years I've played it," said the under-fire 67-year-old, who has been labelled by British media as "outdated" in recent weeks.

"It shows that, even at my age, you can change. We've lost a lot of direct fights centrally so it gets us a bit stronger in the air. It gives the team confidence to have something new to believe. I felt it was needed. We were vulnerable."

Goals from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, either side of Alvaro Negredo's equaliser lifted Wenger's team to sixth, seven points behind fourth-placed Manchester City, albeit with a game in hand.

Wenger knows that qualifying for the Champions League is an uphill task but he was relieved to end Arsenal's worst league run on the road for 88 years.

"We have to win every game to have a chance to get in the top four," he said. "Had we not won against Middlesbrough I would have conceded that the top four was beyond us."

The Frenchman made six changes from the team that lost 3-0 at Crystal Palace seven days earlier, employing three centre backs in Rob Holding, Laurent Koscielny, and Gabriel Paulista as part of a 3-4-3 system.

Although Arsenal prevailed, the league's lowest scoring side managed to get their 23rd goal of the campaign on Monday. And former Arsenal centre-back Martin Keown warned that the Gunners still need time to adapt to the new formation.

"They had a few teething problems - particularly when it came to Alvaro Negredo's equaliser," Keown, who played in Wenger's previous three-man defence in May 1997 against Derby when Arsenal won 3-1, wrote in his column for the Daily Mail.

"After Alexis Sanchez lost the ball high up the pitch, Stewart Downing bombed forward into the space vacated by Nacho Monreal at left wing back. When Downing came in on his left foot, the central defenders should have held their line to catch the forwards offside. Instead, they dropped deep too early and their marking was too loose."

Boro also enjoyed a second-half spell when they threatened to win. Downing wasted an excellent opportunity when George Friend's cross reached him at the far post. The pair combined again to carve a chance for Daniel Ayala.

"My players were amazing," said Boro caretaker boss Steve Agnew, whose side are second bottom, six points behind 17th-placed Hull City with a game in hand and a vastly superior goal difference.

"They played with such intensity I couldn't have asked for any more from them. I'm so, so pleased with their spirit and effort but disappointed to lose."

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'Wenger shows change is possible'. Print Edition | Subscribe