With William Saliba returning, could Arsenal play 3 at the back next season?

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 30: William Saliba of Marseille during the UEFA Europa League group E match between Olympique de Marseille (OM) and Galatasaray AS at Stade Velodrome on September 30, 2021 in Marseille, France. (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images)
MARSEILLE, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 30: William Saliba of Marseille during the UEFA Europa League group E match between Olympique de Marseille (OM) and Galatasaray AS at Stade Velodrome on September 30, 2021 in Marseille, France. (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images) /
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Mikel Arteta is known for his ability to fluidly change Arsenal’s formation on the fly, and we have seen the Gunners boss use this formation previously, but could it be permanent?

With the welcome and exciting news that William Saliba is returning to the Emirates Stadium after a fruitful spell with Marseille, attention now turns to exactly how Arsenal could line up with the 21-year-old defender in its ranks.

One thought has been moving to three at the back and using Takehiro Tomiyasu and Kieran Tierney as wing-backs, something we have seen Arteta do before (albeit not with the Japanese international). The three central defenders in Saliba, Gabriel, and Ben White are all capable of playing in the system. Tierney and Rob Holding have also been used as part of a three-man backline along with Granit Xhaka (out of necessity more than anything) in previous years.

Could a three-man backline work with William Saliba, Ben White & Gabriel?

Given the style Arsenal like to play, 100% it can work. Arsenal are blessed with a pair of wide forwards (Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka) who differ in profile, but are similarly destructive at what they do. The young tandem could make up an exciting and well-balanced front three complemented by a multi-faceted centre forward. Gabriel Jesus, anyone?

That triumvirate will be well-serviced by Thomas Partey and Martin Odegaard (or whoever the club opts to bring in this summer) in midfield, while Tierney will doggedly wander forward for added final third support. The Scot’s crosses and cut-backs are a key source of chance creation for Arteta’s Arsenal. Tomiyasu’s viability as a wing-back is up for debate, but his role in possession could be nuanced so he operates in central areas in a bid to isolate Saka down the right touchline.

The right centre-back, whoever that might be (Saliba or Ben White) will have plenty of ball-playing responsibility down that flank, and they could be tasked with entering the final third pretty regularly with Tomiyasu providing cover.

The formation – which would likely be a 3-4-3 (3-4-2-1) – provides ample balance between attack and defence. Arteta utilised this system effectively amid the Gunners’ successful FA Cup run in 2020, but now the manager is blessed with superior talent at several key positions which will elevate what was then a rather pragmatic system.

There are pitfalls to any formation, though, and by playing three at the back, Saliba, Gabriel, and White are going to be isolated at times given how much space there will be around them. If Odegaard is forced to partner Partey in the pivot, you could imagine the Ghanianan being forced to cover plenty of ground as well, especially in transition.

Thus, it will be up to the wing-backs to decrease the burden of their centre-backs in wide areas, while also providing support in the final third. Their respective roles are the most demanding in the system.

With Saliba coming back and fighting for a place in the Arsenal setup, Arteta could use the 21-year-old and pair him with his two bonafide starting central defenders. While three at the back isn’t something that the Gunners normally do, it could be something different to throw at opposition teams, especially against the bigger clubs.

Needing a high level of tactical discipline, stamina, and players who are great technically to make it work, Arsenal could choose to adopt three central defenders at different stages throughout the season.