Arsenal benefitting from formation change, notably Rob Holding, Gabriel
Whatever shape you choose, however many you play at the back, whether it's full-backs or wing-backs, a two-or three-man midfield, false nines or No. 10s, the basic idea behind the use of any formation is to get the best out of the players you have at your disposal, to maximise the talent in your squad.
It is still very early days in Arsenal's brave new world of playing a three-man defence -- and a sample size of two matches in 20 years is infinitesimally small, and certain to send shudders down the spine of statisticians -- but a change in formation has certainly been coupled with a change in fortune for a number of Arsenal players, as Arsene Wenger has set about the task of rescuing a season which appeared to be in terminal decline.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been the most obvious beneficiary of the Damascene conversion which has seen Wenger reject the old orthodoxy he was beholden to for two whole decades. Oxlade-Chamberlain has been eating up acres of turf in front of him when playing as a wing-back behind a narrow Mesut Ozil, but also profiting from the new landscape have been two rather less heralded members of the squad: Gabriel Paulista and Rob Holding.
The idea behind moving to the back three was to reinforce a defence which had conceded three goals in four successive away Premier League games against Chelsea, Liverpool, West Brom and Crystal Palace -- as well, of course, as 10 goals across two legs against Bayern Munich. It was primarily a defensive deployment, and much to Arsene Wenger's likely delight, the early signs of improvement have been seen in this area of the pitch.
It has been far from perfect: a 2-1 win away at Middlesbrough would not have been followed by the same result against Manchester City in Sunday's FA Cup semifinal if Fernandinho and Yaya Toure had scored instead of hitting the woodwork in the second half. But the goals conceded have been stemmed. And though fringe members of the squad mere weeks ago, Holding and Gabriel, playing either side of Laurent Koscielny at the back, are the two of the players who have been best reinvented in this reworking of Arsenal.
Gabriel is a player many fans would probably nominate for a summer sale and apart from a smattering of half-decent displays at right-back his season had been a bit of a non-event, but his performance against City was one of his most resolute in an Arsenal shirt, as he made a series of important interventions, particularly to help keep Leroy Sane more subdued than usual. Holding was almost as impressive on the other side of Koscielny, building on his impressive return after two months in the wilderness against Middlesbrough.
Arsenal's new shape -- combined with Shkodran Mustafi's injury -- has given second chances to two players who had drifted to the fringes. It has also given them renewed confidence. That much was clear when Gabriel started striding out with the ball from the back against Middlesbrough like a Brazilian (Franz) Beckenbauer (well, maybe), and then when Holding did this to Sergio Aguero at Wembley like a Mancunian (Diego) Maradona (again, maybe):
Again, we are talking about only two games so far, and all three centre-backs went completely missing when Aguero scored City's goal, so there is clearly still some work to be done. This is certainly not proof that Gabriel is reborn as a player or that Holding is the second coming. But the primary objective of the formational change has so far been met: Arsenal are conceding fewer goals and the defence are playing with much more assurance.
Speaking ahead of Wednesday's home match against Leicester City, where the new formation will be subjected to the stringent test that is Jamie Vardy's pace, Wenger revealed his moment of tactical clarity was a psychological ploy as much as anything. "What [the change in formation] did was it got the players to focus on something that is concrete, to forget anxiety and a little bit of uncertainty," he said. "Sometimes when a team doesn't do well, just focusing on something different helps to focus on something that might be better."
A change will do you good, as they say. And it has. Back-to-back wins, and the confident and efficient performances of Gabriel and Holding, show Wenger's big gamble has paid off -- so far at least. The back three might just have the potential to get the best out of some unexpected names.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport