In Arteta We Trust – Part Two: Arsenal Tactical Analysis

In Arteta We Trust – Part Two: Arsenal Tactical Analysis

If you haven’t already, we recommend you read part one of this segment: In Arteta We Trust – Part One: The Making of a Modern Day Head Coach.

In the previous article we looked into the early days of Mikel Arteta’s career right up to his big breakthrough at Everton and FA Cup successes with Arsenal. We also touched on how his knowledge and experiences led him to become Pep Guardiola’s No. 2 at Manchester City.

All of this helped mould Arteta, in the eye of the Arsenal board, into the ideal candidate to take over a struggling Gunners side.

In this article we’re going to take a deeper dive into Arteta’s philosophy, his instant impact at Arsenal and what we can expect to see from them under his guidance in the future.

What Went Wrong for Unai Emery

It’s safe to say that when Arsenal unveiled Unai Emery as Arsene Wenger’s replacement in May 2018, many were surprised. With Emery’s name not mentioned in the media as one of the potential candidates until very late on in the process, it was unanticipated to say the least.

After it was announced he would be leaving PSG at the end of the 2017/18 season, perhaps it was his emergence as a cheaper option for Arsenal which helped him to land the job.

A lot was spoken about his PowerPoint presentation which was said to have blown away those in attendance. Arsenal spoke highly of his meticulous attention to detail, and extensive knowledge of the players within the club, particularly in the academy.

Things didn’t quite go to plan for Unai Emery.

He no doubt said all the write things, but many of the things he preached, never came to fruition. In his opening press conference he spoke about how he wanted his side to be “protagonists on the pitch”. We saw very little from his Arsenal side that would indicate that they were in control, dictating games, being protagonist-like. 

Often, they were the ones on the back foot, conceding possession and ultimately resulting in a barrage of shots on their goal. At the time of his sacking, goalkeeper Bernd Leno had made the most amount of saves in the Premier League, significantly more than anyone else.

The game which really highlighted Emery’s demise at Arsenal was their 2-2 draw away to last placed Watford in the Premier League in September. Arsenal lead 2-0 at half time, only to walk away at the final whistle counting their lucky stars that they even managed to scrape a draw.

The full time stats were damming. Watford managed a staggering 31 shots on Arsenal’s goal with 10 of those on target. The Gunners by comparison, managed a measly 7 shots in total, with 4 hitting the target.

The writing was on the wall after this game. Emery and his team had not only allowed a two goal lead to slip, but they were outplayed and dominated all over the pitch by a side who had amassed just 1 point from their opening 4.

In contrast, Watford went away to Manchester City in the following game and got embarrassed by 8 goals to nil. One of the heaviest defeats in Premier League history.

As for the “intense pressing” which Emery also promised on his arrival, it had become a bit of a myth by the end. In his first season, Arsenal showed glimpses of their pressing intent. For example, the home victories against Spurs and Chelsea, where Arsenal’s aggressive approach shocked and bewildered their London rivals.

Outcast: Mesut Ozil found appearances hard to come by under Emery.

Interestingly in both games, Aaron Ramsey featured in a No. 10 role where he was able to apply pressure to the opposition’s back line and midfield. When Ramsey was absent, notably in the Europa League final in May 2019, Mesut Ozil could not provide Emery with the same intensity. Perhaps highlighting a flaw in his coaching, and not being able to motivate and convince the German with his methods. 

Arsenal never truly recovered from that 4-1 defeat in Baku, and ironically Emery, who in no doubt seemed like a nice chap, left the Emirates as a bit of an antagonist.

The Ideal Candidate

After an incredibly disappointing start to the season, Unai Emery was finally relieved of his duties as Arsenal manager on 29th November 2019. Club legend Freddie Ljungberg, who was part of Emery’s back room team, was given the job on an interim basis as Arsenal sounded out candidates.

One name was heavily linked from the start. A man who looked certain to succeed Arsene Wenger in the summer of 2018, but was pipped to the post by Emery, Mikel Arteta.

The new boss.

After what felt like weeks of talks between Arteta, Arsenal and Manchester City, all parties finally reached an agreement and Arteta was confirmed as Arsenal’s new Head Coach on 20th December 2019. Mikel had come home.

Just in time for the busy Christmas period, Arsenal had exactly what they needed. A young, progressive coach, with fresh ideas and importantly, a connection to the club and it’s fans.

Anyone who follows Arsenal will tell you that Unai Emery just never seemed to be the right fit for the club. He never had a clear philosophy or identity, often changing his players and system based on the opponents. This lead to much confusion for the players and fans alike and ultimately frustration when things were not going well.

As a manager, you can be forgiven if results aren’t going your way but your team is playing with heart, desire and people can identify with what you are trying to do. If you cannot bring any of those things, you’re not going to last, as we saw with Emery.

Arteta’s first press conference as Arsenal manager was a breath of fresh air for The Gunners. He came in with a clear identity: playing football his way, regardless of the opposition, dominating the opponents and trying to play in their half at all times. He also demanded complete commitment.

“I don’t want them hiding, I want people to take responsibility for their jobs and I want people who deliver passion and energy in the football club. Anyone who doesn’t buy into this, or that has a negative effect or whatever, is not good enough for this environment or this culture.”

It was refreshing to listen to an Arsenal manager who not only had a clear vision, but seemed very committed to sticking by his own values, and those of the club. Arteta also seemed to have a ruthlessness about him, something The Gunners have been severely lacking for years.

“I have to try and convince the players about what I want to do, how I want to do it, they have to start accepting a different process, a different way of thinking, and I want to get all the staff and everybody at the club with the same mindset.”

Arteta claimed that he wants to create a culture at the club and that these things would be non-negotiable.

“We have to build a culture that has to sustain the rest. If you don’t have the right culture, in the difficult moments, the tree is going to shake, so my job is to convince everybody that this is how we are going to live, and if you are going to be part of this organisation it has to be in these terms and in this way.”

You could argue that all of the above comments from Arteta should be a given, at any top tier professional football club. Sadly, at Arsenal, these ‘basics’ had been missing for some time. It would be harsh to solely criticise Emery, because this responsibility and commitment which Arteta is after, was also missing during the final years of Wenger’s reign.

There’s no doubt that Arteta said the right things and ticked all the boxes for Arsenal’s board and fans. However, Emery also promised certain things which, as we know, did not materialise. Will Arteta be true to his word? If he is, will he be able to actually achieve what he’s after?

Mikel Arteta Philosophy and Tactical Profile

Early signs suggest, yes, to both those questions above. Mikel Arteta arrived at London Colney with a clear philosophy, one that matches the beliefs and values of Arsenal football club, and in his first (four/five) games, we have seen genuine improvements and evidence of his style.

In all of his opening fixtures (at the time of writing), Arteta has set his team out to play in the same manner, regardless of the opponents. The level and styles of opposition has varied, but Arsenal’s style of play has been consistent, whilst their commitment, aggression and overall game has improved week by week.

“My philosophy will be clear,” he said. “I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition.”

Pep Guardiola can be credited for mentoring Mikel Arteta.

Perhaps a little dig at his predecessor there, although it’s likely just coincidental – but Unai Emery is famed for his intense analysis of opponents and tailoring his game plan to nullify their threat.

Emery would adapt too much to the opponents and have virtually no identity of his own, and often be too pragmatic in his approach (e.g. fielding three defensive midfielders at home to mid table opponents).

Arteta has promised the polar opposite.

“We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative, and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us. I’m 100 per cent convinced of those things, and I think I could do it.”

It’s welcoming news to Gunners fans as it seems to be an attempt, with his own twist, to bring the free flowing type of football they were so used to under Wenger.

Similarly to Pep Guardiola, however, Arteta has promised not to be so rigid with the style and structure he uses.

“You can have an idea of a system, but you need to be able to transform it depending on the players you have – how much pace you have up front, how technical your team is, what types of risk you can take and whether your players are ready to take those risks.”

We’ve seen how Guardiola has set his teams up depending on certain factors, like players at his disposal or to exploit an opposition weakness.

Arteta on the bench for Man City side during a pre-season fixture.

For example, at Barcelona he moved Messi centrally in order to get the best out of him, and put his strikers (Henry, Eto’o) out wide with the freedom to cut inside in the final third. In contrast, at Bayern and now with Manchester City, he has his wingers holding their width for much longer as he possess genuine out and out wide men, and more of a classic No. 9 in Aguero, or Lewandowski previously.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Arteta adapts his philosophy on paper, to best suit the players at his disposal in North London.

Instant Impact

Out of Possession

Before Mikel Arteta’s arrival, Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno had made the most saves in the Premier League. As of 16th December, he made 73 saves, putting himself some distance ahead of second placed Martin Dubravka of Newcastle, with 64.

A damning statistic which demonstrates Arsenal’s lacklustre, stand-off approach under Unai Emery. The Gunners were guilty of letting the opponents have too much time on the ball and hence too many efforts on their own goal. Under Arteta, this was set to change.

“The first thing I wanted to change was the energy around the team and around the club as well. It is much better. Obviously the fact we are winning games helps, and as well what I am seeing at the training ground since the day I moved is much more like I want to see.”

It’s very hard to argue against that statement from Arteta. Arsenal look hungrier, sharper, aggressive and more committed than at any point in the last decade. Of course, it’s too early to say if this will last, but the first few games under the new boss have been nothing short of remarkable in terms of effort, if nothing else.

Arsenal have ran considerably more so far under Arteta than they did on average with Unai Emery and Freddie Ljungberg‘s short spell as interim head coach. For example, in the home victory against Man Utd, Arsenal covered 114.2km, their highest figure in the Premier League at the time. Compare that to an average of just 107.1km per game under Emery, and the minor improvement under interim boss Freddie Ljungberg, 108km.

Their average of 94 sprints per game was also surpassed in that game, with Arsenal clocking up 116 high intensity sprints against the Red Devils.

There’s lots of evidence here that the young Spanish coach is using much of what he learnt from Guardiola at Man City. The relentless pressing game implemented by Pep and his famous “6 second rule” of pressing can be seen at the Emirates.

Arsenal’s intense pressing structure in the 2nd half against Leeds.

If possession cannot be won within the six seconds of the manic press, the team should drop back into their shape. In Arsenal’s case, they drop back into a very compact 4-4-2 shape, with Mesut Ozil often pressing alongside Alexandre Lacazette.

Ozil alongside Lacazette in a 4-4-2 pressing shape.

Pressing intensely like this has obvious advantages. One being linked to Guardiola’s necessity to have the ball: press instantly so that you can get the ball back in your possession as quickly as possible. Then you can start to circulate the ball and build attacks again.

Another benefit, used on occasion at City but much more frequently with Liverpool, is the opportunity to counter press. This is, pressing instantly and once winning the ball back, immediately attack on the counter before the opponents can transition to defence as they are likely to be disorganised.

This certainly helps to eliminate, or at least reduce, the stress on Arsenal’s back line which has been very error prone in the last few years. Comparing the xGA (expected goals against) of Emery’s last six games, and Arteta’s first six, is quite staggering. Under Emery, they averaged an xGA of 1.65, this has been significantly reduced under Arteta to just 0.83 per game.

Having said that, what’s most interesting about Arteta’s first few games is how compact and organised the team looks without the ball, when not pressing. David Luiz and Sokratis said that Arsenal are “not ready physically” to maintain Arteta’s intense pressing game for 90 minutes. Hence, we have seen Arsenal retreat a good 20 metres towards their own goal and contract the space in which the opposition can play through.

Arteta himself said after the Man Utd won, that this is not his plan. It’s more of a necessity due to the players lacking the fitness levels required to sustain the press.

Arsenal once again in a 4-4-2 mid-block.

Whether planned or not, credit must go to Arteta and his backroom staff for adapting in Arsenal’s time of need. It shows that Arteta is not so stubborn, and that there is a Plan B if legs are flailing.

As time passes and Arteta has more time on the training field with his players, they should become fitter and more comfortable playing this style. Perhaps we will soon be talking positively about Arsenal off the ball.

In Possession

For all their good work without the ball, it would mean nothing if Arsenal could not improve with it. There can be no doubt that Arteta has managed to get them playing again. Under Emery, Arsenal look scared to play from the back, and often did so even when under significant pressure. We saw in the game against Leeds, that even though Arteta wants to play from the back, Arsenal went long when Leeds pressed high and passing options became limited.

In a short space of time, Arteta has managed to bring the exciting, quick passing game back to North London. Something which had been missing in the last 18 months since Arsene Wenger departed.

Arsenal look more threatening in the final third, creating more chances and playing football that is much easier on the eye. In Emery’s last six games, Arsenal had an average xG (expected goals) of 1.01 per game. Arteta’s first six games has produced an average xG of 1.26, already an improvement.

One player has been key to Arteta’s system. Ironically, it’s a player that Emery seemed to expel from the team completely: a certain Mesut Özil. Arteta quickly identified that Özil is Arsenal’s most talented player with the ball.

His ability to drop into pockets of space and then turn and play in his teammates is second to none. If Arteta is to try and replicate the same structure and system in which Manchester City use to build their attacks, finding Mesut in space will be key to unlocking defences. Statistically Mesut has been disappointing, assisting just once and failing to score in his last 14 appearances. However, his movement off the ball, selflessly creating space for teammates, is vital to Arsenal’s attacking play.

Man City, as we’ve previously discussed our article last year, tend to tell their full backs to invert and play more or less as pseudo central midfielders. In doing this, it allows the two ‘No. 8s’ or ‘attacking midfielders’ to push very high up the pitch and play in the half spaces alongside the striker, with wingers flanking on each side.

It creates a 2-3-5 shape with the ball.

Man City’s usual shape in their back to back title winning campaigns.

There are two standout difference between Arsenal and Man City. Firstly, the obvious gulf in ability between the the sides. Secondly, and similarly to ability, is the type of players which Arsenal have.

Much like Guardiola’s first season at the Etihad, Arsenal do not possess players who are (as of yet) comfortable with the complex demands being asked of them.

For example, the left side to Arsenal’s attack. Sead Kolasinac, and the stand-in left back Bukayo Saka, who is a winger by trade, are far more comfortable bombing forward than tucking in centrally. Therefore, to create the 2-3-5 shape, the left back pushes on, the left winger (Aubameyang) is asked to move into the left half space, whilst Granit Xhaka shifts to the left slightly.

Arsenal utilising a front 5 in attack.

Both City and Arsenal predominantly attack with five players, as do Premier League leaders, Liverpool (although in Klopp’s system the two fullbacks push up and provide the width).

Man City attacking with 5 players.

As mentioned above, the typical attacking shape under Arteta has been either a 2-3-5 or 3-2-5 (against Sheffield United).

Arsenal’s chain of three in midfield is typically made up of the following players:

Xhaka (CM) Torreira (CM) and Maitland-Niles (RB)

Against Sheffield United, Xhaka slipped into the defence to form a back three to help play out from the back against the opponents two strikers.

So we can see the similarities between City and Arsenal on the right flank, but on the left it’s adjusted slightly. Although, City do this from time to time when Benjamin Mendy pushes forward.

There are many benefits to setting up in this shape. We won’t go into too much detail as this covered previously in our Tactical Analysis of Manchester City.

Firstly, it gives you more numbers in central areas of the pitch. With players tucking in, you more easily accessible passing options. This helps with ball retention as your players are positioned closer together.

Secondly, it’s a great defensive measure. The three players behind the front five can press instantly if possession is lost and either win the ball back, initiating another attack, or stop the opponents counter. In Arsenal’s case, the likes of Torreira, Xhaka and Maitland-Niles provide the three man with Torreira particularly thriving in his holding role, sweeping up any lose balls.

Arsenal’s ‘midfield’ screen.

The image above shows the three screening ‘midfielders’ behind Arsenal’s attacking five. Positioned in this way, they can easily pounce on any loose balls on the edge of the box, and keep the attack going.

It has also had a positive impact on both Xhaka and Maitland-Niles’ game. The latter is very comfortable tucking into midfield due to starting his career as a central midfielder. Whilst Xhaka looks a lot more ‘secure’ with Torreira next to him but is also showing improved discipline and concentration – perhaps due to now having a clear and defined role in a system that suits him.

Thirdly, by playing in this shape you are more likely, especially against a back four, to create a free man between the lines due to numerical superiority. For example, in the below image Arsenal have five players (Kolasinac is out of the picture but is hugging the left flank here) against Palace’s back four.

Ozil’s positioning creating all sorts of problems for an otherwise compact Palace defence.

It creates a massive problem for Palace’s compact defensive shape. The Arsenal wide men are stretching their back four, allowing Özil and Aubameyang to find pockets of space in between the full backs and centre backs. The positioning of Özil in particular, is vital, as he finds a pocket of space in between Palace’s midfield and defence.

He eventually receives the ball from David Luiz, unmarked, before laying it off first time to Lacazette who feeds the run of Aubameyang. This is nothing new, as Man City do this on several occasions during matches with De Bruyne and the two Silva’s often taking up these positions. It’s extremely effective but requires a quality pass to find them in this space. Once found though, you have eliminated the opponents midfield and are now able to freely attacking their back four with runners ahead of you.

Simple, but not very easy to pull off. It requires a brave manager and players to pull it off. Guardiola’s quote from the Amazon documentary All or Nothing, Manchester City “you have to learn how to play football with courage” springs to mind here.

Lastly, this shape allows you to get the best out of your wingers or wide players. In this system, you will often be able to find the wide man in space on the flank, ideally in a 1v1 situation against the opposing fullback.

Pepe in space on the right.

Looking again at this image above, Nicolas Pepe is in acres of space on the right and if Luiz chose to pick him out, the Palace left back would be drawn out wide to press him. You would fancy Pepe to beat him in a 1v1, but if he decides not to dribble, he could play in Özil who would then have even more space than before.

Below, we can see Mahrez stretching the pitch by staying wide on the left, isolating the right fullback.

Mahrez (LW) stretching the pitch.

As we’ve seen at Man City, the likes of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling have thrived in this role, with Arteta credited for this improvement. Similarly to the above image, we can see Sterling on the right (below), in acres of space, and should the ball come to him, you fancy to beat his man in the 1v1 situation.

Sterling (RW) hugging the right touchline.

So far for Arsenal, Reiss Nelson or Nicolas Pepe have occupied the right flank, whilst Bukayo Saka or Sead Kolasinac provide width on the left. On both sides, the wide men are asked to stay as wide as possible in order to stretch the play. This is essential, especially on the right side, as Maitland-Niles tucks in, to not contest the middle too much and provide a switch of play if necessary.

It remains to be seen if Arteta can get the same levels of performance from Nelson, Pepe, Saka, and Martinelli on the Arsenal flanks, but the potential is there.

What Does The Future Hold?

It’s early days of course, but it’s so far so good for Mikel Arteta. There probably aren’t many managers in world football right now who could come into what was an abysmal Arsenal side, drifting towards the relegation zone, and get these kind of performances out of them.

There have been some impressive results and even more impressive performances since Arteta arrived. Notably the 2-0 win at home to Man Utd and their spirited 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea had an extra man for over an hour, but Arsenal dug in and were well up for the fight.

Previous Arsenal sides would have folded and the opponents running riot. Arteta’s Arsenal showed a resilience that has long been missing. At times it was hard to tell that The Gunners had a man less on the field due to the effort put in by the players, with teenage sensation Gabriel Martinelli a standout performer.

It’s not just about winning games and improved performances, it’s also about how he has done it. Arteta has immediately stamped his imprint on the club, playing a fast, attractive passing game with intense pressing and a compact defence.

In such a short space of time, he has managed to create a clear identity which his predecessor failed to achieve in 18 months. The ball is now firmly in the hands of the board, and those above Arteta, to back him in the upcoming transfer windows to get this Arsenal side back to the levels which the fans demand.

Although, could Arteta’s ability to coach and improve players, and in such a short timeframe, actually come back to hurt him? One concern for Gunners fans regarding the transfer market, could be that the board would be less likely to ‘break the bank’ and repeat a Nicolas Pepe-esque signing, given Arteta’s potential when working with players. They may be content with Arteta simply working with what they have, especially given the level of talent coming through the clubs academy recently.

Hopefully the club show some ambition and strengthen in the key areas where Arsenal have struggled for so long – the spine of the team. However, an important part of the clubs culture is developing young players, and if they can strike the right balance between spending and developing, they could thrive with Arteta.

If Arteta is able to strengthen the side and sign the right players to fit his desired system, it will likely see Arsenal ditch the predictable 4-2-3-1 shape and lean towards a Manchester City-esque 4-3-3.

To do this however, Arsenal would need another creative attacking midfielder in the Mesut Özil mould, and potentially full backs who are comfortable tucking inside.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Arsenal develop and evolve tactically as Arteta learns more about his players and their abilities.

The only negative around Arteta at the time of his appointment was his perceived lack of experience. However, he has already shown that the immense task at hand is not so daunting for him, in fact he appears to be thriving.

It will remain to be seen however, if this is another case of the ‘new manager syndrome’ which has given the Gunners a kick up the backside, or whether this level of performance can be sustained and built upon.

For now at least, the message will definitely be: ‘In Arteta We Trust’.

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