It’s the dawn of a new era at Arsenal, with Mikel Arteta taking his first steps into the managerial world at the helm. Its akin to asking your new-born baby to walk over hot coals when trying to progress beyond crawling, pooping in diapers, and crying constantly; things all familiar to his new set of defenders. After only three games, however, he appears to have begun the potty-training process with tangible signs of success. Sure every now and then Mustafi is going to drop a turd in the middle of a Prét a Manger, and David Luiz will occasionally sit on the floor of a supermarket and refuse to move, but there are signs of an ‘Arteta identity’ forming.
I will start with the most obvious change; even Phil Neville spotted it.
Despite being a lauded part of Emery’s early tenure at the Emirates, his ‘high-intensity’ game plan had become to fray significantly. The pressing had become sporadic. It was neither clear whether the players knew what positions to close down their opponents in, or when they should do so. Perhaps it was partly on their shoulders, with reports that they had become alienated by his messaging and tactics increasing as the clock ticked down on his Arsenal career. The end result was occasional pressing by individuals, which left vast amounts of space all over the pitch. Exacerbated by poor positioning, it is one of the main reasons sides like Watford and Aston Villa were able to outshoot the Gunners – the gaps were so large, you could fit half a Piers Morgan ego in them.
Now, there is structure. The Arsenal side is split into logical zones and units, that differ depending on where the opposition has the ball. The front four, midfield two and two centre-backs all stick to same, unit-specific instruction. Occasionally it slips up, but given Arteta has had fewer training sessions since he took charge than I have mince pies (I’m averaging 2 a day, and yes I’m fine), the coherence will only improve over time.
One of the biggest ‘Pep-isms’ Arteta has introduced into this Arsenal side is inverting the full-backs.
Under Emery, the full-backs were probably the focal point of the entire attack. Pushed wide, they hugged the touchlines, and were tasked with creating overlapping runs, providing low crosses into the area, and effectively operating as a traditional winger.
Whilst the days of the marauding full-back are not over at the Emirates (someone has to fill Andre Santos’ sizeable boots, and even more sizeable shorts), but Arteta has brought over some of Guardiola’s teachings. Particularly evident in Maitland-Niles’ positioning during the Bournemouth game, they are tasked with coming inside to fill spaces in the centre of the pitch. AMN’s skillset is perfectly suited this; he is like a right-sided Zinchenko. Both in and out of possession, it allows an extra option for the centre-backs should the opposition deploy a pressing system in their frontline, and helps prevent a simple progression through the middle of the pitch from one side to the other. Given how easily exposed Arsenal have been this season on the counter-attack, seeing this so early on gives me vague notions of hope that the defence might become less horrible through the end of the season. Currently he has been forced into playing two academy products out of position on either side, and a half fit half-fit Kolasinac; the returns of Bellerin and Tierney will only improve the effectiveness of this tactical tweak
Who’d have thought that playing a defensive midfielder as a defensive midfielder would dramatically improve the overall structure of the team? Not Unai Emery, who’s insistence on deploying Torreira as a roving playmaker reminded me of someone who has forgotten to change their pre-set tactics on Football Manager.
Now used in his correct position, Torreira’s lion-like performances in the heart of the midfield so far have given an insight into what a key player he will be for Arteta. Alongside both Guendouzi and Xhaka, his energy at the hub of the side sets the pressing tone for his teammates. His timing in the tackle is key. Whenever Xhaka was tasked to play that role, his woeful turning circle and lack of recovery pace exposed his issues in the tackle, and contribute to his ill-discipline. Torreira has that ‘knack’ for danger, sniffs it out, and most importantly, stops it at source. Embodying the commitment ethos Arteta is trying to instil, the Uruguayan brings the best of those around him.
Notably, Xhaka appears to be … ok now? No longer tasked as the last ‘bastion’ of defence before the centre-backs, he is able to exercise his range of passing. Whilst Ozil drifts around, connecting with short passes, Xhaka sits and sprays the ball right to the feet of those on the left flank. Referring back to FM for a moment, the idea Xhaka should ever have been deployed as a ‘DM’ is a misnomer – he is more of a ‘deep-lying playmaker’, a la Jorginho. The issue with his partnership with Guendouzi was that the French youngster pushed so far up and all around the pitch that Xhaka was left isolated and exposed. Torreira’s more limited role, whilst still giving license to move forward, means that his midfield partner is never far away. When Xhaka is caught on his own, the inverted full-back covers the spaces.
This whole ‘playing with a midfield system’ thing is quite a novel concept, despite its simplicity.
For all of Arsenal’s attempts to play from the back this season, it has been one of the biggest areas of anger for me with how the Gunners have played. Placing the defence so close to the goalkeeper shifts the whole structure of your side, increases the gaps in midfield, and so leads to incredibly poor spacing between the different ‘sections’ of your team. This bold strategy can work if you happened to be blessed with the greatest ball-playing centre-backs to grace the English game. Arsenal have tried to do it with Shkodran Mustafi. Now, with the defence positioned slightly more forward-facing, the centre-backs are able to bring the ball out from the goalkeeper, and spread it wide to the full-backs when pressed by the opposition. This reduces the pressure on Leno in goal, resulting in less hoofs up the pitch that undermine the whole strategy to begin with. It also tightens the gaps between Torreira and the defence, leaving less space for the opposition should Arsenal lose the ball.
Another key change has been with Mesut Ozil. Not only has there been an attitudinal 180 Priti Patel would be proud of, but he looks to be comfortable adapting his role from game to game. Against Bournemouth, he was nominally positioned in the central midfield 3, and then allowed to drift in between the lines of the Cherries’ midfield to take up positions as a more traditional 10. Why not just play him further forward? Even if he isn’t exactly a towering defender, his presence in central areas at the very least creates an extra obstacle for opponents to navigate. In fact, he covered more distance vs United than he has in two years at the Emirates, and the most of any Arsenal player; he is putting in the defensive work.
Other times, the German is positioned higher up the pitch, closer to the front 3. As I wrote a while ago, the role of the ‘traditional 10’ is dying, but Arteta showed how you can mould such a playmaker to have use in the modern game. No doubt influenced by Pep, Arteta instructed Ozil to drop into the channels when Arsenal have possession. This creates an overload on the flanks, allows quick and short passes on the wings, and also gives the option for the opposite winger to come into the central areas to become involved in play. With Arsenal’s specific team make-up, it allows Torreira to get forward and display some of the box-to-box ability that misguidedly made Emery think he was the next Iniesta. Evidenced perfectly against United, this tactic has allowed Ozil to have perhaps his best and most consistent spell since joining Arsenal, despite not registering a goal or an assist.
This leads into the changes in Pepe’s positioning. Effectively, once more borrowing from the Pep playbook, the Ivorian is emulating Sterling’s penalty box goalscoring threat. The spacing of Ozil allows the opposite winger to come inside more often in central areas. Where this will, hopefully, come to fruition is in the penalty box. So many of Sterling’s goals come from ‘tap-ins’ or finishes inside the area from crosses from the opposite wing. We begun to see this from Pepe against United, and the fact he is a left-footed right winger leads me to believe that it is something only likely to become more prominent as the weeks go by.
To call the atmosphere at the Emirates toxic belies the apathy that sunk in over the latter days of Emery. The toxicity wasn’t an ‘anger’, it was forming itself in a petulant attitude that seeped into players and fans alike. I saw fans arguing in the stands, but not over the quality of performance, but over what one had said about another on AFTV. It felt as though there was an acceptance of Arsenal’s awfulness, to the point people were craving to argue about anything but the actual football. People who booed Xhaka off the pitch weren’t doing so because he played badly (which he did in that game), but because his slow stroll off the pitch was symbolic of the club’s slow stroll into mediocrity. It represented the fundamentally rotten attitude we had all just begun to accept.
To say its night and day in the short time Arteta has been at the helm would be an understatement. Previously, Arsenal throwing away a 1-0 lead at home to Chelsea would have been a moral dagger to the heart of the Emirates crowd. Whilst it certainly wasn’t easy watching to see Mustafi backtrack faster than Boris Johnson into a fridge, the crowd responded ‘positively’. The dejection at the full-time whistle of that game was palpable, but as soon as the players themselves appeared to slump to the turf, something bizarre happened. I can’t remember the last time I saw the fans give a standing ovation after a defeat, but it happened. It happened because there is a change in mentality. David Luiz’ interview after the United victory indicated as much. The players have something they can believe in, and the fans’ response to the Chelsea defeat indicates they do too.
The power of messaging for football managers is so fundamental; it was one of Emery’s failings. Arteta recently spoke in a press conference about a personal conversation with Xhaka that, he believes, has convinced the wantaway midfielder to stay at the club. For this, he has been lauded by the fans, the majority of whom wanted to get rid of the Swiss international as soon as the transfer window opened. I too fall into the camp of those who think it is best to sell him whilst there is interest. Yet the ability to convince someone as, ahem, ‘headstrong’ as Granit Xhaka to go against his decision speaks to how Arsenal have a very skilled communicator at the helm of the club. Part of what made Wenger one of the greats was his standing as a leading voice on issues inside and outside of football. This became internalised as part of the club’s identity – Arsenal need a manager who is able to speak intelligently about the game. In Arteta, it appears as though there is once more someone in the dugout capable of clearly articulating his ideas.
Taking off the rose-tinted glasses, I’m not saying Arsenal are suddenly able to challenge for the top four. I don’t even think European football is a realistic expectation. The fitness is clearly an issue – Lacazette, Kolasinac, and Pepe in particular don’t appear to be at the levels required to carry out this game-plan on a weekly basis. There are still issues with the quality of players, exemplified by Mustafi’s abject defending that allowed Abraham to score the winner in the Chelsea game. Squad depth is an increasing issue, as Chambers’ season-ending injury adds to Arsenal’s defensive woes. It will be interesting to see now what happens with the January transfer window; Arteta has indicated his plans have now changed in light of injuries. A centre-back is a must, but the out-goings will be just as revealing. Just a week ago reliable stories were circulating about the likes of Aubameyang, Xhaka and Lacazette all looking towards the exit door. Part of that is to do with the situation the club finds itself in vis-à-vis its competitiveness, but a big part of it was the lack of direction, and the lack of ‘fun’. It appeared time was up on this squad, but perhaps this group of players still has a little bit more left in it. Maybe they won’t be able to completely re-write their story, but this collection of players could put a little bit of a better ending on their time at Arsenal.