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Mikel Arteta

Arsenal, 2019–

It was their former captain Mikel Arteta they turned to when Arsenal sought a new manager to revive their season in December, following the departure of Unai Emery. The one-time midfielder has been given the task of leading one of the world’s leading clubs in his first managerial position, and in many ways is perhaps fortunate that he was not appointed when he was first considered in the summer of 2018, when Arsène Wenger, the most successful manager in Arsenal’s fine history, had left after almost 22 years.

If the Spaniard remains inexperienced and has inherited a squad that requires rejuvenating, in Wenger he spent five years working under one of the finest managers of the modern era and who succeeded having been appointed in similar circumstances. He also spent over three years working as a coach under another, in Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and in the knowledge that a once-inexperienced Guardiola’s first senior managerial position – at Barcelona – was a remarkable success.

Arteta, incidentally, is perhaps familiar with unenviable circumstances. When he arrived from Everton as a player in 2011 for £10m, he did so shortly before the summer transfer window closed and after the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, but swiftly settled and surpassed expectations. “There is a lot of work to be done but I am confident we’ll do it,” he said, upon his appointment. “I’m realistic enough to know it won’t happen overnight, but the squad has plenty of talent and there is a great pipeline of young players coming through from the academy.”

The challenge
If Arteta inherited a disorganised defence, he has also been presented with players – albeit ones who have long underperformed – capable of forming one of the Premier League’s most potent attacks. Defenders Cédric Soares and Pablo Mari have arrived on loan to strengthen his options but it will be developing a sense of cohesion and an identity that has long been absent, the right balance, and some overdue leaders, that determines whether he succeeds.

He will also require patience, and time. Individual errors, as demonstrated in both of the fixtures he has overseen against Chelsea, have persisted, as have their struggles in defence, their trend of conceding late goals, and their habit of conceding at set-pieces.

Like his predecessor, that the £25m Kieran Tierney has been injured has not helped. Fellow defender Calum Chambers had also performed promisingly on occasions under Emery but, after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee, was recently ruled out for between six and nine months.

Playing style
There have already been multiple signs of Arteta’s influence, and perhaps his long-term vision and the nature of manager he can be expected to become. Similarly to City and Guardiola, he has overseen subtle tactical tweaks in preparation for their opponents – against Bournemouth (above) and Crystal Palace (below), who defended with similar 4-5-1 mid-blocks, he respectively used a double and single pivot at the base of midfield, in front of a converted three-strong defence. He has also experimented with an assymetrical shape from a 4-2-3-1.

Granit Xhaka, who was recently thought to have no future at the Emirates Stadium, has withdrawn into the left of that three, alongside David Luiz and in front of goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who has contributed to Luiz being able to advance to towards Lucas Torreira behind the opposition’s first line of pressure. From that position – similar to that seen with Toni Kroos for both Germany and Real Madrid – and under reduced pressure away from that which comes from all angles within central midfield, his passing range is increasingly effective.

His positioning there has contributed to Arsenal regularly attacking through the left inside channel, and him being able to disguise some of his forward passes. Luiz, similarly, has been more involved in build-up phases, and is playing the ball more. With Xhaka to his left he also has the freedom to advance beyond midfield, and into the final third.

With increased numbers beyond an opposing midfield line, when in possession, those in deeper positions also have increased options – it was their forward passes that contributed to goals scored against Bournemouth and Palace. Through their left-back – so far, most regularly Bukayo Saka – being encouraged to advance, left-sided attackers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Gabriel Martinelli have also been invited to drift inside from the left, to support Mesut Özil and Alexandre Lacazette.

Towards the right, Arsenal’s attacking width has most consistently been provided by Nicolas Pépé or Reiss Nelson, in front of a deeper-positioned or inside-moving false full-back encouraged to form a double pivot within midfield. Further variations to their shape could also be witnessed against Sheffield United, when a 3-3-4 was adopted while building attacks through Özil and Lacazette withdrawing to the inside channels to find spaces and support against the three midfielders within their opponents’ 5-3-2 (below; right-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles is out of picture).

Similarly noticeable is the more consistent counter-pressing approach Arteta has so far demanded. They have committed to a higher press; even if this is yet to last for an entire performance, when it does, given they are already showing greater resolve and defensive awareness borne from an improving mentality, they will be a stronger team for it.

Long-term progress
Positives can already be seen under Arteta – particularly those when they are in possession. Their structure immediately after losses of possession – not least because of the greater intelligence Lucas Torreira has shown while pressing in comparison to Xhaka and Mattéo Guendouzi when they were previously in defensive midfield – has also become more compact, and improved.

The structure they often adopt, with Torreira covering a back three, is proving more effective at securing central areas of the pitch, delaying opponents advancing possession, offering recovering time to wider players and discouraging penetrating attacks. The relationship between Torreira – regardless of whether is playing as a single pivot or as part of a two – with the relevant right-back, and their ability to cover each other, will remain important.

If their high press succeeds to the point of regularly undermining or entirely negating opposition attempts to build attacks into Arsenal’s half, the failings of individual defenders can become less influential. It was an encouraging demonstration of that press that inspired their victory over Leeds United in the FA Cup, where after an unsettled start their increased energy and pressure prevented their opponents from playing out from defence, and led to the creation of more goalscoring chances.

Arteta’s team is making more individual sprints and covering more ground. As was once seen under Wenger, and continues to be seen with Guardiola, third-man runs – similarly to when Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires played wide and were supported by Thierry Henry’s fine finishing – have also occasionally been made.

The arrival of goalkeeping coach Iñaki Caña Pavón from Brentford is also likely to be significant. He started his playing career at Barcelona, before becoming a coach and establishing his own goalkeeping academy in the city, and he is expected to encourage his new club’s goalkeepers to play out from the back.

A willingness to blend the youth of Maitland-Niles, Saka, Martinelli and Nelson with more experienced individuals is similar to that which once brought Wenger such success. Arsenal’s and Arteta’s long-term approach is still being shaped, but there is little question that they are attempting to rediscover the identity that has long been in demand.

Mikel Arteta

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