It was their former captain Arsenal turned to when they sought a new manager to revive their season in December 2019, following the departure of Unai Emery. The one-time midfielder was given the task of leading one of the world’s leading clubs in his first managerial position, and in many ways was 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.
Although Mikel Arteta remains inexperienced and inherited a squad that required rejuvenating, he spent five years working under one of the best managers of the modern era in Wenger, who succeeded in north London having been appointed in similar circumstances. He also spent more than three years as a coach under fellow Spaniard Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, whose first senior managerial position – at Barcelona – was a remarkable success. “There is a lot of work to be done but I am confident we’ll do it,” he said upon his appointment as manager. “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.”
Arteta has experimented with several different systems during his brief time in management. The first was a 4-2-3-1 that, through Granit Xhaka withdrawing into central defence and their full-backs advancing during the early stages of their attempts to build possession, often involved them forming a back three (below). In front of them, their left-sided wide forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang attacked infield and linked with Alexandre Lacazette, their central striker, and Mesut Özil, their number 10; towards the right Nicolas Pépé remained wide and cut inside on to his left foot, ensuring an asymmetrical build. From that same shape there were also occasions when their wide forwards advanced with width and their striker moved to become a second number 10 in front of a single pivot and back three. They blended a direct approach with some lengthy spells of possession, and prioritised the spaces behind the opposition’s defence.
A permanent back three, and attacking from a significantly deeper defensive block or from moments of higher pressing, followed. Their left-sided wing-back – Kieran Tierney, Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Bukayo Saka – advanced, and on the right Héctor Bellerín remained withdrawn, ensuring that a back four could, if necessary, be adopted. Towards the left Aubameyang moved infield to try and work shooting opportunities with his right foot, and Pépé played with greater width on the right before driving infield to link with Lacazette or Aubameyang.
As with their 4-2-3-1, there were occasions when their 3-4-3 involved a flexibility that featured Aubameyang – particularly against those defending with a back three – attacking as a second striker and, if selected as their left-sided central defender, Tierney continuing to attack in the knowledge that Xhaka would cover him. With Tierney instead attacking, their left-sided midfielder adopted the position vacated by Xhaka or his fellow defensive midfielder; their rotations meant Arteta’s team became more effective at switching play; their left-sided midfielder also created space in wide territory and drew defenders away from Aubameyang.
On other occasions, their play featured fewer rotations; both wing-backs attacked at the same time, their wide forwards moved infield, and their double pivot was preserved. Without those rotations in midfield, however, and also without Özil, they struggled to create space and to release their attacking players in the final third. Possession may have been retained for lengthier periods, but their end product was lessened.
Arteta has largely since favoured a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, and demanded his team prioritise delivering crosses into the penalty area. A lack of creativity in central midfield once contributed to them playing possession wide, and relying on their full-backs and wide forwards to create. A further experiment from their 4-2-3-1 (above) involved Lacazette featuring as a number 10, behind Aubameyang, but from where his ability to link play was compromised and he became easier to defend against; Aubameyang, similarly, was less capable of making the diagonal runs that are so effective.
Across the course of 2020/21, having started the season with a back three, Arteta settled on a 4-2-3-1 built on the double pivot most commonly formed by Thomas Partey and Xhaka, who contributed to the attempts of their back four to build possession and covered from behind the ball as their full-backs advanced particularly far to provide Arsenal’s attacking width. The overlapping runs of Tierney and Bellerín, Arteta’s preferred full-backs, complemented the desire of their wide forwards to attack infield (below); Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli make regular diagonal runs; Emile Smith Rowe drives forwards; Saka and Pépé dribble and combine. Smith Rowe, as their number 10, and later Martin Odegaard, were influential in linking with those moving infield.
Arsenal’s build-up has become smoother and, with their movements in the attacking half also improving, they pose an increased threat from wider deliveries, even given they offer few obvious threats in the air. They increasingly prioritise third-man combinations to encourage those executing crosses and cut-backs to do so under reduced pressure, and their 10 and far-side wide forward penetrate into the penalty area to enhance their attacking potential.
There regardless remain occasions when their wide forwards provide their attacking width and their full-backs advance through narrower positions; a further option involves one of their defensive midfielders advancing, and by extension their 10 doing the same. Those same wide forwards also provide their width when Arsenal counter; they possess numerous players capable of driving forwards with the ball, penetrating at pace, and making intelligent, off-the-ball runs.
Defending and pressing
When Arsenal defended with a back five (above) they were more resilient in an area they had long struggled to convince. They were also defending with increased aggression – something their greatest critics insist they had not done since the Invincibles team of 2003/04 started to break up – which, complemented with a lower block against opponents capable of dominating possession, contributed to the impressive victories with which they concluded 2019/20. The extra player in defence also meant them countering effectively from their defensive block, and increasing the intensity with which they pressed.
There is little question, however, that Arteta would prefer his team to dominate possession, which means them also pressing further forwards – as they sometimes have if defending with a back four. His front three has led that press, with his striker – supported by their central midfielders – prioritising the opposition’s defensive midfielder, and his wide forwards focusing on their central defenders and, if necessary, goalkeeper. Pépé, Martinelli and Aubameyang regularly had the potential to follow that press by threatening on goal with their stronger feet, owing to their manager’s preference for inverted wide forwards.
A realisation that they were not yet ready to defend with a high defensive line meant that a lower block was also used, in the form of an out-of-possession 5-4-1, 5-3-2 or 5-2-3 – one determined by their opponents’ characteristics. On the occasions protecting their defensive third was their priority, their 5-4-1 allowed opponents to build with reduced pressure until advancing further forwards, where they encountered Arsenal’s withdrawn wide forwards. When defending with a 5-2-3 or 5-3-2, their wide forwards offered greater attacking potential during moments of transition and proved capable of discouraging opposing full-backs from advancing, but both systems also increased the demands on those in central midfield, contributing to the signing of Partey.
It was attempts, thereafter, to use a mid-block and a back four that meant that unwanted spaces began to appear between the lines and that their defence was too often exposed. A back four (above) placed increased demands on their full-backs and wide forwards to advance, and therefore their central defenders having reduced protection from behind an attack that too often struggled to create.
The back five with which Arsenal started 2020/21 was replaced by a back four in a 4-2-3-1 from which they often defended without intense pressing, duelling or front-foot defending and instead created set blocks, and engaged when opponents penetrated through or built around that block. Their double pivot provided protection ahead of their central defenders, and their 10 supported from further forwards and remained braced to link into their wide forwards and striker; with those wide forwards also retreating to ensure a compact shape, their full-backs retained positions that preserved their defensive line for lengthier periods at a time when their central defenders were still struggling for consistency.
A further demonstration of a lack of confidence in their central defenders existed when one of Arsenal’s defensive midfielders adopted a deeper position to provide further cover in front of them (above), in turn inviting their full-backs to defend from wider territory and relieving their wide forwards of some of their defensive responsibilities. When they did so, their 10 also withdrew into a deeper position, and their attacking potential was therefore undermined. Arteta, regardless, tweaked his 4-2-3-1 to encourage specific individuals – usually those effective at countering forwards, and potentially determined by their opponents’ weaknesses – to have greater freedom.
More recently, Arsenal have attempted to defend with a 4-4-2 defensive block in which their 10 advances to alongside their striker to ensure an increased presence in their attacking line that helps in their attempts to force possession wide earlier and to discourage progress through their shape. By extension, their full-backs are forced to advance to support their wide forwards’ press and, though that enhances their ability to counter forwards, there is an increased risk of their central defenders being exposed when regains are not made, or when the ball is not forced backwards. There also exists a need for those on the far side of the pitch to move infield to preserve their compact shape. Given, from their 4-4-2, their double pivot cannot withdraw to offer cover to the same extent, Arsenal have had to improve their ability to retain their desired compact defensive shape. That the recruitment of Ben White and Takehiro Tomiyasu has given them a younger team suggests Arteta will also again attempt to implement an aggressive press.