It was 6pm on deadline day in August 2011. Mikel Arteta was informed that his move to Arsenal had collapsed and he would stay at Everton. In some aspects, it was already the most eventful deadline day at Arsenal in recent memory. Fresh from their wounds received at Old Trafford Arsene Wenger sprung into life. Just hours before, the club had announced the signature of Andre Santos and Per Mertesacker. Right when it seemed Mikel Arteta’s dream would not be completed things began to change. At 8:30pm, the Spaniard was informed that Arsenal still wanted to see him play in their famous red and white. However, there was a problem. There was no time remaining to complete a medical if the deal had to go through. Mikel Arteta put in a transfer request and informed Everton that he would drive to London Colney to complete his move.
The Second Homecoming
On December 20, 2019, Mikel Arteta was announced as the incoming Arsenal manager to succeed Unai Emery. Arsenal fans had grown frustrated with Emery’s team selection and tactics. The announcement of Arteta’s second homecoming was met with jubilation and cheer. Arteta meant business which was clear from his press conference on day one.
It is important to revisit Emery’s problems before analysing Arteta’s impact. Before Arteta’s arrival Arsenal averaged an impressive 54 percent possession with an exceptional 84 percent passing rate. This was the third best record in English top flight. But statistics don’t show the entire picture and can be often misleading. A closer analysis would show that 32 percent of those passes were played in their own third, 40 percent in the middle third and only 28 percent in the final third. Arsenal had the third worst record in the league when it came to percentage of passes in the final third. This explained how the North London outfit were able to boast a high passing percentage and maintain possession. Players were simply holding the ball back and passing it amongst themselves without taking any risks.
Another classic Unai Emery strategy was using his wingers to build up play in midfield. As a result, the team had more players in the middle third of the pitch which explains how 40 percent of all passes were completed in that region. Another pitfall of this tactic was the lack of players in the final attacking third. On most occasions, the striker was isolated or did not have support from the midfield. The Gunners were completing an average of 456 passes per game which was by far the lowest among all big six clubs.
It was no secret that Mesut Ozil found himself frozen from the squad under Emery. It certainly had an impact on the team’s attacking pattern. Only 23 percent of all attacks came through the middle of the pitch while the rest was evenly split between the two wings. Lack of goal threat from the middle of the pitch was one of the biggest reasons why the side had managed to score only 14 goals from open play before Arteta’s arrival. The most widely held belief in the Arsenal fanbase is that their defense is the biggest problem. But a closer look suggests their midfield is the culprit. It was incapable of both protecting the back four and joining the front four in attacks.
The individual moments of madness exhibited by centre backs was due to their midfield leaving them isolated and exposed. Their stray movement up front was leading the backline vulnerable to quick counter attacks and incisive passes. Bernd Leno and Emiliano Martinez were facing an average of 16.4 shots at goal every game. Under interim manager Freddie Ljungberg, Arsenal shifted to a 4-4-2 formation when without the ball. The structural change helped the team maintain better shape and control. An immediate impact of the structural change was a dip in the number of shots faced.
Learning from Cruyff’s playbook
Under Arteta, Arsenal have stuck with the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Injuries to Kieran Tierney, Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin meant lack of options at full back position which left the team vulnerable to attacks from wide position. To negate this, Arteta adapted a strategy to employ one inverted full back with an overlapping full back to create vertical overload on the other flank. This strikes a close resemblance with Johan Cruyff’s 2-3-5. Pep Guardiola and Erik ten Hag are the two managers who have used this same setup in recent times. It is no secret that Arteta got a much closer look at Guardiola’s tactics while he was his second in command at Manchester City. At Arsenal, the right back plays in an inverted role while the left back overlaps. At Manchester City, Kyle Walker plays in the inverted full back role while Mendy or Angelino made the overlapping run.
The shift in tactics introduced by Arteta has shown positive results. Arteta has used simple tactics to ensure the Arsenal defense isn’t overloaded and as vulnerable as it was before. Granit Xhaka slots in the back four when Bukayo Saka makes an overlapping run. When caught out of possession during quick counter attacks, both Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka rushed to help Saka. Statistics show that Aubameyang is having less shots on goal. One of the key reasons why he’s become slightly less lethal is because he is also actively covering for Saka. He is running back and helping the defense a lot more than he previously did. Another improvement under Arteta is that Arsenal players are covering more distance than before. However, this often leads to the midfield and defense being tired and drained in the last 10-15 minutes of the game.
Arsenal have shown a tendency to switch off in the remaining few minutes because of fatigue. It takes months to improve fitness and is even more difficult when both your first choice centre backs are above the age of 30. There are few solutions to this problem of players switching off in the last minutes. Arteta could move his defensive backline behind by five yards. The distance doesn’t seem too big to make a difference when you hear it but it helps massively. When in possession, the two centre backs are only called in play when there is a backwards pass from midfield or a quick counter attack by opposition. If the centre backs position themselves five yards behind they can control the defensive third without moving around too much.
Lucas Torreira has returned back as a defensive midfielder from a box to box role under the previous regime. He is best suited to protect the back four and make crucial tackles to win the ball. Unai Emery wanted Torreira to win the ball high up the pitch to catch the opposition. There was nothing wrong in this idea but Emery was depending on a defensive midfielder to do what an attacker should do. Emery’s handling of Torreira had similarities to Sarri’s handling of N’Golo Kante at Chelsea. Fair to say that neither of them worked out well. One of the biggest conundrums at Arsenal is deciding the central midfield pair. Lucas Torreira is the complete defensive package but doesn’t offer much when going ahead. He is excellent at making tackles and gives his all on the pitch but he doesn’t have the physique to dominate the midfield on his own. He needs to be complimented with another midfielder who can help him in making forward passes.
This is where Granit Xhaka comes into picture. Not many will agree but the man who stormed off the pitch after removing the armband is the most crucial player in the current setup. In simple words, it is Granit Xhaka who runs the midfield show. Take him out and there is no cohesion between defense and attack. It is not Xhaka’s fault that we saw him as the reincarnation of Patrick Vieira when he joined us in 2016. Go through Xhaka’s games from his time at Borussia Monchengladbach and you will find out that he isn’t a typical defensive midfielder. He is someone who reads the game and knows how to unlock opposition defense with a single pass. His reading of the game is unparalleled and maybe second only to Ozil in the current team. Xhaka and Torreira is the best midfield pair at the club. Their qualities compliment each other.
The team is crying for a creative attacking playmaker. Ozil’s best days are behind him and he isn’t going to reach those same levels again. Arteta needs to drop Ozil and switch to a 4-3-3. The extra central midfielder offers more quality and control in the game than Ozil. A midfield trio of Xhaka, Torreira and a box to box number 8 would perfectly bind the attack and defense. The availability of one extra midfielder will take the pressure off Xhaka and Torreira. The extra midfielder can join the front three in attack while Xhaka slots in at left back allowing a vertical overload on that flank.
The Bigger Picture
There is an abundance of youth talent at Arsenal. We are probably in the beginning of the golden era of Hale End. Thanks to the changes implemented by academy manager Per Mertesacker and technical director Edu, the youth setup is now more structured. There is a clear vision to implement and inculcate the Arsenal philosophy of football in kids as young as 8. Mikel Arteta will be blessed with an exceptional talent pool which includes Miguel Azeez, Tyreece John-Jules, Catalin Cirjan, Folarin Balogun and Sam Greenwood.
Mikel Arteta is taking the team in the right direction. He knows what he wants from his team. It is highly possible that Mikel Arteta is the man who will end Arsenal’s two decade long wait for the league title.
Image credit due to Arsenal Football Club
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