The 5 tactical solutions that will save Arteta’s job at Arsenal – tactical analysis
Despite their three Premier League wins in a row, Arsenal are still in a difficult position in terms of finding a balance between the lines, creating opportunities relevant to their possession and achieving consistency.
Before their 3-1 win over Chelsea, their poor performance and lack of explosiveness sent them down the table, reaching the relegation zone without a win in seven PL games.
The manager Mikel Arteta stuck to his preferred possession-based approach, which only deepened the team’s issues, since, apart from their defensive vulnerability, they often got stuck in midfield, unable to create any opportunities.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s drop in form made things in attack even harder, since not only they were lacking a creative force in midfield, but they also lost the support of their main goal scorer from the last couple of seasons.
In this tactical analysis, we will explain what didn’t work out in Arsenal’s tactics so far. We will also use analysis to point out what are the five tactical solutions that could help Arteta in keeping his job at the club.
Why have Arsenal moved to the bottom half of the table?
Arteta, who was praised about his vision when he came on charge of the team, fell victim of his own beliefs, forcing the team into playing football that doesn’t suit their identity and the players’ strengths.
While his ambition of playing possession-based football and controlling the games seemed logical and smart, the team lost their attacking prowess and became predictable.
The aim to occupy the opposition half and control the game out there, waiting for the perfect opportunity to attack didn’t turn out successful, since it often resulted in them losing momentum and slowing down the tempo too much that the opposition were able to recover possession.
That’s when Arsenal’s still existing defensive problems would be underlined again since the team were unable to act adequately and drop back in a timely manner due to their high positioning.
Their defensive performance had improved immensely since the arrival of players like Gabriel and Kieran Tierney but it wasn’t simply enough to compensate for the lack of awareness of Arsenal’s backline as a whole.
Their overcommitment to retaining possession and doing it by using short pass combinations high in the opposition half often resulted in neglecting their defensive responsibilities and made them vulnerable should they lose possession.
What seemed like huge progress at first, was their pressing movement. The Spaniard worked hard on improving the players’ positioning out of possession and employing high press, blocking the opposition’s attacking efforts early on, but the execution of his pressing strategy wouldn’t be as successful as needed.
Although they achieved better coverage in certain areas and tightened their midfield during defensive transitions, the team’s high press efforts didn’t help them in recovering the ball in the advanced areas and exploiting their opponents. While their pressing affected the performance in their own half positively, putting efforts in pressing in the opposition half would often drag them higher and expose them at the back, making them vulnerable on a counter or against long balls.
And now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, their poor attacking performance. Aubameyang’s dip in form has indeed affected the team’s record in front of the goal, but there were actually bigger issues that led to their underperformance in the advanced areas. We already mentioned that one of the reasons was Arteta’s inflexibility in terms of style of play. Another reason for the unsuccessful execution of his strategy was the lack of a creative figure in midfield.
While of course having an attacking midfielder would’ve helped it wasn’t the only option for increasing their efficiency. Having different type of players in the central line could’ve worked too. That’s something that Arsenal have been struggling with though. Signing Thomas Partey couldn’t solve their problems, simply because all of the experienced midfielders Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos and Partey have similarities in their abilities and strengths. Their movement and actions don’t compliment each other and there isn’t a player that is particularly good in creative passing and creating goalscoring opportunities.
This, combined with the decreased tempo and focusing on retaining possession for long periods of time often got Arsenal stuck on the edge of the final third, without many options to advance the ball.
After explaining the main areas where the Gunners failed to deliver, let’s focus on what are the five possible solutions to their struggles.
Relying on pace and spatial awareness
One thing that was extremely underlined by Gabriel Martinelli’s comeback was the desperate need of increasing the pace and outrunning their opponents in aim to penetrate. Arsenal’s performance on speed is one of the very few positive things that can be pointed out in their performance in the last few seasons and their speedy and smooth build-up was something they could be proud of. It isn’t relevant to force players like Kieran Tierney, Martinelli, Héctor Bellerín and Aubameyang, who can easily use their speed and movement to outplay their markers and quickly advance the ball, to play possession football and stay narrow in the opposition half, trying to break through overloads of opposition players and looking for the tiniest gaps. This isn’t Arsenal’s current squad’s strength.
No matter what is their build-up strategy and if they want to play with width or penetrate through the middle, using their pace could be crucial for the team going forwards. This would bring their unpredictability and help them in creating quality chances without the need of breaking through two lines of defence, simply because their movement and speed wouldn’t allow their opponents a lot of time to structure defensively, as it would happen with their previous strategy.
There’s no surprise that both Tierney and Martinelli managed to create some great opportunities for the team in the last few games. Using a lot of movement, short pass combinations and speed runs could increase the team’s efficiency in front of the goal. For that purpose, the team need to build-up from the back and focus on their movement off the ball, as well as work on their spatial awareness. Always pushing higher and retaining possession in the opposition half wouldn’t be suitable if the team want to use that strategy.
Martinelli’s subtle spatial awareness is extremely well combined with his flair and pace. His adequate movement and runs often result in catching the momentum and creating chances. Arteta ditched his initial idea for the last three games and the results were immediate. It completely changed Arsenal’s display and allowed them more freedom.
For the successful employment of this strategy though, it is very important to have squad versatility and players for each position in the 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-1-3. That leads us to the second tactical solution.
Sticking to using an attacking midfielder
Out of the whole Mesut Özil drama, not using an attacking midfielder is not something Arteta could be blamed of. With the only options being the academy products Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe, the Spaniard was hesitant in putting all the pressure on them, having in mind the responsibility that comes with that position. That’s why he stuck to the narrow midfield which couldn’t bring the wanted results in attack.
The lack of a creative force that could provide a connection between the lines and make the ball progression easier was the main reason for Arsenal’s underperformance in the final third. For a team that has relied on creativity and link-up-play previously, it was completely expected that they wouldn’t be able to be as efficient in front of the goal, especially without a huge transfer boost.
In the absence of a creative passer on the edge of the final third, it was difficult for the players to make that transition from midfield to attack. There wasn’t anyone who can roam between the opposition’s lines and open spaces for his teammates or create additional threat centrally.
Having an attacking midfielder in the set-up could solve a lot of problems and give freedom to all other players. In case the team has a player with a strong attacking flair and intelligent movement, this could increase both the wingers’ and the forwards’ efficiency in front of the goal.
Playing in a 4-2-3-1 suggest that the team could both play with width but also have good coverage of the central areas. With Arsenal though, due to the lack of a skilful attacking midfielder, they would either fail to use the half-spaces or the wide areas. Let’s get Willian and his position as a winger as an example. The Brasilian usually helps a lot with ball progression and helps a lot with creativity and both staying outside and cutting inside. What doesn’t allow him to show his true colours now is that he doesn’t have the freedom to move around and there are no players to combine with. Part of the reason is the lack of versatility in the squad and lacking players with different strengths who can fulfil different roles.
The reason for Arsenal’s complete transformation in their last three games is exactly the use of an attacking midfielder. Emile Smith-Rowe met the expectations and wonderfully adjusted, helping the team in creating more opportunities, be more versatile and explosive. Serving as a passing outlet allowed Arsenal being more creative and exploit spaces better, which immediately resulted in increasing their efficiency. He has provided additional threat centrally in case the team rely on crossing but also a good presence in the half-spaces allowing the team to create different passing combinations and drag players out of position. He could also be used for link-up-play on the flanks and help the team with ball progression and exposing their opponents through the wide areas.
Being a direct threat shouldn’t be underestimated too. Especially in terms of providing more attacking versatility with shots from outside the penalty area.
The attacking midfielder’s role and positioning’s importance leads to the third tactical solution.
Improved positioning and counter-attacking
The deeper positioning could help Arsenal both in defence and in attack. They would be able to keep the defensive structure tight and wouldn’t be that vulnerable against long balls and counter-attacks. This will help them in closing out the spaces between the lines while also have more security at the back, without the need of covering tons of space and risking leaving gaps.
Dropping a bit deeper off the ball and intensifying the pressing in midfield could also serve them better than the high press in their aim to recover possession. Recovering the ball in the central areas could bring perfect counterattacking opportunities.
Arsenal haven’t been that passive on the counter in years, completing only 1.71 counters per 90 this season, while averaging around four in the previous three campaigns.
That is a complete waste of resources since that’s one of the team’s specialities. Their record is indeed affected by the lack of an attacking midfielder who can stay on a more advanced position, receive and then spread out and also by the completely different strategy Arteta was trying to employ.
They need to take better advantage of their chances and focus more on recovering/intercepting whenever the opposition is in control. Although it doesn’t suit Arteta’s vision, counter-attacking football is a good way to create more danger with the current Arsenal squad. The team could use that, especially against attack-minded teams who try to pin them back.
Direct play as an option against high pressing teams
Something that the manager surprisingly didn’t try out despite the poor results was switching to a direct play. It isn’t always the best solution since it demands a lot of long balls and accuracy, but it is something that could resolve some struggles against high pressing teams. Whenever the Gunners struggle to open the passing lanes and stay pinned at the back, players like Gabriel, David Luiz and Granit Xhaka who usually help with ball progression can step out.
The centre-backs could focus on sending the ball out directly to the advanced areas, helping it bypassing the press and advancing the ball with fewer passes. Of course, this demands the forwards’ great placement in and around the final third, in order for them to be able to utilise on those chances. That’s another area where an attacking midfielder could be extremely useful both for supporting the forwards with his movement and dragging players out of position but also as a passing option.
In the above example. Southampton would apply high press and constantly force Arsenal in sending the ball back. Due to Arteta’s possession-based approach, they preferred circulating the ball at the back (killing the tempo and their chances for an attack) instead of risking losing possession with a long ball. This wouldn’t help Arsenal in bypassing the press and creating goalscoring opportunities.
Since Arsenal don’t have a typical target man with strong aerial abilities as they previously had in the likes of Olivier Giroud, the current forwards might need additional support in overloading the advanced areas, should they lose the high ball.
The Londoners’ lack of solid aerial presence actually causes them struggles in all areas. They have the second to worst aerials duels success rate in the league with 42.1%. Their attempts’ low frequency and inability to win those often stop them from winning possession, retaining possession and from creating chances. Not to mention the disastrous results it brings in defence. At one point, Arsenal were completely unable to cope with defending set-pieces due to their lack of aerial control.
It could be a good decision introducing a player that could dominate in that matter.
Using players to their strengths
Something that Arteta has failed to do so far is taking advantage of the players’ strengths. While it is absolutely normal for him to expect them to play in a certain way and implement his vision, seeing that his current squad doesn’t fit the profile for this playing style should immediately make him adjust his strategy.
The Spaniard’s plans for the team seem great, but having in mind that he arrived just and a year ago and haven’t had the chance to bring the players he wants, it seems impossible for his vision to come to life in his first season. Only once a couple more if not a few more transfer windows have passed, the 38-year old would be able to adjust his players to his strategy and not vice versa.
In times when the performance is poor and immediate results are needed, the best decision is changing the tactics so the players could use their strengths and show their potential.
Using Willian’s ball progression abilities, Xhaka’s set-piece skills, Partey’s defensive discipline, Lacazette’s hold up play and Martinelli’s speed and flair are just a few of the examples how he could increase the team’s efficiency, instead of forcing them into playing possession football, occupying tiny spaces and using tons of passes when only a few players in the squad meet the specific profile for this playing style.
It has proven that Arsenal’s current players need more freedom, more pace and more trust on relying on their instincts. The latest example is their game against West Bromwich. Definitely not opponents that showed a lot of resistance but a proof of how the team play more enjoyable when they can use their strengths for a better purpose.
Once they dropped deeper and didn’t aim to control the game at any cost, their results in many indicators improved. In the last games, they have reached higher shot frequency and higher shot accuracy too. Taking advantage of the movement on the flanks has improved along with their cross accuracy.
That’s proof that they don’t have to use positional play, always completely control the game and possession and try to force their opponents into mistakes. With their current squad and abilities, they could be successful by being patient, taking advantage of the opposition’s unprovoked mistakes and trusting their guts.
Mikel Arteta is not a bad coach, he is just an inexperienced one. From his words to his actions, it is clear that his vision is auspicious, but the lack of experience results in being inflexible in his approach.
Being an assistant coach at Manchester City and working under the guidance of Pep Guardiola has definitely pointed him the right direction but being a successful manager though has more to do with quickly adjusting to the changing circumstances, always having plan B and always looking at the big picture.
The Spaniard firstly needs to adjust to the circumstances before being able to control them.