In December 2019, Arsenal appointed their former player Mikel Arteta as their new manager, following Unai Emery’s tenure. As a player, he won two FA Cups in his five-year spell with the club. Since 2016 Arteta had been working as a coach under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. With no experience as a first-team manager, it was uncertain as to what style of play he would try and implement at Arsenal. So far the Gunners have had mixed results with a win against Manchester United and a ten-game unbeaten run. They are currently 10th in the Premier League, eight points off the top four and five points off 5th spot.
This tactical analysis will break down what has changed at Arsenal. The analysis will look at each area of the pitch as Arteta looks to build his style of football. The analysis will break down the tactics he uses and evaluates if he has improved Arsenal this season. In this article, it will cover what Arsenal looks to do in each area of the pitch.
One of Arsenal’s big problems was at the back. On average they were conceding 1.33 goals per game. It is now 0.92 since Arteta was appointed. The Gunners have doubled the number of clean sheets in this period. It is an impressive turnaround with the same squad. Under Unai Emery, they often opted for a 4-2-3-1. Arteta has kept to the same system but has changed the way Arsenal play.
The 4-2-3-1 has its benefits as it means teams can have 3 defensive lines. This can happen as the two holding midfielders can sit in front of the defence and provide cover. The three attacking players can then cover the space in front so that there are no gaps when defending. It was how Arsenal used to defend under Emery. This shows how Arsenal used to set up.
This did not work for Arsenal because it meant teams could move Arsenal players so they were left isolated. The example shows how a ball out to Ben Chilwell takes Alexandre Lacazette out of the game. The full-back then has space to drive into. This itself is a danger to Arsenal but the other worry is that both Arsenal defenders are left one vs one against Leicester’s attackers. This allowed Leicester to move forward with the ball and they were able to get in behind.
This was a risky way of defending especially against Leicester as both James Maddison and Harvey Barnes have quick acceleration enabling them to get away from defenders. The Gunners lost this particular game 2-0 as they struggled to cope defensively. In this game, Leicester won 72.22% of aerial duels and 61.84% of defensive duels proving that this system was not working.
How it transitions to a 4-4-2
As shown, defending with three defensive lines was not working, therefore Arteta opts for a different way of defending. The first image below shows how Arsenal changes into a 4-4-2 when defending. To do this it requires the two wide players to drop back. In recent weeks this has been Nicolas Pépé and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Mesut Özil then moves up into a forward position. This is because he is most effective higher up the pitch and is, therefore, better off pressing the opponent’s centre-backs to force the wide. Notice how they are spread out across the pitch. This is important as it means they have players that can cover each segment of the pitch.
The other important feature to notice is the distance between the midfield and the defence. The second image illustrates the gaps in these areas. This is a deliberate tactic as around each of these gaps there are four Arsenal players. This means that if the ball does go into the gaps Arsenal has players that can quickly close in on the ball without leaving their position. This is effective for Arsenal as it means that only a few players are pressing at a time allowing the rest of the team cover space.
How the press works
The tactical analysis has mentioned how Arsenal looks to press the ball in groups. This initially starts with the forwards staying central to try and force their opponents wide. It requires Arsenal players to be disciplined in their position and be ready to shift across when others press.
The image below shows an example of Arsenal winning the ball back. Notice how each player has a role in the press. Both Özil and Pépé’s job is to press the ball reducing the options the player on the ball has. At the same time, Granit Xhaka is tight to the player in the middle taking away this option while Dani Ceballos covers the ball in the middle. This ultimately ends up with Arsenal winning the ball back.
Long ball threat
So far this tactical analysis has explored the benefits of defending with two backs of four. However, it does have its risks that have caused Arsenal some issues. For the press to work Arsenal need to maintain their shape. They have to do this otherwise the gap between the defence and midfield means it is difficult for the Gunners to recover leaving them exposed.
This example shows the risk as all it takes is a long ball from Burnley to avoid the press. The direct route means it takes Arsenal’s midfield out of the game. Have a look at how much space Jay Rodriguez is in. He has three players to his left but instead opts for the shot. It does force a fantastic save from Bernd Leno but does show how teams can easily beat the press.
The gunners do struggle with aerial duels as they win 42.32% whereas their opponents on average win 50.62%. In this particular game against Burnley, Arsenal only won 34.09%. This indicates it is a vulnerable area for Arsenal. Burnley also plays with two strikers. This means a long ball can create a two vs two. This example highlights the danger as long ball leaves only two Arsenal players back. Arsenal survived this game because Burnley could not capitalise on this and the centre-backs were able to hold up the attacker long enough for the midfielders to get back into shape.
When defending Arsenal move to a wide 4-4-2. However, when attacking the starting formation of 4-2-3-1 adapts so Arsenal has five in Attack. This has led to expected goals of 1.42 for Arsenal this is higher than their opponents average. Similarly to the way the midfield is split from the defence. There is also a gap when attacking. This is because the four of the five attacking players operate centrally just on the edge of their opponent’s box.
They can do this because Bukayo Saka pushes high up the pitch essentially playing as a winger. In the picture below it shows four Arsenal players in the box. It is a noticeable tactical change from Arteta to get as many players in the box as possible because it forces teams back as they have to mark the players in these advanced positions.
How the Gunners attack
One strength Arsenal does have is a plethora of attacking talent. Aubameyang is often the main threat. However one of the most noticeable changes under Arteta is Bukayo Saka’s involvement in the team. Saka has made a few appearances before but under Arteta, he is starting to thrive. The player is more typically played as a winger. However with both Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolašinac out injured. He got his chance at left-back. Not only has he been a threat going forward with three assists (only Pépé has had more for Arsenal with six) but he has also helped the gunners defence as he started in four of Arsenal’s six clean sheets in the Premier League. The tactical reason behind playing Saka is it enables Aubameyang to operate more centrally.
To get Saka as high up the pitch as possible it requires one of the central midfielders to shift across to the left-back position when attacking. This does two things tactically as not only does it cover Saka if the Gunners attack breaks down but it also means the midfielder is in a position to still control the game. Looking at the image below it highlights that Xhaka has moved across into a position where he can cover Saka and pick the ball up from the centre back.
How the midfield is vital
As mentioned in the tactical analysis there is a gap between the midfield and the rest of the team. This is so Arsenal spread the pitch making it easier to transition from defence to attack. To do this effectively the midfield pair has to be close to each other to rotate the ball quickly. In recent weeks it has been Xhaka and Ceballos that have been working effectively as a pair. This is a good combination for Arsenal as Xhaka has the most tackles for Arsenal this season with 37, whereas Ceballos is technically good on the ball and is confident driving forwards with it.
The image below shows just how close the pair operates with each other. This is vital for the team as the two provide a pivot in the middle. As a pivot in the middle, it lets Arsenal effectively get the ball out wide and back to the middle. The illustration also shows the options that the pair has, as they could drive forward with the ball or get the ball out wide. Both of these options advance Arsenal into more threatening areas.
To illustrate this point look at Arsenal’s pass maps from their wins over Newcastle and Everton. It highlights the fact that most pass combinations go through Xhaka and Ceballos. With two pivots Arsenal can play combination passes with the forwards on both sides of the pitch. The pass maps also show how far forward Saka operates. Similarly reiterates how wide Arsenal plays to stretch their opponents.
How Arsenal use their positioning to build attacks
The analysis has mentioned where Arsenal likes to be positioned when attacking. This means they are now set up to attack teams. Initially, Arsenal will look to build from the back. As the two centre-backs will spread wide. This is because Arsenal looks to build attacks by using the midfield as a pivot for players to run off.
This image shows how Arsenal started their attacks. In this particular example, Xhaka has dropped into the centre-back position and plays the ball into Willock who is acting as the pivot. The ball into Willock invites the press from Olympiacos, which means there is space behind them. Because of this Willock plays a one-two with Saka to move into space. This type of combination of passes enables Arsenal to get into their opponents’ half.
Moving through the thirds
Once Arsenal have moved into their opponents half they then try to utilise the advanced positioning that the front four provide. The width they have gives them two options to open up their opponents. both have the same objective of moving their opponents to create space.
What Arsenal look to do is move the ball out wide and quickly back inside and vice versa. This is instead of trying to play combinations in the middle or out wide. They play like this as it stretches their opponents, giving the forwards more space to play in. This is an example of Arsenal starting outside to go inside. In this example, Pépé plays the ball inside to Willock, as Héctor Bellerín is holding the width it stretches the gap between the Newcastle defenders. This enables Pépé to run into the gap. The move finishes with Arsenal’s fourth goal of the game illustrating how effective it can be.
Alternatively, with Özil, they have a player that is good centrally. Özil is good at finding space in between the lines which, therefore, gives Arsenal the option to find a pass that will split the lines. In this example, it is Ceballos that finds Özil. Due to Arsenal’s positioning, he has options out wide either side of him.
This tactical analysis has looked at how Arteta has stated to implement his style on Arsenal. He has had success so far with seven wins out of 13 games, losing only two. One of those games, however, was in the Europa league resulting in their exit from the competition. This is not good for their season as it was a good chance at Champions League football. The Gunners are still in the FA Cup and five points off 5th position; if they continue their league form there is still a chance of Champions League football, depending on what happens with Manchester City.
Nevertheless, this analysis has broken down what Arteta is trying to do with this Arsenal side and there are many positives to reflect on. Excitingly for Arsenal fans, he is definitely willing to give young players a chance with players like Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Gabriel Martinelli along others regularly getting first-team experience. To conclude it does look like Arsenal has found a manager to take them forward.