Arteta’s Arsenal 2023/24: How Timber, Havertz and Rice can transform the Gunners’ system – tactical analysis
It can be said that under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal now find themselves fueled by hope and ambition to reach the first row in football again. They showed significant growth last season by challenging Manchester City until the final hurdles and laying the groundwork for future success.
The Gunners showcased their most impressive form, playing attractive and sharp football. The acquisitions of players like Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus and the development of talents such as Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka had a notable impact on this.
Recognising the need to address their squad depth, which proved to be a disadvantage against Manchester City, the club is making significant investments this summer. They focused on acquiring talented and experienced young players, with Arteta’s persuasive abilities said to have been crucial in securing the Kai Havertz deal. At the same time, negotiations for Declan Rice and Jurrien Timber are also so close.
Indeed, the inclusion of Declan Rice, widely regarded as one of the world’s top midfielders, will significantly enhance Arsenal’s squad depth and provide Arteta with increased tactical flexibility. Rice’s versatility as a defensive midfielder and central midfielder — as either a No. 6 or No. 8 — adds valuable options to the team.
Also, the picking of Kia Havertz is precisely Arteta’s choice. Despite the German not reaching the anticipated peak of his performance at Chelsea since his move from Bayer Leverkusen, Arteta seems to have a specific plan in mind for him. Havertz is likely to be utilised as a false nine or an advanced No. 8, capitalising on his excellent movement in the box and his ability to exploit spaces. Additionally, Havertz’s height brings a new dimension, especially in effectively utilising long balls, which was lacking in the previous season.
Moreover, Jurrien Timber’s dynamic playing style, featuring pace, aggression, and on-ball skills, will significantly strengthen Arsenal’s defence, providing high-quality depth; his tactical versatility enables him to be utilised in various positions (inverted RB, centre-back).
This tactical analysis aims to delve into Arsenal’s strategies. How do these new additions enhance the team’s tactics? Furthermore, how can we expect Arteta to experiment with innovative approaches in the upcoming season? Is a 3-2-2-3 box midfield on the cards?
How Arsenal’s system works
During his era as a coach in North London, Mikel Arteta’s coaching philosophy has been heavily influenced by his time as an assistant to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. The playing styles of the two managers converged, with Arteta adopting a vertical positional approach that prioritised quick, incisive attacks rather than solely focusing on possession.
Verticality is considered a hybrid approach which incorporates direct and positional play together, where Arsenal work side to side if there are no vertical options available and wait for the opportune moments or gaps to penetrate using quick passing combinations. Unlike a rigid adherence to the “15-pass rule”, which stipulates that a team must complete at least 15 passes before transitioning or building a well-structured attack, Arteta’s Arsenal does not heavily rely on this concept.
Arteta emphasises a short build-up from the back. The graphic below illustrates the most common patterns employed by Arsenal last season against various pressing schemes, keeping in mind building with the fewest numbers while seeking numerical and positional superiorities.
In the first scenario, Arsenal adopt a fixed 4-1 base with the goalkeeper (two centre-backs, two full-backs, and a defensive midfielder). Meanwhile, the wingers and striker pin the opponent’s backline, creating space for the dynamic movement of No. 8s to receive. The false nine striker’s ability to drop deeper serves as an essential passing option.
Adding Declan Rice as No. 6 to this pattern would be highly beneficial. Rice’s physical attributes and accurate short passes in tight spaces enable him to play under pressure effectively. As also as a No. 8, he would comfortably make dynamic movements to receive the ball behind the press.
Timber, as a right-back or centre-back, is crucial. His passing abilities, especially his dribbling skill to get out of the opponent’s pressure and his aptitude for selecting the right angles in narrow spaces, make him an essential asset in creating a free passing lane under challenging situations.
Although Havertz’s effectiveness as a No. 8 midfielder may be limited during this phase (Xhaka’s role), his potential as a false nine becomes significant here. His ability to drop off creates gaps in the opponent’s backline to be exploited by the runners.
In the second scenario, Against +4 in the front lines of the press, Arsenal’s build-up is through six players and the goalkeeper, where the left No. 8 (Xhaka in the past) positioning alongside the No. 6 to form a fixed 4-2 base. In contrast, the No. 8 (Odegaard) advances centrally as the striker drops into the empty space to create the box.
While the wingers pin the backline and are ready to make diagonal runs towards the half-spaces according to the situation if it requires a sudden long ball from the goalkeeper in the space behind the opposition’s backline.
Declan Rice would be well-suited to fulfil either the No. 6 or the left No. 8 role in this pattern. However, Havertz may not be an ideal fit for the deeper No. 8.
Another variation in the third scenario, the Gunners employ a dynamic 4-2 setup by utilising the full-back. Due to his capabilities, the left-back Zinchenko is positioned centrally alongside the No. 6. This allows the left No. 8 to fill the left-side space dynamically, and the left centre-back has the freedom to venture into the left side of the pitch. If Arteta chooses to play Timber as a right-back, he would be well-suited to playing this inverting role, giving cover and competition to Ben White.
Higher up the pitch, Arsenal effectively aim to gain numerical, positional, and dynamic superiorities by occupying the five vertical corridors and dynamically transitioning to 3-2-5/2-3-5 structures. The full-backs’ inverting is employed, with the left-back inverting alongside No. 6, while the right-back moves to the first line. Both wingers stretch the width, and the two No. 8s occupy the half-spaces, creating a box.
The team utilises side triangles (consisting of the winger, No. 8, and full-back, with support from a No. 6 and potentially the false nine), to quickly move the ball and lure as many opponents as possible before then attempting to penetrate or switch the play and isolate the reverse winger in a 1 vs 1 situation (overloading to isolate concept).
The triangle mechanism on the right side differs from that on the left due to the different natures of the players.
On the left, Xhaka pushes higher into the left half-space. Havertz can occupy this role and make timely runs into the box as he did in Leverkusen. Havertz’s versatility allows him to excel in both the false nine and the higher position on the left half-space.
Declan Rice could play as a No. 8 in this system, although his position in a higher area may not play to his strengths best. However, he would be highly effective in counterpressing. If deployed as a No. 6, Rice would excel in supporting both sides of the pitch and covering a large amount of ground.
Timber’s pace, aggression and skills would upgrade Ben White’s role in inverting inside to create the back three and then involved in the right-side mechanism. He could select the right moments to underlap or overlap with Saka. Furthermore, unlike Ben White, he is comfortable operating the midfield alongside No. 6.
Changing the left mechanism
At the decisive stages of the previous season, Arsenal were exposed to setbacks due to a lack of experience at times and injuries at others. The team sometimes needed a change or tactical tweaks.
While the maturity and harmony on the right side were untouchable. On the left, when Zinchenko was absent, the team was affected a lot to the extent that sometimes a change of mechanism was required.
Kieran Tierney was unsuitable for that inverting function,n and changing his role to hugging the line and overlapping meant that Martinelli dynamically moved inside to the half-space. This also meant that Xhaka retreated (the role of Zinchenko), taking a deeper playmaking role.
The new reinforcements can help Arteta to diversify more so in the absence of Zinichenko, specifically. In the below graphic, two scenarios could happen to adjust the mechanics of the left side:
The first is when Declan Rice plays as a No. 8. Kieran Tierney overlaps the flank; meanwhile, Martinelli will move to the half-space, ready to attack the space generated by the false nine’s dropping off. And Rice will move to the playmaking role alongside the No. 6, as he will be completely suitable for this role, more so than Xhaka in the past.
The second is when Rice plays as a No. 6 and Timber from the right-back inverts next to Rice. The left-side mechanism would be with Rice moving horizontally to the lower tip of the triangle there, with Havertz as a No. 8 positioning high to attack the box as Martinelli stretches the width. Tierney would then move to be the third centre-back.
Arsenal to 3-2-2-3?
Just like Pep Guardiola was influenced by Roberto De Zerbi in his current system, we could see Arteta creatively evolve his style by adopting the 3-2-2-3 setup from the first phase of the play, not just transitioning dynamically into 3-2-5 during the progression and the final third phases.
With the new players, Arteta now has suitable players to implement this system effectively.
In this new system, the functionality of certain players will be completely different compared to the previous approach. Full-backs will no longer be present in possession, and the wingers will need to constantly drop into space to receive. Meanwhile, both No. 8s position themselves high to create the box-midfield.
In the first setup shown in the above graphic, Aaron Ramsdale plays a prominent role in the first line alongside three centre-back during the build-ups. Declan Rice joins the second line along with the other No. 6, allowing two No. 10s to position themselves higher on the pitch.
Theoretically, the team makes it difficult for opponents to press them in the lower stage due to the creation of a new passing lane that maintains dynamic, numerical and positional superiorities. Ramsdale’s quality on the ball and the vulnerability of the opponent’s defensive line further enhance their advantage.
In the second setup, teams tend to move back and delay their pressing by approximately 30 meters to disrupt Arsenal’s build-up from the goalkeeper. Arsenal then takes the shape of 3-2-2-3. — Gabriel and Timber move inside to form the three in the first line, with some freedom to move to the side within the available space.
Declan Rice and the other No. 6 (either Zinchenko or Partey) remain mobile at different heights to open up various passing options. Ødegaard and Havertz position themselves higher in the half-spaces, with the freedom to drop diagonally to receive the ball in space. Havertz, in particular, exploits the spaces and gaps in the backline created by the false nine dropping off.
The roles of Saka and Martinelli become influential in this setup as they make repeated runs deep to penetrate from the side and often find themselves much isolated in a 1 vs 1 situation, especially after luring the opposition to one side and quickly switching to the other.
It can be said that Stones’ role in 3-2-2-3 the best one can do it is Declan Rice, as it requires synchronisation and sensitivity movements from line to line and a seamless transition to a centre-back when the team loses possession.
Shifting from the No. 6 to functioning as a centre-back during defensive transitions, with Timber moving to the right, helps reduce dangerous diagonal runs and provides the team with defensive solidity during transitions while ensuring quick player positioning in the defensive 4-4-2 construction.
This analysis discusses Arsenal’s tactical approaches under coach Mikel Arteta, particularly focusing on the impact of their new signings and the potential adoption of a 3-2-2-3 after showing significant growth in the previous season, challenging Manchester City in the EPL primer league.
The article explores various scenarios in Arsenal’s tactical patterns, highlighting how the new signings can enhance the team’s strategies. Declan Rice’s versatility as a midfielder and Jurrien Timber’s defensive capabilities would strengthen Arsenal’s squad depth and provide tactical flexibility. Additionally, the inclusion of Kai Havertz as a false nine or advanced No. 8 could bring a new dimension to the team’s attacking play.