In the world of contemporary football, Arsenal would presumably be the one club that is perhaps struggling to keep up with their illustrious past. The fall from grace in recent years is an obvious example of how changes in team hierarchy can affect a club’s fortunes. The lack of insight in building the club as a brand has fallen significantly in recent years at the Emirates. With the departure of Arsene Wenger, followed by years of financial restrictions, Arsenal were indeed struggling in the last couple of seasons. Not to mention, Arteta manages to get them off the floor in recent months, despite results not being in favour of them. By December 2020, they were sitting uneasily in the lower half of the Premier League table with uncertainty over Arteta’s future hanging in the balance. However, just as we thought Arsenal were done for the season, they managed to bounce back with a string of back-to-back wins. 3 consecutive wins including one against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea was indeed a lifeline for Gunners. But, what changed?
CHANGING SHAPE OF GAME
Arsenal are well known in recent years for rearing an attacking football that failed miserably in defence. They were often praised for their attack and at the same time ridiculed for their shambolic defensive performances. The style of play stretches back to 2014 when Wenger was doing his last bit of magic at the Emirates. During a couple of seasons, they produced some of the most interesting attacking football. They were so mesmerizing that we often forget Nicklas Bendtner was still there back then. They managed a 3rd league finish and managed to end a 7-year drought with FA Cup glory. But one persistent problem which followed them henceforth was their incompetence in the transfer market. With Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool strengthening their sides, Arsenal failed to replace their ageing side. With key departures in recent seasons, they even failed to find suitable replacements. Per Mertesacker, Rosicky, Cazorla, Sanchez were replaced with questionable transfers in Mustafi, Socrates and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pepe and so on.
When Arteta finally succeeded Unai Emery, the state of the team and their style of play was quite similar to the days under Wenger. However, with Ozil struggling, Lacazatte and Aubameyang both playing their best bit of football, Arteta had little to worry about in his first season. When Arteta joined midway through the campaign, he deployed a 4-2-3-1 most of the time something, which helped provide a quick fix of Arsenal’s defence. The Spaniard offered something fresh starting with a 2-0 win against Manchester United accompanied by big wins, which led them to FA Cup and Community Shield glories.
However, a turn of misfortune with the start of the new season saw Gunners realise their worst start to a league season since 1975. The club struggled to cope with the new season as their lack of proper transfer outlining started to show. William’s most ambitious move to Arsenal came under scrutiny shortly after a series of unconvincing performances. Aubameyang, Arsenal’s best bit of transfer deal in recent years, struggled to even take a target on goal. At one point, they have managed just 20 goals from 17 games, which was significantly lower than what they netted last season.
However, things changed rapidly when they accomplished a dramatic win over Chelsea at home in the Premier League, their first in nearly two months. A hard-fought 1–0 win away to Brighton saw Arsenal rise to 13th from 15th. Youngsters Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Pablo Marí gave way to many first team regulars, as Arsenal managed a series of good performances starting with the New Year. However, what changed?
Rapid passing or quick interplays with players very deep in their half, meanwhile keeping a narrow passage line in the middle, is a trademark style of Manchester City. At Arsenal, we could see such a form shaping up despite Arsenal looking way different to Manchester City. It worked well but failed against teams that organized well defensively. Arsenal suffered loses against Manchester City and Tottenham respectively by playing such a high press, which struggled to make any inroads into the goal. We don’t see Arsenal creating as many chances through this maneuver earlier in the season and as I mentioned this caused a goal drought for the club. In the 3-4-3 system, Arteta favours a progressive pressing, through fastballs and quick balls in successions. Kieran Tierney is a primary example of a player who fits well with the system and Holding is another who fails to fit into this system due to his lack of versatility in pressing higher up the field. With Pepe and William both misfiring, Saka is the newfound saviour in the Arsenal camp who fits well into a system alongside Lacazette and Aubameyang. Xhaka’s poor form was also a demoralizing factor for the Gunners, as summer recruit Tomas Partey struggles to link up with the midfield.
But as we mentioned half away through the season, Arteta started to use the versatility in the squad sheet to his advantage. With a 3-4-2 system, Arsenal were now able to develop from the back. Xhaka, or occasionally Elneny, generally stays deeper quite similar to their liking when Bellerin or Tierney moves forward with the ball. This enables a fluid diamond-like formation in the middle, which leaves a defensive shape with either 3 or 4 defenders. This combination of makeshift midfielders is quite similar to style abutting to the likes of how Fernandinho, Hojberg or Kalvin Philips are used in various other teams. An advantage of this defensive flexibility is that they could stay narrow and hold formation, push forward to press and change shape during counter-press. However, initially, it failed, as I mentioned due to the lack of ambition in the team. Moving from the middle third is usually the big concern for them, especially through the central space as Arsenal lacks a traditional ball-playing midfielder. This often led them to depend heavily upon throwing more bodies to the wings. This creates a dangerous vacuum, which leaves the opposition team enough room to progress the play up front. Dani Ceballos, who is intended to be the answer to this problem, lacks the quality to lead the lines, which left Arteta having little faith in him.
Goalkeeper Leno also stays close to the centre-backs and partakes in the passing game from the back. Meanwhile upfront, Auba stays free finding spaces to launch a quick attack. Alexandre Lacazette drops deeper to collect the ball and provides better coordination to their attack. This particular trait was missing at the start of the season, as William and Lacazatte, both failed to establish a key partnership in the middle. Simultaneously with the importance of building from the back, Arteta also wants his team to play with more patience in attack, by stretching the opponent’s lines, before finding progressive passes upfront. The aim to occupy the opposition half and control the game failed miserably when opponents were ready to sit back and soak up the pressure. A leaf out of Guardiola’s book, this system had its flaws, which were evident initially for Manchester City at the start of the season. Unable to act adequately and drop back promptly due to their high positioning, Arsenal’s system was brought under constant scrutiny throughout the first half of the season.
One of the most apparent characteristics of Arteta is his great improvement to the Gunners’ defence. In 24 games, Arsenal have conceded just 25 goals, the third best in the division. However, moreover, their shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation in recent games have given them better stability as a unit. One impediment for Arsenal this season would perhaps be their failure to break down teams who play with compact, deep defensive blocks.
Now 4-2-3-1 offers a better fluidity in team selection as well. Emile Smith Rowe is an apparent example of a player, who could slot into this formation to develop the game for the Gunners. Having someone such as Saka on the wing also provides better quality in assisting Auba or Lacazatte in front of the goal. Their dependency through both flanks is apparent throughout the season. In Arsenal’s, 3-1 victory against Chelsea, Saka was deployed on the right wing in a 4-2-3-1, overloading Chelsea’s backline and constantly creating breakthrough passes upfront.
There is lots of dynamism in this team, with Arteta seemingly encouraging a fluid structure that changes shape through the game. This treatment of football is somehow working for Arsenal, but it is still unclear where Arsenal will finish at the end of this bizarre season.