The System or the Game? Arteta’s coaching style on trial… [Positive Needs & Hopes]

The System or the Game


Some games feel more important than others. Yesterdays game felt particularly important.

This might have been because our results have been as expected so far. This game was against an equal. It had the power to send us one point off top, but even though we are only four away it seems like a massive missed opportunity. The league looks open right now and if Everton and Villa can be pushing for the top spot, so can Arsenal. I can accept a 0-1 loss. I can accept a 0-1 loss to Leicester. The way it happened was tough to take, though.

I have been more excited by our new look than I’ve been in 12 years. I am not going to ignore the fact that we have greatly improved our squad, our mentality, our accountability and our defensive shape and structure. This is still in place and gives me hope. My concern is that offensively we look like a team playing the system rather than the game.

I’m pleased that we clearly have and practice passing patterns as an attacking style. This is important especially for a team lacking automatic. It can create that. My concern is that there isn’t a blend of trying to go with Plan A, the coaches ideas, and Plan B, what the game is telling you to do. I’ve tried to balance my excitement with Arteta’s arrival and immediate impact with a little pause where needed. Back in February, I wrote a piece about his constant coaching from the sidelines and what it said about him and what it could bring. With no crowd it has helped as an extra voice helping the players. On the flip side, it gives me pause to wonder if our manager is controlling our players too rigidly? I think this is fair to at least ask.

Ideally, you want to set your players out with a plan that they believe in and can execute, with enough repetition to get in their heads and transfer to their feet. If for example, the idea is for the ball to go from Xhaka to Tierney back to Xhaka and over to Auba, you at least need them to look for these choices first. You also want them to know that it’s better to ‘play the game’ or ‘play what you see’ if that makes more sense in the moment. Yesterday it looked like Arteta was the puppet master and the players didn’t have the confidence to cut the strings when necessary.

This is not a slight on Mikel Arteta but it is important to remember that he only controls one team. He can’t KNOW that a certain pattern will work because he can’t control the opponent. As the game situation changes we can see him trying to figure out the next chess move to communicate to his players. Again, this is helpful but only if this is balanced with the clear message and obvious execution that flexibility is better than being belligerent.


Mikel Arteta had a great training school but one where ‘coaching control’ was most definitely the style. It has worked more often than not for Pep but it’s clear that both of them are very much about control. I have also wondered if there is anything in the fact that the younger coaches in world football all seem to favour this style. Could it be that they are a little frustrated at not being able to play anymore and so adopt this control out of frustration?

We call this coaching style ‘energetic’ and we like it, but is there balance between this control and the freedom that a coach like Ancelotti offers? This is evidenced to me by the choices made. I’d start AMN in midfield and tell him to frequently run with the ball into the final third like Saka. I’d know that he will get tackled occasionally but we have to take some level of risk in order to unbalance teams. It seems like Arteta will always prefer Xhaka as he will follow the system and not break rank.

There has been a big clamour for Grealish to not only play for England but to be the player that Arsenal choose to be our creator. I’ve thought through this and I think I know why. Jack Grealish plays with total freedom. Fans may not have consciously realized it yet, but football has become a coach’s game where it was always a player’s game. We pine for unpredictability as we can all pause the TV and tell you where the ball is going next. Grealish looks like he is told to feel the game rather than follow instruction and that he trusted to do so because this is his gift. Again, balance needed.


A good comparison

My second concern was the style chosen. There is no doubt that we are playing high percentage football both in our defensive and midfield third. I don’t fight this as the transition game will make or break you so you have to be careful. What happened yesterday though was that we played high percentage, high percentage, low percentage. Never really losing the ball in the first two thirds…good, but when we entered the final third it looked like our first goalscoring plan was high crosses to Auba and Laca. Neither of them are particularly good in the air so the percentage chance of that working was probably 10%. From 100% to 10% seemed bizarre as a method of scoring.

As the game went on the commentators kept saying that the players were ‘running out of ideas.’ I was bothered that our players actually looked like they wanted to just ‘play’ but almost had forgotten how to do it. Mustafi hitting long balls to Eddie to win in the air left me desperate.

When I played football I never ran out of ideas because we just ‘played the game’ as there was almost no coaching. This plan is not going to cut it either but I’m hoping that Arteta isn’t stubborn and can watch recent performances back and realize that to be successful we need to respect both the system AND the game.



-Bellerin’s movement off the ball is going to win us more games alone. He times his runs so well and we are looking for him


-Some of the corners looked better and I recognize that Lacazette’s goal should’ve stood. Still not seeing the fruit of having a set play coach yet though.

-Luiz had his passing mojo back. Hope he’s not out too long.

-Tierney’s crossing was elite but wasted on Lacazette and Auba.

-Our midfield press in the first half led to many good tackles, interceptions and turnovers. We therefore made it very hard for Leicester and then created very little but….



-…… for all our good midfield pressing and ball winning our style played into their hands. We don’t capitalize. Win it, pass it sideways or backwards. Leicester were therefore given all the time they needed to reorganize.

-Should we run out of what little creativity we have when a 19 yr old goes off?

-Should our two main creators be playing left back and centre back?

-My daughter came back to watching Arsenal again recently. Probably because we won two trophies! She walked out of the room in the 70th minute because it was ‘boring.’ I do think that we are lucky that fans aren’t at games because it isn’t inspiring stuff right now. Very robotic. Whether this is right or not for fans to show frustration, it’s a big part of the game and Arsenal fans have seen exciting football and somewhat expect it.

-On top of the result, we really didn’t need the goal to be Mustafi’s fault. Would love for the press to probe the Saliba situation.



( Getty Images)


-I can only hope that the coach can change his attacking message. Even if Lacazette or Bellerin would’ve scored I don’t see a long term attacking plan that looks like it will get us out of the relegation zone for ‘shots taken.’ Arsenal look like they only score scripted goals. Goals where we have to be get it 100% right to score. I think now is the perfect time to reassess.



All of the above could be an over reaction. Mikel Arteta could simply not trust his current squad so has consciously decided to over coach. He could change when he has players like Grealish that he can give freedom too.

Hope so.


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6 Responses to The System or the Game? Arteta’s coaching style on trial… [Positive Needs & Hopes]

  1. Andy October 26, 2020 at 9:57 am #

    Thanks Mike. It’s good to hear reasoned argument amongst all the negativity. I didn’t watch the game yesterday as it would have meant paying £15 to see us rotate the ball backwards and sidewards. And I’m someone who attended Highbury to watch Arsenal and Wimbledon good the ball to each other’s goalie in a freezing winter night! Positives are that it appears he played with a four at the back? It shows he is aware and is trying to fix the creative issues.

    I, like you love AMN and think he would do better alongside Partey than some of the others. I was also interested that you didn’t name Holding in your previous article. I think he is better than Chambers and Mustafi and has a better long term future.

    • Francis Redemi October 26, 2020 at 3:15 pm #


      Inasmuch as you love AMN I feel he’s not a good passer of the hall and often appears laidback.

      Chambers too is better than Holding. He can even play other positions apart from CB.

  2. allezkev October 26, 2020 at 12:35 pm #

    Hi Mike, good post, interesting that you would say that you’re glad the fans aren’t at the games because of the tedium of our play, but maybe the fans would affect that? The encouragement from fans can make players take a risk, look for the forward pass instead of the sideways or backwards, play it off the cuff, the feel of the game.

    Football is an emotional sport and footballers are performing in a very sterile environment where all they can hear are other players and their coach.

    Moments in matches are more effective than we often give them credit for. Like the moment a good Lacazette goal is disallowed, that radically changes the whole dynamic of the game, if the goal stands as it should have then Leicester come out of their shell a little to try and equalise, Arsenal possibly score a second and don’t need to chase a result, Vardy coming on 0-2 down has no effect and Arsenal win with the added bonus of all the social media lunatics calming down.

    Man it’s a bloody madhouse online after a defeat, I do worry about the sanity of some of our fans…

    Onwards and Upwards.

  3. Francis Redemi October 26, 2020 at 3:23 pm #


    Thanks for your posts.

    For is to have lost 1/2 of our league matches so far shows we may only get about 60 points this season,

    A positive from yesterday’s loss was a return to a back 4 but when Xhaka plays a quasi LB role, it negates the whole system and I feel Arteta is making the job harder than it seems.

    He should just play the players where they are most comfortable. No point Auba playing RW. No point Tierney playing LWB. Laca despite his goals this season greatly hinders the team.

    Saliba has to be eased into the team instead of playing Musatfi. The team is crying out for creativity and Özil with all the wages he’s on cant even be an option? This is slowly getting Emerysque and sooner or later, all the goodwill towards Arteta would start fading.

  4. Francis Redemi October 26, 2020 at 3:26 pm #


    Thanks for the post!

    In a GW that Everton and Villa lost, City, Chelsea and Man U drew, for us to lose back to back games without scoring is really poor.

    The officiating also left a lot to be desired and was against us.

  5. Victor Thompson October 26, 2020 at 10:51 pm #

    “My concern is that offensively we look like a team playing the system rather than the game.” Spot on MIke. All the rest of your article hangs on that thread! The match was definitely robotic but I do tend to support Arteta then try to understand his plan. I noted that you wondered why he took a 19 year pld off, Frankly, I was hoping he would do that because they were kicking his legs black and blue. I wondered why the ref let them keep doing it but when I saw his gaff for disallowing a blatent penalty I began to realise that either he was incompetent, blind or downright intent on Leicester winning with his assistance. As for the reason for the poor show, I think that Pepe has natural ball skills but he doesn`t have a brain to go with it. He rarely initiates an attack and he picks the wrong place to be in when we have possession of the ball in midfield. We owe Bellerin a grateful recognition of where to head to cause the most damage.He actually does what Pepe doesn`t, When he gets the ball, he immediately charges forward and he either carries himself into a position for a cross. or opens up a space to pass the ball to someone in the box. Of course that depends on at least one of our rowards sees the space coming and waits for the pass to come.

    I do think that when Zhaka is playing with Partey and Gabriel are playing, Xhaka doesn`t seem to be on the same waveline and his established way of playing is out of kilter with these two. I think that either he works out a way of working with them to provide service to our forwards, he will have to be dropped. He is one of the robots in the team.

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