It is fair to state that, coming into the 2020/21 season, Mikel Arteta was very much in credit in the hearts and minds of football fans everywhere.
Nowhere was his stock higher, however, than with the Arsenal faithful. He had, after all, led Arsenal to FA Cup success the previous term, with late-season victories over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea affirming his status as one of the game’s brightest young managers.
Eight games into the new season, the tide has turned almost completely. Recent defeats to Leicester and Aston Villa, even though they sandwiched a heartwarming and much-needed victory league at Old Trafford, have called into question not only Arteta’s methods, but his very sincerity.
Taking the entirety of his tenure holistically though, it is remarkably easy to pinpoint the exact moment when the Spaniard went off the rails.
Since his appointment, the former club captain has been unequivocal in his desire to implement an attacking style of play. It was an easy enough sell: a product of Barcelona’s fabled academy, Arteta had played under Arsène Wenger, before interning with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. So how could anyone possibly envision anything less than swashbuckling football with him in charge?
The first couple of games in charge did little to challenge this expectation. Arteta set his stall out against Bournemouth in his first game in charge, and even though the Gunners had to battle back from a deficit to draw 1-1, the performance was impressive in its verve and enterprise. It wasn’t until his third game in charge that he would bag a first win – a memorable 2-0 win over Manchester United inside a rocking Emirates – but already the style and tactical set-up were distinct.
A 4-2-3-1, morphing into a 2-3-5 shape in possession, not only sought to fill up the five attacking channels, but also provided a structure for counter-pressing after the ball was lost. Build-up emphasized probing with possession in search of openings, either to Mesut Ozil in the inside-right space, or out to the overlapping left-back, allowing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to attack the box in the final phase despite nominally playing wide. It did not always come off, but when it did, a world of possibility seemed to open up.
By the suspension of football, Arsenal under Arteta had won 8 out of 15, but more importantly had only lost twice. That run included matches against Crystal Palace and Chelsea in which the team was reduced to 10 men, and as such needed to eke out draws as part of building character. Europa League elimination at the hands of Olympiacos had put a distinct downer on things, but if anything it showed the absence of quality at the heart of the defence, as well as a vulnerability to set-piece situations, rather than any particular tactical shortfall on the manager’s part.
When football returned, the next obligation was a trip to Manchester City. For this, Arteta went to a different shape for the first time in charge, chiefly (one suspects) to account for the absence of the squad’s only de facto n10 in Ozil. Early injuries to Pablo Mari and Granit Xhaka rendered a difficult task downright impossible, and the hosts strode to a 3-0 victory; considering the circumstances, it was practically impossible to read anything into the outcome.
For the trip to Brighton, Arteta retained the 4-3-3 that had started against City, and lost 2-1, with Neal Maupay first grievously injuring Bernd Leno and scoring a late winner.
This was the moment. It was after this game that Arteta seemed to completely lose his nerve.
The retelling of the 2019/20 season marks this out as seminal, in that following this defeat Arsenal went to a back three and rescued their season with an FA Cup triumph. However, while the joy of Wembley was certainly welcome, and that view has merit in an ‘end justifies the means’ sort of way, it is also arguable that it led to a hangover that Arteta continues to stumble through.
First, a closer look at that Brighton game.
Arteta’s 4-3-3 saw Matteo Guendouzi starting at the base of midfield, with Bukayo Saka and Dani Ceballos playing the more advanced midfield roles. Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe took up the forward roles from left to right, Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin were the full-backs, and Rob Holding partnered Shkodran Mustafi in the heart of defence.
Arsenal would take the lead in the 68th minute through Pepe, before being pegged back and then turned over deep into stoppage time.
It was a result that seemed to confirm all of the worst historical clichés about the Gunners, and the match ended with Guendouzi getting into a shouting match with Maupay and Leno sidelined until the end of the season. However, a dispassionate re-watch of that game paints an interesting picture.
In possession, there was a first appearance of the sort of hybrid role Saka now plays. In this shape, however, he occasionally worked in-to-out, rather than out-to-in as he does in the current 3-4-3. Kolasinac sat in a deeper role alongside the centre-backs, Bellerin was positioned narrow, almost alongside Guendouzi, and Ceballos was positioned higher. The shape on the ball often appeared close to 3-2-2-3.
Arsenal largely dominated possession and created the better chances, with Saka hitting the bar, Lacazette forcing Matt Ryan into a brilliant low save, Pepe curling home a brilliant opener and Aubameyang getting seven(!) shots away over the course of proceedings.
However, the system had flaws, both in and out of possession.
First of all, while Guendouzi certainly had the passing range, and displayed an admirable urgency in keeping the play moving, he lacked the defensive solidity to anchor the team in defensive transitions. Second, Ceballos seemed to completely misunderstand his role: he was supposed to exploit the space created by Pepe’s wide positioning either by offering underlaps or combining with the Ivorian. He did neither, and also lacked the athleticism to recover his defensive position. Third, the centre-back pairing lacked the aggression and assertiveness to step forward and engage, and both Mustafi and Holding instinctively backed off as soon as possession broke, compromising the team’s compactness.
These all contributed, ultimately, to making the team less consistently threatening, and they failed to truly exploit their dominance, resulting in the late capitulation. Still, all were failings that could be fixed, chiefly, by deploying better-suited personnel in key areas: a more dominant presence at the base of midfield (for Guendouzi); a player with better movement off the ball in midfield like say, Joe Willock or the now ostracized Ozil (for Ceballos); greater aggression and physicality in defence (for either of Mustafi or Holding).
Of course, Guendouzi’s lack of discipline (and contrition afterward) meant he was no longer an option for the side in Arteta’s mind, and that was also a factor in the shift to a back three, in my view. However, the belief was that it was a temporary measure, and that understanding was further solidified by the club’s business this summer: Arsenal bought Thomas Partey (a more dominant presence at the base of midfield), and Gabriel (greater aggression and physicality in defence).
Why then has that Brighton 4-3-3 not come back since? More to the point, why have pretty much all of the attacking principles that were in place to that point been chucked?
It seems instead that Arsenal are stuck in this 3-4-3 hybrid simply by virtue of having found a measure of success with it. If one considers that, essentially, it is an altogether new system, it begins to make more sense that the Gunners look so blunt within it: they have only been playing it for five months, and even at that it never quite seems like Arteta is completely committed it.
However, it might be a lot easier to swallow if it was not at the expense of all that Arteta was building for the first six months of his time in charge. In many ways, his evolution as manager has mirrored some of his early Arsenal performers: promising first-half, with the second-half tailing off from around the 60-minute mark. That inflexion point came against Brighton, and Arteta has been losing the plot ever since.
Solace is a freelance football journalist, a tactics writer and an African football columnist with Goal. He’s also been an Arsenal fan since 2002.