On the 20th December 2021, Mikel Arteta completed two years as manager of Arsenal Football Club and to say he divides opinions amongst the ever opinionated fan base is an understatement.
Prior to his appointment, the club went for experience in Unai Emery. A man whose CV suggested that more trophies would be added to the history books.
But this was the problem, Arsenal prioritised a ‘name’ as opposed to acquiring a suitable ‘profile’, and this along with the conflict of interests that developed amongst individuals of significant power are major factors that have dented the Gunners’ upward trajectory.
Post Arsene Wenger era was all about reducing the length of the transitional phase. Someone who recognised the club situation and advocated a footballing philosophy that generated longevity and attraction.
To put it into simple terms, stability was fundamental and unfortunately, the former PSG manager failed to offer this.
When this is coupled with the style of football the Spaniard favoured – lacking structure in both attacking and defensive phases – it was a dynamic that failed to provide sustainability.
The now Villarreal boss’ sacking was inevitable, and despite Gunners legend Freddie Ljungberg taking over on a short term basis, all eyes were on who was going to be handed the long term keys.
Following speculation on who would take over, it was officially confirmed that Arteta would be next in line, with the hope that the former Manchester City assistant coach would eventually bring back the glory days.
Many weren’t convinced that it was the right appointment simply because of the fact that evidence of him succeeding as a manager isn’t there.
But learning under the stewardship of an elite coach in Pep Guardiola along with gaining valuable knowledge under Wenger as a player would have been factors that gave Arteta the edge over other managerial candidates.
A style of play is what Arsenal fans demanded, as having an identity is arguably just as important as winning trophies.
In his first interview for the club, Arteta was asked if Arsenal had lost their identity under previous manager Emery and his response was, ‘Unfortunately yes.’
‘That’s something we have to recover. We have to make little adjustments.’
Certainly, many aren’t still convinced that the Spaniard has implemented a transparent vision on how he wants his teams to play, but when diving into the football at a slightly deeper level, it’s clear that he is an advocate of positional play, also known as juego de posición.
1) An introduction to positional play
Positional play is a possession-based approach that focuses on gaining advantages across all areas of the pitch.
In other words, superiority is the aim, but this can arise in many different variations such as numerical, positional or qualitative superiority and the way this is achieved depends on the manager’s way of thinking.
Initially, the principles of positional play originated from Rinus Michel’s footballing ideology at Ajax, before Johan Cruyff developed these tactics at Barcelona.
Through the vast creativity and knowledge of these two generational coaches, the Dutch concept of ‘Total Football’ came to fruition, which is a style of football that places great emphasis on versatility and heavy rotations between players.
Both Michels and Cruyff were pioneers of the beautiful game, but Guardiola’s ability to take these methods and apply a successful modern-day touch has revolutionised the sport, with the Spaniard winning bucket loads of honours for Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City in the process.
Guardiola’s major innovation was the idea of splitting a football pitch using a combination of horizontal and vertical lines, with each player instructed to occupy a specific zone.
The rule of thumb is that there should be no more than three teammates operating in a specific horizontal plane and a maximum of two assigned on a vertical plane.
Immediately, many would view this is a rigid and somewhat robotic approach, but these rules are in place so that players are positioned in areas where they can open up passing lines, create overloads and essentially receive the ball in favourable zones, thereby promoting fluidity and increasing the likelihood of progressive actions.
When positional play is drilled into a squad successfully, it’s pleasing on the eye and in fact, many modern-day coaches such as Thomas Tuchel, Hansi Flick and Julian Nagglesman are advocates but install their own tweaks for uniqueness.
But what’s worth mentioning is that whilst on paper, the methodology is superb, it’s only feasible with high calibre personnel.
Depending on ball location and where teammates are positioned, individuals must understand which zones to occupy in order to keep the opposition in a vulnerable state.
It is therefore imperative that players are versatile and comfortable in infiltrating various spaces across the pitch, whilst still being able to influence proceedings.
An example to illustrate this statement is by taking a look at Arsenal’s ‘right wing’ situation.
Club record signing Nicolas Pepe came to north London with huge expectations, but the Ivorian has predominately flattered to deceive, despite showcasing his talent in moments.
Struggles in remaining secure when under contact, inconsistencies in ball retention, predictable movements when cutting inside and essentially lacking the fundamentals leaves Pepe at a severe disadvantage in a possession-based outfit.
The former Lille man’s best attributes are instead tailored to a counter-attacking side, where large spaces are presented and the opposition is operating with a high line.
Bukayo Saka’s profile on the other hand allows him to thrive in any system, particular one that adopts positional play.
Facilitating ball progression from deeper areas, technically superb between the lines, the ability to beat his opponent in a variety of different ways and can hold the flank in isolation – Arsenal’s number 7 possesses a plethora of attributes, with his versatile nature an aspect Arteta demands, hence why he is favoured ahead of Pepe.
When diving into Arsenal at nanometer level, the signs of Arteta’s philosophy was apparent all the way back in December 2019 when he first joined, despite the fact that the squad inherited was rather underwhelming.
But with the acquisitions of Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White, Nuno Tavares, Sambi Lokonga and Martin Odegaard, on top of previous signings such as Gabriel Maghalaes and Thomas Partey – all individuals who are tailored to the Spaniards long terms vision – his blueprint is now more visible.
So let’s dive into the finer details, starting at the formations Arteta has typically used during his time in N5 before taking a deeper look into his form of positional play.
2) Systems used by Arteta
A 4-3-3, conventional 3-4-3, hybrid 3-4-3, 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1 are all formations Arteta has utilised, but the latter is adopted primarily.
Immediately upon arrival, Mesut Ozil started every league game prior to lockdown commencing in this system, roaming between the lines and linking attacks together as a conventional number 10.
But the German’s omission from the side following project restart left Arteta in a situation where he had to deviate away from this system, due to the lack of creative midfielders available to choose from, hence why the hybrid 3-4-3 shape was used.
An FA Cup triumph was provided by this unorthodox set-up, with excellent wins against both Manchester City and Chelsea in the semi-final and final of this competition achieved, followed by success in the Community Shield against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
But sustainability was never offered with this system, as we saw throughout the first half of the 2020/2021 season, with the Gunners languishing in 15th place.
Opposing teams were very happy to sit in a compact low block and give Arsenal complete license to take the initiative, knowing that they would struggle to create chances freely.
On boxing day, however, Hale End Graduate Emile Smith Rowe’s availability allowed Arteta to resort back to familiar principles and utilise his preferred 4-2-3-1 system and since the former Huddersfield loanee broke into the first team, improvement is noticeable.
Within this timeframe, the Gunners have accumulated 79 points in 42 Premier League games, with only Manchester City and Chelsea taking more than the north Londoners during this period.
Numerical evidence supports claims that Arsenal are progressing at a promising rate, and when diving into the specifics, fans should be encouraged by how every player is on board with the manager’s vision.
3) The methodology in Arteta’s positional play
Progression, penetration, spacing, depth and width are keywords that enable a team to dominate the opposition using this approach. So now let’s dive into a few examples where Arsenal have demonstrated these characteristics.
3.1) Arsenal vs Aston Villa (3-1 victory)
Prior to the Friday evening kick-off, in the three encounters between Arsenal and Aston Villa under Arteta, the north Londoners failed to pick up a single point, with no goals scored either.
This damming record, however, was finally put to bed in what was an exceptional display at the Emirates, with the Gunners demonstrating utter domination in the opening half.
Shown below are the two baseline systems deployed – Arteta utilising a 4-2-3-1 whilst his opposite number Dean Smith preferred a 3-4-1-2.
In the grand scheme of things, formations are purely numbers and somewhat meaningless when analysing actual dynamics, but they offer a reasonable understanding of the roles players are given. Greater emphasis however should be placed on structures that are present during different phases.
Since this article is focusing on positional play, analysis will ‘only’ be conducted on Arsenal when they have the ball, with the diagram below illustrating their set-up and how the visitors were attempting to create havoc through their press.
Arteta typically favoured a 3-2-2-3 system last season during the build-up phase, but the Spaniard has primarily insisted on his side moving forward with a 2-4-4 shape since October, consisting of two centre backs, a midfield four and an attacking four.
The idea is to have enough presence within deeper areas to aid progression, followed by a frontline that are positioned in areas that promotes width (Smith Rowe and Saka) and verticality (Aubameyang).
Let’s now expand on this in greater detail, where Arsenal’s structure along with the quality individuals demonstrated ensured progression and penetration was achieved.
Arsenal’s 2-4-4 shape is described in the below frame, with Aston Villa pressing in a conservative 3-4-3. Strikers Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins are instructed to stay tight to the centre backs, but this is exactly what the north Londoners want.
Attracting pressure unlocks advantageous pockets of space and with both Gabriel and White possessing line breaking qualities, bypassing the first line of press becomes a lot easier.
Individual quality is imperative to execute this brand of football, but exploiting weaknesses in the opposition press through one’s own structures is just as important, which is what the north Londoners do here.
Arsenal’s ‘2-4’ against Aston Villa’s front four press ensured that a numerical superiority was established since both full-backs Takehiro Tomiyasu and Nuno Tavares have time on the ball if a pass is delivered into their feet.
Predominately in a 3-4-3 press, the wing-backs push forward with aggression against the opposition full-backs, but Matty Cash and Matt Targett were wary of staying touch tight to their markers since this would have left Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe isolated against wide operators Saka and Smith Rowe.
Ball circulation around the outside is therefore easily accessible, but in this example, the Gunners progress through the centre.
As White drills a pass into Lokonga’s feet, the Belgium international immediately gives it back to the former Brighton star and his movement drags John McGinn into a wider position.
Both Lokonga and Partey pulling Mcginn and Buendia away from central areas enables White to drive forward and showcase his ball-carrying characteristics.
Once entering the final third, Arsenal shift the play towards the left flank and as Smith Rowe receives the ball, Tavares recognises an opportunity to overload Cash on the outside – a regular pattern. The Portuguese international collects the ball on the overlap from the Arsenal number 10 but fails to produce quality in his final action.
A clear illustration of Arsenal demonstrating central progression, but when this isn’t an option, the Gunners are still able to move through the sides.
Shown below is another situation where Arsenal have gained an advantage during build-up, with their 2-4-4 shape against Villa’s front five this time (Cash more aggressive in this scenario).
What can’t be seen in the initial frame is Lacazette dropping within the right half-space, and forcing Targett to stay alert to his movement, thereby allowing Tomiyasu to act as the free man.
With White driving forward and attracting the attention of both Ings and Watkins, greater space has now opened for Tomiyasu, who eventually receives the ball from the £50 million signing, and delivers an exquisite ball into the channel for Saka to latch onto, who is soon after fouled by the Villa captain.
Saka operating high and wide, as he regularly does promotes depth and width, which not only increases the spacing between the opposition midfield and defensive line but also creates situations in which the opposing full-back or centre back is placed in a vulnerable scenario, as shown in this example.
Without the spacing, width and depth in Arsenal structure, sequences like these cannot be derived.
3.2) Arsenal vs Leicester (2-0 victory)
Similarly to Aston Villa, in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory against Brendon Rodgers’ men, the Foxes utilised a 3-4-3, whilst the Gunners continued with their 4-2-3-1.
But in terms of Leicester’s pressing shape, the following diagram provides greater insight.
Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho applied pressure to the Arsenal central defenders, whilst the latter was also at times attempting to cover shadow Partey.
Operating as a number 10, James Maddison is positioned wider in order to man-mark Tomiyasu whereas Boubacary Soumaré was instructed to prevent Lacazette from operating with freedom and likewise, both Castagne and Tielemans were given similar roles on Tavares and Lokonga.
A different type of press in comparison to the one deployed by Aston Villa but Arsenal had no issues in moving forward using similar principles already described.
The Gunners’ 2-4-4 in possession shape along with Leicester’s front five is clearly visible in the frame below. Instantly, numerical superiority is achieved, since Arsenal’s 6 vs 5 (7 vs 5 including Ramsdale) ensures that progression during build up is available.
As the ball is played into Tomiyasu, before Maddison can engage, the former Bologna defender recognises Lacazette offering himself in a deeper position.
His movement attracts the attention of opposing anchorman Soumaré, which gives Tomiyasu the opportunity to exploit central space following a neat interchange between himself and Lacazette.
In an Arteta system, it’s crucial that the centre forward can act as a reference point and is comfortable in linking attacks together between the lines, which is exactly what Aubameyang does in the next phase of play.
As the ball is shifted towards the left-hand side, Tavares’ decoy overlapping run allows Smith Rowe to isolate Amartey and carry the ball infield before giving it back to Aubameyang.
After Lacazette receives possession from the former Arsenal skipper, the Frenchman delivers a teasing ball across the face of goal, but Amartey’s recovery challenge prevents a chance from occurring.
Notice how Arsenal’s 5 lanes of attack is clearly visible in the frame, with Tavares holding the width through the left, Smith Rowe and Lacazette occupying the creative half-spaces, Aubameyang through the middle while touchline winger Saka holds the right flank.
Usually, Arsenal primarily build through the right-hand side, hence why the acquisition of Tomiyasu made perfect sense since the Japan International excels in providing much-needed ball progression through the 1st phase.
But the Gunners have no issues in mixing it up and performing the exact same principles when initiating attacks from the left, to begin with.
Shown below is Arsenal building out from the back yet again (consistency in structure), with Tavares acting as the spare man, which ensures that progression through the left can be established.
Smith Rowe had the better of his marker Amartey in the early stages, so in order to prevent the 21-year-old from gaining consistent joy, Castagne remained deeper as the game developed so that he could offer greater support to his Leicester teammate.
But on the flip side, this enabled Tavares to have more time on the ball, following Gabriel delivering a pass towards him.
Pressure is eventually attracted with Tielemans engaging, but Tavares uses his pace, power and athleticism to breeze past the former Monaco midfielder before driving forward with the ball towards the centre.
Yet again Arsenal’s front five is clearly visible but what’s worth noting is the rotation between certain individuals.
With Tavares moving infield, Smith Rowe maintains width in order to keep Leicester stretched horizontally and likewise on the opposite side, Saka moves into the right half-space since Lacazette has drifted towards the flank.
This is a great example to illustrate how everyone knows what zones to occupy at any given moment, depending on player movement and where the ball is – a key component of positional play.
Tavares continues to carry the ball forward with authority before releasing Lacazette who delivers an accurate low cross that would have potentially been converted by Aubameyang had Johnny Evans not intervened.
3.3) Arsenal vs Southampton (3-0 victory)
There have been many examples throughout the season where consistent patterns like the ones described already haven’t been capitalised, largely due to individuals within the final third not making the correct decisions in key areas.
But more recently, the sequences in build-up and structure have been rewarded with attractive goals, with Arsenal’s opener against Ralph hasenhüttl Southampton a prime example.
Shown below is Arsenal’s set-up and Southampton pressing in a 4-4-2.
Including Ramsdale, immediately Arsenal have gained numerical superiority (4 vs 2), which allows the Gunners to progress past Southampton’s first line of pressure.
Following Gabriel’s pass to Ramsdale, the Sheffield United keeper forces striker Armando Broja to engage, but the Arsenal number 32 remains composed under pressure and finds White.
This piece of play from Ramsdale is a perfect example of why a ball-playing goalkeeper is needed to execute this brand of football.
Bernd Leno has showcased his talent as a high volume stopper over the years, but in the current team, it’s imperative that the goalkeeper is proactive and sets the tone of the attack.
The Germans inability to make quick decisions on the ball leaves him in a vulnerable position, especially when considering that Ramsdale has flourished in this department, providing accurate and consistent distribution.
The next frame shows Nathan Tella rushing to pressurise White, which in turn allows Tomiaysu to operate in space, who is then found by Partey following White’s first time ball into the former Atletico Madrid midfielder’s feet.
Once Tomiaysu receives the ball, Kyle Walker-Peters decides to engage in the hope of winning the ball back for his team.
But this specific action performed by the Saints full-back results in a disconnect between their back four, and with Tomiaysu reacting quickly to Partey’s ball, a 4 vs 3 overload is now established in Arsenal’s favour (Odegaard, Lacazette, Saka and Martinelli against Southampton’s back three).
A quick interchange between Odegaard and Tomiyasu sees the latter find Saka, who is now given the opportunity to carry the ball forward and into the final third.
The England international then goes on to showcase excellent decision making with a well-timed cutback for Lacazette, who converts the chance brilliantly.
Attracting pressure, forcing the opposition to engage, remaining composed on the ball and exploiting spaces through the use of individual quality and structure – all elements that coexisted in what was a sensational team goal and essentially this is the confidence Arteta wants his team to play with against high pressing teams.
3.4) Arsenal vs Brighton (1-1 draw)
Whilst the positives have been widely discussed in this article, there has been turbulence along the way where Arteta has failed to gain success using this style of play, largely because of the roles given to certain players.
The best way to illustrate this is by taking a quick look at Arsenal’s stalemate at the Amex stadium.
On the day, Arsenal opted for a 2-3-5 shape when attempting to progress into the final third.
Lokonga on paper partnered Partey in a double pivot, but he was actually instructed to operate as a left centre back which created two glaring issues.
The first was that it left Partey isolated in the middle of the park and the other was the struggles Lokonga had in distributing the ball forward in tight spaces towards the left flank.
Because Lokonga is right-footed, the former Anderlecht prospect naturally cuts inside and play passes into central areas, but with Brighton congesting these zones with two or three energetic midfielders, passing lanes were eliminated, thereby stifling ball progression.
You can see in the following two frames that Lokonga as a result is forced to go backwards, and with no passing options available for Ramsdale, the Arsenal goalkeeper has no other choice but to go long.
This frequent pattern along with Brighton defenders and midfielders winning 1st and 2nd balls frequently meant that Arsenal couldn’t gain control of the match.
In hindsight, perhaps choosing Odegaard to perform Lokonga’s role would have been a wiser move since the Norweigian naturally can find that pass towards the channel and into Tierney’s feet.
4) Final thoughts
Mistakes like the one described above have been made along the way, and in fact, there have been many. But when applying context, Arteta is still extremely inexperienced at the top level and is learning on the job.
When this is coupled with the fact that Arsenal have the youngest squad in the Premier League, inconsistencies are inevitable.
What Arteta has done is manage to derive patterns and sequences that allow his men to transition from the defensive third to the attacking third in a variety of different ways, as shown in this article.
It’s very clear that everyone is on board with his methods but now the major area of improvement needed is consistency in final third/attacking patterns.
Certainly, there have been encouraging signs in this aspect in recent weeks, but the challenge is to now do it over a larger sample size.
But as it stands, when looking at the Premier League table, Arsenal are currently placed in 4th position going into the Christmas break with 32 points and when analysing the table with xG (expected goals) as the metric, the Gunners’ position is deserved.
The aim for Arsenal this season is to cement a European place but given how teams around them have all struggled for form, there is a great opportunity to go one step further and finish in one of those all-important Champions League places.
With two back to back 8th place finishes under Arteta’s name, the former Gunners skipper can’t afford any more underwhelming finishes.
But given the fact that the performances are encouraging and results have been consistent since the home fixture against Norwich back in September, there is growing optimism that Arsenal will have a strong season.
I really hope you enjoyed the read and any comments would be much appreciated. If you would like to know more about me, follow my Twitter account @RjArsenalBlog, which is where you can access all the articles I have written along with hearing my opinions on all things Arsenal and football in general.
24-year-old Gooner who loves talking and writing about football