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A Deeper dive into Mikel Arteta’s flexible long term system for his Arsenal

Mikel-Arteta-Hibs-pre-season-friendly-July-2021-TEAMtalk-1

Man with a plan

With Manchester United and Tottenham both dropping points throughout last week, Arsenal took the opportunity to capitalise on their rivals’ slip-ups with both hands, defeating Wolves at Molineux by one goal to nil.

It was a relatively comfortable evening for the Gunners following Gabriel Magalhaes opening the scoring in the 25th minute, notching his third goal of the season.

But the dynamics altered in the 69th minute after Gabriel Martinelli’s controversial sending off and it looked set to be a very nervy ending on paper for the north Londoners.

Manager Mikel Arteta however reacted to the unfortunate situation superbly, understood the change in-game state and responded tactically by bringing on Rob Holding to act as the centre-piece of a back three, in a 5-3-1 low block; an identical shape to the one used at Anfield in the Carabao Cup first leg after Granit Xhaka’s red card in the 24th minute.

Red-card

The change in shape ensured that Arteta’s men had greater presence within the box to deal with both first and second balls and by packing the centre zone with three midfielders, Arsenal effectively stopped Wolves from delivering passes between the lines in these areas, thereby restricting central and half-space chance creation.

Furthermore, the back five out of possession mitigated the space in which the two wingbacks, Nélson Semedo and Fernando Marçal could operate in, which prevented the Wanderers from creating substantial openings initiated from diagonal balls delivered into the channels.

All these elements coexisting together ensured that Bruno’s Lage’s side couldn’t trouble goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale as frequent as they would have liked and the performance displayed from Arsenal is another example of the team illustrating resilience, character and the willingness to step up to the physical battle and doing everything in their power to hold onto three precious points.

Before the season commenced, the objective set by the hierarchy for Arteta was clear, a top-six finish as this would signal improvement when compared to previous league finishes under the Spaniard.

But with sixteen games remaining, Arsenal have a tremendous opportunity to cement a place in Europe’s top flight.

Certainly, there are many players who should be showered with immense praise for placing the Gunners in a great position going into the business end of the campaign, particularly the new summer additions.

Both Arteta and technical director Edu were criticised immensely for the recruitment strategy taken, but so far each signing made has been a success, with Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White and Martin Odegaard all delivering stellar impacts and are integral cogs to the overall team functionality.

The summer acquisitions have allowed Arteta to mould the team into one that is beginning to represent his form of positional play, also known as Juego de Posición (full piece on ‘A deeper dive into Mikel Arteta’s form of positional play’ can be accessed here).

When analysing Arteta’s time at the Emirates so far, the Spaniard has been forced to use various formations during different periods, one of which was the hybrid 3-4-3.

Whilst this system brought success in the 2020 FA Cup, it had an expiry date and was exploited to full effect by opposing sides in the first half of the 2020/2021 season.

But it was always a system that was forced upon the former assistant Manchester City coach due to having zero creative midfielders available to choose from.

When he has been given the tools to utilise a back four, sustained improvement over a large sample size of games is transparent, which stems all the way back to Boxing Day of 2020, which was the moment where Hale End Graduate Emile Smith Rowe was given a sensational opportunity to showcase his talent to the world.

Within Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the roles that every individual is tasked to perform is well known, but over the past two months, a slight change has been observed and perhaps it’s an indication of what the future looks like for this Arsenal team.

1) The double-pivot

Previously, the zones in which individuals occupy has been consistent during the build-up phase and when entering the opposition half.

Shown below are two frames in which Arsenal are structured with a double pivot, the first showing a 3-2-2-3 shape, consisting of a back three, two midfielders, two creators occupying the half-spaces and a front three who are positioned high and wide to promote depth, width and verticality.Screenshot-2022-02-17-at-19.02.44

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Many times this season, Arsenal have been forced to alter their shape due to the opposition pressing in a certain configuration, meaning that a more conservative structure has been deployed in order to establish a numerical superiority during the first phase, as shown in the second frame above.

Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the squad suggest that the team is tailor-made to a midfield pivot, especially in the presence of senior internationals Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka.

The two offer stability, transition control and also provide the underrated trait of being able to progress the ball into the final third, giving the forward line the platform to flourish.

Both Xhaka and Partey complement each other’s attributes and work swimmingly together in the engine room of the team, but recently Arteta has altered the dynamics by applying minor tweaks.

2) Coaching a flexible 4-3-3

Shown below was the setup primarily deployed against Norwich City at Carrow road and essentially what Arteta has favoured since the club’s three-nil victory over Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton back in December.

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The main discussion points are the positions occupied by Xhaka and left-back Kieran Tierney, with the former acting as one of two advanced midfielders whilst the latter is positioned deeper, alongside Partey and Ben White, creating the commonly referred to 4-3-3 formation.

The question regularly asked is ‘why has Arteta opted for this specific change?’ and the simple answer is to reduce the predictability Arsenal play with.

Predominantly, final third activity under Arteta heavily involves Tierney operating high and wide, creating natural width, opening up space for the left winger to drift infield and delivering threatening crosses into the mixer, which makes perfect sense as his strongest assets lie in advanced areas.

Whilst an effective pattern that saw Arsenal create chances, it became a fairly predictable sequence and one that the opposition were becoming increasingly confident in defending against as time passed by.

Dropping Tierney deeper into the midfield line however does exploit his weaknesses, which revolve around his struggles in offering ball progression during the first and second phases of play.

The former Celtic defender has a tendency of clearing the ball out of play or into ‘no man’s land’ under pressure which results in Arsenal effectively losing control.

Meanwhile, Xhaka occupying higher positions prevents the 29-year-old from utilising his biggest strengths, which involves quickening the transition from defence to attack by delivering line-breaking passes into forward areas.

Both Xhaka and Tierney are therefore currently at a disadvantage, however, it’s clear that Arteta wants to coach the team to be comfortable in this shape as the long term benefits are significant.

The 4-3-3 or 2-3-2-3 is a great tool to overwhelm the opposition with a plethora of attacking players and it provides multiple passing options to the player in possession because of the natural creation of progressive triangles, which in turn leads to the formation of overloads that can occur across all areas of the pitch.

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Picture taken from ‘The 4-3-3’

One simple example to illustrate this is the effect of the centre forward dropping deep, as shown in the frame below. Lacazette coming into midfield not only drags Ozan Kabak (Norwich centre back) out of position but also ensures that Arsenal have a 4 vs 3 in their favour, which allows Partey to progress play forward.

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The role of the two wingers, Bukayo Saka (not in the frame) and Martinelli also shouldn’t go unnoticed, who are both pinning the opposition full-backs by playing on the shoulder which creates spaces within the inside channels for the two number eights (Odegaard and Xhaka) to exploit.

For this system to be effective, wingers who thrive in isolation and are capable of accelerating past their full-back, preferably on the outside and inside, are key and from Arsenal’s perspective, Saka, Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe all possess these qualities.

The man operating at the base of a midfield three is arguably the most crucial player for the system to work and clearly, Arteta believes Partey is well equipped in performing this role at a high level and since being deployed as a number six, the Ghanaian hasn’t looked out of place.

Covering large spaces, shielding the two central defenders, applying aggression in advanced positions in order for control to be regained and offering ball progression are just a handful of the 28-year-old’s best attributes, all of which are required from the lone pivot.

When diving into the finer details, as previously mentioned only Xhaka and Tierney look relatively out of place, but Arteta clearly believes that the latter can become more polished on the ball and there’s no doubt that the Scottsman can improve in this aspect.

It wasn’t so long ago where Tierney was a crucial piece in Arsenal’s build-up during the 2020 FA Cup run in, where his long balls delivered down to channel for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to latch onto were instrumental to Arsenal scoring goals both in the semi-final and final against Manchester City and Chelsea.

What does need to be mentioned though is that whilst Tierney has predominantly been tasked with a deeper role, the 24-year-old does still have license to venture forward when opportunities arise and isn’t instructed to remain completely rigid, as shown below.

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So despite the common reference to the 4-3-3 in this article, depending on game state, Arsenal are alternating between two number eights and a double pivot.

It makes far more sense to assess the dynamics by focusing on zones as opposed to formations as it then becomes more apparent that there isn’t much difference between Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3.

Both setups naturally allow the north Londoners to revert back into a 4-4-2 mid-block out of possession and in terms of on the ball structure, changes only revolve around the positions occupied by the left-winger, left central midfielder and left-back.

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Regardless of what setup is deployed, the Gunners always have three slightly ahead of the two centre backs so that enough bodies are present to deal with counter-attacking situations along with a front five who are tasked with creativity and goal scoring.

3) Final thoughts

Positional play is heavily reliant on individuals who can influence proceedings in different zones, so success using this approach only comes in the presence of versatile players who have high levels of football intelligence and understand where to position themselves accordingly in order to create superiorities.

Interchanges between players can create serious panic for the opposition and it offers multiple avenues for chance creation, hence why the manager wants the team to be comfortable in different shapes.

Under Arteta’s stewardship, Tierney will become a more refined player, but with regards to Xhaka’s long term future, it does look increasingly likely that Arsenal are planning on transitioning away from his profile, despite the fact that the former Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder remains a crucial first-team player as of today.

Someone who has an athletic profile, excels in ball carrying, makes third man runs, presses with intensity, is technically secure between the lines, can cover large distances and has no issues in dropping into a pivot is required. 

A whole host of names have been linked and it will be interesting to see who Arteta targets.

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 previous articles.

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4 Responses to A Deeper dive into Mikel Arteta’s flexible long term system for his Arsenal

  1. Chris February 17, 2022 at 11:04 pm #

    A very intelligent piece again, many thanks!

  2. Felix February 18, 2022 at 12:47 am #

    This is great work.

    Flexibility, intelligence and adoptability are what we are looking for in CM to replace Xhaka.

    “Someone who has an athletic profile, excels in ball carrying, makes third man runs, presses with intensity, is technically secure between the lines, can cover large distances and has no issues in dropping into a pivot is required.”

    Seeing this, the best option is Bissouma. He is better at the lone 6 role, then we release Partey forward.

    Tielemans defending is a concern although he appears to tick all these boxes.

  3. semperfi February 18, 2022 at 8:35 am #

    Brilliant Article Rohan

  4. Aaron February 18, 2022 at 1:09 pm #

    Hi, it was brilliant article. According to you, which midfielder would we perfect for Arsenal?

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