Prior to the 2021/2022 season commencing, a place in Europe was the objective for Arsenal as this would signal improvement when compared to previous league finishes under the stewardship of Mikel Arteta.
But with ten games remaining, his side are now in pole position to finish in one of those all-important Champions League spots at this time of writing.
It’s a surprise to the majority as the expectation was that Arsenal would suffer yet another disappointing league campaign, with both Arteta and technical director Edu criticised immensely for the recruitment strategy taken.
But with the Gunners now entering the business end of the season, it’s fair to say that each summer signing has been a huge hit so far, with Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White and Martin Odegaard all delivering stellar impacts and have responded to their critics in emphatic fashion.
The summer acquisitions have allowed Arteta to mould the team into one that representing his form of positional play (full piece on Arteta’s version of Juego de Posición can be accessed HERE), with the masses beginning to understand what the Spaniard’s blueprint really is.
From a defensive perspective, the former Manchester City coach immediately upon arrival installed a sustainable defensive structure, ensuring that players across the backline weren’t exposed in transition, something that was a common pattern under both Unai Emery and towards the latter stages of Arsene Wenger’s rein in north London.
The key taking point here is that Arteta has made Arsenal far more robust, but without adopting a negative brand of football, which in other words is implementing defensive stability without being a defensive side.
Final third activity however is where frustrations have predominately lied amongst the ever opinionated fanbase, with many arguing that there was far too much reliance on Kieran Tierney to be the sole driving force.
Attract pressure towards the right-hand side, deliver a quick diagonal switch where space has now opened up on the opposite flank before the former Celtic full-back executes a cutback or an aerial ball from the wide channel.
Whilst an effective chance creation pattern, it was far too predictable, which allowed the opposition to become more comfortable in dealing with these situations as time passed by.
This has led to Arteta applying a slight tweak to the overall dynamics that has seen Tierney positioned deeper, tasked with greater responsibility in the build-up phase and when opportunities arise to create an overload, the Scotsmen will make late overlaps as opposed to being stationed on the last line and essentially acting as the team’s left-winger in possession.
The other noticeable change is the zones former club captain Granit Xhaka is occupying.
Previously, ball progression from the left flank came through the Swiss international’s feet, breaking multiple lines of structure from deep through the use of tremendous passing characteristics.
Since Arsenal’s victory over Southampton in December, however, the former Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder is operating further forward, making inside runs to create space for the nearby left-winger (Gabriel Martinelli or Emile Smith Rowe) and is effectively acting as a left-sided number eight predominantly.
The aforementioned tweaks have promoted greater wide rotations through the left-hand side, thereby enabling the Gunners to become far more unpredictable in the attacking third.
Certainly, this is one reason to explain Arsenal’s rise in attacking form but arguably one of the biggest differences observed throughout the course of this season is the improved box quality, which is what this piece will now focus on.
1) Pragmatic nature
A tactically astute manager is someone who can adapt their own structure in a way that mitigates the opposition’s main strengths and exploits clear weaknesses, whilst maintaining the advocated footballing philosophy.
In other words, an element of pragmatism is required in order to succeed at the top level and Arteta has demonstrated this particular trait countlessly, with the former Arsenal captain’s ability to successfully tinker his team’s build-up shape an example to show this.
Whether it’s deploying a 2-4-4, 2-3-3-2 or a 3-2-5 formation in possession, the Spaniard has altered his setup accordingly to counter the oppositions pressing structure, so that ball progression past the first phase is a possibility.
There are many fundamentals however that remain identical, one of which is utilising a 2-3-5 shape inside the final third, consisting of three players in front of the two centre backs and a front five who are tasked with creativity and goal scoring.
Attacking with five and defending with five gives a healthy balance of showing offensive intent, but also having enough numbers in a slightly deeper position relative to the forward line to help sustain pressure and cut off the volume of potential transitions.
Continuity in this shape is visible, yet somehow Arsenal weren’t as dangerous when the ball was eventually transitioned into the 18-yard area previously.
But throughout the current campaign, however, there has been a noticeable change, which is flooding the box at a higher rate once a cutback or cross is delivered into the mixer and there’s a clear methodology behind the positioning of each player in these moments.
2) Consistent patterns
Shown below is a simple breakdown of Martin Odegaard’s goal against Watford, in Arsenal’s 3-2 victory over The Hornets at Vicarage Road.
Immediately, what can be seen is the right-hand side trio of Cedric Soares, Odegaard and Bukayo Saka.
Usually, the formation of these progressive triangles consists of one player maintaining the width, another player who takes up the inside space, whilst the third player is positioned in-between the aforementioned two, but in a slightly deeper zone.
The player occupying the inside channel (Odegaard in this case) is usually instructed to maintain the fluidity of the attack by playing one-touch passes, which is exactly what the Norwegian does in this instance with a clever back-heel to Saka, who now has space to attack because of the quick interplay between the two.
As the ball is carried into the final third, Saka eventually delivers a cutback for the onrushing Odegaard to latch onto and finish.
Notice the positions occupied by the five individuals and the roles assigned.
Saka is the ball carrier, tasked with delivering quality when the perfect opportunity arises and Alexandre Lacazette’s forward run is pushing the two Watford centre backs deeper, which widens the gap between the defensive and midfield line, thereby allowing two midfielders (Odegaard and Xhaka) to take up smart positions between the lines to receive cutbacks.
To complete this structure, Martinelli can be seen hovering around the back post and is in a strong position to pounce on anything that could potentially come his way as the farside Watford forward (Cucho Hernández) is trying to keep tabs on Xhaka, which allows Arsenal’s number 35 to operate in space.
Both Saka and Lacazette are the key men in this sequence since their movement is opening up advantageous pockets of spaces for the creative midfielders to exploit and Odegaard certainly doesn’t disappoint when given the chance to deliver a killer impact.
Another example to illustrate Arsenal showing consistency in team structure once a cross is delivered from the wide areas is in the north Londoners’ 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford.
Odegaard yet again the man on the scoresheet for Arsenal and there are plenty of similarities between his goal highlighted above and the one converted against Manchester United.
The initial phase sees Arsenal build through the left-hand side, with Smith Rowe occupying the inside channel and playing a quick pass into Thomas Partey’s feet.
Under Arteta, there is a huge emphasis on attracting pressure towards one area of the pitch before quickly switching the play as larger spaces are present on the opposite flank, which is exactly what happens in this situation.
Manchester United are trying to mitigate the Gunners’ ability to progress through the centre of their block, which means that the areas to take advantage of are out wide and Partey recognises this by delivering an inch-perfect line-breaking pass towards the wide area.
Operating as a right-winger, Martinelli receives the ball from the Ghanaian International in acres of space and drills a precise pass into Odegaard’s feet, who finishes the move off brilliantly.
Notice the consistency in previous mechanics already described in this piece below.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang forward run pushes the Manchester United backline closer towards David De Gea, thereby opening up space between the lines for both Odegaard and Smith Rowe to exploit, whilst Nuno Tavares in this situation arrives at the back post.
Even against the elite sides within the division, Arsenal have managed to implement these core principles successfully and create promising openings, with Saka’s goal against Manchester City on New Year’s Day providing evidence to support this claim and the following diagrams gives further details on the passage of play.
3) Final thoughts
Flooding the box intelligently was noticeable in spells last season, but the frequency at which this is happening has increased and the numerical data displayed below shows this.
The bar chart provides a relationship between the average number of attackers in the box with respect to the number of open play box shots per game.
Not only do Arsenal rank high in terms of the number of strikes at goal inside the 18-yard area, but the Gunners are also filling the box with just under 2.6 attackers on average when these shots occur.
Unsurprisingly, Bayern Munich are in a league of their own when it comes to overwhelming the opposition with attacking players in Julian Nagelsmann’s 3-1-6 structure and the reasoning behind using these heavy overloads is that the probability of rebounds, first and second balls falling to forward players becomes significantly higher.
It’s also imperative that both the midfield and defensive line remain within close proximity to the frontline in order to prevent the opposition from playing out from the back with ease and evading pressure.
This is what has been witnessed with Arsenal and why players like White, Gabriel Magalhaes and Partey are integral cogs to the team’s ability to camp the opposing side deep within their own third, thereby allowing the players ahead to produce flair and magic.
The aforementioned trio all excel in winning duels high up the pitch and are very comfortable in retreating back into a defensive position when necessary.
Certainly, Arsenal are beginning to show a plethora of fluidity in advanced areas and continuity in team selection has played a pivotal role in allowing this to happen.
Players are becoming fully aware of what to do at any given moment depending on where the ball is, the zones teammates are occupying and how the opposition have lined up, which has essentially enabled quicker rotations, more frequent switches of play and a rise in the general speed of play.
Despite the clear progression, there are still upgradable opportunities within the starting eleven and signing a top-class centre forward undoubtedly takes the team up to a far greater level.
Whilst Arsenal have shown encouraging signs inside the opponent box over a large sample size, deficiencies are still visible when facing the elite and look no further back to the clubs defeat to Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium last week.
A game that was incredibly competitive but one that was decided by the quality inside the box.
Lacazette’s inability to attack the near post with conviction meant that Martinelli’s service from out wide wasn’t rewarded.
On the other hand, Roberto Firmino’s proactive nature with his smart but simple movement allowed The Reds to kill the game of, with the Brazillian international yet again adding to his goal tally against the Gunners.
Arteta is well aware that the striker situation is a problem and it will definitely be addressed in the summer window, with the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Alexander Isak and Victor Osimhen all linked with moves to N5.
Champions League football will dictate the calibre of centre forward Arsenal will be able to attract, despite the size of the football club and all eyes will be on who the Arsenal manager favours to lead the line in the near future.
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.
24-year-old Gooner who loves talking and writing about football