“What is the realistic target for Arsenal and Mike Arteta this season?” If you asked to an Arsenal fan before the season started(or the summer transfer window ended), the most common answer might have been 6th place in the league and getting back into the Europa League.
It doesn’t sound particularly ambitious considering that Arsenal are supposed to be a member of “big 6”, but it is understandable. Arsenal finished 8th in the past two consecutive seasons and going from no Europe straight to the Champions League seemed like a long shot at that point.
It was the consensus of those who work in the football industry, too. In fact, in their season prediction piece in August, none of the 20 BBC pundits predicted Arsenal will be in top 4.
Fast forward to April 2022, with 9 games to go, Arsenal are sitting 5th in the league table but tied with points with their archrival Tottenham Hotspur and have a game in hand.
So far this season, Arsenal have won 17 games, drawn 3 and lost 9, amassing 54 points on the way(the same points per match rate would see Arsenal getting 70 points for the whole season).
Of course, they are not perfect and there is still some way to go, but it feels like Arsenal and Mikel Arteta are finally making a (big) progress.
So what has allowed Arsenal to transform into a top 4 contender from a mid table side, and what are the most significant changes they made? Let’s have a look.
First of all, it sounds very basic but the biggest difference between Arsenal this season and Arsenal in the past few seasons is the players.
For example, roughly one year ago in April, against Liverpool, Arsenal fielded Lacazette, Aubameyang, Odegaard, Pepe, Partey, Ceballos, Chambers, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney and Leno as their starting 11.
If you compare the lineup to Arsenal’s recent(and pretty fixed too, other than Martinelli/Smith Rowe and Tomiyasu/Cedric) eleven, Less than half of them have kept their places in the starting 11.
This dramatic change of personnel was enabled by a mixture of the rapid rise and development of young talents who were already at Arsenal, such as Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli, and a very good summer transfer window with the acquisition of several premier-league-ready players.
New summer signing trio of White, Tomiyasu and Ramsdale cemented their places at Arsenal very quickly and transformed our defence. Thomas Partey, who was in and out of the team last season has finally found consistency and become a key part of Arsenal’s midfield. The former captain Aubameyang was replaced by Martinelli/Smith Rowe, and both have already scored more premier league goals than Auba. Some worried that the penalty miss at the EURO final might affect Saka’s performance this season, but he has come back stronger and is even a better player than he was last season, keeping Pepe out of the team in every single game.
Odegaard was already at the club one year ago, but at the time he was on loan from Real Madrid and only supposed to stay until the end of last season. He too has stepped up a level this season and it looks like finally finding a place he can call home has really helped.
It is no secret that Arsenal are trying to sign a quality striker and midfielder this summer, and there is a need for more squad depth in order to compete in Europe. But in almost all the other areas, Arsenal already have really good players, and it has been reflected in their performances and the results.
The Right Balance Between Offence and defence
This change of personnel allowed Mikel Arteta to solve one of the biggest problems he had to face since he was appointed as Arsenal manager(initially a head coach). The balance between offence and defence.
When he came to Arsenal, the first thing he did was to fix the team’s defence. It came as a surprise to some, as Mikela Arteta learned under Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola two of the finest attacking coach of the era. But when you think back to his playing days at Arsenal, maybe we should not have been too surprised.
When Arteta singed for Arsenal, he was immediately thrown into the Arsenal midfield with Ramsey and Frimpong. His task was to somehow keep Arsenal’s defence reasonably solid, without pretty much any help from the others. He must have known the importance of organised and structured defence better than anyone else.
As an Arsenal manager, Arteta initially used back 3(5) for quite a long time. He seemed to prioritise the team’s defense quite often. This approach worked well in one-off cup ties and actually won him a trophy, but in league games, particularly against mid to lower table oppositions, it showed its limits and it was clear that the sharpness of Arsenal’s attack was sacrificed for defensive solidity.
This is backed up by stats too. There is a sharp drop in both goals and expected goals since Arteta took over,
However, Arteta has managed to get the attacking firepower back up again without disturbing the defensive solidity he installed to the team. Many of the stats related to the team’s overall offensive performance such as shots per 90 have been steadily increasing this season. The trajectory is very clear.
Prior to this summer Arsenal only had two adept defenders in Gabriel and Tierney and Ramsdale, White and Tomiyasu were the necessary pieces for this change.
Previously Arsenal only had defenders who were not very reliable in 1v1 situations. Mustafi, Sokratis, David Luiz, Chambers, Kolasinac, and maybe to a lesser extent Bellerin.
In order to provide cover for these defenders, Arsenal had to have an extra defender. They tended to struggle in quick transitions and against premier league’s speedy attackers.
It always seemed that Arteta’s dream formation was 4-3-3 and having three centre backs (even though one of them tended to be Tierney) in the team was not really what the manager ideally wanted, but rather, it was a compromise in order to stabilise the shaky defence.
Having the back four of Tierney Gabriel White and Tomiyasu , who are quicker,much more switched on than their predecessors, and able to cover much larger spaces has enabled Arsenal to keep a higher defensive line. They all boast a good recovery pace and they don’t lose many duels. Even when they are isolated, the opposing attacker is not guaranteed to go clean through on goal. They allow Arsenal to take more risks when attacking, and now they can send more players to the opposition box.
In addition, having attackers with a very high work rate such as Odegaard and Martinelli is also helping to keep the balance of the team. They create chances and score goals but they are never Arsenal’s defensive holes.
Another significant part of Arteta’s Arsenal rebuild is the cultural reset of the club. His strictness and the way Arteta managed some players caused a lot of debate among Arsenal fans, but this season it is clear that the culture he manage to install at the club has brought some benefits.
In his playing days, Arteta often emphasised the importance of being at Arsenal, how much it should mean to play at the club. The general principle hasn’t changed even after he became Arsenal manager.
In his very first press conference, Arteta observed, from outside it looks like Arsenal lost its way a little, and stressed the importance of having the “right culture.”
In his reign at Arsenal, “culture” “discipline” “100%” and “attitude” have been keywords and they are recurring themes that Arteta has kept coming back to.
While Arteta and Arsene Wenger seem to share some common traits, in this aspect they are very different. The latter was often criticised for being too nice to the player. In contrast, Arteta has always kept a strong stance
Under Arteta, for disciplinary reasons, players such as Guendouzi, Ozil, and Aubameyang were exiled and they eventually left the club.
This is actually quite a high risk approach from a rookie manager because If you lose trust from star players of the team, you can’t be 100% sure that other players would be on your side. It backfired for Unai Emery and he lost the locker room(and his job).
Also, in football world ultimately everything is judged by the results and even if some players have problematic attitudes, if keeping them out of the team meant losing matches and points, the manager would inevitably receive a lot of criticisms.
Arteta, who must have been aware of the risk, however, stuck to his belief and managed to build a good team with the players who are on board with his philosophy and ideas. Some fans speculated that stripping Aubameyang off captaincy and keeping him out of the team might have negative influence on players like Lacazette and Pepe. But even after Aubameyang left, the players’ faith in the manager did not seem to be shaken, and Lacazette was given the armband, which must mean that there is mutual trust between him and the manager.
In March, the Evening Standard reported that Arteta comes to the training ground one hour before everyone is supposed to, which are having positive influence on players, and some of them are following suit. It is very difficult to quantify these benefits, but the effects of having a more disciplined team and good spirit around the team seem to be showing on the pitch.
Arsenal fans can sense that Arsenal are different this season, and everyone else in English football has started to notice, too.
Mikel Arteta is the youngest manager in the premier league and Arsenal have the youngest playing squad in the premier league. Both the players and the manager, they might make a mistake but they have time to learn. When you look at the league table it is evident that Mikel Arteta learnt from the past two seasons.
Patience is in short supply in the modern era of football world but you should not forget, sometimes it does pay off.
Arsenal fan and football journalist in Japan. Used to live in northern England. Very interested in football data analytics and gardening.