It has been a frustrating week for Arsenal supporters, which saw a second half capitulation at home to a Brighton team, who themselves had been humiliated by Everton only days previously. The weak display at the Emirates was hard to explain, coming after such a magnificent, robust, and essentially strong outing at St James, only a week before.
One must feel that psychologically it was difficult for the Arsenal players on Sunday, having seen Man City beat the Toffees immediately prior, effectively, if not mathematically securing the Premier League. This is not me excusing the loss to the Seagulls, but more seeking to explain it. Arteta himself has seen fit to apologise to the fans for his team, which, tells us how he feels.
The aftermath, however, after the immediate disappointment has been a mixture of anger at the media ignoring and forgetting that Man City are facing 115 charges, while their collectively fawn over Pep, combined with enormous pride that our young, in experienced, unfancied team, went toe to toe with the petro-dollar constructed behemoth for 35 matches, while all others failed to do so.
What has struck me, particularly in recent weeks was how, at the business end of the season, even facing double the fixtures of Arsenal, Guardiola has been able to rotate without weakening, whilst Arteta, has not been able to do so. Now, this may seem to be me stating the blindingly obvious and were it solely about the quality of City’s squad depth, you would of course be quite correct. However, that evident fact, whist annoying is understood, and while offering Pep and his team an unfair advantage, is not the whole story, and not what is bothering me.
No, the observation, which is troubling me, is more around the fact that City’s unfair (allegedly illegal,) advantage in squad building enables Pep to not only rotate players, whist barely diminishing his team on the pitch, but also to rotate and alter formations and structures. It is here, in my humble opinion at least, where Arteta and Arsenal have fallen down, and what I hope they will be able to address this summer.
Against Arsenal, in a must win match a few weeks ago, Guardiola reverted to a back 4, with Stones at centre back and Walker in his more accustomed right back role. The line-up was a 433 to beat his rivals, but in each match subsequently, including this week’s demolition of Madrid, he has played more of a 3,2,4,1 formation, with Walker on the right of the 3 defenders and Stones at the base of the midfield. The quality of player the the experienced Spaniard had been able to buy, affords him such adaptability.
Many of the finest managers over the years have adapted their formations and tactics based on the strengths of their opposition. The approach of suggesting ‘that a team should play their own game and let their opposition worry about them’ is one only afforded for the very best of teams, and Arsenal are not that yet. Even Wenger, who operated consistently with a 442/4411 domestically in the glory years, would adapt to a 451 in Europe against quality sides. Arteta has adapted structures and styles during his tenure, but seldom match to match, and only occasionally in game.
This may be his inexperience, but it may also be that he has not yet completed his squad building, still utilizing players purchased but others. By the end of this summer, I suspect there will be no one in his rotation, outside of home grown, and Martinelli, not purchased by him.
Any obvious and interesting example is that of Kieran Tierney and there are 2 ways to look at his situation this past season. On the one side, having decided on his 4123 formation, with 2 8’s Arteta has played with an inverted left back, Zinchenko to support Partey and help progression and build up play. Because of this decision, when the Ukrainian has been unavailable, he has asked Tierney to fulfill the exact same role in the team structure. The Scot has different attributes, and because of this approach, the team is weakened by his presence. The alternative approach, and one I suspect Pep would have taken, would be to tweak the approach, perhaps play a deeper 2-man midfield, and allow Tierney to play box to box out wide and to his obvious strengths, defending and overlapping.
The fact that Arteta finally did this in the second half against Newcastle and against Brighton might offer us a pointer to this summer’s transfer business and a new tactical flexibility, allowed by the final few pieces in his squad building jigsaw.
Targeting younger more mobile and athletic central midfielders like Rice and Caicedo, whilst allowing his on-pitch general, Granit Xhaka to leave, I hope suggests and affords him, more flexibility. Such players along with Partey, allows Arteta to play a 4231, with a more conventional left back is he sees that as the best option, or indeed if Zinchenko is injured, as his customarily is for 25% of the season. Or, even with the Ukrainian playing he can ask him to operate as a more conventional left back, save in the knowledge that a more mobile and yet still highly technical double pivot can cope.
Whilst Jorghino is on hell of a technician, like Xhaka before him, when played deeply on their own, their lack of pace and mobility can be a huge hindrance. It is why Arteta has moved the Swiss skipper forward and played to his strengths and mitigated for his weaknesses. This has been a success and given Xhaka a fabulous swansong as a Gunner, but the signing of younger, swifter models will offer Arteta more room for manoeuvre in how he sets his team up next season. The debate seems to be who will play 6 and who will play 8 when the fans discuss Caicedo and Rice, but surely the debate could also be whether their might rotate with Partey and Jorghino in a 2-man midfield, with Odegaard operation as a sole 10? We all know that technical excellence on its own is not enough for Arteta, as he wants tactical flexibility and football intelligence too.
I hope that the club back Edu and Arteta over the summer and that we manage to secure the bulk of our main targets early on, to give our manager a true pre-season with his new stars, to try out different formations. I for one, would love to see Tierney stay, but if he wishes to go, and we do opt to cash in, I would sooner we went for a second left back with differing qualities to Zinchenko rather than a replica. I would love to see Arteta have the squad to opt for alternative structures against the stronger opponents, when a defending left back takes precedence over one who can join the midfield, because we have a midfield strong enough on their own.
I am fairly sure the majority may not agree but the age profile and qualities of the central midfielders we seem to be targeting certainly allow Arteta to mix and match between a 4231 and 4123, both match to match and during matches with far greater assurance than the squad age and profile allows at present.
Time will tell as the window evolve but we have 2 games to win this season first – COYG!
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.
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