Analysing Arsenal's positional play under Mikel Arteta
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
From the time Mikel Arteta arrived at London Colney to the time I write this opening two hours before Arsenal travel to Goodison Park to take on Everton, our club has undergone some pretty significant changes. We've had monumental highs and catastrophic lows, said goodbye to the last figureheads of the Wenger era and welcomed in a new age at the Emirates, and genuinely turned the whole team upside down.
Some things, though, have remained the same, specifically concerning Mikel Arteta, and his coaching style. From the off, we have heard our former captain demand high-intensity play, intricate passing sequences, and rigid, unified defending. All of these tenets of Arteta's Arsenal revolve around one central component: positional play.
Taken from his time at Manchester City—which came before Pep's outfit became what I love to call the Pinwheel of Doom, with five attacking players constantly rotating across the front lines—Arteta's biggest demand on the squad has been to improve their positioning. Regardless of the phase of play, the Spaniard demands that the team follow their tactical brief to the letter. It is a strategy that both aims to unify the team and overwhelm an opponent, and it works.
The past two fixtures have put a bit of a damper on that thought. I say the past two because I just got done watching Arsenal fall deservedly to Everton, and I'm still fuming. If I'm honest, though, I don't particularly fault the players for these two recent losses. We have dropped six points, albeit away from home, in entirely winnable matches because we have fallen victim to over-reliance on our tactics.
Against Manchester United, we sat back in a low block and defended after the opening goal. In that setup, we attempted to form two low blocks of four, which United neatly circumvented in much the same way Arsenal often try to do, by drawing out the midfield and attacking the spaces. However, Arteta's tactics do not offer enough individuality in situations like this: players are coached to retain position rather than stepping out and challenging for the ball.
Therefore, whenever a player does step out to make a challenge or cut out a passing lane, the team consistently fails to fill in the gaps behind him. If the challenge is unsuccessful, as is often the case, the opposition are granted a lovely little pocket of space in a dangerous area. Repeat the process two or three times, and your defence crumbles.
Our squad's reliance on positional play was also at fault for all three of the goals we conceded at Old Trafford. Fernandes made an admittedly brilliant run into the box, but it was completely unmarked—stupid—and the cross into him came as a result of Arsenal sticking to their positions rather than countering a wide overload—stupid.
The second and third goals were even more repulsive, for much the same reasons. Both Fred and Ronaldo were untracked by Arsenal's defensive midfielders for United's second goal, and Martin Ødegaard was only forced to commit a nasty, last-ditch challenge because Fred was given the space to run into the box, untracked, by Mohamed Elneny, whose very job it is to track runs like that. At least, it should be his job.
We saw much of the same against Everton. Constant failure to press as a unit and track runners left consistent spaces for the Toffees to counter, especially when Richarlison drifted out to the left flank to double up with Demarai Gray. They, along with Andros Townsend, used their pace to spread our back four apart upon the instances when our midfield turned the ball over, and we were too rigidly structured to adapt to that particular threat. Had a few offside calls gone the other way, it could have been three or four to one, quite easily.
Demarai Gray's movement was especially hard for Arsenal to deal with. Richarlison's goal was caused because of a failure to stop the tricky Englishman, whose shot ricocheted past the hapless Ramsdale, who was similarly helpless when Everton's summer signing was left in a very similar space—he made Arsenal pay a second time then. Nobody stepped to tackle Gray in either instance, which is indicative of coaching, especially given the extent to which Arsenal have been unable to defend aggressively this season.
As I said, previously, Arteta's demand for positional discipline aims to unify the team and overwhelm an opponent. But if I'm honest, I think it tends to make individual moments of quality harder to come by, and tends to actually minimise the positive characteristics of many within our squad. Martin Ødegaard is the player who comes to mind today, given the shift he put in at Goodison Park, but it's a scenario that has cropped up repeatedly this season.
Take Bukayo Saka. The more freedom he has within a team, and the more he is allowed to drift and create on his own accord, the better effect he has on the team. Take his recent goal against Newcastle, where he abandoned his post on the right flank to interchange on the left, creating a flowing move he eventually finished, as a perfect example.
However, I feel Saka is often too isolated from the rest of the team because he constantly hugs the touchline. So much of his quality could be used in transitions through the middle, but because his tactical instructions have him pegged out on the flank, the first outlet pass is often unable to come off, because teams study that formation and anticipate the move.
That is my biggest grouse with Arteta's overemphasis on positional play. I think it makes us defensively legible, offensively stale, and lures the players into a slightly false sense of security. It also tends to make the team, as a whole entity, less creative and less spontaneous, which often works against us building momentum or dominating a game. In his search for perfection, Arteta is making an enemy of the good.
Though I am not "Arteta Out," and never will be, I'm slightly apprehensive that he is looking under the wrong rocks in his search for success. As has been the case since he took charge, he has become his own worst enemy somewhat, and is yet again in hot water when it comes to finding success. If he can turn things around, excellent. But that would require change within his own style, and I'm unsure if that will ever come while he is still Arsenal boss.