Arteta and Asymmetry: A Formational Love Story
By Max Mishcon
Every hour before the mighty Gunners kick off, us as Arsenal fans partake in an almost unconscious ritual in which we mentally and physically prepare ourselves for a lineup that will invoke a deep sense of puzzlement and perplexment. This has never been more true since Arteta’s arrival - from his frighteningly persistent inclusion of Willian, to his reluctance to promote youth players - his selections can set a tone of frustration amongst the fanbase before a ball has even been kicked.
Personnel aside, Arteta is particularly unique, this season especially, in how he sets up the structure of his side, often opting to choose a formation which is asymmetrical in shape. Let’s take a dive and assess Arsenal’s success when using said asymmetrical formations… or lack thereof.
Now, before you question my tactical prowess, I’m no stranger to asymmetrical formations, case in point my FM save with Borussia Mönchengladbach:
From this save and limited knowledge of football tactics, I’ve found two main strengths of asymmetrical formations: Firstly, it is set up to immediately create overloads in areas of opponent’s weaknesses, in possession and in transition especially. Secondly, and the main reason why Arteta utilises it so often, it is able to directly serve a team’s various strengths.
The main weakness, which can easily outweigh the two strengths, is that it can lead to serious imbalance throughout the entire side, especially evident in build-up play and in transition.
With that being said, let me take you back to the darkest of times: the 3-0 loss at home to Aston Villa, but how did our strange shape set us up to fail?
This has been generally touted as an asymmetric 3-4-3, with Tierney playing as a hybrid CB/LWB. Striking out immediately is the lack of a focal point, with Lacazette’s average position deeper that Partey’s. This prevented us from creating fluid passages of play, forcing us to consistently go sideways, destroying any potential intensity in an attack.
Arteta aimed to utilise arguably our three best players in Tierney, Saka and Aubameyang in order to create an overload on the left hand side, aiming to impose fear into Villa’s right-hand side comprised of Trezeguet and Matty Cash.
This was clearly a poor decision by Arteta: Trezeguet has completed an impressive 3.3 tackles and interceptions per 90 this season, compared to the average Premier League winger’s 2.19, along with Matty Cash who completes 4.82, compared to the average Premier League full-back’s 3.44. This is clearly a defensively strong right-hand side which was difficult to break down. Had we overloaded Villa’s left-hand side involving Jack Grealish and Matt Targett and their inferior 1.55 and 3.77 tackles and interceptions per 90, respectively, we would have found much more joy going forward.
It should be noted that tackles and interceptions don’t paint nearly the complete picture of a player’s defensive capabilities, but when put into context it’s a pretty reliable indicator.
Dean Smith exploited our unusual shape in the second half, as Watkins’ two goals both came from counter-attacks from our right-hand side. This left Bellerin exposed and a victim to the inevitable Jack Grealish. Had Arteta set us up in a shape that offered him more protection, we might not have had our pants pulled down in transition.
From shocking to slightly less shocking, what went wrong against Everton? (minus Leno’s blunder)
As I’ve attempted to make out, this can be interpreted as an asymmetrical 4-3-3, looking again to overload Everton’s left-hand side. This limits 3 players from the get-go: You’d want Ceballos and Smith Rowe’s roles reversed, with Ceballos able to recycle possession should Chambers be stuck out-wide with no other options, and Smith Rowe darting into the half-space, a pass available for Pépé to make given the angle of a left-footer playing on the left.
Furthermore, as we know from his time on the right as well, Pépé is most effective when he is drifting centrally, with the full-back overlapping in order to create the space inside - with Xhaka operating as a hybrid CB/LB/CM, this isn’t possible.
Defensively this also failed. Likewise against Villarreal, Ceballos’ lack of athleticism left Partey exposed in the middle, struggling to break down attacks with so much space for Everton exploit either side of him.
I just can’t help but think a more orthodox formation would have served us better against Ancelloti’s pragmatic Everton.
Enough doom and gloom, though. We cruised to a 3-1 win against Leicester despite using an asymmetrical shape. Our tactical approach was brilliantly dissected already by my fellow writer, Vinay Shankar, this little analysis will focus on the shape specifically though:
Going forward we attacked with much more vigour and purpose and played to our strengths: ESR and Willian attacked the half-space profusely causing Leicester’s backline lots of problems, with Tierney and Cedric providing the width allowing this to occur. Elneny and Xhaka’s jobs were kept to a minimum out of possession, needing only to screen the back four. Lacazette played well too, with the aforementioned runs of ESR and Willian allowing him to drop in and link play.
Most notably, Pépé’s outlying position conveys his atypical role this game, as he seemed to flourish in his more free role. Cedric’s overlapping run allowed him to drift inside, often drawing out the Foxes’ defenders, allowing for a ball in behind - something we didn’t use to our advantage in the game against Everton.
Despite there being a slight emphasis on the left hand side, notice the increased balance in the overall shape; Mari’s pinged passes and Luiz’s trusty distribution also laid the foundation for an assured performance.
We’ve looked at the ugly, the bad and the good; all see us use an unorthodox shape with varying degrees of success. The one thing I’ve taken away from this analysis is that Arteta is more successful when he keeps it simple. The optimist in me is quite disappointed by this, but the realist is telling me that we must accept Arteta is an infant in terms of his managerial career, he is very much learning on the job. Complex systems like this blossom over months, years sometimes.
It’s less a case of an instant lightbulb moment and more a case of us having to screw the lightbulb on properly, make sure the electrics in the home are running smoothly, tweaking the bulb should anything fault.
It’s, dare I say it, a process.
So, next time Arsenal inevitably lose a football match, have a look at the average positions and you will most likely find a shape made up of 11 completely uncoordinated points.