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Could Tactical Flexibility Save Mikel Arteta at Arsenal?

By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)

I was on holiday on Friday so I didn’t manage to watch the game, but I heard Pablo Marì, Bernd Leno and Calum Chambers were particularly bad for Arsenal during their opening day defeat against Brentford. This doesn’t surprise me.

Over the course of pre-season, we’ve seen Mikel Arteta try to further evolve his team’s playing style. The emphasis on playing out from the back has continued, Arsenal’s defensive line has been notably high and attacking moves have appeared highly choreographed rather than free flowing.

Other than perhaps the final point, these are concepts which should entice a lover of modern day football. Building from deep and beating a press has been seen to be an extremely effective way of igniting attacks in recent years while high lines at the back enable teams to win the ball back quicker and sustain pressure. When executed properly, both tactical assets are very beneficial for a team.

However, players with the particular profiles to excel within these methodologies are often difficult to find, especially in the current Arsenal squad. The likes of Ben White, Gabriel and Thomas Partey are indeed well suited to these tactical concepts. Nonetheless, having just a handful of players who can play in this style isn’t sufficient.

To carry out these plans effectively and to optimum effect, every player in your XI, particularly in the defensive areas, needs to be suited to this style of play. Starting in goal.

Having a goalkeeper who is comfortable on the ball is essential in any high-quality possession-based system. This is best evidenced at Manchester City. Their goalkeeper, Ederson, has technical quality on the ball akin to some of the best outfield players in the world. This enables him to start moves for Guardiola’s side which is hugely important when trying to overcome an opposition press.

Bernd Leno’s distribution has unfortunately never been his strong point and that has been highlighted in recent years as the technical level of goalkeepers in the Premier League has increased. The German tends to panic under pressure and even without an opponent tearing down his throat his passing isn’t of superb quality. This in itself hampers Arsenal’s ability to build from deep.

Moving into defence, the issues grow stronger. Neither Pablo Marì nor Calum Chambers are poor on the ball. In fact, both players have shown signs of strong ability in this area of their games since Mikel Arteta’s arrival. However, their lack of pace damages Arteta’s vision of how he wants his team to play.

First of all, their lack of agility means beating an opponent is rarely an option when facing a press. And more importantly, their slowness makes operating with a high line significantly more risky.

Of course, deploying a high defensive line always leaves a defence susceptible to being exposed, but having quick defenders means recovery is a possibility when an opponent successfully gets behind a high line. Watching Marì and Chambers attempt to make recovery runs is desperately uncomfortable. Their lack of pace just makes them too unreliable when a high line is implemented.

There are further issues, too. Granit Xhaka and Hector Bellerìn have appeared to lack apt concentration levels in recent times when building from deep which has led to catastrophic possession turnover. This just isn’t good enough and such character issues make these sorts of players unreliable.

So, players who panic under pressure, personnel who lack a turn of pace and error-prone individuals straightforwardly don’t fit into Mikel Arteta’s tactical plans. The hard truth of the matter is that Arsenal have quite a few of these sort of players. The answer? Compromise.

New signings would doubtlessly nullify some of these issues, but it doesn’t appear to be the case that all areas of concern will be addressed in this window. Thus, even if he doesn’t like doing it, Mikel Arteta will have to be tactically flexible if he wants to keep his job.

That’s not to say all his tactical principles should be abandoned. When personnel enables them to, Arsenal should continue to pass it out from back rather than boot it long, they should play with a high line and they should persist with highly structure moves when they’re required. However, there is a time and a place for these tactics to be used.

For example, when Mikel Arteta has Pablo Marí in his starting lineup, the high line should simply be abandoned if opponents are seen to be targeting Marí due to this tactic. This is not a sign of a manager folding on his principles, this is a sign of a manager being tactically astute.

As for within the offensive phase of play, when Mikel Arteta’s team is lacking in technical quality in forward areas, other means of pressurising opposition should be prioritised over structured moves. This could be achieved via adopting a counter-attacking style or an effective high press.

Regardless of whether Arsenal manage to bring in some technical attacking players in the coming weeks, more variety going forward is absolutely required if they are to score more goals. Introducing this will improve Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal and therefore increase his job security.

If Mikel Arteta is to keep his job at Arsenal, he must add some attractive sides and complimentary dishes to his rather bland meal of an Arsenal team. It’s all far too rigidly structured and predictable. There is a damning need for a plan B, C, D etc.

Unfortunately, if he doesn’t add some tactical flexibility to his current Arsenal team, Mikel Arteta’s days are numbered as Arsenal boss. Now more than ever, Arteta needs to accommodate to the tools that he has at his disposal.

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