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How will Arteta look to revive Arsenal post-international break?

By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)

The signing of Japanese defender Takehiro Tomiyasu has shed some much-needed light on one of the darkest period’s in Arsenal Football Club’s history. 3 games into the league season, Arsenal sit rock bottom of the Premier League table off the back of a string of demoralising defeats. Understandably, public opinion on Mikel Arteta has hit an all-time low.

Nevertheless, following a Summer in which Arsenal invested £160 million into their squad to help Arteta rebuild his team, it appears unlikely the Spaniard will be given his marching orders just yet. The task for him is to turn the tide, again. It won’t be easy and it’d unfortunately be unsurprising if Arteta failed to revive his hopes of being a success as Arsenal boss.

However, Arteta does currently have a much stronger squad than the one he had last season. It’s significantly better than the one he inherited when he was named Arsenal Head Coach in December 2019. If he does manage to cling on to his job for the remainder of the 21/22 campaign, there will be an expectancy from the Arsenal board that Arteta delivers a bare minimum of a top six finish.

In order to turn the tide, Arteta does not need to tear up the hymnbook he has been singing off in 2021 so far. Amid the doom and gloom of May’s dismal Europa League exit; another 8th placed Premier League finish, this time resulting in a failure to qualify for European football; and a pathetic beginning to the 21/22 campaign, there has been reason for a semblance of optimism.

Arsenal improved substantially during the second half of the 20/21 season, evidenced by Arteta’s side's strong form in the Premier League. This was in part due to a profitable system which Arteta stumbled upon following Martin Ødegaard’s January arrival. The structure enabled the aforementioned Norweigan to thrive in the half-spaces alongside Emile-Smith Rowe, with Thomas Partey also adopting a commanding role in the engine room.

Arteta will look to emulate such a set-up after the season’s first international break. With the likes of Gabriel, Ben White and Thomas Partey expected to return to full fitness, there is no reason why Arteta shouldn’t be able to do this. New signing Takehiro Tomiyasu should also strengthen Arsenal’s hand in regard to performing well in such a system.

Above you see how broadcasters will portray Arsenal’s system in the build-up to games. A simple 4-2-3-1 formation with Emile Smith Rowe shifting out to the left flank and Tomiyasu slotting in at right-back. In reality, when Arsenal have the ball, they won’t play like this at all.

In possession, Arsenal operate in a system best described as an asymmetrical 3-2-5/2-3-5 as depicted below. The key take-aways from this are the positioning of Kieran Tierney, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard. Each player is allowed to operate in areas which best suit their strengths.

In practice, Tierney bombs so far forward when Arsenal have the ball that he plays left-wing. This was seen as an effective strategy prior to his injury at the back end of last season. So far this campaign, Arteta has been far too dependent on the Scot to deliver attacking fruits to his side. If Arsenal are to improve post-international break, a portion of this attacking onus must be taken away from Tierney.

If Arteta does manage to add some balance back to Arsenal’s attack, the importance behind the the recapturing of Ødegaard’s services will be vivid. A mixture of instruction and tendency meant Ødegaard regularly drifted into the right half-space when Arsenal were at their best last season with the midfielder always looking to collect the ball at his feet which in turn diminishes the need for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to drop deep. This enables Arsenal to get more out of their right-sided players and their striker in an attacking sense, consequently decreasing the attacking load on Tierney’s shoulders.

New no. 10 Emile Smith Rowe will also be able to operate with less attacking responsibility. Picking up positions in the half-space opposite Ødegaard, the young Englishman will be tasked with combining with Tierney on the left and offering a goal threat rather than acting as the team’s sole creative hub. This is a role which better suits Smith Rowe’s skillset at this stage of his career.

As for Tomiyasu, the Japanese international’s role at Arsenal will be overwhelmingly defensive. When Arsenal have the ball, Tomiyasu will more-often-than-not be seen hanging back alongside the likes of Ben White and Thomas Partey in deep contrast to Tierney’s forward positioning on the left. He’ll need to progress the ball to Arsenal’s right-sided attackers and be constantly wary of a possession turnover. Tomiyasu’s defensive abilities make him a clear upgrade in this role in comparison to the outgoing Hector Bellerin and Arteta’s other right-back options.

Without the ball, Arsenal were at their best in something of a 4-4-2 shape last season as seen above. Martin Ødegaard was regularly tasked with conducting the press thanks to his strong leadership capabilities, another reason behind Arsenal’s decision to re-sign him. Him and Aubameyang are tasked with cutting off passing lanes enabling those behind them to pounce and win the ball back. While this press still needs a great deal of work, signs of promise were evident last season, so this is another tactical concept which shouldn’t be cast aside.

Thankfully, Arteta has done much of the groundwork required to revive Arsenal’s season already. A new masterplan isn’t a necessity. The worry is that such groundwork only really suits his first choice starting lineup. When injuries occur, Arsenal struggle, hence the need for flexibility if the Spaniard continues to be handicapped by missing personnel.

So, there is a way in which Arsenal can climb the table after the international break amid their torrid start to the new Premier League season. With numerous key figures returning, a re-introduction of what worked so well last season is all that’s required.

Such a system suits Arteta’s first choice XI perfectly. If Arsenal can stay relatively injury free, Arteta can deliver what he needs to this season - a return to European football for Arsenal next year. However, if news from the medical room continues to hamper Arteta’s plans in the coming weeks, it’d be surprising if the Spaniard was still Arsenal boss come the next international break in October.

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