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Juego de Posición: The Plan is in Play

By Sumaiya Vawda

In the Emery days of old, team line-ups were a point of rage and confusion. Is he playing a diamond? Why is Aubameyang playing on the left? What auxiliary role will Joe Willock play today? Of such intensity was the uncertainties of tactics that they sometimes blurred what was actually playing out on the green. Today, an Arsenal fan could rattle off the team for an upcoming fixture with a high chance of accuracy. Settled players in consistent roles has emboldened Arteta to show his ultimate hand, the 4-3-3.

Association with Pep Guardiola bundles you in as a believer in positional play. While Arteta has long spoken of the need for possession-based play and tactical discipline, his management began with a pragmatic 3-4-3. It worked until it didn’t. A switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Ødegaard and Smith Rowe filling creative roles, reignited the Arsenal flame. Since the Boxing Day fixture against Norwich, we’ve seen Granit Xhaka push up the pitch into a left-sided number 8 role in multiple fixtures. Why the switch? It seems it was always the plan for Arteta to evolve his team to full positional play to challenge at the top end.

The 4-3-3 formation is lauded for enabling balanced occupation of the spaces across a football pitch. Subsequently, combination play, isolating attackers with full-backs and opportunities to switch play to the opposing flank productively are heightened. In Arteta’s iteration, Saka, Ødegaard and Cedric (currently) occupy the key right triangle and Martinelli (or Smith Rowe), Xhaka and Tierney do the same on the left. Lacazette drops in on either side to offer a wall pass.

Arteta’s implementation has shown promise because of the players’ awareness to maintain angles and willingness to rotate across the spaces. Players comfortable with both feet, such as Bukayo Saka, are extremely valuable as they pop up in unexpected spaces. The system is made possible by Thomas Partey operating as a dominant lone defensive midfielder. The technical competence of Ben White is also imperative in central build-up now that there is a player less in that area. At the front, variety in dribbling and passing on the part of Saka and Martinelli has made the Gunners more potent.

Against Wolves, the North London side built progressive play with relatively deep full-backs and the wingers high. Lacazette often dropped in to create a midfield overload. On occasion, the number 8s drifted wide to draw out Wolves’ wing-backs and create space for Saka and Martinelli down the channels. Despite not bearing any goals this time, it is a worthy tactical development. Flooding the box with a 3-3-4 formation earned superiority at the death.

It’s easy to be lulled into the belief that positional play centres on technical ability. While integral, it is superseded by defensive principles. These principles have been prevalent in Arteta’s team since day one, despite his first back-line consisting of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, David Luiz, Sokratis and an even more youthful Bukayo Saka.

Granit Xhaka has performed ably in his new role, especially when the game is being played before him and he is not tracking back. Is there a chance of him combusting? Absolutely. Smith Rowe could potentially fill his spot when the side faces deep-block teams. However, this formation change allows for specificity when scouring the transfer market. No longer is a direct Xhaka replacement the holy grail, but a box-to-box midfielder who can threaten the goal along with a striker. Fabian Ruiz and young Brazilian Danilo are players being touted for the role.

In recent weeks, Arteta’s side has progressed from maintaining attacks for spells in a game to more overall control. The implementation of the 4-3-3 has been greatly promising but will need absolute application (and luck with injuries) from the players to attain a top 4 finish.

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