Three tactical twists to employ immediately at Arsenal
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
I'll hold my hands up and admit it, I'm effectively stealing this segment from the Arsenal Cannon Podcast Extravaganza that I edited last night. So for all of those who listened to our amazing show, I do apologize, and I hope you enjoy regardless. And for those who didn't, what are you doing? Give it a listen!
Joined by the mighty duo of Alfie Cairns Culshaw and Rob Worthington, the pod delved into a lengthy tactical discussion following some of the attacking shortcomings of our squad against Burnley this weekend. Specifically, the boys felt that multiple players were being played out of position, or used incorrectly tactically, and the conversation was so compelling to me that I cannot contain it merely in an audio form.
So here I am.
It's fair to say that the tightrope walk of finding success at Arsenal is defined by rather limited players. Those limitations manifest in both technical and tactical quirks and pitfalls that tend to scupper Arteta's preferred style of play, and make Arsenal look.... the only word for it is boring. Slow. Disinterested.
The goal, therefore, is to find a tactical scheme that either covers for those weaknesses or, in the case of our more well-rounded players, plays to their greatest strengths. In the same vein as Granit Xhaka was deployed during Project Restart, change could be key to getting the best out of this particularly finnicky squad.
So without further ado, let's launch into this, starting with the hero of our Burnley win, our newest No. 8.
3. Martin Ødegaard as a deep-lying playmaker
Ødegaard arguably found his second breakthrough while on loan at Real Sociedad during the 2019-20 season. His first, of course, occurred when Real Madrid signed him at 16 and declared him the future of their club, but after a few rough years and even rougher loan spells, he brought himself back to the forefront of the creative conversation as he led the Erreala to a much-improved sixth place in La Liga, tallying 10 goal contributions and putting in a series of barnstorming performances.
He was excellent to the point where Real Madrid decided to permanently recall him for the first time in four years, and though his stagnation at the Bernabeu did not cease, his performances in San Sebastián drew the attention of Arsenal in January. The rest, as they say, is history.
But while at Sociedad, Ødegaard rarely played at a true No. 10 position. Rather than taking on the role of a primary creator, he specialized in floating about five yards deeper into the midfield, using his mobility and passing range to progress the ball with ruthless efficiency. We saw a similar tactic against Burnley, and it worked a treat, especially in the first half.
To be frank, the most effective way to play all of the attackers available to us—Pepe, Smith Rowe, Ødegaard, Saka—in the same formation is to drop one of them deeper. The Norwegian is the ideal candidate, not least because he has the highest defensive and pressing workrate of the four. I'm not suggesting he play there every match, but the potential of a deeper-lying creator with more mobility than Granit Xhaka, is a tantalizing prospect.
With Arsenal's newfound defensive partnerships working smoothly, and the pace to hold a higher line, the defensive deficiencies of a player like Ødegaard can be rather plastered over by a tactical system. If Tomiyasu continues to thrive in is inverted role, supporting Thomas Partey from the right, that could allow Ødegaard even more freedom. It's a risk worth taking if we are to unlock the best from the 22-year-old.
2. Nicolas Pepe as a second striker
Nicolas Pepe scores 0.51 goals per 90 minutes, from 0.39 xG. Those are 94th and 89th percentile statistics, and most strikers would be quite proud of them. He also averages a high-volume of goal-creating actions—0.1 per 90 off the dribble (92nd percentile) and 0.13 from shots (99th percentile).
These sort of stats project the profile of a player who's quite good in front of goal, who can finish clinically, and who can create for teammates very well when inside the 18-yard box. His high volume of touches in the penalty area corroborate that. However, his ability to progress the ball, either through carries or passes, is abysmal. I'll quote those stats in my next segment.
Because of his rather isolated role on the right flank, the opportunity to receive the ball at his feet is sorely lacking. Much of his role in the team is dependent on him creating his own opportunities, and it is at that precise juncture when his weaknesses in possession are most aggrandized.
Therefore, the best place for him, is in the box, receiving the ball in promising positions rather than trying to put them there. He did as much for Lille during his own breakout season. However, there's no real room for that sort of player in the squad under Arteta's tactics, at least not immediately present.
I might suggest that putting him at left wing would accomplish those goals, but with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a central player who likes to drift left, Emile Smith Rowe, a central player who likes to drift left, and Kieran Tierney, a defensive player who hogs the left touchline, it's quite reasonable to assume Pepe might get forced out of that rotation were he to step into circulation.
Rather, I believe deploying him as a sort of hybrid No. 10, constantly interchanging with Smith Rowe, would get the best out of his skillset. As the young Englishman switches out to the left flank, Pepe could drift inside as he has so effectively in Europe League ties gone by, recieving late balls into the box.
Smith Rowe is integral to our buildup on the counter, but I'd argue that Pepe drifting inside from the left flank could assist that greatly, especially with his ability to turn on the ball and break forward. I am slightly concerned about his defensive support with Tierney galavanting forwards. but if Arteta were to ask the Scotsman to sit five to ten yards deeper, a-la Lucas Digne, and create from a deeper role, I believe a balance can be struck.
1. Bukayo Saka must play at right wing
Time to reference more Pepe stats. 8.63 progressive passes received, in comparison with 6.51 progressive dribbles at a completion rate of 46%, and 2.41 progressive passes. Arsenal's tactics put a premium on getting the right winger into space, because their left-sided attack is so much stronger.
If I were to choose a player to get the ball in space and attack a backline, it would undoubtedly be Bukayo Saka. He's relatively two-footed, nearly impossible to dispossess, and incredibly adept at drawing fouls. What better to maximize the two-sided potential of this team?
Our Starboy has featured off the left for a good bit of this season, and it's fair to say that he hasn't had the best run of it. Not only is his G/A tally far lower than where it should be, but his role within the squad isn't clearly defined and his overall productivity has been greatly limited in that role. In the same vein as Pepe, Saka should be moved to a position where he can maximize his own potential.
This summer for England, he showed the world what he could do at right wing, and made even the staunchest doubters appreciate his talent, but clearly, it wasn't enough to guarantee himself a starting berth at that position under Arteta. Unfortunately for Saka, he also hasn't been given the opportunity to right that wrong.
In my mind, a dream tactical setup would give Saka all the freedom he rightly deserves to create and drive at defenders as we all know he can. Especially against Sp*rs, who have been defensively suspect on the left flank all season, it will be crucial to get the best out of each and every one of our attackers. Of course, it will be a rotated lineup against Wimbledon, so we won't see the fruits of Arteta's labour until we play the North London Derby, but I hope something changes. If this team is to evolve more, we cannot freeze our progress here.