Three ways to restructure Arsenal's attack in the post-Aubameyang era
By Mac Johnson (Deputy Editor)
It still feels weird that he's gone, if I'm honest. The departure of former skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, though necessary for both Arsenal's wage bill and the future of the club, has left us bereft of attacking options not officially listed as U-21 players.
And while our young talent has produced mighty results for us thus far in the season, and has injected the attacking impetus that has propelled us into the fight for UCL football, its greatest strength is also its greatest fallibility. Youthful footballers are inherently inconsistent, and without any sort of experienced talisman to guide them—Alexandre Lacazette can be hardly considered a leader of men—some restructuring may be necessary.
And that's the purpose of this article. I'll be attempting to suggest three rather creative tactical tweaks Mikel Arteta could employ to get the consistent best out of his youthful attack, should the current 4-2-3-1 system fail. It's time to go mad-scientist mode. Let's get into it.
4-4-2 with inverted strikers
What the heck is an inverted striker, you might ask? Well, let me tell you, given that I pretty much just made it up. The object of this tactic would be to maximize the goalscoring prowess of Nicolas Pépé and Gabriel Martinelli, playing them together as a front two. The primary focus of the formation would be drawing them into the sort of outside-in runs and mercurial movement at which they specialize.
Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe would occupy the flanks, with Smith Rowe drifting inside to make room for Kieran Tierney to join the attack. Key to this tactic would be the dissolving of the current "donut" that Arsenal form around the 18-yard box, instead prioritizing heavy switches of play and wide overloads to make space for the strikers.
Behind them, Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka would play a very high midfield line once the ball was progressed in order to facilitate quick and accurate switches of play, with a pseudo back-three of Tomiyasu, White, and Gabriel picking up the scraps and stopping the counter.
This tactic would act with the goal of creating a wide horizontal space for defenders to cover, increasing the effectiveness of quick, accurate balls played vertically through the lines to a mobile forward. Similar to the system currently employed by Graham Potter's Brighton side, Arsenal would act with a shoot-on sight policy, taking half-opportunities and swivel-shots at every opportunity. Rather than focusing on creating clear-cut, gilt-edged opportunities as they now do, this smash-and grab style would fit the speed and flexibility of our forwards.
Pinwheel of Death
Some critics believe Arteta is styling his tactics too heavily in the style of mentor and friend Pep Guardiola, rather than creating his own tactical identity. This tactical mix would play heavily into that connection, with no true striker in the lineup. Though Arteta has attempted such a formation before, playing a stunted 4-1-4-1 with Emile Smith Rowe at striker last season, this tactical tweak would be quite different.
Emile Smith Rowe would once again occupy the striker spot in a false-9 formation loosely based around a 4-3-3, using his ability to wriggle and turn with the ball to drive forward, rather than playing with his back to goal. Outside of him, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli would start as wide as humanly possibly in the buildup, but pin themselves to the top corners of the 18-yard box during extended spells of possession, acting as facilitators for rebound passes and one-twos with the fullbacks,
Behind them, a midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard would step high, using their natural aggression and penchant for the forward press to spray passes around with abandon, and to pick out incisive runs into the area. Both function well in their respective half-spaces, and would naturally feel inclined to attack the goal when the opportunity arose.
Gabriel and Ben White would naturally fall in alongside and just behind a deep-lying Thomas Partey, who would eschew creative duties almost entirely in favor of stalling counter attacks and recycling possession. The fullbacks would play more of a natural role, overlapping if necessary but primarily remaining outside of the midfielders, though if play stretched too wide, they would be encouraged to drive inwards at the earliest opportunity.
Most crucial to this tactic would be a prioritization of one-two passes and constant rotation among the attack. If any of the front three move from their post due to a driving run or opportunity to receive a forward ball, another would fill the gap, and the original player would cycle into the space.
Any of Martinelli, Ødegaard, Saka, or Smith Rowe could be called upon to play in the false-9, with the other three filling in the abandoned space as necessary, hence the pinwheel of death. Though this tactic might expose Arsenal to the counter, it would also take advantage of the momentum that comes with constant pressure to bolster the resolve and spirit of our young players, and our centre-backs are quick enough to mop up most threats.
This might be the most confusing formation yet, so bear with me. The fundamental base of this formation would be a back three of White, Gabriel, and Tierney, with the vertical ball-playing ability of the former and latter key to the tactic. They would use their range of passing to launch vertical balls to Martinelli, who would drift wide from the central striker role to the outside shoulder of the centre-back on either side, depending which striker had the ball.
Once that ball was launched, either Saka or Smith Rowe would immediately dart inside on an inverted track, to receive a layoff from Martinelli and either shoot, drive to the touchline, or play the ball across to the late run of the No. 10, which can be either Ødegaard or Lacazette. The opposite winger would be the third runner into the box in either scenario, with the purpose of picking up a cross or second pass from the No. 10. Martinelli would remain wide to pick up on any overhit crosses.
In the case that this first strain of attack would fail and possession remained with Arsenal, the tightly-packed central midfield would spread out, with Xhaka and Tomiyasu occupying the half-spaces in order to recycle possession. This tactic would prioritize vertical runs in that case, and function primarily through cutbacks and layoffs—crossing simply would not work effectively.
Defensively, the front four would flatten out, creating a sort of barrier to prevent short passes, forcing the opposition to break the lines in transition, playing directly into the speedy and technically capable hands of the back three. It's by far the least complex tactic of the three, and would boil down to a cycle of rinse-and-repeat until a breakthrough occurred, or the opposition began to mark the wide areas heavily, at which point the wingers and No. 10 would create a central overload, focusing on moving bodies in and around the outside of the 18-yard box to generate shooting opportunities from distance.
And there you have it! Three bizarre tactical alternatives to Mikel Arteta's well-regimented 4-2-3-1. I hope you all enjoyed; it's just a bit of fun. Until next time.