What's working and what isn't? Evaluating Arteta's current tactical system- Part 1
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
The Mikel Arteta revolution is just getting started. As I spoke about in my piece last week, all the metrics point to a substantial improvement on our early season woes, whilst also suggesting this is more than merely an inevitable levelling out, and is actually a sustained run of genuine good form, where we genuinely look like a good team. This upturn is all down to the Spaniard's new found tactical set-up, which has some of the core traits of Arteta's early ideas, but with some significant developments.
Of course, this system is far from perfect. Results are inconsistent and performances, despite largely encouraging, have some obvious flaws. With the international break currently dragging on, Arteta will have time to reflect, analyse and reconsider what he is doing tactically. Personally, I felt it would be a good time to delve into what he is doing well and what he could change.
In the first half of the season, Arsenal's attempts to press looked as frenetic and disorganised as they did in the latter stages of Unai Emery's tenure. In actual fact, the press was somewhat non-existent. By Christmas, Arsenal sat bottom of the league for total pressures (number of times a player applied pressure to an opponent), whilst sitting 16th for pressures in the attacking third. Arsenal weren't pressing.
The lonely figure of the striker was often left to fend for himself, leading the charge at the opponent's deeper players when they were on the ball, backed up by few teammates. Whilst this was largely a systematic consequence of deploying no number ten- a role which is pivotal in implementing a pressing system- Arteta appeared to have made little to no effort on working on such a system on the training ground. This lack of urgency to win the ball high up the pitch was a huge factor in his team failing to create high quality chances consistently, and Arteta clearly saw this, because it changed from the Chelsea game onwards.
In that Boxing Day encounter, which can be identified as the turning point for the way the Coach set his team up, Arteta deployed the attacking trio of Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli in behind Alex Lacazette. The four of them combined to produce 67 pressures in the 90 minutes, significantly over the average of 48 amongst his four most forwardly deployed players in league games prior to this this season.
There was a clear emphasis on squeezing Chelsea inside their own third, using these four to do so, supported by the high positioning of the full-backs and one of the two in the double pivot (in this case Granit Xhaka, who managed 25 pressures in the game). Furthermore, where Arsenal applied pressure in this game demonstrated this more aggressive press. 28% of their total pressures came in Chelsea's defensive third, drastically up from the average in the previous 14 league games of 19%.
This game was a stark contrast from the passive Arsenal side we saw in the first half of the season, and ignited what was to become a competent gegenpressing unit in the following months. Arsenal now sit 9th in the total attacking third pressures table, rising 5 places in these standings since Boxing Day. A tangible benefit of this more active pressing system is evidenced by the increase in big chances Arsenal have created from winning the ball in the opponents defensive third; 2 in the opening 14 league games, 7 in the last 15 (since the Chelsea game).
The Offensive Patterns of Play
Arsene Wenger specialised in coaching attacking patterns of play, which would often come to fruition in games, and they were evident. Because of Arteta's coaching education, many would've expected to see similar pretty passing patterns in his own team. However, in the first half of this season, such patterns were few and far between, with a reliance on a more direct approach in the form of aerial deliveries from out wide a feature of his team.
This has since changed. Deploying three technical attacking midfielders, very capable at retaining the ball in advanced areas, with two ball progresses deeper in midfield, has enabled Arteta to actually work on how his team builds the play up and gets the ball into goal scoring positions.
In what appears to be his favoured team and system, Xhaka drops into an auxiliary left-centre-back role to cover for the overlapping Kieran Tierney, who is consistently very high and wide, Hector Bellerin tucks in slightly to form an overload in the midfield, whilst Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard occupy the inside forward, half space areas on the left and right sides respectively. Saka takes up wide positions to start, but comes inside and consistently attacks the central areas with quick passes or mazy dribbles, whilst occasionally the right-back (whoever it is) will get the license to push forward on the overlap, instead of fulfilling their inverted role.
This structure allows for more creative freedom and expression in the final third than the more rigid one earlier in the season did, but maintains the rigid traits defensively which enable the side to control games comfortably. The structure also allows for offensive overloads on each side time and time again, whether that's Smith Rowe and Tierney on one side or Odegaard/Saka/Bellerin on the other. These overloads that you see us create so frequently often lead to goals, with the crossing ability or cut-backs on either side creating high quality chances on a consistent basis (Odegaard vs Spurs, Soucek OG vs West Ham, Saka vs Newcastle, Aubameyang 2nd vs Newcastle).
Aside from these overlaps, the system has also enabled the use of incisive through balls once again, something that was distinctly absent from our game in the first half of the season. Now we have technical players in behind Aubameyang or Lacazette, we have the personnel to find the passes and maximise the use out of the limited space that is often in behind.
When Aubameyang is deployed as the striker, the likes of Odegaard and Saka are fed the ball as frequently as possible in order for them to thread incisive through balls into Aubameyang's stride (evident in the Gabonese's first goal against Benfica and many of the opportunities he's missed). When Lacazette plays, the Frenchman regularly drops deeper and tries to feed balls in behind for the wide players such as Smith Rowe and Saka (both of whom possess excellent off the ball movement) to get in behind- most evident in our recent game at the London Stadium.
All these offensive patterns of play are clearly the result of intensive work on the training pitch; this something I called for Arteta to focus on more back in December.
This article was initially going to include both the positive and negative aspects of Arteta's current system, but due to how invested I've got in the positives, there will be a part 2 on the things that desperately need improving. For now, enjoy the fact that there are once again positives.