Where are Arsenal Going to Find That Creative Spark? - Season Preview From a Tactical Perspective
Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst)
From being one of the highest chance creating teams in the Premier League to ranking alongside relegation candidates in the same category over a few seasons, we have gone in the wrong direction. But, before the start of Arteta’s first full season in charge, the opportunity arises to reset and establish an attacking identity for the future.
A compressed pre-season and the lack of reinforcements (although this is a peculiar transfer window) presents roadblocks in addressing the problem but time waits for no one and the show must go on.
In his 8 months at the club, Arteta has primarily used two attacking formations, the 2-3-5 that we saw before lockdown and the 3-4-3 variant that was instrumental in the FA cup win and the strong performances against our rivals in the league. These were very much short-term solutions to tackle the problem. As the links with Aouar suggest, the aim eventually is to settle into a Manchester City-esque 4-3-3 with balanced creation but that is still very much a pipe dream with the personnel that are at the club as of this very moment.
The 4-2-3-1 becoming 2-3-5 when we have the ball gave the team some much-needed structure and a platform to build on for the rest of the season. Results weren’t always going our way and the balance between attack and defence was very much a function of the players at the coach’s disposal. A double pivot of Torriera and Xhaka gave the team some protection defensively but the lack of ball progression and threat from midfield left the team blunted offensively.
So, Arteta changed things up. The Ceballos- Xhaka pivot brought some much-needed balance, especially after Ceballos’s defensive capabilities improved. Initially, this duo were particularly effective against sides set up in a low block. Our underlying weaknesses, mainly the quality of our centre-backs and the lack of mobility in midfield left the team exposed in transitions, making the process of controlling games that much more difficult.
Not to forget, Arteta managed to carve out a role for Mesut Ozil in the side and utilise the German’s capabilities as a Number 10. But post-lockdown, he was no longer living up to Arteta’s standards in training, and coupled with defensive issues, the coach was forced to evolve the system to get the team back on track again.
In the absence of Ozil, moving to a 3-4-3 made sense not just to support the likes of Luiz but also to divert the attacks from the central areas to overloading the wide areas. The flexibility of Saka, Tierney and Maitland-Niles gives Arteta different types of attacking combinations down the left side. Tierney playing a touchline-hugging wing-back allows Aubameyang to drift infield to essentially operate as a second striker to either draw the centre-back or full-back out of position.
Maitland-Niles on the other hand, gives a more flexible approach in the buildup. He can drift in-field and become an extra midfielder or break the offside trap by making runs from deep (both approaches were seen against Chelsea and Liverpool at Wembley). This allows Aubameyang to be isolated against the opposing full-back and as well as leave space for Tierney to make overlapping runs.
Against sides who are expected to control possession against us, this formation will be very useful for counter-attacks and breaking the high line. Against low-block sides whose wingers are always backing the full-backs to stop the overloads, it remains to be seen how this formation would be effective with the lack of space on offer. The lack of quality players in tight spaces in such a formation would be a major issue in breaking down such sides.
Reverting to the 4-2-3-1 against such teams, at least at home if Ozil is fit, would be the only other imaginable way, given the squad at hand. This would be something to look out for this season as it’s these games that will ultimately determine our final position.
In terms of the future, should we sign our main targets, Arteta would look to playing the team in a 4-3-3 formation with a Number 8 with chance creation coming as a unit rather than reliance on a particular individual. This idea is very common in football these days but in the context of Arsenal, this is a major departure from the way we’ve played for more than a decade and as fans, it takes some time to wrap our heads around it.
Our chief writer’s brilliant piece on Auoar not being the chance creator caused a lot of stir but it’s true and all a part of Arteta’s plan for the future. This transition to a balanced team will hopefully be really evident after the summer of 2021. That Summer will likely be signify Mesut Ozil's departure which will be a notification of the redundancy of the archetypal number 10 role at Arsenal.
The fact that the club isn’t looking for an out-and-out replacement for the German is further evidence that the club wants to change going forward. Hussem Auoar is not a replacement but his technical and tactical attributes should allow us to play the way we want going forward.
After the loss to Villa in the penultimate league game, Arteta highlighted two things that we're missing, classy technical midfielders and attacking patterns. Attacking patterns are all about creating chances as a team through combination play in small spaces, off-the-ball movement, and an innate understanding of one’s fellow teammates.
The first half of Brighton is a very good example of these ideas in play even though the end product was lacking. Willian may be a short-term answer in the implementation of this plan. A player of such profile was definitely required this Summer. Arteta announced that the former Chelsea winger's "ability in those tight spaces, his ability to play people through, to unlock, to drive in with the ball and create overloads, he is a goal threat as well both in open play and with set-pieces” were key reasons why the chance to sign Willian on a free transfer was simply too good to turn down.
This potential transition from a primary creator to a balanced one is by no means an easy one and the fans are going to endure a lot of frustrating times as the team moves towards such a system. However, in the grand plan of competing at the top, this shift has to happen. Not all of this is going to be on show in the upcoming season. But, the groundwork is being laid behind the scenes to get the team back into the Champions League again.