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Why Mikel Arteta’s clear early tactical structure is exactly what Arsenal needed

By Alfie Cairns Culshaw

Arsenal’s final months under Unai Emery were a mess- the Spaniard’s side resembled a chaotic, frenetic team with no structure, a collection of individual’s who looked lost and lacking confidence in the system their coach was trying to get them to play.

The former PSG man was supposed to be a pragmatic coach, yet his team would concede shot after shot and chance after chance, conceding goal after goal. He seemed happy to sacrifice possession, and allow teams to come onto them. He encouraged passive defending, invited the opposition to attack the wide spaces. His philosophy was a confusing one, but in essence it was to enable teams to attack them until they got into very dangerous positions in close proximity to their own goal and then they would engage. He wanted his team to play on the counter-attack. A style that can certainly work, but is largely ineffective at a large club, and does not signify the artistic identity Arsene Wenger spent years implementing.

This created not only a disconnection with the fans, who expect a certain style of football, but also with the players, who lost confidence in their coach. When you’re conceding 25 shots a game at home to a side fighting for their lives at the foot of the table, it’s not hard to see why.

In just a month in charge, Arteta has restored this connection with the fans and has a team who is fully invested and believe in the system he is trying to implement. Results have been far from perfect, but performances have seen the club start to move in the right direction- the start of the restoration of the identity that Arsenal have prided themselves on for so long.

Shots against volumes have gone down, possession percentages have gone up and expected goals against have been drastically reduced. Whilst fluidity and cohesion in offensive play is still a long way off, the extent of the improvements made are almost remarkable. A lot of this is down to the structure and shape of the team Arteta has introduced to the players.

The former Manchester City assistant manager has adopted a similar structure to that of his former club, although has adapted certain elements to suit the personnel available to him. The 4-2-3-1 is a mere initial starting shape, with it moulding into more of a 3-2-5 in possession. The right-back tucks inside alongside Lucas Torreira in central midfield, Granit Xhaka drops to the left of the two centre-backs, whilst the left-back joins a five-man front line. This strict structure enables Arsenal to keep hold of the ball for long periods, with Xhaka and Luiz acting as the main distributors of the ball, feeding the front five with expansive deep progressions. Once losing the ball high up the pitch, with so many players so far advanced, it enables an efficient gegenpress, squeezing the area of the pitch the opponent possesses the ball with a high line and thus blocking of passing lanes. This therefore once again enables Arsenal to win the ball back quickly and control possession.

By controlling possession, you prevent the opposition from creating chances and thus concede fewer goals. Pretty simple, yet Arsenal had failed to do this until Arteta’s appointment earlier in the season. Eventually we should see improvements in Arsenal’s offensive game, with time working on the system and better personnel, but in the short-term this structure which has brought stability to corrupted side is exactly what Arsenal were in dire need of.

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