With every passing game, we learn more about Mikel Arteta’s vision for his Arsenal side. After a disappointing return to Premier League action, a Quarter-Final victory over Sheffield United would have tempered most fans’ outrage and perhaps might have reminded them why he’s such a well regarded Coach.
Before football came to a stand still, Arteta had figured out an efficient system that brought a little more rigidity to the defence and fluidity to the attack. Doing so Arsenal had unearthed a prodigious talent in the form of Bukayo Saka. Saka had impressed under Emery from an unfamiliar left-back role and showed a lot of promise.
But under Arteta his responsibilities have grown significantly. Arsenal attacked with a very heavy bias from towards the left hand-side. Creating overloads with Aubameyang, Ozil, Lacazette, Pepe and Saka as a front 5. Saka bombed forward providing the width allowing Aubameyang to tuck in to an inside-forward role. This system also made Arsenal less susceptible to the counter, with Mainland-Niles tucking in from right-back to his more natural central mid-fielder role and Xhaka covering the space left by Saka. Arsenal packed the centre of the pitch forcing the opposition to counter from the wings, using the touchline to their advantage.
But over the next few games, the system became predictable and the non-involvement of Nicolas Pepe was a growing concern among fans. Pepe often found himself isolated on the right, surrounded by opposition defenders. He wasn’t helped by the fact, that he had no-one overlapping him, and only Mesut Ozil in the inside-channels for support. Pepe and Ozil had the same tendencies to cut in from the right, making most of their passing exchanges very stagnant, resulting in a back pass to Xhaka or a cross field ball to Saka. Lacazette’s role too was slowly diminishing as youngster Eddie Nketiah started over the Frenchman a few times, scoring once.
This system was effective, but didn’t work on both wings of the pitch with the right-side often feeling very disjointed and their play becoming redundant. As Arsenal returned to Premier League action, Arteta had tweaked the system. The first glimpse of this was in the first 20 minutes against Manchester City, where Arsenal managed to beat the rampaging city press a few times and created a couple half-chances. But as injuries to midfield lynchpin Granit Xhaka and defender Pablo Mari followed by a David Luiz red card, occurred in a 30 minute span, the game plan was basically out the window. The first full display of Arteta’s gameplan came in the match away to Brighton. It was probably the most disappointing result of the season, but also tactically it was the most intriguing.
Arsenal lined up in what looked like a 4-3-3 on paper, with Bukayo Saka playing as the 10. As the game progressed however, it became clear that Saka was playing as a left-sided 8 with Kieran Tierney behind him. It was only a small tweak to the system, to make the team more balanced while progressing the ball through the wings. However, the right side was still sparingly utilised. With Saka passing to Aubameyang on the left wing 11 times, and Ceballos passing to Pepe only twice.
Lacazette who started the game, was also not a good fit for this system, as the striker was required to perform a hard-pressing role. However in the Southampton game the situation improve when Nketiah replaced Lacazette in the starting lineup. Nketiah’s pressing was rewarded with a goal, and overall Eddie complemented Pepe better than Lacazette. The performance however was not the best, but Arteta’s idea for how his Arsenal team will play became more clear.
Alongside Lacazette, Hector Bellerin has been the other player whose skills don’t complement the system. His role to tuck in from right-back and act as an auxiliary midfielder doesn’t suit his skills. He doesn’t often drive forward in space and puts Pepe in difficult 2v1 positions 30 yards from goal. This changed however in the Quarter-Final against Sheffield United. Ainsley-Maitland Niles came back into the team inplace of Bellerin and the team instantly seemed more balanced. Pepe was much more involved, receiving the ball further up the pitch more often. Saka was still at his most effective from the left combining with Eddie Nketiah late in the game with a counter, which resulted in Ceballos’ winner.
Arsenal have potentially got a very effective system in place, but won’t really reap its benefits till they have the right players for it. Hector Bellerin’s technical skills don’t suit his role and Maitland Niles has made it clear he doesn’t want to be utilised as a right back. How Arsenal progress and perfect this system over the coming weeks will also play a big role in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s decision on wether or not to extend his stay in North London.
Arteta’s ideals are strong and personality resolute. He has all the tools to become a successful manager, but wether or not it will be at Arsenal will depend on how the board backs him in the Transfer Market. With improvements in defence required and a midfield overhaul long overdue, Arsenal’s actions in the upcoming Transfer Window will set the precedent for their long term goals.