Mikel Arteta's Arsenal have started the season in superb form
Mikel Arteta's Arsenal have started the season in superb form

Arsenal: How Mikel Arteta cloned Manchester City to finally give Gunners title hope again

Throughout a long and sometimes painful two and a half years in charge of Arsenal the Mikel Arteta project has gone through many iterations.

It began with painstaking positional discipline of a team creeping, dully, towards goal, over a half-season period that ended in an FA Cup win.

Then came the disintegration – the Granit Xhaka crisis era – when those meticulous patterns led to nowhere, which was followed by a loosening of the reins as individualism and counter-attacks suggested Arteta was finding a new way to play.

Last season saw a switch to a back four and sudden verticality through the lines as things finally began to make sense.

As Arsenal prepare for Sunday’s visit of Liverpool as favourites for the match and, in many people’s eyes, the only team capable of challenging Manchester City for the Premier League title this season, we can scrap all of that.

It turns out none of it mattered.

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The anxious tinkering was just a quick fix; the direct attacks and individualistic football not Arteta learning to change, but temporarily adapting as he waited for another transfer window. He really is, after all that, a Guardiola absolutist.

The additions of Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus this summer have provided Arteta with the final pieces he needs to put together a Manchester City-style team of intricacy and perfection.

These two, coupled with the emergence of a new centre-back partnership in Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba, have allowed Arteta to create the machine-like positional patterns and pitch-length rondos that have defined Guardiola’s City over the last half-decade.

Whether or not this makes Arsenal ready for a title challenge depends on their squad depth, the under-explored impact of the winter World Cup, and how they will fare once the fixture list gets a little harder.

But the signs so far have been extremely positive and the 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur last weekend was the most complete and convincing display so far.

It had all the hallmarks of a Guardiola team, most obviously in the deployment of a midfield-heavy system that relied on total domination of territory via interior full-backs.

Zinchenko and Ben White dipped infield to influence play, joining Thomas Partey to make a shield against opposition counter-attacks (which were also stamped out by a high press) and allow Xhaka and Martin Odegaard to control things higher up the pitch.

Jesus, who has attempted more dribbles (42) than any other Premier League player this season, completes the new setup with his aggression leading the line; the Brazilian has added urgency (giving direction to Arsenal’s possession) in the final third, making space for Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka.

Premier League dribbles 2022-23 - Arsenal's Gabriel Jesus leads the way.

It all runs smoothly, provided everyone is fit. There isn’t much quality for Arteta to draw from when he needs impact from the bench, and in fact the system collapsed in Partey’s absence at Old Trafford.

Their 3-1 defeat was defined by two positional errors made by the deputising Albert Lokonga, while in the narrow and fortuitous wins over Aston Villa and Fulham things became stilted and unclear when Kieran Tierney was in for the injured Zinchenko.

This potential issue is compounded by the fact Arsenal arguably haven’t had particularly difficult fixtures so far. They played Crystal Palace, Villa, and Leicester City when each was struggling, while Brentford, Bournemouth, and Fulham are not among the most difficult matches in theory.

It is possible that an upcoming run against mid-table teams who will look to suffocate Arsenal will see their fine sequence of results come to an end, particularly if the Gunners are vulnerable after just one or two injuries.

Looking to the long-term, the World Cup presents a huge problem, too. The second half of the season is likely to be chaotic as the big clubs deal with exhausted players and the smaller ones benefit from the second pre-season November and December will bring.

City, with a rested Erling Haaland and incredible second string XI, should be able to stay in control through all the weirdness but Arsenal’s thin squad probably won’t.

Erling Haaland and Phil Foden
ALSO READ: How many goals will Erling Haaland score this season?

Arsenal only have six more league games before the winter break and it goes without saying they need to continue their form throughout that period in order to have the momentum necessary to challenge City. That starts this Sunday, when a fragile Liverpool team will be there for the taking.

It presents a new challenge to Arteta’s side, who are yet to face any possession-centric teams in 2021-22. What is likely to unfold is a tense and constrictive game defined by the transitional moments.

We do not yet know how Saliba and Gabriel can cope with the firepower of a front three like Liverpool’s, or indeed if the Arsenal shape out of possession – with Xhaka alongside Partey – will prove too flat for the searching creativity of Thiago Alcantara and Harvey Elliott.

But we do know that Liverpool are extremely vulnerable down the wings and particularly on Trent Alexander-Arnold’s side, where the Reds midfield seems incapable of getting across to help out.

Arteta will undoubtedly target this side, using the direct dribbling of Jesus and Martinelli (second only to the Arsenal striker in dribbles completed this season) to terrorise the isolated Alexander-Arnold.

Worse still for Jurgen Klopp, the waning press from the front is allowing teams to pass their way out of trouble too easily; if Arsenal play their natural game, they should get enough goalscoring chances to win.

It is a test Arteta simply has to pass if Arsenal’s season is to maintain its momentum. They need a healthy lead at the top of the table going into the World Cup for the narrative to settle in their favour, especially after two and a half years of wobbling inconsistency.

With the benefit of hindsight, Arsenal’s current Guardiola-inspired guise was always the plan and the previous difficulties nothing more than growing pains.

But this is Arsenal, where frail collapse is always just around the corner. They need to beat Klopp’s side if they are to confirm their status as the new challengers; the new Liverpool. Do that, and City might start to feel a new rivalry is forming.

Trent Alexander-Arnold in action for Liverpool
ALSO READ: "One of the worst defenders in the division"

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