Alex Keble examines Arsenal's change in form ahead of the Gunners' FA Cup clash with Southampton on Saturday.
Arsenal’s season is well on the way to recovery. A run of four wins from five has put Mikel Arteta’s side into the top ten and a mere five points shy of sixth - the position most Arsenal fans would have accepted during this important transitional year for the club.
Arteta deserves a lot of praise, revitalising the Gunners after a terrible start to the 2020/21 campaign by dramatically altering the starting line-up, formation, and tactics deployed. It is telling that Arteta’s second-string XI for this weekend’s FA Cup tie against Southampton will include many of the faces that were considered regular starters at the Emirates just a month ago.
It is nevertheless an important fixture that will be replicated just three days later in the Premier League, when Arsenal will arguably play their first difficult game since the turnaround. For all their brilliance over the last few weeks, the Gunners could hardly have asked for more passive opponents than a bereft Chelsea, a free-falling Newcastle United, and a West Brom side that even Sam Allardyce cannot whip into shape.
Here’s how Arteta redefined their season:
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Match odds: Home 21/10 | Draw 23/10 | Away 13/10
During the opening months of the campaign Arteta’s 3-4-3 looked jaded, lacking creativity as the manager sought to play low-tempo possession football built with an extremely fine-tuned structure – as he had learnt from his mentor Pep Guardiola. But, as confidence waned, the intricate positional coaching became a prison for the Arsenal players who no longer felt free to take risks or make creative choices.
Arteta’s trajectory this season has been like the experiences of a medical student sent on their first placement. Always a daunting prospect and a very steep learning curve. For a while the textbook learning feels completely useless as they wrestle with the emotional and physical demands of real world decision-making. Only with time do they find the balance between the practical and the academic, drawing on the latter to guide the former.
As for the Arsenal manager, he had reams of textbook knowledge to draw upon, but when reality hit – when those Guardiola coaching sessions turned into football with consequences - suddenly all those perfected chess moves seemed useless, forcing Arteta to improvise and problem-solve by allowing his players to assert more individuality into matches.
Now that he has found a balance and unshackled his players, those textbook moves can be slowly reintegrated.
The shift towards a looser tactical structure could not have happened without Emile Smith Rowe, whose emergence has added flair, energy, and invention in the final third. Where the 3-4-3 left Arsenal hopelessly flat in central midfield, now they have a natural number ten to shift cleverly between the lines. He is always available for a forward pass and plays with the exuberance of youth, driving forward and raising the energy levels of his team-mates.
He has played a key role in many of Arsenal’s goals this month, either by floating in traditional 10 spaces or ghosting into the channels to link the play. What’s more, his superb passing is encouraging Arteta’s more direct players to make assertive forward runs: Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have all upped their game now there is a playmaker in the side whose distribution they can trust.
Alongside Saka, Emile Rowe has increased Arsenal’s ability to play on the counter-attack via sudden tempo-changing football. These two players often look for incisive flicks around the corner when receiving the ball under pressure, passing through tight angles and spinning to make themselves available for the return.
This has led directly to goals against Chelsea, West Brom, and Newcastle, making Arsenal far less predictable. Whereas previously clubs could apply pressure in the middle third of the pitch, now the lock is consistently being picked and Arsenal can break in numbers into the penalty area.
And this change of energy levels has proved infectious. Against Chelsea in particular Arsenal’s pressing was much improved, with those youthful players buzzing around the Chelsea centre-backs to force errors and regain possession for Arteta’s side. Even during the first few months of Arteta’s reign, when a Honeymoon period saw the players rigidly follow his structured possession, they weren’t able to press with such urgency and cohesion.
Perhaps buoyed by the results of this upturn in tempo, Arteta has also shaken up central midfield by doing away with the tediously safe axis of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka – both of whom consistently played sideways passes and forced the entire system to congeal. Dani Ceballos was excellent against West Brom, completing three key passes and driving Arsenal forward both on and off the ball. He completed seven interceptions, a statistic that captures his aggression in the press.
Thomas Partey made a triumphant return to the team for Monday’s win over Newcastle United, again adding forward thrust to the team. It was his wriggle out of danger and long ball forward for Aubameyang that ultimately broke the deadlock. Partey can be the line-breaking central midfielder Arsenal crave, weaving his way through tight areas to create counter-attacking spaces for the forwards to run into.
Again, a lot of these changes came almost by accident as Arteta threw out the textbooks and threw on the younger players. Their bright-eyed optimism has lifted spirits and disrupted the dull Guardiola-lite possession patterns that were putting the manager’s job under threat. And yet, through this trial-and-error approach, Arteta has also stumbled on a couple of other important discoveries.
First, Saka’s repositioning on the right wing has been a revelation, providing more balance to the Arsenal attack (their two best attackers, Tierney and Saka, now force the issue from opposite flanks) and giving the 19-year-old more opportunities to dribble to the byline.
Saka is immensely gifted and could excel anywhere, but the right wing uniquely offers him the chance to run past defenders on the outside, creating crossing opportunities or simply further stretching Arsenal’s shape – which in turn gives Emile Rowe more room centrally. Emile Rowe’s goal against West Brom was the perfect example of this, as Saka was released down the right to play a low cross into the middle.
Through this run of form Alexandre Lacazette has also played a big role, dropping sharply off the front line to help Emile Rowe overwhelm central attacking midfield, and his link-up play has been pivotal in Arsenal’s resurgence.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side have slowed down recently as tiredness sets in, but the ruthlessness of their 4-4-2 – sitting in a compressed midblock that snaps at the heels of the opposition midfield – has remained intact. There have been just six goals in their last six Premier League matches; Arsenal will not be able to play with quite the same free-flowing bravado in either of their upcoming games at St Mary’s.
However, Leicester City ran out deserved 2-0 winners last week thanks to their ability to suddenly change the rhythm of the contest. In keeping with their tactical philosophy under Brendan Rodgers, Leicester played assertive forward passes through central midfield via James Maddison and Youri Tielemans, and in doing so caught Hasenhuttl’s two-man midfield a little light on numbers.
Should Partey, Smith Rowe, Saka, and Lacazette again buzz menacingly through the middle, Arsenal can follow Leicester’s example in at least one of their two games.
Through a trial-and-error approach of loosening the reins and giving some creative freedom back to his players, Arteta has stumbled upon a system with considerably more forward momentum, vertical passing, and line-breaking dribbles. It is a major departure from the style he originally intended to implement, but like the student sent into the real world Arteta deserves credit for adapting – and for learning the hard way that grand theories of the game require softening when they meet the chaos and mental fragility of Premier League football.
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