Introduced as Arsenal’s new head coach on Friday, with a game on Saturday, and during the busiest period of the English football calendar, there wasn’t a whole lot Mikel Arteta could do with his new team. Changing Arsenal’s style and pattern of play is going to be a work in process, and take time. With that in mind, Arteta, in a training video released by the club, and in his press conferences, has a series of principles that for him are non-negotiable: working hard, running off the ball, and then thinking about the ball, teamwork, space, and the opponent. Arteta got the aggression he wanted, as Arsenal were far better off the ball than they had been in the latter stages of Unai Emery’s reign, with Arteta saying, “I’m very pleased with some of the things I’ve seen, in terms of attitude, character, the passion we showed, and the fight and spirit the team showed.” It was on the ball where Arsenal needed to be better, and where Arteta’s influence could also be seen.
With so few training sessions, it’s hard to radically change what players have been coached to do for months. As Arsenal lost confidence after Bournemouth’s first goal and during parts of the second half, habits from the Emery era began to come back, as Arsenal’s tempo slowed and they began to play backwards more. There were, though, numerous occasions throughout where they tried to play differently, to have an attacking, possession based side and be the protagonists.
In trying to make Arsenal a more attacking side during his time in charge, Freddie Ljungberg ran into an issue: Arsenal were poor in transition, conceding several goals on the counter-attack. Arteta himself would’ve noticed this in Manchester City’s preparation for their match with Arsenal eleven days ago, and during the game itself. Thus, Arteta not only had to think about how to improve Arsenal’s progression of the ball, but also how Arsenal positioned themselves when possession was lost, and in transition.
One of Arteta’s solutions was for Ainsley Maitland-Niles to be positioned centrally when Arsenal were in possession. This meant Maitland-Niles, a midfielder by trade, was deployed in a line with Granit Xhaka with Lucas Torreira slightly deeper, giving Arsenal more protection in transition, a move Pep Guardiola has used at Manchester City. It’s effects meant that in possession, Arsenal were very much a 2-3-5 or 2-3-2-3, giving the Gunners genuine width. Reiss Nelson stretched play on the right hand side, supported by Mesut Özil in an inside right position, with Özil having an effective game, frequently picking the ball up between the lines and on the turn, a sight that Arsenal fans hadn’t seen regularly in a match for 18 months.
Look at Maitland-Niles' positioning here. Clear instructions to be narrow so to allow Nelson to get wide and create space for Özil on the inside right. But then reacts to ball position and drops to give Sokratis a pass option wide. pic.twitter.com/9gJigkAJRG— And there's nobody better than Mikel Arteta (@BeltransMole23) December 27, 2019
On the opposite side, Granit Xhaka, especially in the second half, sat in the space between David Luiz and Bukayo Saka, allowing Saka to push further forward. This allowed Luiz more space to play, and Luiz set Lacazette away with a line-splitting pass in the second half. This set up hand further ramifications, as it meant Arsenal could build up through the left-hand side, and then switch to the right, to Nelson, who was higher up the pitch. But it also meant that if Arsenal played through the middle, Saka could get higher up and offer an option for Xhaka, who found Saka several times, with the youngster’s final ball not good enough for Arsenal to take advantage.
Playing out from the back Arteta style. So easy. pic.twitter.com/7rB09G8Xz7— ArsenalArena (@ArsenalArena) December 26, 2019
There is, of course, room for much improvement. Arsenal conceded after losing possession trying to build from the back, with Aubameyang losing possession in the manner Arteta was trying to coach against over the weekend. More troubling, there wasn’t a free player in possession: Arsenal hadn’t got their spacing right. With little time to work on things in training, it’ll mean more slow progress, and trying to do little things, based on video work and small drills. But this was Arsenal’s best positional play this season, and while that is a low bar to clear, there is at least some indication of what Mikel Arteta wants to see in his team. It is only a shame that it is eighteen months later than it should’ve been.