At last, Arsenal got the points that their performances deserved. They’d been desperately unlucky to lose against Chelsea, and probably deserved to beat Bournemouth. With a third game in six days, there were some reasonable fears that Arsenal would not be fit enough to compete with Manchester United. And, as much as encouragement from improved performances under Mikel Arteta, the new head coach needed to get a win; to get some points on the board and create a gap with the bottom three, and to further convince Arsenal players and fans that things were heading in the right direction. For Arsenal, everything came off yesterday: they pressed with verve and intensity, and an impressive defensive organization that saw the Emirates crowd heartily respond. Furthermore, it highlights one of the big changes that Arteta has made at Arsenal.
There have been excellent articles from Lewis Ambrose at Arseblog and James McNicholas at The Athletic detailing with specificity what Arteta has done tactically, and so this article is more concerned with the bigger, philosophical picture. One thing that has happened with Arteta is that players who looked fairly average to poor under Unai Emery have drastically improved in a short period of time. Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka, David Luiz, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were all criticized at various points during Emery’s reign, with Emery also dispensing with some of them: Maitland-Niles was displaced at right back by Calum Chambers, and Torreira was barely used from the start this season, and when he was, he was played in a higher, box to box position that he wasn’t really suited for.
Torreira and Xhaka are useful cases here, as is David Luiz. Under Emery, Arsenal’s midfield and defence were responsible for far too much space. There was disconnect in the buildup, meaning that these players were responsible for progressing the ball over large spaces, meaning possession was lost at a costlier rate. But even more so is what Arsenal did off the ball: frequently while watching Emery’s Arsenal, Granit Xhaka was responsible for a huge swathe of midfield. With Torreira told to press high, but no structure behind him, he was easily bypassed, allowing players to then run at Xhaka, as well as the other centre backs. One of the tenets of Emery’s Arsenal was how Emery desperately called for players to retreat when Arsenal lost the ball. But while perhaps offering the previous head coach a comforting blanket, that actually didn’t help defensively: it just opened up more space for the opposition, making Xhaka et al run backwards, and giving defenders like David Luiz responsibilty for too much space in front and behind of them, making defenders do rash things—like concede penalties, which Luiz had done at a higher clip this season than any other point in his career.
Under Arteta, these players look transformed, mainly because of the huge difference Arteta has made to Arsenal: he’s made the team play in smaller spaces. Off the ball, when Arsenal press, they press as a unit, with a defensive structure behind them. And when the pressure is beaten, or when the team runs out of energy, as they did in the second half against Chelsea and Manchester United, they drop into a compact shape. Both Chelsea and Manchester United created very few chances against Arsenal; indeed, Chelsea’s winning goal, from Tammy Abraham, came from one of the few moments when Arsenal were playing in a much larger shape.
It is that manipulation of space, and the control of smaller spaces that has been one of the throughlines from Johan Cruyff to Louis van Gaal to Pep Guardiola, among others. By making the spaces smaller, Granit Xhaka, Luiz and Torreira are responsible for smaller spaces, which suits their playing style. Xhaka has coverage, and players to pass to quickly, as does Luiz, and Torreira has the ability to quickly win the ball, rather than cover long distances. While Arsenal are still far away from being the complete project, this philosophical change has meant that it is easier to Arsenal to have a structure that suits the players at their disposal, something that Emery was never able to instill. Changing the space has been how Arteta has been able to change the playing style at Arsenal despite having little time available to him, and is one big reason why Arsenal’s slide has been, for now, halted.