After a month of progress on the pitch, albeit without necessarily the points to show it, it is becoming easier to discern what a Mikel Arteta Arsenal looks like. And there are tangible improvements. Before the match against Chelsea last week, Arsenal had conceded 5 goals in 5 league games, as compared to 19 in the 13 games managed by Unai Emery, and the 9 in 6 games managed by Freddie Ljungberg. Emery departed having overseen 18 goals in 13 games, and under Ljungberg Arsenal scored 7 in 6. But under Arteta, Arsenal had only scored 6 goals in 5 games prior to Chelsea—a positive goal difference, which is more than can be said for Ljungberg and Emery, but still, given the supposed quality of Arsenal’s attacking players, a concern.
Indeed, a general pattern of Arsenal under Arteta is going ahead early, with a bright opening period. Following this, Arsenal are forced to sit deeper in the second half, and have, in three of the five games before Chelsea, lost their lead. There are reasons to believe that this is not what Arteta wants, tactically, but that the team, who are in not in a good physical place, are unable to maintain the energy that Arteta requires. Indeed, David Luiz and Sokratis hinted at that in their post-match interview following the 2-0 win against Manchester United.
Despite these setbacks, Arteta has got Arsenal, a collective defensive shambles under Unai Emery, better organized and more compact defensively, despite fielding many of the same players, and Bukayo Saka, a young winger, at left back. Bernd Leno has made fewer saves per game under Arteta than under Emery, facing fewer shots. A team that ran backwards every time they lost the ball under Emery, epitomizing the panicked gesticulations of their head coach on the sidelines, go back into a collective shape under Arteta, an improvement that both passes the numbers test and the eye test. But what Arsenal aren’t doing is scoring goals—or even creating lots of chances.
Under Arteta, Arsenal have a style of play in attack, one that has been consistent and shows the beginning of an identity and consistent style. Thus far, in possession, Arteta has five forwards, much like other top Premier League teams. This front five is usually, but not always, the left back, either Kolasinac or Saka, pushed higher up the pitch, Pepe wide on the right, Aubameyang coming off as an inside left forward, and Lacazette almost playing a pivot role as a number 9. Behind those five, Lucas Torreira patrols the middle, Granit Xhaka drops off to the left, sitting in the left back role, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles comes inside, giving Arsenal either a line of three defenders, or a line of three midfielders. This guards against the counter-attack, but also is a question of spacing; Arteta, much like Pep Guardiola, wants equal coverage across the pitch, meaning no more than two players in a vertical line.
Occupying space vertically, though, doesn’t prevent horizontal movement. That is, movement off the ball, and runs to take advantage of space created by the movement of the front players. This was best epitomized at Arsenal by Aaron Ramsey, who disrupted structure: both the structure of the team, which is why he was probably out of favour with the über-cautious Emery, but, more crucially, the structure of the opponent.
Arsenal, though, don’t have that. It has never been Mesut Özil’s game, and is even less so as Özil’s physicality has declined. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang makes goal-scoring runs, but the other attacking players in the set-up are not necessarily making these line-breaking runs. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in scoring, but rather, that the build-up play has to be close to perfect to create the goal, much like Aubameyang’s opener against Crystal Palace, or even Pépé’s opener against Manchester United, which while not perfect, saw the movement of the ball come across, meaning that Pépé could float in behind Luke Shaw.
The best teams, though, have multiple ways of breaking teams down. Take, for example, Arteta’s previous employer, Manchester City. When Manchester City visited the Emirates in December, they comprehensively took Arsenal apart, with Kevin De Bruyne at the heart of every goal, scoring two and assisting Raheem Sterling. Yet the most interesting aspect of that match was how De Bruyne broke structure. When City were in possession, there was a front five: Benjamin Mendy, rampaging up the left, Phil Foden tucking in, Gabriel Jesus as the number 9, Sterling on the right, and De Bruyne. Yet, De Bruyne floated, occupying lines of space that were, at times, occupied by others.
Yet De Bruyne is able to do that because of the amount of running he does; not defensive running, but offensive running, and constantly taking up different positions in space. As Pep Guardiola says, “He plays in a position where he can do this action, more upfront...he runs a lot, he helps a lot, but not to defend.”
Arsenal used to have this all-action running, from both Alexis Sánchez and Aaron Ramsey. But as both have departed in recent years, neither have been replaced. Running stats will show that Mesut Özil runs a lot, but his has always been to find space to find a pass for another player—a player like Alexis or Ramsey. Arteta’s job is two-fold, then. One aspect is technical and tactical: to develop the players at his disposal to find the ability to disrupt the opposition in the final third, where Arteta gives his players more freedom. The second aspect is to think about what qualities are needed, and to see if an external solution is available.
One reason why Unai Emery failed at Arsenal is he didn’t work enough at developing a structure in possession, hoping that just putting attacking players together would result in it working out for Arsenal. Arteta, on the other hand, is putting together this structure, and in doing so, exposing some of the qualities that Arsenal lack if they are going to be a modern, competitive football side. What Arteta does have is time. With the league more or less an extended pre-season, there is the capability to fine-tune the attacking structure, to work on players movements off the ball, to examine different combinations, and to perhaps find a player who is constantly on the move. If that is found, then Arsenal, much like their attack, can begin to move forward.