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How Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal became an attacking threat

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Arsenal have improved their goal record under Arteta by 40%—now the challenge is to do so consistently.

Arsenal FC v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

After scoring 8 goals in the first 7 games of Mikel Arteta’s managerial reign, Arsenal have all of a sudden broken free offensively, scoring 7 in their last two, increasing the average under Arteta from the mediocre 1.14 goals per game to 1.7—an increase of 43%.

Becoming more attack minded, though, has come with some downsides: Arsenal conceded two very sloppy goals against Everton, and in the first part of the matches against both Newcastle and Everton, the midfield was somewhat vacated, bringing to mind the sweeping opposition counter-attacks that characterized matches under Unai Emery before his departure and the issues with transitions that Freddie Ljungberg had. One of the features of Arteta’s early games were that Arsenal were far more solid in transition, with the defence buoyed by Arsenal’s structure, with Granit Xhaka covering for an attack-minded left back and the right back tucking in, to ensure that Arsenal had five covering players: the centre backs, Xhaka, the right back, and the other central midfielder, either Lucas Torreira or Mattéo Guendouzi.

That structure, though, stunted Arsenal’s attack. While Torreira’s ability to find Mesut Özil was good, Torreira doesn’t necessarily have the passing range that Granit Xhaka has, that would allow Arsenal to quickly switch play to the front players, or find Özil in space, and it is notable that before going to Dubai, Guendouzi, whose passing range is a clear positive, replaced Torreira for the trip to Burnley. Against Newcastle, Dani Ceballos came into the team. Arteta persisted with the same midfield against Everton, with Guendouzi having come in for the Europa League away tie against Olympiakos. Everton initially found joy on the counter attack, taking advantage of the weaknesses of a Xhaka-Ceballos midfield.

With a Xhaka-Ceballos midfield, it is Ceballos who plays as the pivot, taking the deeper role that has been handed to Guendouzi and Torreira. Ceballos, though, is responsible for starting Arsenal’s attacks and is unnatural in a deeper position. This has ramifications for Xhaka; whereas he has had a smaller space to patrol under Arteta, he was caught upfield in the initial stages against Everton, opening spaces for Everton to attack.

Part of this was the aggressive positioning of Sead Kolasinac, with Bukayo Saka offering better recovery pace, meaning Xhaka didn’t have to push forward. Eventually, Arsenal’s ball progression, which has improved with Ceballos in the team, getting the better of Everton’s press for the middle period. This has been important; Arsenal’s pattern of play had begun to become predictable, and adding Ceballos’ ability to move the ball quickly and find a floating Mesut Özil has made Arsenal’s attack retain the ball better further up the pitch.

Another factor has been Héctor Bellerín’s return to the team. While Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ performances at right back were generally good, Bellerín’s return has coincided with Nicolas Pépé’s most productive period at Arsenal. One reason has been Bellerín’s forward movement. While he tucks in, Bellerín very much offers underlaps to Pépé, who holds the width on the right. This enables Pépé to face defenders in one v one battles, with Bellerín dragging defenders away.

This has had some defensive ramifications, as seen by Everton’s approach play on Sunday, where they looked to drag Shkodran Mustafi wide, into a one on one battle with Richarlison. Had Bellerín been deeper, Richarlison may have not had the influence he held on Sunday’s game, yet, Everton may have been more effective at shutting down Pépé. These are the decisions that Arteta will have to grapple with, as he seeks to utilize the skills of Pépé and players like Dani Ceballos. It speaks to an imperfection within Arsenal’s squad, but until changes are possible, Arteta will have to find a balance. Unai Emery was unable to do so; thus far, the evidence is that Arteta, just about, has been able to balance making Arsenal a better defensive side while also increasing their attacking quality.