After Arsenal’s false start during Project Restart, Mikel Arteta went back to the basics. The run that followed the 2-1 loss to Brighton was reminiscent of when Arteta first took charge: Arsenal were good for moments, indeed, for entire halves, but could not sustain the performance over a full 90 minutes. Then, as now, Arsenal were able to see games out. The manager has admitted as much: “We’re not at the point where we can dominate for 90 minutes, but we compete.”
In December, when Arteta came in with very little time to work on the training ground, Arsenal utilized a back four. This often became a back three, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles tucking in centrally in midfield, and Granit Xhaka dropping deeper. This closed the spaces for Arsenal, and closed the amount of space that some of Arsenal’s more questionable defensive players, such as David Luiz and Xhaka, had to cover.
This time, though, there was a twist. In part, without Mesut Özil as part of the team, Arteta has gone to three centre backs. The shape can still be similar to the shape from the winter, especially with either Sead Kolasinac or Kieran Tierney as the left centre-back; they can break out wide, and make the shape into a more orthodox back four. The effect, though, has been to strengthen Arsenal’s structure. In front of the defence, Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos have formed an effective midfield duo, with Arteta praising both. Ceballos’ defensive development has come for particular compliments from Arteta, and this duo has protected the Arsenal back three.
Thus, a team that spent the fall and early winter conceding a huge volume of shots under Unai Emery has gotten that count down: 13 against Leicester, 10 against Wolves (having conceded 25 under Emery), 8 against Norwich, 12 against Southampton, and 13 against Sheffield United in the FA Cup.
The corollary to this, because Arsenal are a team undergoing transformation, is that the attack hasn’t gotten going. Arsenal have only outshot Norwich since the beginning of Project Restart, and the attack has been boosted by several opposition errors—notably those of Southampton’s goalkeeper, Alex McCarthy, and Tim Krul of Norwich. Obviously, credit goes to Arsenal for the pressure placed on opposing goalkeepers, but these chances and goals aren’t the results of flowing moves.
One aspect of switching from 4231 to 343 is that it removes a midfield player, and adds a defensive player. This does not have to make a team more defensive, and obviously, formations don’t have to be descriptive: as stated earlier, the positioning of the left-centre back can allow the left wing-back, either Tierney or Bukayo Saka, to push forward, and allow Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to take a more central striking position. Yet, with the right-sided winger usually a forward, that places a lot of burden on the central striker, either Alex Lacazette or Eddie Nketiah, to link play. Thus, what happens is that Arsenal’s midfielders cannot build play through the middle unless the striker comes deep; there remains a lack of players who go in-between the lines, and can carry or create from those types of positions.
This has the effect of making Arsenal somewhat one-dimensional, reliant on their very good players to do something. Against Leicester, it was Saka and Aubameyang; against Wolves, it was again Saka, after nice combination play from Aubameyang. This is also manifested in how few attacking players get into the box.
Against Leicester, when Alexandre Lacazette should’ve scored from Héctor Bellerin’s cross, it was notable how few players were attacking the box: only Lacazette, Bellerin, Aubameyang and Saka were in the vicinity of the penalty box.
This is a departure from the five attackers. In part, that is a result of adding an extra defender, though it doesn’t have to be; if both full-backs advance, then the two wide forwards can take up inside positions. But that forces the central striker, like Lacazette, to knit play, absent an additional midfield player. Furthermore, committing an extra wing-back to advance at the same time as the other wing-back stretches Arsenal’s defensive shape, making the players cover more space—the exact situation that saw Arsenal concede more goals, more shots, and not compete as well.
In truth, it also highlights Arsenal needing more midfielders who can do multiple things; who have the ability to both attack and defend without compromising one or the other. But it also speaks to the need of more co-ordination; of when Bellerin goes, or Tierney goes, and how wing-backs committing forces the rest of the team to adjust. That will take time; for now, the return of Arsenal as a competitive force will have to be enough.