Seven weeks after their last Premier League game, Arsenal will be back at it on Saturday. For those of you who blinked and missed the odd break, between the FA Cup final and the Community Shield, and then the two weeks where half of Arsenal’s players were away on a bizarre international break, nothing really happened. Arsenal did sign Willian and Gabriel Magalhães, and did bring back Dani Ceballos, but the identity of the team that takes to the field on Saturday against Fulham will look a lot like the team that beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final, and Liverpool in the Community Shield. In that sense, tactically, things will be similar too.
During his period as Arsenal’s manager, Mikel Arteta has been more pragmatic than one might have expected. When Arsenal struggled defensively during the beginning of Project Restart, Arteta took away a midfielder and introduced a back three. When Arsenal had must-win games, they sacrificed possession and made the team harder to break down. The results—beating Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool twice, albeit once on penalties and once with a huge stroke of luck—speak for themselves. Indeed, Arsenal now have a plan for big games, and it’s a plan that is borne out of success.
Yet, one reason why Arsenal finished 8th is because Arsenal could beat the big teams, but not smaller sides—especially at home. The Emirates, which was a fortress under Arsène Wenger, was no longer impenetrable after Unai Emery had had his way. From the second best home record in 2017/18, to third in 2018/19, to seventh last season. Arsenal lost twice to Brighton, drew against Crystal Palace twice, lost away at Aston Villa, and drew away against the three teams that were relegated. Winning those games—all of which were winnable, as Arsenal led in six of the eight games mentioned above—would’ve likely seen Arsenal get closer to the top four. And in all of those games, Arsenal had trouble creating chances.
Improving Arsenal’s chance creation is one reason for the arrival of Willian. Yet, it also requires a restructure of Arsenal’s midfield, something that, shorn of turning Bukayo Saka and/or Ainsley Maitland-Niles into central midfield players, requires bringing in new players—players that haven’t, as of yet, arrived. Between the lack of midfield signings and the almost nonexistent pre-season, Arsenal are likely to start with the same tactical system that they finished the season with. While the Arsenal players are familiar with the role, capable of playing out from the back in the system, even under good pressure, and the shoots of the development of automatisms, there is still a lack of creativity.
In the 343 system, Arsenal’s creativity almost exclusively comes from wide positions. Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos’ role is to be involved in building the play deep, before allowing the wingbacks to get sprung, and given Arsenal time to shift into an attacking line of five. The absence of creativity is well documented, but the lack of midfield creativity means a well drilled team can block off wide areas and force Arsenal to consistently play square passes.
This, ultimately, is reflected in the numbers. Arsenal’s underlying attacking numbers were firmly midtable, with 49.2 expected goals. Expected goals are a useful metric for evaluating a team’s overall skill and productivity. Arsenal had poor underlying numbers under Unai Emery, which ended up being reflected at the beginning of this season. It is likely that Arteta will improve the underlying numbers to an extent: better coaching, better defensive players as Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac, and David Luiz begin to be phased out, and some marginal improvements on set pieces, but to become a top club, Arsenal need to dramatically improve the underlying numbers—that is, make some big changes to the playing squad, all of which cannot be done this summer.
However, what we have seen under Arteta is gradual improvement. Given the shortening of the pre-season, it’ll take time for tweaks to take place, as they’ll have to be made during the incredibly condensed season. One thing that we have seen, though, is Arsenal becoming a good cup team under Arteta. With the most serious matches of the Europa League taking place later in the season, when Arteta’s effects may have been best understood and implemented, it may be that Arsenal’s best chance at the Champions League could come through the Europa League, allowing Arsenal to more radically improve their talent.