It is important not to get carried away—after all, West Bromwich Albion are not very good, and while Brighton have been unlucky, they are also starting to look not very good. But, after a Premier League season that has been a chore, Arsenal are not only winning again, but playing good football again. Indeed, that Arsenal are playing good football provides a source of hope that the Gunners’ league position will continue to improve. Arsenal’s revitalization then, is because of the better football that the team is playing, one that has come about because of personnel and coaching changes.
The personnel changes are obvious: Bukayo Saka has moved to the right hand side, and Emile Smith Rowe has come in to a number 10 position, as Mikel Arteta has returned to a 4-2-3-1 system. But the impact that the personnel changes have had is tactical, just as the inability for Arsenal to create and control games was tactical.
Broadly speaking, this is Arteta’s third system since becoming Arsenal’s manager a year ago. He started with a 4-2-3-1 that saw an attacking left back, then Bukayo Saka, with Granit Xhaka dropping in to the position to almost create a back three, with the right back having a more reserved role. After Project Restart, Arteta moved to a back three, but one that had a complicated role for the left wing back and allowed the left centre back, often Kieran Tierney, to overlap and push forward when in possession. This season, Arteta has dallied between a back three and a back four, but one with similar principles to the Project Restart shape.
The difference this season has been prescripted moves; indeed, Arteta has almost overcoached the attack, setting the team up to get into positions to cross the ball more, especially as Arsenal’s attack has spluttered. What Arteta has done in recent weeks is simplified everything: he’s returned to a 4-2-3-1, with less instruction. There is still instruction, especially in the way that Arsenal build out of the back, but there is now an allowance for free-styling—one that is further allowed because of personnel decisions.
First of all, Arsenal have increased the number of partnerships across the pitch. On the left hand side, Tierney has had existent partnerships with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli—in part because both like to come inside, leaving space open for Tierney to drive into. Having struggled with his final ball earlier in the season, Tierney has gotten into far better positions, in part because there is the space for him to run into.
Moving Saka to the right has allowed Arsenal to put forward their best right-hand side all season. Saka’s versatility, both in terms of position but also in terms of style, has allowed Bellerín to take up more roles: he can move inside with the ball, as Saka goes on the outside, or he can push on the overlap, with Saka coming infield to facilitate and create. Saka’s comfort going on the outside and coming inside allows Bellerín to be diverse in his movement; it also means that, unlike with some of Arsenal’s other right-sided players, there isn’t the demand on Bellerín that there has been.
Emile Smith Rowe has, of course, been added to the team, and that addition at number 10 has been important. But so too has moving Saka to the right. Saka’s inclination is to come inside, and because he is a ball-player, looking to combine and create, that funnels more of Arsenal’s passing through the middle, rather than the dreaded ‘U’ shape. That Saka has an understanding with Smith Rowe, something that the latter spoke about after Arsenal’s 1-0 win against Brighton, adds to Arsenal’s improved creativity. Rather than having to establish automatisms, the automatisms are there, based on years of playing together. That, then has an influence on Lacazette, who has a smaller space to play in, and players looking to combine and run beyond him, as Saka and Smith Rowe did for the former’s goal.
Smith Rowe’s biggest addition to the team has been the positions he takes up; Smith Rowe drifts from side to side, giving Arsenal someone who will receive the ball and pass it further forward in positions between the lines, with the added ball security allowing Arsenal to keep possession 30 yards higher up the pitch. But beyond that, Smith Rowe looks to get into the box, to gamble on. When Lacazette scored his first goal on Saturday, he was one of four Arsenal players in the penalty box, with his shot coming after Smith Rowe had gambled, and gotten a shot after Semi Ajayi’s clearance went off the post.
Arteta’s changes have been simple, and they have worked. Arsenal still carry some of his trademarks: working the ball from back to front, and attacking in five channels. But after spending November and the early part of December excessively coaching Arsenal’s attack, essentially stifling it through his demand of getting the ball wide into a position to cross at all costs, Arteta has let go of the handbrake, letting the partnerships of the players come to the fore. In that sense, it is reminiscent of Guardiola, with Thierry Henry saying, “He used to say to us the first time he took the team, ‘my job is to take you up to the last third, your job is to finish it’.” For Arteta, then, the challenge will be how to maintain Arsenal’s new found flair in the final third, and how he reacts when teams come up with new ways to keep the Gunners out.