Earlier this week Aaron wrote a piece about Arsenal’s upturn in form that I largely agree with. Last week, Lewis Ambrose did a deeper dive that I also agree with, including this pertinent point: “There is work to be done, absolutely. Saying that I’m happy with Arsenal’s last two months does not mean I’m happy with where Arsenal are, just the improvement from where we found ourselves.”
There is perhaps a desire to forget the 7 matches in November and the beginning of December, because it happened, and because Arsenal’s form wasn’t deserving of anything better. For better or worse, the style that Arsenal were playing at the time was Mikel Arteta’s conviction that it was the best way to get results, and we cannot ignore that.
However, it perhaps plays too large of an impact on how people view Arsenal right now. In the 14 games since Christmas, Arsenal have been the 4th best team in the Premier League. Before that they were the 13th best team—largely because of a run of 7 games with 5 losses and 2 draws. Before that, Arsenal’s football was an extension of what we saw in Project Restart: playing the margins, defensively organized, and pragmatic. It was not something that could survive a whole season, but Arsenal did win the FA Cup off the back of it, and Arteta saw, rightly, that Arsenal would need to develop. Whatever he tried in November and December fell flat on his face; his most recent change did not.
This is essentially Arteta’s third re-jig of Arsenal. The first was in December 2019, when he took over; the second in Project Restart, and the third on Boxing Day. There have been some consistents: largely, that the five channels going forward are filled, and that in build-up play, there are five channels that are filled. We see it now: Ødegaard and Saka play on the right, Emile Smith Rowe or Willian plays an inside left position, Kieran Tierney overlaps on the left, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang plays through the middle. There is though, some variation that gives Arsenal more verticality.
For example, Ødegaard will drop deeper in midfield to collect possession, while Saka comes in to the right hand side, providing room to the right fullback to overlap on the right, or underlap, with the right winger playing wider. Smith Rowe and Willian, while playing on the left, also come deeper, while Aubameyang looks to stretch play. This also means that Saka, playing on the right, is essentially acting as a second striker, which explains the explosion in production he’s had since moving to the position. Saka’s overall quality means he can also ably play the left hand side role, which is more about linking play.
All of this gives Arsenal’s attack both more fluidity, but crucially, more quality. It shows: since Christmas Day, Arsenal are third in expected goals and fourth in goals. In games that they have dropped points, such as Wolves and Burnley, the problem has not been creating chances, but finishing chances, as well as some overall bad luck. That isn’t to whitewash dropped points, but it’s a better place to be than dropping points because you didn’t create anything at all.
Games against Burnley and Wolves, which represent five crucially dropped points, largely saw good process: Arsenal were genuinely unlucky to come away with one point out of those two games. Curiously, though, Arsenal’s European matches have been more up and down. On one sense, this makes some sense: in Europe, in a two-legged tie, results simply matter more. But it also means that at times Arsenal have abandoned good process.
Take, for example, the first leg against Olympiacos. Arsenal ended up winning 3-1, which is an excellent result, complete with three away goals that meant a comeback from the Greek champions would always be unlikely. But, the method of Arsenal’s victory is one that causes frustration. Having been in control, Arsenal should’ve been ahead by more than the one goal they were, a recurring them. An error from Bernd Leno and Dani Ceballos gave Olympiacos the equalizing goal, and from there, Arsenal conceded the initiative. They could’ve given up a second goal, and, when Gabriel scored from a short corner routine to put Arsenal 2-1 up, Mikel Arteta was planning to bring on Mohamed Elneny along with Emile Smith Rowe and Nicolas Pépé, showing that the plan, at least, was to hold on to what Arsenal had. In that sense, Elneny’s third goal was not necessarily the result of process and planning, but rather luck—luck that Arsenal perhaps deserved, but luck all the same.
This may seem like nitpicking but it is these decisions that are important. We already know that longterm, Arsenal are a better team when they take the initiative. Arsenal’s good results from the last three months has been from playing on the front foot, but in intent in possession, but also out of possession: not necessarily pressing with any greater frequency, but pressing higher up the pitch. This should be the platform that takes Arsenal forward, because it’s working—and deviation from that platform can be cause for concern.
Because of Arteta’s relatively new status as a manager, there was always going to be a rough period of time. Arsenal had that rough period, and we all remember it, but Arteta came through it, and made the necessary personnel and tactical changes to improve Arsenal’s performances. That underlines the importance of process, and is why Arsenal are trending in a better direction. But Arsenal will only get where they want to be when their good results are consistent, and consistent with good process. Otherwise, Arsenal will be back where they in the doldrums of earlier this season, or the mirage of Unai Emery’s first season in charge: good results masking the ugly flaws. For the rest of Arsenal’s Premier League season, then, process really is the key for being able to predict the future.