“Then I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition. We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative, and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us.” Whatever Mikel Arteta’s conception of himself as a manager was in 2015, his ideas in 2021 do not add up. Arsenal dictate possession but do not create chances. They do not take initiative, and for Arsenal fans at least, they do not entertain. Such it was with Arsenal losing against Brentford 2-0. The Gunners dominated possession, 65%-35%, and had 22 shots to Brentford’s 8. But, Brentford had 3 shots on target to Arsenal’s 4, and created more big chances, and a higher xG. Despite having a third of possession, Brentford completed only 9 fewer passes in Arsenal’s penalty box to the Gunners in Brentford’s penalty box, 19 to 10.
Arsenal had some moments, namely when Emile Smith Rowe used neat footwork to beat a player and motor into space. Smith Rowe created two of Arsenal’s only good chances; one for himself when he broke away and drove into the penalty box, and the second when he set Bukayo Saka away down the left hand side, who cut the ball back to Nicolas Pépé. Beyond that, Arsenal’s patterns of play were predictable: work the ball, slowly, to Kieran Tierney overlapping on the left-hand side to cross, at which point, there would be enough Brentford defenders to clear their lines.
Essentially, Arsenal avoided playing passes into the penalty box. They played only six in the first half, and while that increased in the second half, it is symptomatic of the proscribed patterns of play Mikel Arteta has coached. Attacking football is not just about the players you have, so while the signing of Martin Ødegaard will improve things, the intent behind Arsenal’s football has to change: players have to move in relation to the ball, they have to take up positions in dangerous spaces, and the dangerous pass has to be played. When that doesn’t happen, you get this:
Arsenal’s play is the result of passivity, with the Gunners playing at a tempo that doesn’t meet the demands of the Premier League. That might be fine at Manchester City, where you have players who don’t lose the ball easily, and you have such quality across midfield and the attack. Arteta’s response to not having that quality, though, is to go harder on control. Like Manchester City, Arsenal do not press much, and drop off. Unlike Manchester City, Arsenal are not comfortable in possession: Bernd Leno takes too long to pass to his defenders, Pablo Marí was targeted by Brentford, and we saw the limitations of Calum Chambers. The tactics do not suit the players, but neither do the ideas.
Arsenal did play a higher line, but without pressure. This led to the rather bizarre outcome of being poor creating chances, but also poor out of possession, with Brentford threatening frequently on the counter-attack. Look at, for example, Arsenal’s defensive actions in their final match of the season compared to today: they end up in similar areas. Ultimately, if you play a high line and don’t press, you become extremely vulnerable. But also, if you play a high line and don’t press, you don’t get the advantage of winning the ball back in higher areas, and quickly countering.
There is a fundamental problem. Arteta wants Arsenal to dictate play. What has become apparent is that in his mind, dictating play means control of the ball. The problem there, though, is that without intent to play, Arsenal’s control is illusory, something that becomes even more so without any aggression off the ball. What remains to be seen is whether Arsenal add aggression to their play or remain passive. The likelihood is the latter; this is, after all, a manager who has managed over 80 games for the club, and is consistently showing that he wants a proscribed style of build-up play. But ultimately, if Arsenal do not up the tempo of their play, it doesn’t matter who gets signed or who plays where; the style will follow last season’s period of November and December, and the results likely will too.