A week away from the beginning of Arsenal’s 2021-22 Premier League campaign, the team looks disconcertingly similar to the side that finished 8th and lost to Villarreal in the Europa League semi-final. Indeed, with Martin Ødegaard back at Madrid and not yet returned or replaced and Thomas Partey injured, you can easily make the argument that Arsenal are worse off than they were the last time they played a Premier League match.
It does not help that Arsenal’s additions have not been flashy. Nuno Tavares is a backup left back, Sambi, in all likelihood, won’t play all that much this season, and Ben White, although a £50m signing, is a centre back. Yet, White’s addition will have two impacts: Arsenal will be able to better suited to playing a higher defensive line with White than Rob Holding or David Luiz, and, secondly, White will help Arsenal build play. While it is difficult to quantify how much of an impact that will have on Arsenal’s attack, which is the biggest area of concern ahead of the new season, it will make a difference.
Last season, White completed more dribbles than both Holding and Luiz, passed more players, and had more progressive carries. Some of this is a function of White playing at times as a right back; some of it is also a function of White being capable of carrying the ball, something that neither Luiz, although an excellent passer, nor Holding were adept at.
Being able to carry the ball means being able to play around pressure. It gives Arsenal another way to break lines, and opens up space elsewhere. It means, too, that Arsenal can more quickly push forward, without having to wait for the ideal pass to open up. In a team that is very cautious, being able to bring the ball further up the pitch more frequently gives Arsenal better control.
So too does being able to set the defensive line further up the pitch. Against Chelsea in the Mind Series, Arsenal played a high line—something that Holding and Pablo Marí struggled with. This may be a system that is better designed for White and Gabriel, who both have the ability to utilize recovery pace.
Concerningly, that happened less against Tottenham Hotspur, where Arsenal saw more of a reversal to the form and style of last year. That speaks to Arsenal’s overall issue, which is laid out in the Statsbomb season preview: having been close to the bottom in the league in pressing, and pressure regains,
Arteta’s approach has been one of slowing the pace down and manipulating possession of the ball as much as possible. That was evident in Arsenal’s passing trends last season: lots of deep passes in build-up play and very few cohesive or common patterns in the final third. While metrics highlighted some territorial domination (Arsenal entered the final third 49.2 times per game compared with their opponents’ 42.4 entries), they struggled to translate that style into goals or a general threat. This must change if Arsenal are to break into Europe again.
This can be changed in multiple ways: Arteta can add creative players to the side, and up the tempo of the team, telling them to play more quickly. But part of this issue also depends on where Arsenal get the ball back. If your template is to keep possession and break teams down through moving the ball, if you regain possession at goal kicks and in deep positions, then it stands to reason that you will play the ball deeper in your half, because the opposition can block you passing forward. Essentially, the best place as a team to lose the ball is in the attacking third because you can either press or regain team shape, and Arsenal did not win the ball back in the attacking third.
Playing in a high line patently did not suit David Luiz. But it does suit Ben White, and Gabriel, who should form Arsenal’s defensive partnership for the majority of the season. While much of Arsenal’s attacking problems stem from Arteta’s intent, there is also the issue of his innate conservatism. Much like Pep Guardiola, Arteta wants a security blanket. At times last season, it was a back 3; if Arsenal are to progress this season, it must be the ability of Ben White to be comfortable as the team pushes higher up.