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Mikel Arteta imbalances Arsenal

Arteta’s lineup choices on Saturday has split Arsenal into two incoherent units.

Arsenal v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Speaking after Arsenal’s desultory loss against Brighton, Aaron Ramsdale said something quite interesting:

I think we just need to go out there and be free and play our game, you know? It’s a game of football and I think in the first half we were very tense and slow so we just need to go out there next week, trust what the manager and the coaching staff are saying and go and play our football, which we’ve done all season.

In the first half, Arsenal struggled to move the ball quickly. Ramsdale is right—he saw for himself, as Ben White and Gabriel consistently asked for options to pass to, and we saw White, whose passing has been such an important part of Arsenal’s game this season, be less penetrative and incisive.

Mikel Arteta was always going to have tough decisions on his hands. With Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney both out, and Tomiyasu not back, Arsenal were missing three starting players. Partey, in particular, makes Arsenal tick from the base of midfield, and without his ability to drop past opposing midfielders and play into the right hand space, Arsenal’s right, of Ødegaard and Saka, loses one of their tricks.

Yet, in his decisions on Saturday, Arteta essentially expressed confusion: keeping the structure of Arsenal’s attack the same while changing the build-up and base of it, hoping that the front five could keep on doing what they had been doing while the base changed.

In Partey’s absence, Albert Sambi Lokonga took on the role as the lone #6. Granit Xhaka played at left back, but also played somewhat of a hybrid role, taking up spaces more centrally to create space for Gabriel Martinelli. Arteta afterwards said Arsenal didn’t use the spaces Xhaka took up enough, and it was notable that in the second half, Xhaka was more ostensibly central.

Using Xhaka at left back instead of Nuno Tavares was questionable, but unlike last season, where it delivered a huge stylistic change, it didn’t this time around. This season, Kieran Tierney has been more defensive, especially with the absence of Tomiyasu. Where it made an impact stylistically was in midfield, where Arsenal went from Xhaka as a left number 8 and Thomas Partey as a number 6 to Emile Smith Rowe as a number 8 and Sambi as the number 6.

This system has been used before by Arteta, most recently in the home 0-0 draw with Burnley, and has not really been effective. One of the issues is the lack of presence in central midfield, fueled both by the absence of Partey, and by the use of Smith Rowe in central midfield. Smith Rowe is always looking to push forward, because he’s an attacking midfielder. That lack of presence meant that Sambi not only couldn’t replicate what Partey does, but also meant that Arsenal as a whole couldn’t play the ball through the lines, returning us to the sight of White and Gabriel, with their hands up, looking for a forward passing option.

With Arsenal unable to play forward, it meant that Lacazette couldn’t get involved in the game at all, leading to the link-up center forward having seven (7) passes in 90 minutes. Without the ability to play through midfield, Lacazette’s utility essentially does not exist, especially as he seems either unwilling or unable to make a run beyond the defence. Against a good pressing team like Brighton, that made it easier for centre halves to compress play and space, because of Lacazette’s immobility.

This brings us back to Ramsdale’s original point. Arsenal couldn’t play their football—not because of not trusting the coaching staff, but because Arsenal didn’t have players in the necessary positions. If the midfield set-up is to be broken, then Arsenal need to replace Lacazette with Eddie Nketiah, or Gabriel Martinelli (and there’s an argument to do it even if the midfield isn’t to be broken). Arsenal’s style of play was very good for three months; Arteta’s task now is to find an effective style until the end of the season.