The contrast with last season was stark. Rather than losing 2-0 on the first night of the season, Arsenal won 2-0. The away fans, many of whom cursed the manager’s name 12 months ago, lustily belted out that we’ve got Super Mik Arteta, and that he knows exactly what we need. And, rather than looking lost and all at sea, Arsenal looked well-coached, especially in the opening quarter of the game, where Arsenal were completely dominant.
Arsenal have higher expectation this season, in part because of what the team was able to produce for large parts of the last season. That production indicated a team and manager getting to grips with what they wanted to do tactically and stylistically, and the capability of the team to deliver. After a summer of strong spending, Arteta now essentially has his preferred first eleven. Thus, while last season, there was awkwardness on the opening day, with Calum Chambers, Pablo Marí, Nicolas Pépe, Bernd Leno (all of whom are either going or have gone) and the youngster Flo Balogun all starting (and it’s fair to exclude Balogun, as that was a covid-driven change), Arteta’s first XI of the 2022-23 campaign had a smoothness in how they operated with each other.
One tenet of Arsenal’s football has generally remained true under Arteta: he has wanted Arsenal to fill five channels in attack and off the ball, with the flexibility to make the pitch narrow or wide as the game demands.
In Arsenal’s first significant attack, that meant Granit Xhaka pushed high into the forward line, with Gabriel Martinelli wide of him, and Zinchenko and Ben White pushing into midfield to form a midfield three.
One thing that was significant was how much Arsenal were building down the left hand side. For much of last season, Arsenal preferred to build play down the right, with the group of Takehiro Tomiyasu, Bukayo Saka, and Martin Ødegaard. But, with Zinchenko in the team, Arsenal were happy to build down the left, with Martinelli, Zinchenko and Xhaka showing great understanding.
This is where some of Arsenal’s fluidity comes into play. Xhaka would come outside when Zinchenko would come inside, as would Martinelli, with Xhaka going high and wide. Or, Zinchenko would push forward on the left, with Xhaka sitting inside, and Martinelli inside, or, Martinelli would stretch play on the left. What was crucial is the movement was fairly in tune—Xhaka, Zinchenko, and Martinelli would move in relation to each other.
In a later attack, Martinelli has come inside to play the ball wide, and Xhaka and Zinchenko are filling the lanes on the left. Saka, who received possession from Martinelli, is playmaking, with White looking to create space by overlapping from right back, and Saka dropping into the space created.
Arsenal lost fluidity as the match went on, and lost intensity as the match went on, and that’s something Arsenal will have to continue to work on. But even in the second half, when Arsenal scored, the five channels were maintained: for the second goal, Xhaka has taken last season’s role, where he’s sitting in a deeper left half space, with Kieran Tierney pushing on from left back, in an orthodox overlapping role.
It gives Arsenal an element of unpredictability, and the ability to have attacking rotations. These rotations can happen across the front line, with Gabriel Jesus happy to move into wide positions, or there can be rotation between the lines. All of this adds variety to Arsenal’s attacking play, and gives Arsenal multiple angles to attack from. Arsenal became too predictable last season, and if Arsenal are to kick on to another level, unpredictability will be crucial, both with the different profiles in the side, and with the players on the pitch.