After the chaos and misdirection of the Unai Emery era, Mikel Arteta’s arrival ushered a new wave of hope for Arsenal.
Here was a young, charismatic, and distinctly modern coach whose time spent as understudy to Pep Guardiola could provide the Gunners with a sense of identity they had been so desperately lacking. Yet despite the Spaniard’s triumphs in the Community Shield and the FA Cup, that sense of confidence about his tenure is beginning to erode. Fans can appreciate their side’s improved defensive solidity and strides in their collective mentality, but there is little of the exhilarating, mesmeric, proactive football that Arteta seemingly desires to implement.
As they approach the North London Derby, only relegation strugglers Burnley, West Brom, and Sheffield United have scored fewer goals in the Premier League than Arsenal. They’ve taken the sixth-fewest shots and have the seventh-lowest expected goals of all teams in the league as well. Arteta’s side are evidently struggling to score goals, and the question for many Arsenal fans is why?
Perhaps the issues start with Arsenal’s formation. Identifying their best setup is something of a quandary. When he first arrived at the club, Arteta favored a 4-2-3-1 with Mesut Ozil as the team’s primary playmaker. After lockdown, though, he’s favored a 3-4-3 which served his side well in their FA Cup victories over Chelsea and Manchester City, as well as league wins against Liverpool and Manchester United. In recent fixtures, however, he’s reverted back to the 4-2-3-1, this time with Joe Willock as a number ten, in an attempt to give his team more attacking thrust.
🔴 Arsenal's attack this season ⚪️
▪️ 10 goals scored (17th)
▪️ 11.3 xG (13th)
▪️ 10.5 non-penalty xG (9th)
▪️ 93 shots (14th)
▪️ 30 shot on target (17th)
▪️ -1.3 goals minus xG (15th)
— Fantasy Faithful #FPL (@FPLfaithful) December 5, 2020
Like Pep Guardiola, Arteta espouses positional play. It’s a complex and diverse set of tactical principles, but can be essentially distilled into having certain players occupy specific zones during different phases of play, the intention being to create numerical superiority to pull the opposition defense out of shape and facilitate quick passing sequences that can create chances. Arteta seems unsure as to which formation – 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1 – best allows him to implement positional play without compromising the team’s defensive solidity. To understand why he’s potentially having these issues, it’s best to analyze how Arsenal play in each phase of the attack.
In the 3-4-3, Arsenal are much improved in their capacity to play out from the back than under Emery. Summer signing Gabriel has two key qualities Arteta’s side previously lacked: he’s left footed and extremely comfortable playing the ball out from the back. Last season, Granit Xhaka and David Luiz both impressed with their long range passing from deep, but both are prone to mistakes when circulating the ball with quick, short passes under pressure.
Gabriel is composed and confident on the ball, and the fact that he’s left footed allows him to open up the angles of Arsenal’s build up and thereby makes it harder for opposition teams to press them high. The use of a back three also enables Arsenal to more easily generate numerical superiority deep in their own half, with the double pivot dropping to form passing triangles with the outer center-backs and wingbacks and the central center-back often acting as a spare option. It allows Arsenal to maintain superiority both centrally and out wide.
In sum, Arsenal’s recruitment and build-up structure have enabled them to become significantly better at transitioning the ball from defense to the midfield, even under pressure. When progressing the ball from the middle third of the pitch to the attacking third, Arsenal are highly reliant on Thomas Partey’s penetrative passing and ball-carrying. The Ghanaian midfielder certainly has the requisite attributes to consistently play the ball into the final third, yet in the 3-4-3, his task is significantly more challenging than it ought to be. With the front three pushing high, there’s a lack of forward passing options in central areas for Partey to find. It’s one of the key reasons as to why Arsenal generate so few shots, as they’re forced to either recycle possession in the midfield or funnel the ball wide for aimless crosses.
This isn’t necessarily an inherent issue with the 3-4-3. During the 2016/17 season, Antonio Conte led Chelsea to the Premier League title playing this system, scoring plenty of goals in the process. Nemanja Matic played a similar role to Partey for the Blues, albeit with less dynamism and more of an emphasis on his impressive passing range. What enabled the system for work for Chelsea in an attacking sense was Diego Costa.
The Spaniard was superb at dropping off with his back to goal and then playing in other Chelsea forwards. His abrasive physical style and technical quality meant he was a reliable and effective central passing option for Matic to find. It’s also worth noting that playing the ball out wide and crossing was more effective for Chelsea due to Costa’s aerial presence and that, in Eden Hazard, they possessed a player who could pick up the ball from just about anywhere and create scoring chances essentially by himself.
Arteta, who doesn’t have a ball-carrier like Eden Hazard or a striker who can link play and act as a target man like Diego Costa, has been unable to make the 3-4-3 a productive attacking system against teams that play in a low or mid-block. Teams often find it easy to cover passing lanes to the wingbacks, isolate Partey in the middle, and mark the forward players if they try to drop off. It’s Aston Villa and Leicester City earned wins against the Gunners earlier this season.
This is perhaps why Arteta has shifted to a 4-2-3-1. The presence of a number ten gives the midfield pivot, Partey in particular, another player centrally to progress the ball to. The issue is that Arsenal don’t have an ideal number ten. Joe Willock is a promising talent and capable dribbler, but he isn’t the type of player to find pockets of space in between the lines and execute the final pass that generates shots for teammates. Dani Ceballos could perform the role, but is probably better suited as a number eight and Arteta seems to favor him in a deeper role.
Mesut Ozil is the obvious choice for the role, but he’s been left out of the squad and would struggle to fit into Arteta’s pressing scheme. Some may argue that it’d be worth to shoulder Ozil’s potential defensive burden for the qualities he can bring in attack, but at 32 years of age, Arsenal need to start looking for a replacement anyway.
The 4-2-3-1 could also compromise some of Arsenal’s proficiency in playing out from the back and in their general defensive solidity. Should William Saliba assimilate into the starting eleven, he and Gabriel could provide Arsenal with a commanding and composed central defensive pairing who could make playing with a back four less risky for the Gunners.
What’s clear, though, is that Arsenal need a player who can change the gears in the attack, who can make their passing sequences penetrative, unpredictable, and dangerous. In Partey, they have a player who’s excellent at breaking the first line of defense. They now need someone who can perform a similar function higher up the pitch.
In truth, though, signing such a player may not be the ultimate solution either. Positional play requires rehearsed patterns of movement and passing that need to occur quickly in order to be effective. Even a slight deviation from that extreme tempo can turn what could be an enthralling and attractive style of play into something rather mundane and blunt.
Arteta will need time for his team to better their attacking play. How long that will take is anyone’s guess. Guardiola took a full season and heavy investment in fullbacks and a goalkeeper for positional play to truly work at Manchester City. With his less talented squad, Arteta could conceivably take even longer to turn his now mechanical and prosaic side into one that can inspire.
Crucially, the Arsenal board knew that from the moment they hired Arteta. They were putting their faith in an ideologue, one that was always going to have teething problems with this squad. In time and with sensible recruitment, Arsenal’s goal-scoring will almost certainly improve. Whether Arteta can enact that transition soon and effectively enough remains to be seen.