Mikel Arteta – Arsenal – Tactical Analysis

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The common opinion on Arsenal these days is that they have massively improved under Mikel Arteta and that better times must be ahead. The manager’s been given the benefit of the doubt so far in his time at the helm of the Emirates, but other than an FA Cup win, there hasn’t been too much to celebrate for Arsenal fans since Arteta took charge. The Gunners have been lackluster to start this season, particularly in front of goal, which is always going to be a problem given that their primary dilemma over the past decade has been at the other end of the pitch. With a few key additions in Gabriel and Thomas Partey, Arsenal could be set for another season in the top six. But they have a massive job to do to get there, especially given the topsy-turvy start to this Premier League season, and their own personal woes to start the campaign. The Gunners currently sit 11th in the table, with a goal differential of -1. But still, many believe Arteta is the right man for the job and that better times are ahead. So with that, here is our Tactical Analysis of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal and what has gone both right and wrong since the Spaniard took charge.

system of play: 3-4-3

Although Arteta is often hard to peg down to just one formation, the Gunners have operated in a 3-4-3 most often this season. With the arrival of Thomas Partey, and David Luiz having someone stronger to play in a back-four with in Gabriel, Arteta may soon shift to a 4-3-3 on a regular basis in due time. But for now, the 3-4-3 has been the Spaniard’s first choice formation, as it was toward the end of 2019-20. The system incorporates Kieran Tierney as a left-sided centre-back rather than his usual left-back position; but that is basically the only player to actually play a bit out of position from where they might expect to be otherwise. Bernd Leno’s fully established himself as Arteta’s number one choice in goal again after Emiliano Martinez’s surprise departure for Aston Villa. Rob Holding and David Luiz have battled for a place at right-centre-back, alongside Gabriel and Kieran Tierney, who have been two of Arteta’s more un-droppable players this season. Hector Bellerin looks to have found his niche as a right-wing-back, while the versatile youngster Bukayo Saka has established himself in the team on the left. Thomas Partey will be Arteta’s first choice midfielder once he returns from injury, while Granit Xhaka continues to struggle despite greater pressure on him to perform with Dani Ceballos and Mohamed Elneny pushing for a starting birth. The front-three has been relatively consistent, particularly in the 3-4-3, incorporating former Chelsea man Willian, and the dynamic duo of best friends Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Arsenal do some rather interesting things in this formation, which we will examine over the course of this article. The first of their intriguing tactical nuisances under Arteta comes from their build-up, a.k.a. when playing out from the back.

playing out from the back

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Mikel Arteta has reinforced Unai Emery’s desire to play out from the back with the Gunners, just as his mentor Pep Guardiola did and still does at Manchester City. This season, the Spaniard has two incredibly key additions in his quest to do that. First and foremost, Gabriel has turned out to be a typical Arsenal player – an excellent short passer of the ball, confident on the ball and good under pressure. With the Brazilian firmly established in their back-line already, Arsenal have a natural outlet to begin their attacks from deep, without needing to rely on longer passes such as David Luiz or Granit Xhaka might be more eager to do. Gabriel is also a left-footed centre-back, often playing or starting his position in build-up phases on the left-side, which gives Arsenal a better route forward in quicker time than a right-footer might be able to achieve simply due to basic biomechanics. But the other key addition to Arsenal’s build-up this season is not Thomas Partey; it’s actually Mohamed Elneny. The now 28-year old midfielder spent last season on loan to Besiktas, but Arteta’s had full belief in the Egyptian and has reinstated him into the side. Elneny, who’s already made as many starts as he did under Unai Emery, is a neat and tidy footballer who reads the game well and hardly ever misplaces a pass. He currently has the best passing percentage in the league (94%) and he’s been key for the Gunners in winning the ball back and restarting attacks, with 2.2 interceptions per game (tied 7th most in the league).

Utilizing Gabriel and Elneny amongst others, Arsenal have many distinct methods of playing out from the back, and so this is where things will get a little more complicated.

Firstly, the Gunners create triangles on both sides of the field. They look to get Xhaka and Elneny/Partey in line with Gabriel and Holding/Luiz, but in between the lines of the opposition’s first line of pressure. Then Bellerin and Tierney remain high and wide for passing options, completing the triangle shape. This then pushes Bukayo Saka or Ainsley Maitland-Niles into midfield, where Arsenal create an overload quartet that includes the left-wing-back, central midfielders and the central striker – usually Alexandre Lacazette.

This set-up allows Arsenal to both overload central areas and wide areas at the drop of a dime based on where the space and opposition situate themselves. For example, Xhaka frequently comes deeper on the left to pick up the ball, pushing Tierney even higher and the left-wing-back into a more central area. With Xhaka in that position, he still has an option out wide in Tierney, and several options in midfield, including a talented ball carrier like Bukayo Saka or Ainsley Maitland-Niles. This set-up is also particularly useful for switching play, as we all know players like David Luiz and Granit Xhaka are very capable of doing with ease.

Many teams who engage in high pressing systems attempt to trap a team like Arsenal in wide-areas. But because of this shape that allows for so many players in the wide areas (even someone like Lacazette moving to the side of the ball in a deeper position), Arsenal are very well equipped to survive that pressure, as shown in the picture.

However, if teams force Arsenal into central areas in the build-up, Xhaka and Elneny can break the line of pressure, where Arsenal may have an overload (2v1) against the opposition’s defensive midfielder.

The central midfielders will also shift with the play based on what side the ball goes to (more often the left side), covering that gap in the central area that could be available to be exploited from the original image shown. Moreover, when playing out on the left in particular, the Gunners constantly look to create space for Xhaka to get on the ball. This can be done by Saka’s movement back out onto the wing, pulling a central or defensive midfielder with him and creating space for Xhaka to become available again.

The set-up also affords Arsenal some advantages further forward against high-pressing teams like Manchester City or Liverpool who play in a back-four. The opposition’s wingers simply cannot mark and press both Gabriel and Tierney (or Holding and Bellerin) at the same time. They have to make a decision as to who to press and once committed, it’s easy for Arsenal to utilize the central midfielder and create space for the “third man” (the free player in the open space). If the winger decides to press the centre-back, the wing-back will often be open as it’s a physically demanding task for an opposition central midfielder to then cut off that option. This issue is then further compounded by the fact that the opposition fullback may feel the pressure on their back to put pressure on Arsenal’s wing-back, knowing that their teammates won’t get there. But as the fullback pressures and leaves Arsenal’s winger open in behind, Arsenal can then break into their opposition’s half and look to score. From the image above, it’s quite clear why Arsenal favour switches of play from side to side their build-up. With these kinds of combinations, the opposition are forced to shift with the play and cover out of position players. That only leaves more space on the other side to exploit, where a player like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Hector Bellerin can do damage when afforded that space. This is one of the many reasons why a mid-block may be a better route to stopping Arsenal’s build-up then a high-pressing system, as it is less susceptible to switches of play.

It is also important to note here that Arsenal could easily have the exact same set-up playing with a 4-3-3, as they did against Sheffield United in their 2-1 victory in October. Saka in that case is already starting from a left-central midfield position where he will naturally ingratiate himself higher up the field, knowing that Xhaka will want to get on the ball deeper on the same side. Again, the overloads are created in central areas and Saka can easily move out-field to create more room for Xhaka and Elneny/Partey to roam in central areas.

It is also important to note that this meticulous method of playing out from the back works to a lesser extent against teams who remain very defensively organized in a mid-block, like Leicester City did last month in the Gunners’ 1-0 defeat. Leicester’s inverted wingers latched onto Partey and Xhaka, while the defensive midfield pivot of Tielemans and Mendy coped well with Lacazette’s movement in deep and the area where Arteta’s men might normally be able to create an overload. The wing-backs also covered the area out wide nicely, not allowing Bellerin or Tierney any space to advance into, and further stopping switches of play due to their compactness. This mitigated all of Arsenal’s possession in the defensive third, diminishing their chance creation along the way. More recently, Arsenal had the exact same problem against Aston Villa’s mid-block. The major difference was that Villa were more clinical going forward and so Arsenal suffered to stop counter attacks and lost the game 3-0. If Arsenal are going to improve their build-up, they need to practice long and hard how to beat a mid-block, or introduce a more forward thinking midfielder like Ceballos (or Ozil if it were possible). In the meantime, they may continue to struggle to break down a mid-block and as a result, struggle to score goals. So with that, it is time that we move onto a more detailed explanation of why Arsenal have struggled so horribly this season to score goals.

lack of goals

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Other than a smashing opening day 3-0 win against Fulham, the Gunners have struggled massively in front of goal so far in the Premier League, scoring just 9 goals in 8 matches. If you take away the match against Fulham, that’s 6 goals in 7 matches. Comparatively, in the Europa League they’ve scored 9 goals in just 3 matches, a competition in which they’ve fared far better. But the focus of this article is on the Premier League and so we will examine their lack of goal-scoring ability from that perspective.

Aubameyang has been the man to get the bulk of their goals in recent years and Arteta seemingly has not been able to get the best out of the former Dortmund man this season. If Arteta wants to score more goals, he should consider playing Aubameyang through the middle, allowing him to get into dangerous positions more often. Aubameyang is an expert at moving off-the-ball, just like a good world class striker should be. But he’s also clinical in front of goal, and particularly adept at knowing exactly where to be in the box to get on the end of a pass at the right moment. By playing him on the left, Aubameyang is not able to get into the same positions he would up front, and as a result, has not hit the mark in the same regard.

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Another reason for their struggles in front of goal could be their lack of a natural number 10 to create chances. Dani Ceballos always looks ready to pick out a pass or dribble the ball forward when he comes on, but he’s not defensively minded or ferocious enough to truly fit into the system all the time in the manner that Arteta might require. With Mesut Ozil being left out of the squad, Arteta is forced to utilize the wide areas at every opportunity, as he has no creative player to complete dangerous moves in central areas. That said, the role of the ‘number 10’ is slowly dwindling away in modern football and many of those creative types have been pushed to the wing. Willian is one such player that could operate in that attacking midfield role. But with the current set-up, Arsenal simply don’t attack down the right side enough and Willian is more of a set-piece specialist than a creative through-ball specialist. Teams like Everton, Chelsea, Leeds and Wolves get by without this type of player by either having players who can go box to box (Leeds & Wolves), or wingers who invert themselves to create chances from both wide and central areas (Everton & Chelsea). Arsenal have neither such player in their team. Some might argue Thomas Partey will be their man to go box-to-box, but he should share more of a defensive responsibility than what a more creative midfielder might have the freedom to do. As a result, much of Arsenal’s chance creation needs to come from the wide areas with players like Bukayo Saka and Hector Bellerin. Both have proven to be dynamic players, capable of getting up and down the line and aiding their team’s attacks. But they simply are not good enough to be Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. So Arsenal cannot rely on their wing-back’s to be the key creators in the team. It’s simply not going to work. So personally, I empathize with those who questioned Mesut Ozil’s exclusion from the team, given that he is exactly the type of player they need in between the lines. He doesn’t need to start every game, but having him as a plan B or on particular occasions when Arsenal know they’re coming up against a mid to low-block could have been of massive help.

One final reason for Arsenal’s lack of goals may arise out of their slower build-up. They’ve spent 30% of their time on the pitch this season in their own third (more than any other team). This is partially out of a need to defend, but also due to their slow build-up in their own defensive third. David Luiz is the only defender who actually wants to get the ball forward with a longer, more inviting pass, which is highlighted by the fact that he has the most through balls per game this season so far for the Gunners. Granit Xhaka can perform a similar role, but it’s not as though Arsenal have a target man to bring longer passes down. As a result, these longer passes have to either be for a switch of play (i.e. creating less verticality) or for a player into space (i.e. less likely to be received). So as a result, it’s no surprise that they favour shorter passes and a slower build-up, switching the ball from left to right. It’s an excellent case study for youth coaches aspiring to get their players to play out from the back. But it often limits Arsenal’s ability to simply drive the ball forward on the dribble and get the ball toward the goal more often. Their attacking stats are simply horrible for what you’d expect from one of England’s supposed top sides. They sit 16th in both shots and dribbles per game (9.1 and 7.0 respectively), and 14th in chances created per game (6.6). It’s not just that teams have been defensively resilient against them; it’s a failure on behalf of the entire team to get the ball forward more quickly and to get key players on the ball in dangerous areas. So despite all the intriguing tactical concepts Arteta has introduced to systematically play out from the back and press from the front, the Gunners still play like a team of individuals, who have no systematic route to goal. Quite simply, Arsenal could benefit from one or two main approaches to getting the ball forward and scoring goals, rather than ten tactically complex one’s. If for example they decided to use Hector Bellerin in the wide areas whenever possible through switches of play, they would probably create more chances. It would become ingrained in their positional play, and ingrained in their identity. Right now, the Gunners lack an identity going forward, and it’s been on full display in many matches so far in 2020-21.

high pressing

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In defense, Arteta’s men implement a high-pressing system, resembling the same 3-4-3 shape. The front-three in particular are responsible for man-orienting themselves to the opposition’s defenders. In a back-four, that might mean Alexandre Lacazette presses the team’s defensive midfielder rather than the centre-backs, as the wingers come inside to pressure the centre-back’s instead. The most common pressing trap that Arsenal try to force their opposition into is in the wide areas where they look to create a 2v1 situation with the wing-back and central midfielder covering the opposition fullback. The second most common trap is in central areas where the tough tackling Granit Xhaka or sound reader of the game Mohamed Elneny will look to win the ball back. If the press is broken, the Gunners will quickly set up in more of a 5-4-1 shape, just as they would if the opposition regained possession and restarted their attack around the halfway line.

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Despite the high-pressing nature of Arteta’s side, they are not particularly aggressive in the press and not always extremely successful at stopping their opposition from playing out from the back. The Gunners have made the least amount of tackles per game in the league (11.8), which is partially down to their control of possession, but also down to their lack of aggression to really win the ball back on a tackle. Instead, the Gunners look to force their opposition into mistakes, where they’ve been slightly better at intercepting the ball. That said, one of the biggest problems has been that the central midfielders haven’t been able to cover the gap in behind the front three. Lacazette, Willian and Aubameyang are all hard-working players with loads of pace, but perhaps they aren’t the best trio when it comes to defending in a high-pressing system, especially when players like Xhaka and Ceballos don’t have the mobility to cover in behind. Elneny has fared decently well at winning the ball back, while Thomas Partey has more than proven himself to be capable of covering space in a resilient Atletico Madrid side. So that might be Arteta’s preferred partnership moving forward if he is truly going to get the best out of his high-pressing system.

Another, less pressing issue of the press is that it sometimes resembles more of a lopsided 5-2-3. Bellerin and Saka sometimes don’t engage high enough and as a result, don’t cover the wide areas well enough. Still, pressing is an important part of Arsenal’s identity under Arteta, so at least they have some degree of an identity other than being a team capable of short passes and playing out from the back.

conclusion

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With four wins and four losses, it has been far from a dream start for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal after eight matches in 2020-21. But many still believe better times are ahead and that Mikel Arteta is the right man for the job. With everything going into this tactical analysis, I remain a bit unconvinced that the players are capable of performing all of the tasks that Arteta is asking of them. Further, I question the stubbornness that he’s shown in playing players that suit a system and style of play, rather than truly implementing a system and style of play that suits the players. Instead of working with players like Emiliano Martinez, Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Ozil to improve their quality, he’s cast them aside because they don’t suit the style of play. If Arsenal had these players in their arsenal, the Gunners might have actually fared better to start this season. With all that said, Arsenal remain a thoroughly enjoyable side to watch, full of surprises week after week, whether they be good or bad.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, and share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

You might also enjoy…

-> Brendan Rodgers – Leicester City – Tactical Analysis
-> Jose Mourinho – Tottenham Hotspur – Tactical Analysis
-> Dean Smith – Aston Villa – Tactical Analysis
-> Carlo Ancelotti – Everton – Tactical Analysis

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