Mikel Arteta – Arsenal – Tactical Analysis (2021-22 Edition)

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At the start of the 2021-22 campaign, all hope seemed to be lost for Arsenal. After losing their opening matches to Brentford and Chelsea without scoring a single goal, the Gunners suffered an embarrassing 5-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester City. To make matters worse, their arch-rivals had beaten Guardiola’s men on the opening day of the season, and sat top of the table at that time. Meanwhile, the Gunners sat rock bottom, with Arteta’s future in doubt. Weeks later, Arsenal and Spurs faced off in the North London Derby, where the Gunners came out guns blazing, securing a stunning 3-1 victory. Ever since, Arteta’s Arsenal have been full of light and positivity, playing some of their best football under the Spaniard. Arteta may not have fully flipped the script on his abilities, but for the meantime, Arsenal sit in fourth place, full of promise for the future. So with that, here is our 2021-22 tactical analysis of Mikel Arteta’s team.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-2-3-1

Mikel Arteta found his form with Arsenal just before the start of December of last year, after switching from a lackluster 3-4-2-1 to a more dynamic 4-2-3-1 formation. The 4-2-3-1 has remained the Spaniard’s system of choice since, with the Gunners rarely ever moving away from it this season. Of particular note, it allows Arteta to deploy a midfield triad of sorts, which has had advantages for the Gunners in all phases, particularly transitions. That midfield triangle has seen many different names and faces, but perhaps none more vital to the team than 21-year-old Emile Smith Rowe. The British talisman has scored 7 goals with 2 assists in his 16 appearances so far this season, operating in several different roles. Smith Rowe’s versatility has allowed other men to enter the frame in attacking midfield as he shifts wide, including Arteta’s recent re-introduction of Martin Odegaard, and the use of Alexandre Lacazette in behind Aubameyang. Lacazette’s goal-scoring form has been anything but heroic this season, but he’s continued to be of great use in counter-pressing, playing out from the back and supporting the young guns in behind him. The Frenchman works incredibly hard for the team and would be very difficult to replace, even if the Gunners should invest in someone who bangs in the goals more regularly. Bukayo Saka meanwhile has remained the Gunners’ most important attacking weapon, featuring in all 18 Premier League games so far. An excellent inverted winger with pace for days, Saka holds the weight of being Arsenal’s most important player at just 20 years of age. Gabriel Martinelli can also enter the frame as a useful attacking option from the wing, allowing the Gunners to play an entirely under-21 attacking trio should they ever desire.

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At the back end of the pitch, Arsenal have made significant leaps and bounds this season thanks to a series of smart signings. Ben White was the most expensive of those summer deals, commanding a 50 million pound fee, and he’s been put to work straight away as Arsenal’s most consistent defensive starter. Had it not been for injury, Kieran Tierney would have undoubtedly been that man, as he continues to perform admirably at both ends of the pitch. However, Tierney’s month-long injury allowed room for another new signing to emerge. Nuno Tavares was outstanding in his stead, and incredibly unlucky to lose his place upon Tierney’s re-arrival. On the other side, Arsenal have found an absolute gem at right-back in Japanese international Takehiro Tomiyasu. The 23-year-old isn’t as flashy or creative as other modern day fullbacks, but he’s a well-rounded engine for the team, and more reliable than the right-backs of past Arteta days. Gabriel Magalhaes has completed the back-line most frequently, continuing to grow in importance in his second season at the club. But perhaps the key man of all men in Arteta’s arsenal this season – Aaron Ramsdale has been absolutely superb since knocking Bernd Leno off the number one spot in goal. Ramsdale boasts an impressive save percentage of 81.0%, bettered only by Wolves’ Jose Sa and Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy. He’s also accumulated the most clean sheets to matches played in the league – a staggering eight shutouts in fourteen games. As if that’s not enough, he’s instantly been a leader for the team – a commanding force shouting all game long at an Arsenal back-line that can ordinarily be lackadaisical, fragile and soft. When you combine Ramsdale with two experienced heads in midfield in Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey, not to mention the youthful verve further forward, Arsenal suddenly have a team less afraid to do the hard work. In addition to effort and structure, Arsenal have showcased a willingness to work for each other this season, a feature commonly missing prevously. They hold each other accountable in staying focused and present, and have created a team of grinders and steadily reliable heads.

So now that we’ve established some of the key personnel existing within Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 formation, let’s move along to the over-arching tactics that have led to their recent top four leap.

BUILD-UP

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Sometimes criticized for being disjointed and overly complex, Arteta’s build-up has been incredibly efficient since their return to top form in late September. Ben White and Gabriel are both exceptional ball carriers, while Tomiyasu and Tierney are smooth operators that can help the Gunners progress the ball out wide later on in moves. As a result, Arsenal often start their build-up through Ramsdale, the two centre-backs, and Thomas Partey in a diamond shape. The fullbacks will remain slightly advanced but not too far away, as Arsenal’s attacking quartet will take turns dropping deep to create additional options in central channels. Under immense pressure, the Gunners are capable of playing with a one-touch mentality even around their own goal. They scored a magnificent goal against Southampton doing exactly that, moments after Ramsdale received the ball amid intense pressure from Armando Broja. But they can also be more patient in possession against sides sitting deep, where someone like Granit Xhaka thrives in threading needles through tight spaces.

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Xhaka knows his role in the build-up inside and out, as we’ve discussed many times before, and helps to push Tierney higher by dropping into the left half-space to pick up possession alongside the two centre-backs. His movement out wide adds a new dimension this season, allowing the centre-backs more room to carry the ball forward into space as Arsenal stretch the field. White and Gabriel will often look for progressive passes down their half-space when doing so, into Arsenal’s inverted wingers, where the fullbacks can then join on the overlap. Saka is the man Arsenal target most often with their passes, which in turn allows Tomiyasu to be another top force in possession, as he joins right by Saka’s side. This is a particularly useful build-up tactic, as Tomiyasu recently described to the press. Essentially, passes from centre-back out to the full-back in a team’s own half are easier for the opposition to press, as they are closer to the touchline. They’re also less likely to result in a second pass if the pressure is sound, with fewer options available for progressing the ball down the line so close to the touchline.

But to say that Tomiyasu is not involved in the build-up would simply be untrue. The Japanese international holds a significantly more withdrawn position to that of Kieran Tierney, often giving their build-up a 4+1 look. Commonly deployed as a left-sided centre-back in Bologna’s 2020-21 Serie A campaign, this is a natural progression for the 23-year-old as he learns his new role. But it also matches what Arteta likes to see in his build-up regardless of the player’s individual strengths and positional history. Arteta frequently used Calum Chambers or even Hector Bellerin this way last season, particularly in the side’s 4-2-3-1 formation. This draws opposition pressure higher, leaving more room in behind for the passes Arsenal actually want to make through the centre of the pitch. It also gives the Gunners advantages in transition should they lose possession in their own half, allowing them greater success at counter-pressing in an already stable 4-1-4-1 shape. Finally, it means that Saka can also hold his width at times and stretch the field, where Tomiyasu will then underlap later on in moves.

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The form of Thomas Partey has also been important in progressing the ball forward, and the Ghanaian international has made more passes into the final third than any of his teammates. Since a striker like Lacazette will often look to hold up play and pass the ball backwards, having a deep-lying midfielder who can pull the strings and provide through passes is particularly important. In Partey and Xhaka, Arsenal have two players capable of doing exactly that. So with confidence ripping through their veins, Arsenal have one of the most intelligent and successful build-up plans in the league. You can go all the way back to Aaron Ramsdale to find a player incredibly confident on the ball, as the young keeper has an underrated ability to pick out a pass from anywhere on the pitch. His ability to go long on goal kicks frequently frees Arsenal from high-pressure situations, and simultaneously allows the team to break into the attacking half without the fancy song and dance first. This is something Arteta constantly emphasizes in training, and you can see that in the way they’ve turned their build-up into fancy song and dance goals this season.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

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Arsenal’s attacking talent have been in full flow this season, with the Gunners scoring 27 goals in 18 matches this campaign. Under Arsene Wenger, the Gunners were known for beautiful football, one-touch combinations and possession-based football. Under Mikel Arteta this season, Arsenal have developed a greater awareness of their strengths, and have been less and less afraid to play on the counter-attack. While they still love to play on a one-touch, they are now more likely to do so in attacking transitions, than their longer spells with the ball. No team in the Premier League have accumulated more counter attacking goals than the Gunners (5), and only Liverpool have netted more from set-pieces. Great teams can score goals in all kinds of ways, and this is a promising sign of what may be to come from Arsenal as Arteta continues to build his squad.

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So why are the Gunners so deadly from counter attacks? With the energy and pace Arsenal possess up front, the team have several men capable of dribbling the ball at pace, taking players on and driving the ball forward into open space as opposition players recover. Saka in particular is an exceptional ball carrier, matching the likes of Declan Rice and Wilfried Zaha in total progressive carries this season at 114. But they can also play intricate, one-touch, vertical passes in transition, allowing the Gunners a variety by which they can score their counter-attacking goals depending on the space around them. Arteta’s ingrained a half-turn mentality into his players, where all players ahead of the ball will position themselves side on to the player in possession. They can then play forward more seamlessly, and capture a better photograph of the players moving into space around them. Given the speed at which counter-attacks break and how quickly a picture can change, this is a particularly important skill to possess. Further, the Gunners always leave at least one man high to stretch the opposition defense back, whether that be a wide forward like Gabriel Martinelli, or the actual forward in someone like Lacazette or Aubameyang (although with him it’s usually more out of laziness). That player will even hang out offside until Arsenal win the ball, and then rush into an on-side position behind the defender’s blindspot upon the start of Arsenal’s counter-attacking surge. They’ve also nailed down the use of verticality in these moves, with the likes of Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli far more likely to pop up in central channels or half-spaces than stretch the field wide. This increases the speed at which Arsenal can transition to attack, and positions them closer to the opposition’s goal.

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Despite their success from these situations, it would be incorrect to say that Arsenal have become a counter-attacking team. They still hold over 50% of the possession in their matches, and can play some fantastic football from back to front. In a similar vein to Guadiola’s Manchester City, Arteta wants all of his players to play an attacking role in some form or another. The centre-backs are often responsible for carrying the ball into the opposition’s half and looking for direct ground passes down their channel, often finding the wingers in space as they invert. That then allows the fullbacks to gallop on the overlap, where both Tomiyasu and Tierney can make important contributions. Both players have the quality to deliver exceptional crosses into the box, but Arsenal don’t have a target man capable of feeding off crosses. Recognizing that, Arsenal’s crossing numbers have dropped from 20 per game last season to 15 this season, where the Arsenal fullbacks will opt for lower driven passes or give-and-go’s into the penalty area instead. Given Tierney’s high starting position and eagerness to overlap, Smith Rowe is a particularly useful weapon to use off the left, as it allows the Englishman to play like a second number ten and create chaos in central channels. This is just one indication of Arteta’s learning process throughout his time at the club, with the team adapting their crossing principles based on an identified weakness from the season prior.

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But before moving onto Arsenal’s defense, let’s be clear – Arsenal’s attack is not all guns and roses. They are not anywhere close to the level of a Manchester City or Chelsea, and they will need to inject a goal-scoring centre-forward into the team at some point in order to obtain true top four solidity. It’s no secret that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is no longer the player he used to be, and Arsenal should identify a striker who possesses the same link-up qualities of Lacazette, with greater bang to their buck in front of goal. Encouragingly, Gabriel Martinelli’s form has been immense the past few weeks. If the Brazilian can continue to stay fit and active in the team, Arsenal may have one potential solution to the problem.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

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Among their many improvements this season, Arsenal have grown in defensive stature and stability. They rank sixth in pressures applied in the attacking third (34.5 per game), blocks (15.6 per game), and no team in the league has been dribbled past fewer times than the Gunners. It all starts from the intensity they set in pressing from the front, with the 4-2-3-1 shape often holding true in their diamond press. Arsenal will attempt to force their opposition out wide in this shape, with wingers allowing passes to come to fullbacks and then ramping up the intensity to stop further penetration. In the middle third they will drop to more of a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2, remaining compact in between the lines and looking to stop vertical penetration. Tomiyasu will often step out of his right-back role to pressure a ball carrier drifting into central areas, as Saka races back to cover the overlapping player down his fullback’s side. This affords Arsenal’s midfield men to continue screening the opposition’s striker and number ten, who are usually closer to goal.

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Beyond a successful press and sound structures, Arsenal are not afraid to get physical. The likes of Gabriel and White have won over 64% of their aerial duels, while Tomiyasu has won more than any other Gunner (49 total). That’s a massive improvement from the small but mighty Hector Bellerin, who lost more than he won throughout his career. Aaron Ramsdale’s also been a force to be reckoned with, ranking fourth in crosses stopped this season by goalkeepers. This aerial presence helps the Gunners succeed from set-pieces at both ends of the pitch, where they’ve scored 8 and conceded 3. Their brave defending has been more full-hearted than the half-heartedness of seasons prior, and that’s another area in which their new goalkeeper has massively improved Arsenal’s stature. Combine that with their sound pressing principles of intensity, consistent angling out wide, compactness, and diligent positioning, Arsenal now have one of the best defensive records in the league.

CONCLUSION

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Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are still anything but perfect, but they’ve made massive improvements in 2021-22, even despite a difficult start to the season. The signing of Aaron Ramsdale proved to be more revolutionary than anyone would have ever dreamt, and the Gunners have been on a stunning run ever since. Arteta’s men now sit fourth in the table, with an impressive counter-attack and successful press to match. Whether they can beat Ralf Ragnick’s Manchester United and Antonio Conte’s Spurs to the final four punch remains to be seen. But for now, Arsenal are well set up to have their best season in years.


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So there it is! A tactical analysis of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in 2021-22. Be sure to check out more on Arsenal, including our two analyses last season of both their 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1. Also be sure to check out more of our tactical pieces across the site, and follow on social media via the links below! Thanks for reading and see you soon.

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