Arsenal: The improved definition of Mikel Arteta

Predicting the Arsenal line-up for their trip to Crystal Palace on Saturday is relatively simple. It pays testament to the improved definition Mikel Arteta has brought to the squad.

This week, I wrote the Predicted Starting XI for Pain in the Arsenal — you can see the piece here (shameless plug!). I was surprised at how easy it was to fill out most of the positions of the team and I, in fact, had very few deliberations to decipher throughout.

Find the latest episode of the Pain in the Arsenal Podcast here — Mikel Guardiola or Pep Arteta?

Take a look through the team and it is quite clear what head coach Mikel Arteta plans to do. Bernd Leno, Sead Kolasinac, David Luiz, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Lucas Torreira, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are all assured of starts. And even beyond that, it would be surprising is Sokratis and Granit Xhaka did not start also.

The only position that is even remotely uncertain is right-wing, with both Reiss Nelson and Nicolas Pepe pushing hard for a start — I plumped with Pepe getting the nod, but both are in reasonable contention to get the start.

And even more than just the players, the system is completely clear: a 4-2-3-1 with the left-back pushing high in possession, the right-back forming a central midfield three in front of the centre-backs, and Ozil slanted to the right slightly, occupying the half-space between the right-winger and Lacazette up-front.

This certainty in style, system and personnel is testament to Arteta’s coaching and philosophy. In fact, he is so eager to stick to a specific plan that he used Sokratis at right-back against Leeds United on Monday night. Even with the mixed success of playing a centre-half out of position, Arteta would not compromise on his system.

This was the greatest criticism of his predecessor, Unai Emery. Emery preached the importance of adaptability, tailoring his team’s approach to the opposition, ensuring that they are able to match up with their opponents. For a lesser team, it is an admirable coaching strategy that can have a lot of success. Emery is superb in one-off matches, as evidenced by his Europa League record. But when a team is chasing a high position in the table and need to reel off several victories in succession, they require a defined style to sweep past lesser opponents.

Emery struggled mightily against bottom-14 teams. In the end, it was a run of disastrous form from early September to late November that saw him fired, during which Arsenal played just one team from the big six. Emery lost his job because of matches against lesser opponents. A defeat to Sheffield United, draws against Watford, Southampton and Crystal Palace, all games that the Gunners should be looking to win if they are chasing a top-four finish.

Emery could not instill a clear and successful identity. He confused his players, lacked clear direction and intention, and consequently built a disorganised, disconnected team that did not commit to any style of play. They fell through the gaps of different philosophies, never committing to any. It was the complete opposite of what Arteta has mastered in his first few weeks.

Arsenal now have definition. Whether it will be a successful one or not remains to be seen. But there is a style that they will play with, and it is most refreshing to see.