Arteta’s Arsenal Agenda: Back to a Basic 4-2-3-1?

Over this international break we’ve looked at a few options for Arsenal.

The wonderful element – sometimes – about football is that everyone has an opinion. Whether it’s the ‘hot take’ of the week or something so left-field you’re set up for searing scorn, it means we’re privy to a variety of solutions to any given problem. At Arsenal, the code to crack the safe will have been discussed across the globe.

Whether the answer is a change of personnel, how fast certain passes are made or simply just…trying harder, there are possibilities aplenty.

Supporters are stewing over the pain of the most recent result, while Mikel Arteta is finding the perfect recipe to get all his ingredients working in harmony.

If only you could be a fly on the wall in his office.

Among the antidotes to this offensive plague will be a change of shape on the ball. He’s found comfort in the 4-3-3 setup, and while that needs a Plan B of its own, the more tried and tested 4-2-3-1 – at least in regards to familiarity within the current squad – must be among his considerations.

Bringing in Willian as an additional creative force was among Arteta’s first ports of call during the summer, yet he’s been drafted on the right in place of Nicolas Pepe, offering little in the way of natural width. What he offers to the side we’re all aware of, but it hasn’t been forthcoming down the right flank.

In ever so small doses has he been moved centrally – as has Bukayo Saka–  or at least been given license to do so, where the positional shift has paid dividends. The false-nine move at Manchester City was a failed ploy, yet on occasion it morphed into a more structured 4-2-3-1 with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang through the middle.

Just smatterings of this approach have been dabbled with, notably looking at its most fluid against Sheffield United. Only utilised in and around the final half hour of that 2-1 win, Saka and Pepe both got on the scoresheet as Willian drifted inside to cause disruption in the Blades’ central quartet.

Aubameyang barely touched the ball after being stuck in at centre-forward, which on the surface can be worrying. It needn’t be, though, as natural width ensures he has more space to run in behind on the centre-halves’ shoulders. The captain can score with one touch, he doesn’t need to be constantly on the ball out wide.

However, this avenue for Arteta to potentially follow isn’t solely based on Aubameyang operating centrally. Instead the focus is primarily on having a creative force drifting about in the hole. One who demands attention.

Said attention can release Thomas Partey, even Joe Willock or Dani Ceballos, to make runs from deep into spaces that are exposed by the full-backs being drawn wide and the opposition central midfielders picking up the No. 10.

Does 4-2-3-1 have to be persisted with throughout 90 minutes? It needn’t be, as the 4-3-3, or even 5-2-3 out of possession has scope to invite a wide player or central midfielder to pick up that slot depending on what shape the opposition are in at that moment.

Against low-blocks it’s imperative, although other structures that Arsenal come up against may demand otherwise.

Pepe has struggled for minutes at Arsenal

Arsenal’s French-born Ivorian midfielder Nicolas Pepe (Photo by KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Deciding whether this is the unerring route to take can’t be set in stone, yet Arsenal have looked dangerous when set up as such.

How likely Arteta is to drift away from his preferred 4-3-3 is another matter. It’s the way of the modern, elite footballing side, one he became accustomed to at City. But even he must be contemplating alterations in that department to stop the rot.

What will hold him back from applying that formula is the lessened defensive structure it offers. Unearthing a defensive status quo with the added reinforcements of the back line will not want to be abandoned too swiftly, especially against sides with pace on the break. It’s down to him to find that symmetry when in possession, one that suits the solidity at the back but adds another dimension in attacking phases.

His love of a deep midfield pivot wouldn’t be relinquished, mind you. It’d instead prompt less bodies out wide and provide differing pathways into dangerous positions.

Arsenal’s fluidity – no matter how bit-part – has come in different shapes, including 4-2-3-1, but why it hasn’t been explored in greater depth is Arteta’s question to answer.

Food for thought, anyway. What’s your view?