Oh Arsenal, what can be done?
Already in our series of Arteta’s Arsenal Agenda we’ve explored three possible alterations that Mikel Arteta can make to his side in the coming weeks.
Playing two natural wingers (see here), mastering a Plan B option for the 4-3-3 setup (see here) and switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation (see here) have been mentioned thus far (more are on the way), with the latest suggestion – which coexists as a plea – being such a basic tactical tweak that it would require minimal tinkering, if any at all.
4-3-3 is the modern way. Arteta can easily be classed as a modern manager, too.
Possession-based football that relies on dictating as much of the 90 minutes as possible, with pressing far away from your own goal and being proactive over reactive. Knowing how phases will pan out and preparing for whatever eventuality, it’s a philosophy that has been absorbed and mastered by the best teams in Europe.
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In England, his former side Manchester City play that way. Liverpool do, too. Not all systems are a carbon copies of one another, but are built on a basic structure that allows for personal touches from both the managers and players.
Arteta’s adoration for 4-3-3 is one shared by most: a shape capable of varying offensive nuances and total midfield control. All well and good when working like clockwork, alas, the Arsenal model only has one hand in motion.
Shape and uniformity up until the final furlong, the stagnant nature of the Gunners’ attacks remains puzzling. Dissecting the squad for its positive notes, the forward line have come under severe scrutiny. Knowing full well there is a lack of movement in that area with interchangeability a foreign concept, instead of reaching for the head of the snake, look at the way it slithers.
The shape, when on the ball, moves into a front four that welcomes the addition of fifth member. Usually this role falls to Kieran Tierney providing extra width alongside Bukayo Saka, who too drifts to the left flank to entice Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to pick up inside slots.
This area of fluidity isn’t working, but it’s not where we’ll focus.
On the opposite side Hector Bellerin shifts inside to join the deep midfield pivot, who recently has been a combination of Mohamed Elneny and Thomas Partey. Even when the Spaniard takes up an inverted full-back role, or runs in between Willian and Alexandre Lacazette, the midfield remains flat. So, so flat.
It’s become the position of topic in the modern game: the famed pivot.
When in a 4-2-3-1 it’s evident as a partnership, but functions ampler with the addition of a No. 10. 4-3-3 needn’t be abandoned in favour of more attacking input, instead, granting one of that deep-lying duo license to move into those inside spaces could make a considerable, alarmingly simple difference.
Take the most recent drubbing – we also can’t wait to shut up about it – where Elneny and Partey rarely strayed too far apart. The Ghanaian was the more ‘adventurous‘ of the two, yet was still found standing off the Aston Villa back line with his passing lanes restricted to wide areas.
The Egyptian is unavailable for the Leeds game on Sunday due to contracting Covid-19, which presents Arteta with two options in that role: Granit Xhaka or Dani Ceballos. Joe Willock could come into the side (he offers the qualities to play that role); will Arteta thrust him into the team, though? Debatable.
Whoever the boss decides to play with Partey – working on the basis he will be fit – the option of a midfield V-shape remains. Xhaka could sit deepest as he does so well for Switzerland – instead of a blasted left centre-back – with Partey advanced centrally to his right and Saka likewise on the other side.
Should Ceballos come into the side, which would be preferred, then Partey could sit deepest and the Spaniard could push up a few yards. An approach I’d like to see, one that takes advantage of Partey’s mobility to deal with Leeds’ pace on the break and liberates Ceballos to pick up space inside the opposition full-backs where he isn’t used enough, it would add another dimension to Arsenal’s attacks and not detract too greatly from defensive solidity.
Arteta implores his men to flood wide areas, avenues cut off by sides well versed in this banal approach. If the opposition match the numbers Arsenal have, be it left or right, they’re never in danger of conceding from crosses or leaving themselves exposed centrally.
The addition of another body from midfield occupying centre-backs and full-backs not only provides an option in behind, but similarly opens up more space out wide for the winger/full-back combinations to work.
Annoyingly simple in theory, it comes with drawbacks that evidently play on Arteta’s mind. For fear of being overambitious, he reins in the creativity in favour of his side seeking out individual errors and lapses in concentration.
Calls to be bolder in the final third stem from fan frustration. Those who’d like to see more invention and risk in and around the opposition box. Among the options laid out before Arteta, sometimes the simplest can be the most effective.
No need to reinvent the wheel, just get it out of the mud.