Mikel Arteta knew his Arsenal side needed to evolve into chameleons.
The novelty of their brilliance in 2022/23 brought about results that not even the most optimistic of Gooners foreshadowed, but an element of predictability surfaced by the end of the campaign.
Arsenal’s structure and personnel – pre-injury woes – facilitated a drastic improvement last season as the Gunners took the league by storm. Oleksandr Zinchenko’s inversion established greater midfield control, the integration of Willam Saliba allowed for a far more aggressive defensive line, while Gabriel Jesus transformed Arsenal’s frontline into a fluid juggernaut.
But, by the season’s conclusion, the novelty had worn off.
Kai Havertz represents Arsenal’s tactical versatility under Mikel Arteta
“The idea is to be more unpredictable every year, to become more difficult for the opponents to stop and nullify what we want to do,” Arteta said in the summer.
The manager’s desire to evolve was reflected by Arsenal’s incomings. The Gunners added a defender capable of playing across the backline in Jurrien Timber, a multi-faceted midfielder in Declan Rice, and the ambiguous Kai Havertz.
Havertz has become the ultimate enigma in north London since his £65m arrival which raised plenty of eyebrows. Speculation immediately arose regarding his role in the Spaniard’s system, and it’s still pretty unclear where the German’s future lies.
Havertz has so far struggled to shine in a role similar to what Granit Xhaka performed last season, but Arteta has seemingly found a nuanced function for the summer arrival which depicts the Gunners’ tactical flexibility.
The German entered the fray just after Robert Sanchez gave Arsenal a lifeline during Saturday’s game at Stamford Bridge. The Gunners had been woeful; outmanoeuvred by Chelsea and unable to break the Blues’ coherent press. So, with Havertz’s cameo now six minutes old, Arteta went old school. He went 4-4-2. Instead of fumbling around in midfield, Havertz joined Eddie Nketiah up top with Emile Smith Rowe dropping deeper alongside Declan Rice. Having spent the entirety of the contest struggling to go through, and around Chelsea’s press, Arsenal were now trying to go over it.
While some might regard it as pre-historic, Pep Guardiola used a similar ploy to thump the Gunners at the Etihad last season. Sure, it might’ve been more 4-2-4, but Man City constantly sought to drag Arsenal high up the pitch before going long into Erling Haaland, who was supported by Kevin De Bruyne.
Arteta’s change at Stamford Bridge was obviously different, but it nonetheless brought about some success. With Havertz winning 75% of his four aerial duels, Arsenal were able to compete for second balls high up the pitch and occasionally sustain pressure in the final third as they previously hadn’t done. Almost immediately after the change was made, Leandro Trossard restored parity.
Arsenal have not signed Havertz for £65m to merely be a lump, but the former Chelsea star has nonetheless provided Arteta with an alternative tactical solution which he’s long desired. His towering presence also had a say in Gabriel Martinelli’s winner against City before the break, and with Arsenal now regularly facing up against sides that cede territory and defend deep, Havertz’s physicality and ability in the air will undoubtedly come in handy.
The German embodies Arsenal’s perhaps agricultural tactical evolution.