How Gabriel Jesus' injury helped Arsenal unlock attacking potential

  • Arsenal will win the Premier League title if Mikel Arteta sticks to playing without a striker and using a false 9 instead of putting Gabriel Jesus back into the starting XI
Sheffield United v Arsenal FC - Premier League
Sheffield United v Arsenal FC - Premier League / James Gill - Danehouse/GettyImages

Playing without a striker has unlocked Arsenal's title-winning potential in a way Mikel Arteta probably couldn't have imagined. Now, the real test for the manager is to hold his nerve and continue using a false 9, even though Gabriel Jesus is back from injury.

Remember all of those calls for Arsenal to sign a striker? No, me neither. The memory has been smothered by 31 goals in seven straight Premier League games. All wins. Goals galore to go with a bevvy of champagne football not seen since the peak of the Arsene Wenger era.

Wenger's a good reference point for how Arsenal have made magic during the early days of 2024. The golden period of Wenger's tenure was the early 2000s, when he built a team that won a double, retained the FA Cup, became 'The Invincibles', won another Cup and eventually made Arsenal the first London club to contest a European Cup/Champions League final.

And they flew banners reading 'Wenger Out.' Scarcely believable....

Something Wenger-like about the Arteta false 9

All of that success was built on a tactical blueprint sans a traditional striker. Yes, Thierry Henry set goalscoring records, but he was no 9. Instead, Titi did most of his damage from the inside left channel.

Henry exploiting width vacated central areas, but the extra space wasn't Dennis Bergkamp's purview. Not when the Perfect 10 routinely dropped off the front into midfield, leaving space through the middle for Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires to exploit.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It's the same way Arteta's artisans have been dissecting top-flight defences. Leaving the middle of the final third vacant and letting wide players Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli run riot with out-to-in raids on goal.

The formula created a picture-book goal for Havertz during the 4-1 demolition of Newcastle on Saturday, February 24. Havertz dropped deep and Saka stayed wide, leaving room for Martinelli to sprint off the left, meet Jorginho's chipped pass and lay the ball off for the goalscorer.

Martinelli and Saka were also on the scoresheet during the 6-0 win away to Sheffield United. The kind of performance a phrase like 'liquid football' was invented to describe.

Beating the Blades was a stylish stroll in the park, but it came with a warning. Notably from Jesus' late cameo as a 64th-minute substitute.

It was no coincidence the goals dried up after the Brazilian entered the fray. That's not a slight on Jesus, who's an exceptional player.

The problem is Arsenal become mundane when he's operating through the middle. His supporting acts play too much to his movement, forcing the issue to try and get him a goal. Becoming predictable in the process.

False 9 is unpredictable magic

Jesus' most recent spell on the treatment table inadvertently let Arteta create a level of magic not seen since that film when Christian Bale disappeared behind one door only to emerge from another looking like a slightly different version of Christian Bale.

The magic has come from being without a striker. It's forced defenders to play a guessing game about who to mark and which spaces to cover. Nobody's had the answer.

Not even Liverpool stalwart Virgil van Dijk, who looked distinctly out of sorts when Arsenal won 3-1 at the Emirates on 4 February. The Dutchman didn't know whether to help Trent Alexander-Arnold stop Martinelli, follow Havertz into midfield or shuttle across to keep Saka under wraps.

Van Dijk's confusion was understandable. Arsenal's first goal showed the challenge. Havertz was deep and involved in the build-up, leaving central space up top empty.

Van Dijk had pushed up to the halfway line to follow Havertz, while his fellow central defender Ibrahima Konate was drawn out to Martinelli's run. Once Havertz spun in behind he presented an easy through-ball for Martin Odegaard, creating a shooting chance from which Saka ultimately profited.

Defending Arsenal's striker-less system is a gruelling guessing game. Why make things easier on the opposition by putting a natural focal point back at the top of the forward line?

Especially when that decision would harm Arsenal's attack and defence.

Striker-less Gunners defending from the front

Arteta's amoeba is shifting into every chance-cancelling shape imaginable. It helps to replace a striker, usually the most reluctant defender in the team (although not in Jesus' case), with another midfielder.

The extra energy helps the Gunners maintain a relentless high press. Havertz has been exceptional in this regard, something Adrian Clarke described for after the battering of the Magpies:

"Just two minutes later Havertz made a determined long-distance sprint to press goalkeeper Loris Karius, before arcing his run to close down, and ultimately rob, Fabian Schar of the ball."'s Adrian Clarke

Clarke also noted how "overall, we regained possession 14 times inside the attacking third – a season high."

Numbers like that are only possible because Havertz is helping Martin Odegaard lead the charge. Only because Jorginho's brilliance as a playmaker from deep has allowed Declan Rice to cover areas further up the pitch.

It's clear key players are performing better because of the false 9 setup. That shouldn't change even though Jesus is back.

Jesus and Thomas Partey, who can't match Jorginho's technique and instinct for controlling a fluid tactical shape, should be used in emergencies only during the run-in of the title race. Better yet, Arteta can call on the pair in Europe, where they'd help overturn the 1-0 deficit against Porto.

The stale first leg was the only game when Arsenal's false 9 appeared unsustainable. Probably because a savvy continental defence is more used to a shape-shifting formation.

Contrast Porto's knowledge with Premier League teams used to trying to defend target men like Erling Haaland, Ivan Toney and Ollie Watkins, but who cry foul when they see a striker-shy structure.

Maintaining that structure is how Arsenal end a 20-year title drought.