“People won’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel.”
I love that phrase. It’s a simple maxim, but there is a great deal of truth to it — and I think it’s totally apt for what we’re looking at today.
Football’s brilliance is that it unites people. We feel it, which is the most important part. When you look back, no one really cares who got a yellow card on the 80th minute and what particular set-up the manager used that day unless you’re a nerd like me, and in the end, what gets remembered is just the fact that we won or lost and how you felt — and that’s as it should be, for me.
But good memories and vibes don’t win football matches. That’s down to, amongst other things, tactics and good players to execute the game plan. And in order to assess this particular process going on at Arsenal, as well as seeing that the squad building, recruitment policy, executive structure and more are heading in the right general direction too, we have to trust that the on-field stuff is developing. In the end, that’s the thing underpinning all of this — and we can only do that by diving back into the past, to plot our path to now.
And by charting our course, we might be able to see what’s to come.
So how do we do that? It seems fair to pick a high point in Arteta’s managerial history, where he’d had a period of time with the team. Memories of 2020 are likely to be stored somewhere in the “Do not open” file for most, but a behind-closed-doors FA Cup win over Chelsea in August of that year brought Mikel Arteta’s first silverware as manager of Arsenal.
I’ve chosen the recent game against Chelsea in April 2022 to compare with the FA Cup win. Relatively similar personnel for them, relatively similar structure in both games, relatively similar quality level as they were at the time, and both are wins. Of course, these are individual games against tough opposition in different contexts, but I’ll be focusing on the general trends and principles from each time period, then and now, from a tactical perspective.
Let’s start simple. Personnel.
Coaches all have game models, and how they’d ideally like to play. But personnel and quality level have to inform how you play and what you do. Here’s a comparison of the line-ups from the 2 matches, which took place less than 2 years apart.
An incredible amount of turnover – just two players in common, one of whom in Rob Holding would likely have not started the game in April were it not for Tomiyasu’s injury. That tells you Mikel has not always had what he wanted at his disposal.
This graph plots last season’s squad compared to the average peak performance age for a player in their position. Arsenal have recently invested heavily in pre-prime players, partly for value and partly out of necessity. Arsenal are now a much younger team, and that’s relevant tactically.
Mikel is slowly turning up the dial on Arsenal’s press, probably what he always wanted to do in his ideal game model, as the squad is now capable of more repeated high-intensity sprints in younger legs. That changes the way you are able to play. They are also more technically able in general, opening up new dynamic possibilities, and they have growth potential in key areas, which means they offer you more tactical flexibility as you can mould the players to exactly what you want them to do — though occasionally you may compromise on proven quality and experience.
In August 2020, Arsenal’s game had to be different to now, and we have to take that into account when assessing the past.
In the FA Cup win, in possession and as a general guide, Arsenal played a relatively simple 3-4-3 structure with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin acting as wingbacks; the former floating in from the left to form a 3 in the midfield at times or getting beyond on the left channel as seen here, with Tierney then pushed up to cover.
Out of possession and once in a comfortable block after a turnover, Arsenal adopted a 4-4-2 shape — something they still use now, with subtle changes, and aimed to quickly regain shape as a narrow, compact back 5 when transitioned against, as seen here.
Generally favouring something closer to a 4-2-3-1 in the league, Arsenal used this slight tweak in the latter stages of the FA Cup. People get fixated on formation and the idea that Arsenal “played 5 at the back and won the cup”, and though it’s a helpful prism at times to adjust your eyes, in reality the 5 was only in a few phases of play off the ball. Formations should always be taken as a guide, it’s just notable that we used to want the extra man there, as we focus on different things now.
Having watched the full 90 again, I would go so far as to say Arsenal did not have possession of the ball in the midfield for longer than 2 or 3 seconds at any point on the day. How much a team presses you often tells you about your technical level, and Chelsea were relentless that day, trying to force errors from relatively weak technicians like Héctor Bellerín, Nicolas Pepe and Rob Holding. Arsenal had 40 percent possession, and it felt like a lot less.
Most good teams at the time packed the midfield against us, and Chelsea were no different. Arsenal never attempted to play through into Ceballos or Xhaka on the day as they don’t have the skillset to receive, turn, and combine in those zones. That leaves two options to progress – over and around. A lot of Arsenal’s attempts to go forward went down the sides through one of the forward players dropping or combining with the wing backs, or were balls over the top from David Luiz, like the one that lead to the penalty. While effective on the day, it’s not sustainable. You’re relying on errors and luck really.
If you could force Arsenal wide by packing the midfield, challenge us early with back to goal and be proactive on the recovery to stop the balls over the top, we basically had no threat against the top teams at the time without a moment of great individual skill — birthing the U-Shaped Football Arsenal fans so despised from the early part of the 2020/21 season.
We did well against teams where our quality showed, and had some good results. But that was all before — what’s changed?
Arsenal have gone to a less reactive, more proactive 4 at the back structure and implemented principles of play that suit their team and Arteta’s ideas. They attempt to vary their game, but generally the onus is on creating a high volume of chances and keeping the ball. Once you add the right profiles in the right places, you can begin to play how the coach wants and start winning. In other words, better footballers make you better. Simple, really.
An underrated aspect of this Arsenal team is how Arteta has coached and changed the press. With players that are more suitable for the way Arteta wants to play, you can cover the pitch in the way you want, give up less territory and commit more men forward.
It used to be that Arsenal pressed in pretty simple man for man, structure as seen here. It’s not like they didn’t press. But in general, our previous back line’s lack of recovery pace meant Arsenal couldn’t push up and commit men forward, so coaching any kind of elaborate press would be hard. Here, Ceballos receives it off the first line and Rob Holding and David Luiz make no attempt to push the line up, as would happen now, especially given Arsenal were drawing the game at this point – look how deep we are, and where Ceballos receives it.
A man for man system can be bypassed with quick combinations, so an effective modern press is about getting more men forward to block passing lanes, forcing errors and forcing the opposition back, facilitating situations to move in for the kill.
To get more men forward, you firstly have to be playing higher up the pitch to close the distances — the acquisitions of Ben White and Gabriel with their on ball qualities, recovery abilities (both pace and positionally) have moved the line up the pitch to do this, as discussed many times in my articles – look at our field tilt stats. Again, look how far back Arsenal sat in their build up before – 6 men back, very conservative.
Then to block lanes and force people back, you have to be smart.
Here, constant movement and response has forced Sarr into a corner with all of his lanes blocked, crucially not diving in just yet — Arsenal are in a good position. You can then see Ødegaard and Elneny are beckoning Saka to move forward to force Sarr back before he can do anything, as Elneny is the spare man who can cover and block that lane. Saka moves forward, Sarr turns around and plays it back to Mendy, so Arsenal can move up and Chelsea lose territory.
Further up the pitch this time, Sarr once again has his lanes blocked. Saka moves in…
White steps in proactively on Alonso forcing him backwards…
Nketiah then responds and presses the goalkeeper and Arsenal win it back after Mendy goes long into the midfield, forcing a turnover.
This isn’t about “getting after your man”, it’s an improving, smart response to on-field dynamic. The team move as one and force a significant amount of errors by being patient, and not diving in too soon or getting sucked in man for man all the time. Compare where Arsenal are playing on the pitch now to this, for example. 1-1 in an FA Cup final, and Arsenal’s furthest forward attacker is there.
We’ve also started counter-pressing more, i.e. trying to win the ball back quickly when you lose it, high up the pitch with more regularity and structure — something Arsenal didn’t do much of before. Here, Xhaka plays a pass that gets cut out. Straight away, Emile Smith Rowe is running hard to get the ball back, does, and Arsenal play forward. Note the aggressive body shape on both Smith Rowe and Xhaka — they want the ball back immediately.
In possession, Arteta has found different dynamics in terms of ways of getting the team up the pitch – by adding players behind the ball who can progress through the thirds with more acuity in Benjamin White, Aaron Ramsdale and Thomas Partey, covering more of the pitch centrally for more angles and options in there by playing a three and adding Tomiyasu in as an inverter at times, and closing distances between players, squeezing the pitch to create short, sharp passing triangles.
Note the distances between the players seen earlier when in possession, when compared to the more compactness of the current set up. This means players like Ødegaard, Smith Rowe and Saka, technical combiners, can work their magic with their movement and quick feet — we’ve seen Ødegaard’s flourishing relationship with Saka all season. Triangles appear with more regularity as the players move through the thirds now, one example here of a lovely flowing move.
It’s not necessarily that Arsenal weren’t trying to combine in this way before before, or have never, but the chasm in the middle of the pitch dampened its effectiveness and the lack of a true creator in recent times meant that movement was limited and the options on the ball less cutting.
Arsenal’s positional play. If you’re unfamiliar, Positional play is a theory that has developed that sounds more complicated than it is — it’s essentially the idea that you want to make qualitative, quantitative and positional superiorities on the pitch as much as possible. Great Tifo video here that explains it. Be in good positions, be better than the opponent, try isolate them.
Arsenal’s game has significantly improved in this area in terms of how players move in and out of position and recognise situations to create overloads etc. We used to have more of a fixed identity with this, for example Xhaka’s armchair at left centre back he used to enjoy, but now it’s much more fluid and responsive as the players are more used to it. Here’s just one example from the game, Elneny noticing that Gabriel and Tavares are stepping out to engage the player. He shuttles across, and covers the pocket.
Simple, but watch out for it in game, and you’ll see how the players respond much more to each other’s positions and reduce the amount of empty space to exploit.
None of this is in any way to suggest there was “no game plan” before. Emery’s system had its merits, of course. The team pressed, combined, and more. But it’s the volume and consistency with which the right decisions are being made. Arteta has just structured the team, and given automations that mean the players feel secure in that structure. When our RCB has the ball, I want you here dependent on the opposition, etc.
So where might this team be headed – what might an Arteta team look like next year and beyond?
I don’t think the basic principles will change. There’ll be heavy positional rotation, and all personnel will be expected to be exceptional on the ball, regardless of position. You won’t get any Mustafis any more. The team will want to keep the ball, win it quickly and high up the pitch, combine well all over, keep the ball on the floor and moving and be tough to break down. I think Arteta will essentially just be looking to add new dynamics moving forward.
With Jesus, we actually, finally, have a striker who can score goals and do the whole job, receiving wide, dropping, linking and moving with lethal effect. Vieira and Tielemans have the KDB-esque ball from the half space. For me, Martinez, now Zinchenko is the most exciting link of all – I imagine they will surprise a lot of fans with how they play and where they might play, possibly freeing up our left 8 to finally become part of the 5 attacking lanes.
Sometimes, you have to imagine teams like a Swiss Army knife. You have to find yourself enough tools for all tasks. But if you don’t have a strong casing and don’t use it properly, it will fall apart the moment it comes up against a difficult challenge, no matter how many tools it has.
Arteta has significantly improved this team on the field from back to front, but sometimes it’s hard to see over the narrative and results based analysis.
This doesn’t mean success is guaranteed — but we look more and more like a modern team. I can remember times I felt we’ve been outfought this season. I can remember times I’ve felt like we’ve just not been good enough… but I can’t remember any times where I felt we were out thought.
And in the end, maybe that’s all that matters.