How Mikel Arteta TRANSFORMED Arsenal Into Top Four Contenders

It’s late December in 2019. Mikel Arteta strides into the Arsenal conference room in a red Adidas emblazoned Arsenal polo shirt. Without offer, he takes a home shirt from the press officer’s hands and greets the assembled press, posing for photos without hesitation. He looks assured, resolute. Calm. His first words to the press;

“I feel back home”.

Mikel sat in the Arsenal dugout just 5 days prior in a different capacity, watching on as Manchester City tore a lifeless Arsenal apart in a 3-0 win with a Kevin De Bruyne masterclass — some things never change. Mikel later said that on that day he felt as though the connection between the fans and the team was “broken”.

Despite 2 particularly rocky periods towards the end of 2020 and at the start of the 2021/22 campaign, the feeling now is that Mikel Arteta is taking Arsenal in the right direction of travel; even if mistakes have and continue to be made. The data supports that too.

At time of writing, Arsenal are marginal favourites for top 4 and have secured 1.82 points per game this season, up from 1.61ppg in 20/21, and 1.47ppg in 19/20. Also encouraging is their xG differential (where the total expected goals created are subtracted by the total xG conceded per game) seen here showing a clear upward trend.

Football, though, is not played on a data sheet.

The real tell is the energy in the stadium. Everyone who’s been to The Emirates this season — myself included — would tell you that the energy just feels different from seasons gone by. The fans are reconnected to the team, singing loud and recently, for the first time, singing Mikel’s name even in defeat.

So how has he done it?

The progress can be defined by three main themes. These are; transfers & squad management, on-field tactics and, possibly most importantly, mentality & culture.

Transfers & Squad Management

When Mikel Arteta arrived at Arsenal, he inherited a bloated, disorganised, mismatched and relatively untalented group of players — Sokratis Papastathopolous, Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi were regular starters. Arsenal had one specialist first team right back, 6 first team centre backs, a partly frozen out Mesut Özil on £300k a week, a whole host of contract issues that needed resolving and had lost their identity, structure and balance. There was a lot to do.

Arteta needed utmost clarity on what specific qualities he wanted from every position on the pitch. This may sound simple, but requires a significant amount of foresight and awareness of the exact structure you desire. His ‘positional play’ philosophy requires a lot of specificity as well as quality; namely players who are comfortable in various areas of the pitch in order to create qualitative and quantitative overloads, who can be coached to understand their exact roles within the structure, have the capacity to adapt and the intelligence and physical qualities to execute the patterns of play.

He started addressing the specific needs of his system in his recruitment methodology straight away. Though there is a question over how much he was involved in the January window of 2020, he signed a left footer for the back line in Pablo Marí, which was much needed for the passing lanes and angles in Arsenal’s first phase, if not the ideal signing. Cedric Soares was also signed to solve the RB issue — a better player (and fit) for Arteta’s philosophy than many give him credit for — adept with both feet and comfortable inverting and going outside on both sides of the pitch.

The summer of 2020, amid an executive reshuffle, was about adding quality. Significant signings included Thomas Partey; adding press resistance, ball progression and the ability to keep the ball higher up  the pitch. Gabriel Magalhæs was a more quality, mobile and high potential left footed option than Pablo Marí and… Willian. Two out of three. All the signs pointed to Willian being a smart and relatively frugal acquisition considering the data from his final season at Chelsea, but this in hindsight was a mistake — and Arsenal soon cut their losses.

Mikel’s promotion to manager in September 2020 was a show of approval. Arsenal were heading in the right direction.

Summer 2021 was Arsenal’s best window under Arteta to date – and possibly Arsenal’s best in over a decade. 6 new signings in a specific age bracket with high potential brought with it significant media scrutiny from high profile pundits. But Arsenal had added quality, depth and continued to facilitate Arsenal’s move to the system many believe Arteta always wanted to play; in essence a 4-3-3 that moulds in and out of possession.

As well as the identifiable methodology, there is a methodical nature to Mikel’s work in the market, supported by Edu and the reshuffled recruitment team. Take Benjamin White as an example; he ranked highest in the data points that Arsenal were looking for in that position in terms of a ball playing centre back with high-volume progression, also suiting the club in an experience, age and contract sense. So they went out and got him — and it’s worked.

Takehiro Tomiyasu allows Arsenal the option to build in a more comfortable 3 than before, inverts well to provide options infield and adds some aerial strength that Arsenal lacked. Though raw, Sambi Lokonga releases the pressure on Thomas Partey long term. Nuno Tavares, despite his flaws, provides directness and robustness that Kieran Tierney lacks, and Ramsdale’s kicking can bypass a press from GK — a complete novelty.

2J5HD0W London, England, 23rd April 2022. Martin Odegaard of Arsenal during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. Picture credit should read: David Klein / Sportimage

Ødegaard? A revelation, and performing well below his xA at 4 assists from 9.46xA.

Knowing exactly what you’re looking for in order to complete your collective skillset clarifies your strategy. One need only look at the red half of Manchester to see what happens when recruitment is muddled by players suited to all sorts of different tactics.

All this, as well as assessing their mentalities more rigorously (and famously in Aaron Ramsdale’s case) indicates a type of recruitment that brings Arsenal firmly into the 21st century.

For the first time in a long time, I trust that Arsenal will consistently get it right in the market.

It has been far from easy to get to this position, and mistakes have absolutely been made. Arsenal have had to cancel a significant amount of contracts to shift players and make space for new registrations, including some who have signed or extended under Mikel Arteta and Edu like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Willian. The only significant sales have been for Emi Martinez and Joe Willock – a definite shortcoming from the club.

However, Arsenal now look balanced, with a strong wage structure and clear vision.

On-field tactics

Mikel has adopted a variety of systems and structures since arriving at Arsenal, all aiming to get the most out of his players — and all with varying degrees of success.

Arteta started off at Arsenal predominantly trying to play a secure, safe, compact 4-2-3-1 to shore things up after Unai Emery’s brand of chaotic, reactive football with Arsenal. With Aubameyang out wide and cutting in there was significant threat, but there was a relative paucity of ball progression and chance creation in the days before Partey, Smith Rowe and Ødegaard. Aubameyang lacked the ball retention necessary in the final third to sustain attacks, there was a dearth of on-ball quality in the midfield and in defence, and there were also a lot of question marks over Mesut Özil’s involvement. However, there was early success relying on an expensively assembled front 4 – a New Year’s day win over Manchester United, the team from which is shown, was a particular early highlight.

Lots of inconsistency in the line up for various reasons followed, particularly in defence. Later on in the season and into the latter stages of the FA Cup, Arteta opted for more of a 3-5-2 to get past some tricky opposition including Manchester City, Liverpool in the League and Chelsea in the final, with Tierney acting as an auxiliary 3rd CB. Arteta has regularly been criticised for his hesitation to adapt at times — but when he has, he has done it well.

Owing partly to the explosion of Bukayo Saka and his partnership with Kieran Tierney, Granit Xhaka’s role dropping which allowed Tierney to shift further forward and Arteta’s persistence with Aubameyang on the left, Arsenal had a notable left-sided bias going into 2020/21. We were beginning to see the effects of positional play and how it could significantly improve Arsenal, and they kicked into gear after a worrying downward spiral at the end of 2020 which threatened Arteta’s job with some fantastic displays, including another New Year masterclass — this time at The Hawthorns.

2E0T1BM Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney (centre) celebrates scoring his side’s first goal of the game during the Premier League match at The Hawthorns, West Bromwich.

Positional rotation, cutbacks, patterns and partnerships were beginning to form, but a lot of Arsenal’s play relied on overloads on either wing – so when teams remained centrally compact, it was tough to break them down. Arsenal fans could no longer hack the ‘horseshoe of doom’; Bellerín to Holding to Gabriel to Tierney to Gabriel to Holding to Belle… you get the point. Arteta noted it and corrected it; Martin Ødegaard’s arrival in January, as well as Emile Smith Rowe’s emergence, helped to create a higher volume of chances with more work between the lines and runners in behind.

Now, Arteta has a greater number of personnel that he identified himself and an improving balance. Arsenal are no longer so predictable and have a number of options now having built up with more structure, variance and quality. With qualitative and quantitative overloads, quick combinations, cutbacks, line breakers, switches and more at their disposal, as well as an exploding group of young players, this team is starting to find its rhythm and a significant number of ways of getting results through coached automations, ensuring correct body position and receiving angles.

Players such as Kieran Tierney have spoken of how well prepared they feel when entering the pitch – secure in exactly what they need to do in every situation in the game. Pablo Marí recently said after leaving the club “He gave me the tool that if I can prepare three or four seconds before the ball arrives to me, I am going to have this three or four seconds to think about the next action. He was the only coach to give me that tool and make football more easy.” Martin Ødegaard recently spoke to Football Focus, mentioning how much time Mikel spends on “the little details”.

Defensively, Arsenal press in an organised fashion often orchestrated by Ødegaard and manage to adapt their defensive line well when the right personnel are playing.

There are of course significant areas of development to come. Arteta will want more accurate shots from distance, goals from midfield, more stretching and linking from a new number 9 and more aerial threat up front amongst many other things – but the principles of play are there. Finding the personnel to do bridge the gap will be imperative, but it looks like Arteta has the coaching nous to implement it — he’s often been able to find the right solution.

Perhaps one criticism is that he has not always adapted to suit his players. Big names like Aubameyang and Pepe would be much more suited to a less ball-heavy, counter-attacking style — but Arteta has his principles; and they are beginning to pay off.

Mentality & Culture

The culture at the club under Arsène Wenger had grown more relaxed in the latter years. It was widely rumoured that one ex-Arsenal player (though no one knows who), upon moving to another Premier League club was told to “leave his Arsenal attitude at the door”. Arteta has sought to change that.

He has not been afraid to make the hard decisions. From dropping Aubameyang for the North London Derby, the talk of the non-negotiables, his no-nonsense approach with Guendouzi, his calls to see a more mentally tough Nicolas Pepe, his promise to ‘destroy’ the player who was leaking information from the training ground and more, Arteta projects strong leadership, though arguably verging on the tyrannical and overly ruthless at times in search of standards. Though I don’t personally believe we know the full picture publicly, he was particularly ruthless with Mesut Özil’s underperformance, not selecting him for the Premier League squad last season. His commitment to cultural high standards are impressive, if not always appreciated by all.

It may be harder to accept if Mikel did not embody these qualities himself, but these standards are something that start with him. Upon leaving the club in 2016, he spoke of his acceptance that because he could “no longer contribute at a 10/10 for Arsenal”, he had to move on. He often speaks about what should and should not be acceptable at this football club — nothing but the best for Arsenal.

As players move on and the team gets stronger, he becomes more and more vindicated in his decision making, and sometimes the change benefits all parties, as it has in Aubameyang’s case. His commitment to a “cultural reset” as he describes it, cannot be ignored. Accusations of an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’ at Arsenal are long gone, mostly because the players who are still there are almost exclusively the ones Mikel wants there — squad alignment under one philosophy.

2HCTMCF Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu (left) and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling battle for the ball during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday January 1, 2022.

Players talk of Mikel Arteta’s superb man management, with Ben White particularly full of praise. Takehiro Tomiyasu has recently been complimentary too; as well as players who have now moved on.

Culturally, Arteta has also done much to revamp the training ground with reminders of Arsenal’s great past and significant figures. He has provided opportunities and pathways to young players and ensured good examples of senior leaders remain at the club and are rewarded with new contracts in Granit Xhaka and Rob Holding. He speaks with clarity, vision and purpose.

Arteta’s involvement in the Amazon Prime documentary will only serve to showcase his skillset to a wider audience and grow his reputation. For a young coach in his first job, at one of the most high-profile clubs in the world, at an unprecedented time in human history… he has done an extraordinary job. One thing’s for sure – the connection is no longer broken, and might just be the strongest it’s been for a long, long time.

2J583Y3 20 April 2022 – Chelsea v Arsenal – Premier League – Stamford Bridge
Arsenal Manager Mikel Arteta celebrates victory with Aaron Ramsdale after the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge, London.
Picture Credit : © Mark Pain / Alamy Live News

I think the board suspected all along that it would turn out like this. And secretly… I think Arteta knew it would from the moment he walked in the door.

Alexander Moneypenny | @DiffKnock

Data used with permission from Scott Willis (@oh_that_crab)

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