Over the years Arsenal have been a lot of things. The mid-nineties saw them as tough and hard to play against, Arsene Wenger's revolution saw them go from the Invincibles that played silky football combined with grit to being all about ‘pass, pass, pass' with the ambition of walking the ball into the net before they became renown for being a soft touch and easy to rough up. That's a whistle-stop tour of what Arsenal have been. Here we look at what they are now under the tutelage of Mikel Arteta.
Mikel Arteta: The coaching philosophy
Arteta spent a big chunk of his playing career under legendary Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger. Then, prior to taking the Gunners head coach role, he had been earning his stripes under Pep Guardiola, who is widely recognised as one of the best coaches of all time. With that considered it is perhaps not surprising that Arteta's key philosophy is about having control of the football.
The early days
During his early days at the Emirates, Arsenal started games in a 4-2-3-1 with Granit Xhaka given a key role in the system. The Swiss midfielder would drop in between the centre-backs to create a three-man backline and thus give license to the full-backs to push forwards. In conjunction with the attack-minded fullbacks, the attacking trio behind the lone striker would regularly drift inside; this allowed them to pick up better shooting positions whilst creating space for the marauding fullbacks.
This helped Arsenal work the ball into crossing areas, which was a key component of their play in the earlier part of Arteta's reign. Despite Arteta being pleased with the manner in which his team would work these situations in games, they came in for plenty of criticism as they failed to do much with the balls that were being peppered into the box in matches. It all led to a famous interview where Arteta claimed his teams' toothless period was going to end in a matter of time due to ‘pure maths' that his team would ‘score more' if they continued to put crosses in; this followed a defeat to Wolves in which Arsenal delivered 35 balls into the area!
Defensively and in terms of character, long-asked questions of Arsenal remained unanswered. Arteta combined a high line and a playing out from the back approach. It saw a number of issues with his side giving away easily avoidable goals. Unfortunately, as Arteta and co looked to remedy this, the defensive line dropped a tad deeper; this saw bigger gaps develop as the fullbacks attempted to push forward and, if anything, saw them become even more exposed – particularly in transition when they turned over possession. Something had to change.
Refining the approach
As time has moved on, one of the key changes Arteta has made to his team has been focussed on their shape out of possession. Predominately, this sees them shape up in an almost 4-4-2 formation. The key aspect of this is to make them harder to play out against; this is achieved by whoever is operating as the number 10 squeezing higher alongside the centre-forward with the two wide attacking players then also pressing with support from the full-backs.
This gives Arsenal a good chance of forcing errors but, that said, if they don't win the ball back they are still left somewhat open. The positioning of the two central midfield players along with an old-fashioned ‘tuck in' approach when the ball is on the opposite flank is used to try and combat this. The desire for a younger, more mobile player is also a key component in both aspects of Arteta's aggressive pressing plan.
When in possession, things are still fairly similar to what they were – at least in principle. The game plan is still about possession with short pass and move patterns the overwhelming theme. The vast majority of the Gunners play still goes down the flanks too with just 26% going through the middle of the park. Crossing remains a reasonably strong component of their attacking play with 16 crosses per game being delivered on average. This underpins 66% of their shots coming from central areas with 63% of their shots coming from inside the area.
The key players
So, we’ve spoken about Arteta’s approach and footballing philosophy but what positions are key to his preferred system and, more importantly, who are the players excelling for Arsenal at the moment?
With one of the key aspects to Arsenal's play being their possession game it's important that they have players who are comfortable in possession at the back. The signing of Aaron Ramsdale raised eyebrows in the summer but he has been a revelation between the sticks. In front of him, another summer signing, Ben White, and Gabriel have proved capable enough. White has played more minutes than any other Gunners player and, on top of that, has shown good defensive qualities; that's proven by the fact he averages 1.4 tackles, 1.4 interceptions and 2.9 clearances per 90. Both White and Gabriel have excelled with the ball at their feet; White boasts an 84% pass completion with Gabriel 5% stronger than that.
When you look further forward there have been a few big players. Martin Odegaard is one; he's scored four and assisted three but it's the 1.8 key passes per game that really stand out with the former Real Madrid man operating centrally. Out wide the game for Arsenal is all about crosses and chance creation; no matter who plays in the wide positions both defensively and further forward, you can see what their intentions are. Of those who have played more than 1000 minutes Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney lead the way – with Odegaard – in key passes and crosses combined; we’ve not even touched on the impacts players like Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe have on the side!
When you consider the evolution of Arsenal’s style, the approach in the transfer market to find players that suit Arteta’s plan and the number of players that have actually positively contributed, the future looks bright for the Gunners.