Back to the Future!
With uncertain times and a starved hunger to replace the empty void of an absence of football, fans have continued to throw themselves into the possibilities of a new hope, transfers!
For us Arsenal fans though this time off has come with a sense of reflection given the tumultuous season we have had. In Mikel Arteta we have a young, exciting, and clearly innovative coach that most can agree has already had a profound impact on our club’s fortunes. For many, including myself, his appointment was met with more hopeful optimism but above all fear of the unknown. What we can undeniably see is that in 4 months of competitive football we see an identity, leadership, and set of fundamentals that leave us excited for the future. However, this piece is not about a love affair with our new coach but rather an in-depth insight into his footballing philosophy, influences, and potential future.
Arteta has cited influence from 3 major footballing minds that have shaped his philosophy and may lend insight into our future of where he wants to take this team. Number 1 Arsene Wenger. I believe that from Arsene we are seeing the intangibles of an eloquent speaker that we are able to identify with in press conferences. Arteta, like Wenger, has an aura whom immediately creates a connection with whoever he is talking to. This is vitally important in projecting Arteta’s ability to convince future transfers into joining a project that will yield trophies. You just have to look at the example of David Luiz, a changed man, for how powerful and vital a skill it is for a head coach.
Number 2 Pep Guardiola. From Pep I would prefer to highlight the obsessive highly controlling mind. The control of space through possession is the major key influence we will see transferred. The selected formation will be a series of zones that specific players are ordered to operate in both with and without the ball. We can see the fruits of this ideology in the marketed improvement of our defensive structure.
Finally, Number 3 Johan Cruyff. This major influence is evident in the selection of the current 2-3-5 formation we see in possession which is simply a variant on Cruyff’s infamous 3-4-3.
Let’s talk Arteta and what he has brought! In possession Arteta favors the 2-3-5 formation with some basic fundamentals: patient build-up geared towards vertical play through the wings, while the central areas of MF are used to primarily shuttle the ball through the thirds with effective progression. In addition, the MF reduces 1 v 1 isolation in transition with a flat 3 MF dedicated to preventing counter attacks in the space vacated in wide areas. The attack is constructed with a left side bias that fundamentally is focussed on allowing the LW (Auba) to operate as a ST, while the LB (Saka) operates more as a traditional LW.
To prevent counters the current ST (Laca) is asked to play as more of a false nine to act as a pressing trigger and to cover the vacated spaces created by the creative freedom given to Ozil at AM. The result is that the RW is tasked with holding the width clearly at the impediment of attacking centrally. The MF construction of a flat 3 includes; the RB to act as an auxiliary MF to cover the RW space, while the LCM (Xhaka) acts as an auxiliary LB to cover the bombing Saka, and finally the “DM” is a central pivot mainly tasked with distribution/the first engagement during a breakdown in the final third.
What are the flaws you may ask? Ceballos is placed as the central pivot due to his better distribution but lacks athleticism to deal with 2-way transitions. Additionally, Ozil is given creative freedom at the expense of the ST who is used to cover the vacated central areas to prevent counters. We lack the athleticism in MF for Arteta to feel comfortable having the ST in the box. This explains the lop-sided preference to the left but again at the expense of Pepe being isolated out wide as the touchline winger, without support of an overlapping FB leaving him far from goal.
Let’s look to the future! Given Arteta’s continued reference to the fundamentals, I believe it’s logical to see the 2-3-5 formation stay but slightly tweaked in specific roles. Crucially the biggest surgery of this squad is needed in MF. A reliably strong MF with the athleticism to deal with transitions will allow us to evolve to the next step in Arteta’s plans. I believe we will see the ST return to the central space. However, the system will be tweaked to support a right-sided bias to help push Pepe closer to goal, allowing him to recreate the current LW Auba role but on the right.
Similarly, we will have the RB and LB overlapping, however the MF will be constructed to have 1 central DM pivot and 2 modern “8”’s capable of covering their respective wide spaces. More emphasis will be placed on primary ball progression/ ability to deal with counters in transition for the MF. The DM is crucial to athletically be able to engage high up the pitch with great distribution in possession whilst becoming a 3 CB in defence.
Crucially I believe we will move away from one individual being the “creative hub” whilst the system and control of space will create overlaps and cutbacks to fuel the chances very similar to how Man City play. To support this tweak to the system we have 3 vital purchases that are needed: 1. A creative Box-to-Box RCM “8” who is simultaneously able to cover the RW to allow Pepe the freedom to cut inside 2. A DM that is a repeat sprinter with elite distribution & positioning to play as the lone pivot. 3. A LCB capable on the ball who has the ability to deal with a ball over the top given the high line implementation.
And so, we come to the end of this article as we look back towards the future, with evolving rumours of continued efforts to return to the game we all love. We are all adjusting to a new normal and patience will be needed. I for one am excited for the journey. Crucially, I believe we finally have a coach who has a footballing identity and philosophy identifiable with the Arsenal Way. Most importantly, it is likely a return to the footballing excellence we have been world-renown for! COYG
Editor’s special thanks today to Giorge Voutsas, Toronto based Gunner, for this insightful guest article. You can interact with him in the comments or here on Twitter @szn_saliba