Arsenal head into the game against Manchester United on Sunday in something of a rut. Back to back league defeats against Manchester City and Leicester have taken the shine off of a promising preseason and transfer window.
For the first time in his brief managerial career questions are being asked of Mikel Arteta.
On the Twittersphere most of these questions seem to revolve around the absence of Mesut Ozil. But this article won’t be focusing on that. Honestly, I find the whole affair quite boring. Yes, he’s a good player, but he’s not in the squad till at least January. Time to get over it and move on.
What does interest me though are the questions about Arteta’s tactical identity. What once seemed so well defined is starting to become about as clear as the UK government’s coronavirus guidelines.
How it started…
When Mikel Arteta first arrived last December one of the most refreshing things was the clear identity he quickly stamped on the team.
He set us up in a Wenger-esque 4-2-3-1 that would mould into a Guardiola style 2-3-5 when in attack. David Luiz would push up and find Bukayo Saka (playing as an advance fullback) while Granit Xhaka would cover both. Once in the final third Saka would look to find Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who would in turn find the back of the net.
In just two months Arteta had managed to do something that Unai Emery had never been able to do. He kept it simple.
Was it perfect? No of course not. But after a year and a half of turning up to the Emirates trying to make sense of Emery’s latest bizarre selection, it was nice to know where we stood.
Of course, the 4-2-3-1 evolved into the back 3 that helped us win the FA Cup after project restart. But even then, we knew what to expect from our side. The Gunners were going to play out from the back and defend resolutely. Simple.
How it’s going…
In the past two games though, there has been something of an identity crisis.
Arteta has spoken openly about how he eventually wants to evolve Arsenal into a side that plays 4-3-3.
Upon seeing the line-up against Manchester City, I assumed that was where he was heading. Nicolas Pepe and Willian looked like they were going to flank Aubameyang up top, with Bukayo Saka joining Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos to make a midfield three.
Two weeks on I’m still not really sure what we got that day. Willian appeared to be playing as a false nine, while Aubameyang was, for some reason, still on the left. Logic would then seem to dictate that Saka was playing a left wing back, but for most of the game he was the highest player up the pitch!
I’m aware that under Arteta starting positions are very fluid, but for the first time watching Arsenal under him, I had no idea what we were trying to do.
I was even more confused when the Leicester game came around.
Aubameyang on the right? Lacazette playing? The refusal to pass to Thomas Partey?
None of it made any sense. For the first time you had to seriously question whether a man who can speak five languages was struggling to get his point across.
Being too clever
The assumption is that Arteta is trying to be a bit too clever. Without an obvious creator in the side – no, we are not going down the Ozil cul de sac! – he seems hellbent on coming up with even more ingenious ways to break down opposition defences.
But really what we should do is go back to the kind of football that would have seen us finish 5th if the league began when Arteta took over.
In Unai Emery’s first 70 games in charge we used a staggering eight different formations. Before this season Mikel Arteta had only used two.
For a manager schooled by some of the greatest tactical minds in the history of football this might seem a bit out of the Sam Allardyce playbook, but keeping it simple is the best way to get the Gunners back on track.