Talking Tactics: Is Fulham Where Arteta Changes Up Arsenal’s Winning Formula
3 games played, 9 goals scored, 3 successful debuts, at least 2 catchy new songs, and maximum points. That is the tally so far for a cruising Arsenal, and while the most bullish of fans are already stealthily adjusting their pre-season predictions upwards, the team prepares for what promises to be a tricky afternoon against Fulham.
Much of the excitement around Arsenal has centered around the way Arteta’s side has been able to build play, and how successful they have been at sustaining attacks with an increased technical level throughout the team. Debutants Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and William Saliba have been important in enabling that improvement, but the work being done in both full-back roles has been pivotal.
To say that Zinchenko “inverts” into midfield may be an understatement, as the nominal left-back was often seen receiving passes from his center-backs close to Partey, relieving pressure from the latter and distributing or carrying the ball forward himself. Arsenal’s 3rd most frequent pass combination (18) was Gabriel Magalhaes to Zinchenko.
Arsenal’s 2-3-5 attacking shape, that features Benjamin White (now starting at right-back) and Zinchenko often forming a midfield 3 alongside Thomas Partey, is only made possible thanks to the on-ball prowess of their two full-backs. Those two players are seen as crucial elements in possession, capable not only of starting attacks from deep but also sustaining them with their passing ability. Both White and Zinchenko were among Arsenal’s Top 5 passers against Bournemouth, with numbers mirroring those of more traditional midfielders.
Zinchenko and White’s “inversions” also play an important role in stopping transitions. When the ball is lost in the attacking third, they are optimally placed to press the opponents and win the ball back, creating a shield in front of the back 2. Nobody had more ball recoveries at the Vitality Stadium than Zinchenko who, tied with Partey, managed 10. The StatsZone map below illustrates the zones that those recoveries took place in, with many coming in the “inside” areas on the left side of the pitch. One tackle was even made in the right-back zone.
Ben White’s recovery map, while less crowded, follows a similar trend on the opposite side.
In being heavily involved in both the build-up and in defensive transitions, White and Zinchenko alleviate much of the burden placed on Thomas Partey, and go a long way in solving one of the perennial problems of playing with a single pivot. Much like Man City’s years ago, Arsenal’s full-backs should stop being perceived as traditional “full-backs”. The more accurate “behind-the-ball build-up maestros and transition stoppers”, has less of a ring to it.
Arteta’s winning formula in the first 3 games of the season has taken Arsenal to the top of the Premier League table. The brand of football has been exciting, and no team has managed to score more goals. The control exhibited in games has in turn limited the number of chances conceded, particularly against Bournemouth, but the type of test against Fulham will be a different one.
Mitrovic is undoubtedly Fulham’s star player, and he has started this campaign in fine form after having broken the Championship goalscoring record with 43 goals in 44 games last season. While a competent footballer, the main threat he carries is aerial, and he has developed a tendency of scoring goals by attacking the far post. 4 of his 8 shots in Fulham’s last game against Brentford, including their dramatic late winner, were headers. He climbed above Mbeumo at the back post to power home a header from a deep right-sided cross in the 92nd minute, and clinched the 3-2 win over their West London rivals. Mitrovic scored a similar goal against Liverpool in their opening day draw, when he jumped above Trent Alexander-Arnold at the back post to meet a Kenny Tete cross for the opener. Targeting the back post with crosses for their Serbian target-man to attack is a clear tactic for Marco Silva’s side, and one that could pay dividends against Arsenal.
While faultless in possession and well-suited to defending in transition, White and especially Zinchenko can be targeted aerially. White’s experience at center-back and his sense of positioning and anticipation make him a more than capable aerial defender, but with Tomiyasu now fully fit, Arteta may have a decision to make. Perhaps not as silky a passer as his English counterpart, Tomiyasu remains incredibly valuable in build-up. Where he does excel however, is in aerial duels. Last season, the Japan international placed in the 98th percentile for aerials won compared to all full-backs in the league. At 6ft1, he uses his physicality to win duels all over the pitch, but can be especially adept at defending his box. When in the team, Tomiyasu brought a sense of serenity to the young backline. Against the in-form Mitrovic, his back-post defending could be invaluable.
Fulham have already created 2 goals for their star striker that have come from right-sided crosses to the left far post, but Mitrovic has a habit of popping up all over the box to find the best space to attack. Zinchenko, who Arteta just last week labelled “a natural midfielder playing at left-back”, could also be targeted on the other side of Arsenal’s defense. Whether a fully-fit Kieran Tierney slots in is another decision for Arteta to make, but the more robust Gabriel and Granit Xhaka will nevertheless need to be vigilant and provide plenty of support to whoever is marking the back post. Against Brentford last week, new signing Joao Palhinha also scored a header from a corner kick.
Given the very potent aerial danger posed by Fulham, an argument can be made for Tomiyasu returning to the side at left-back with White remaining on the right. Tomiyasu played in that position towards the end of last season. An unlikely choice, given that Arsenal finally possess two fully-fit and top-quality left-backs, but that would certainly be the most suited defensive line to defend against Mitrovic’s threat.
Arsenal finally have a plethora of defensive options to chose from, all with different skillsets that suit different game states and scenarios. Some options highlight Arsenal’s own strengths, while other may be more tailored to neutralizing an opponent’s strength. Crucially, all of them are top-quality players for the manager to choose from. Will Arteta persist with what has brought success so far, or look to nullify Fulham and in the process allow for some rotation?