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Do Not Worry About The Arsenal Attack Under Mikel Arteta


When Mikel Arteta took over an Arsenal team that had fallen into disarray under Unai Emery in December of last year, his remit was clear: improve the performances of the squad as fast as possible and get results on a more consistent basis in all competitions. On that first point, Arteta has made excellent progress by the estimation of most observers, but some fans remain concerned about the lack of a noticeable improvement in the Gunners’ attack. 

For a group that has cost the club over £200m to assemble, the Arsenal attack has been increasingly reliant on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this season, a fact that has only been mitigated slightly since Arteta’s arrival. This runs in stark contrast to the much-improved defence, which in spite of a run of serious long term injuries and mistake-prone members, has shown vast improvement since Arteta’s first match against Bournemouth. A troubling inability to hold leads aside, the Gunners have looked altogether a more competent and organised team without the ball in the new year. 

Is Arteta making progress in improving an attack that has not yet performed up to the level fans dreamed of this summer when Nicolas Pépé joined the already lethal bunch? And what is it that makes Arteta’s attacking system more difficult for the players to take on board than the equally Guardiola-esque defensive structure? Mikel Arteta has already earned some patience and goodwill from many supporters, but the club is still focused on an outside chance of getting into the Champions League this season. To get there, the attack has to start pulling the weight its allocation of the wage bill suggests it should.

Maximum Engagement

In truth, no matter what defensive system a new head coach employs upon arrival at a club, most of the time he benefits from the increased effort and engagement from the players looking to impress their new boss. But Mikel Arteta has done more than extract maximum effort from players who are still a long way off the fitness standards his football requires. Almost instantly, he has given the same group of players who looked so erratic and stretched out under Emery the foundations of a stable structure in which the players can play comfortably. 

Gone are the panicked retreats back towards the goal after the ball is lost, waved frantically on by a grimacing Emery. Instead, a composed, zonal press has taken its place, with the defence allowed to push higher up, compressing the opponent’s space without compromising their protection of Bernd Leno’s goal. 

This has allowed the midfield of Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira the opportunity to cover a much smaller, more manageable area in the centre of the pitch, preventing them from being exposed in open space by opponents on the counter. Instead of backpedalling into the laps of Sokratis and David Luiz and inviting pressure into the final third, the duo can hold their positions and wait for the front four to pin the opponent to the touchline, springing the press trap. This has seen Arsenal intercept dramatically more passes in the opponent’s half without getting sucked forward and out of position. 

Stuttering Progress

As noticeable as the defensive improvements have been under Mikel Arteta, the progress being made in attack has been more difficult to find, with the Gunners netting just 11 goals in his eight matches in charge, though the improved defence allowing just one goal per match has allowed Arteta to average 1.63 points per match, which bests Emery’s mark of 1.55, from 44 goals in 20 matches only slightly, though it should be noted that Emery earned four of his eight wins against sub-standard competition in the early rounds of cup competitions, with a goal ration of 15:2. Once left aside, Emery’s mark of four wins in 16 matches, with 29 goals in those matches is far more pedestrian still.

However, even accounting for Emery’s matches against easier competition, Arsenal are scoring fewer goals under Arteta. In some ways, the problem is the imbalanced way in which the attack was assembled. With Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Gabrielle Martinelli, and Eddie Nketiah all preferring to play as a centre forward, and Nicolas Pépé proving to be a fearsome presence cutting in from the right, the lion’s share of the creative duties fall to Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka, and the full-backs. 

Lacazette and Aubameyang’s have great chemistry on and off the pitch, but having both on the pitch at the same time requires more creative players around them for the attack to thrive. However, as dynamic and impressive as they are, both Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pépé aren’t that type of player. Both players like to attack the defender in front of them, trying to beat them on the dribble before picking a pass or shooting, but this doesn’t work in a team that looks to find a rhythm in the passing game to create chances.

This has lead to Arsenal’s attack scoring some excellent goals from isolated individual moments of brilliance or set-pieces, but few of the wonderous team goals resemble those that once defined Arsenal’s play in the past, and also of Arteta’s most recent mentor, Pep Guardiola. Given his background, and some of the concepts he has begun to install on the pitches at London Colney, there is a sense that this attacking malaise will not last forever.

Complex Simplicity: The 2-3-5/3-2-5

The Gunners may be some way off scoring the highlight reel goals that have become commonplace in recent years at Arteta’s old club Manchester City, but the former City assistant has brought with him the attacking front five that Guardiola has been perfecting during his time in England. 

After regaining possession, Arsenal now look to shift into a 2-3-5 (or 3-2-5 as it turns into when Xhaka drops into the left-back spot in buildup) as their preferred method of unlocking the defence. In the Guardiola system that has heavily influenced Arteta here, a player’s position is determined by his vertical “lane” on the pitch, and no more than two players should occupy the same lane at any one time. Players are tasked with shifting horizontally across the formation to create numerical superiority no matter which area of the pitch the ball is being possessed, and others must also constantly react to the movement of the ball and their teammates to occupy the best possible space within the shape.

In theory, the player on the ball should always have an open man to pass to, provided the entire team has read the play and moved accordingly. Ironically, it is this structure, rehearsed ad nauseam on the training pitches, that eventually gives players the freedom to express themselves creatively on the pitch. 

However, it is plain to see Arteta has much left to instil in this attack to get his system working in the way it should. Without a player with the tactical intelligence and work rate of Kevin DeBruyne or David Silva to shuttle between the midfield and attack, creating pockets of space for his teammates, the Gunners need better off-ball movement from the front four to give the midfield options to use their passing range, particularly in lieu of a dynamic runner from deep.

Spreading The Love

If there was to be a silver lining in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s untimely three march ban for his dangerous tackle on Max Meyer against Crystal Palace, it was the hope that others would find their scoring touch in his absence, giving Arsenal a more balanced attack upon his return. The Gunners managed to win once and draw twice, scoring five during the ban, with Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Hector Bellerin, and Eddie Nketiah all chipping in. 

Alexandre Lacazette’s slump continued, however, with no goals in his last ten matches. As important and any improvement to the collective under Arteta is, so will be getting the Frenchman back on track. Having arrived as a prolific goalscorer and elite finisher from Lyon, the striker has been patchy during his time in North London, with fans in particular upset with his lack of production on the road.  Should he finally snap out of the funk he has been in since the new year, it will go a long way toward restoring some menace to the Arsenal attack.

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