Understanding Mikel Arteta’s Tactical Prowess
Mikel Arteta’s first half-season as Arsenal manager has seen the Spaniard imprint many notable tactical trends and nuances as he looks to embellish his philosophy on the Arsenal team.
This report will give an analysis of some of those tactical trends.
Mikel Arteta has found most of his success with the 3-4-3 formation. This formation allows Arsenal security at the back and helps them maintain offensive and defensive balance. In possession, the formation allows for Arsenal to create good passing angles and morph into different structures when in possession.
An example of this is when Arsenal look to seamlessly transition from their defensive third into their opponents’. Arsenal look for their width to come through the wing-backs rather than the front three. Instead, the front three prefer to tuck inside and occupy the half-spaces. Down Arsenal’s left, Kieran Tierney pushes up to left wing-back, rather than staying as a left centre-back. This allows Arsenal to overload down their left and overlap or underlap Aubameyang when he has the ball. This allows him to find momentary time and space to punish an opponent.
On the right, Saka or Pepe can drop deeper into midfield and help move the ball up the pitch. This is done through dribbling or combination play. This is the cue for Aubameyang to move more central, as he and Lacazette form a front two.
One of Arsenal’s biggest problems in recent years has been a lack of compactness. Under Arteta, when Arsenal fall back in their shape, they ensure that they protect and defend the crucial central areas. Arsenal work really hard to force opponents wide and away from their goal. With the addition of Gabriel and the returning Saliba, Arsenal now have two centre-backs who can deal with aerial and ground challenges. This means forcing the opposition out wide and encouraging crosses is preferred over sacrificing space centrally.
In addition to the 3-4-3, Arteta did deploy Arsenal in a 4-2-3-1. This would alter into a 4-4-2 when in a medium block. This formation seemed to get glimpses of Mesut Ozil’s best in the number 10 role. However, since Arsenal’s change to a 3-4-3, there have been improvements in results and in the majority of players. This has convinced Arteta to abandon Ozil and take advantage of the German’s injury, to simply leave him out.
As previously hinted, when Arsenal build up in a 3-4-3 formation against a front three, the team shape alters to a back four. Against a front two, Arteta prefers to build up with a three.
When altering to a back four and the goalkeeper has the ball, the two centre-backs go horizontal with him on the touchline. The two midfielders proceed to move into the box. The right wing-back takes up the position of a right-back, whilst the left centre-back (Tierney) moves to left-back and the left wing-back pushes higher, almost as a winger. The left-winger (Aubameyang) can move more central, whilst the striker looks to drop back. This staggers Arsenal nicely across the pitch, creating many different lines to move possession through.
Arteta knows the opposition will naturally look to shut off any passes centrally into the midfielders and force the ball wide. From there, the opponent will look to create a strong side and use their body shape to kill passes back inside. This requires Arsenal to create several options which see them receive in space behind the opposition’s first line of pressure.
Arsenal’s ability to readjust their positioning depending on the location of the ball is vital to playing out from the back. The moment Bellerin realises Elneny will look to find Holding, he drops and creates an angle to receive the pass. If he doesn’t, Holding would most likely go long, or succumb to Liverpool’s pressure. These details in Arsenal’s play, from the body shape of players to their exact understanding and tactical awareness, have been very impressive under Arteta’s tutelage.
Positional and rotational play
As mentioned in Arsenal’s build-up, the positioning of the players depending upon the location of the ball has been vital to Arsenal’s success under Arteta.
The positional play model allows Arsenal to move the ball through the thirds with fluidity. Ultimately, they are looking to unlock space and then attack it with the correct conditions to damage an opponent. Arteta wants for Arsenal to have complete offensive and defensive balance throughout the game and positional play aids this.
In the image below, you can see Arsenal looking to initiate positional play in the Wolves half out wide. Arsenal aim to create a sequence which sees them receive in behind the Wolves defence. Nketiah and Saka offer height and are positioned in the half-spaces, Cedric offers width, whilst Mustafi crucially gives depth and acts as a safety option to retain possession, should Arsenal struggle to progress the move. Upon Cedric receiving from Mustafi, Nketiah may look to drop deeper to get on the ball.
This will be the cue for Saka to spin and move in behind the Wolves defensive structure and receive a pass, either via Nketiah or directly from Cedric. Upon Nketiah dropping, he may attract a marker with him, opening space for Saka to sprint into. Alternatively, Saka may look to exploit the space left when the Wolves wing-back presses Cedric.
The Central Striker
Mikel Arteta is intent on building a fluid footballing side, where all cogs cohesively move. A major part of that is the role of the central striker, mainly undertaken by Alexandre Lacazette.
When Arsenal have been in possession, Lacazette has been required to drop deeper and get on the ball. He either receives between the lines and turns, or lays the pass off to a teammate, who is in space. Again, this role is designed with Arsenal exploiting new spaces for teammates, through dragging their opponents out of position. Lacazette helps marry the lines of play and link play together. This is universally vital – either against teams who sit in a low block with many players central, or those who aggressively man-mark and press.
The striker role out of possession also has a fundamental role in the side. Lacazette has been required to attach himself to the oppositions defensive midfielder when playing against a midfield 3 and prevent passes into him. Having the striker acting as the extra man in midfield allows for Arsenal to not be outnumbered, with their midfield two against an oppositions 3. It’s important that Lacazette prevents the defensive midfielder from being the spare man when the opposition are in possession. As well as this, Arteta doesn’t want the opposition to have a free extra defensive player around the ball area.
Arsenal’s midfield pivot has major roles both in and out of possession. On average, it has been Xhaka and Ceballos who have held the mantle for Mikel Arteta’s side. The duo have been putting in great performances in the heart of midfield.
When following up the front three’s press, Arsenal’s midfielders are tasked with attaching themselves to the opposition’s midfielders, when against a midfield 2 or 3. They aim to approach their targets from behind, preventing them from turning with time and space. The pair work in conjecture with the striker to create a 3 v 2 or 3 v 3 in midfield. They use their energy and tenacity to bite at their opponents and force mistakes. As they press from behind, the front three also look to converge and apply double marking. This rushes their opposition and can lead to Arsenal winning the ball back in very good areas and directly shooting at goal.
In possession, the pivot are tasked with dictating playing and aiding the positional football Arteta wants to play. At times this is where they show their lack of experience, not taking up the correct positions/spaces to efficiently move the ball around the pitch. This hampers possession and prevents the fluidity of the team. With time this will improve.
In conclusion, these are just a few of the tactical nuances Mikel Arteta has implemented in his Arsenal team. His mentoring from Pep Guardiola has stood him in good stead. Both teams share and thrive off similar elements, such as the positional play and specific striker movements. Individual improvements, such as the way he coaches his players to receive the ball and move it on when under intense pressure, is very impressive. In seasons past, we would see players crumble when playing out from the back (especially against Liverpool). However, Arteta’s coaching allows the players to have a plethora of options for every scenario that may occur. He tells them what will happen and then gives them the tools to work through it.
Mikel Arteta has shown to be the perfect blend between of adamant about his philosophy and playing style, yet has a strong sense of survival. This allows Arsenal to navigate tricky games, whilst not sacrificing their principles or blurring their identity, in the name of getting the job done. This adaptability is something Unai Emery and Arsène Wenger didn’t have, and in truth, few do. The future is looking very bright under Mikel Arteta.