Mikel Arteta shows adaptability in promising first season at Arsenal

Arsenal v Chelsea - FA Cup Final

When Mikel Arteta was assistant coach at Manchester City, he gained a reputation as a master of analysing the fine details. Two months into his new role at the club, Pep Guardiola gave Arteta the chance to lead Man City in a league match against Arsenalbecause he said he knew everything to “expect from them”, and he duly delivered with a 2-1 victory. Since then, Arteta was Guardiola’s go-to guy when he needed a little bit more from his side. When the two teams faced each other again in August 2018, it was Arteta’s insight again that led to victory, as he instructed Benjamin Mendy to try and look for the “double-pass” with Raheem Sterling before making a cut-back across the floor. When Bernardo Silva came up with the winner from such a move, Guardiola went straight up to Arteta to congratulate him.

Such examples highlighted Arteta’s tactical nous so it was no surprise then that he quickly gained a reputation as Guardiola Mk. II. Certainly they have a shared background in being trained – at least in their playing careers – in the Cruyffian way, yet Arteta says his role there was, in the main, not devoted to the tactics board, but to finding gains in the most tangible aspect of what makes a football team: the players. In Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam, written by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin, Arteta said his role there really was “to look for what’s missing in a player’s game. If I spot something, there’s no point in waiting for the guy to tell me about it. He might take three months to get round to it. Opening up like that to a coach, pointing out your own weaknesses, that’s not easy. What we do is create a safe place so that the players feel comfortable about sharing with us. That way we can then give them the tools to make the improvements they need.”

Arteta is credited for transforming the impact of both Sterling and Leroy Sane, helping them understand better how to receive the ball and to attack spaces, whilst Fabian Delph has underlined how Arteta shaped his move from central midfield to left-back. Indeed, that was one of the first improvements Arteta made when he took over Arsenal at the start of this year, with Bukayo Saka explaining in detail the different ways he has been coached to view situations in games, whilst Ainsley Mainland-Niles and Dani Ceballos have been reinvigorated in new roles.

Of course, to make the step up from no.2 to no.1 you need to find the right balance between development and results and indeed, at the conclusion of his first season as manager of Arsenal, it can be said that Arteta achieved that.

The FA Cup win capped a promising first campaign, not least because he steadied what seemed like a sinking ship under Unai Emery. However, he experienced a few bumps of his own along the way therefore as such, it may even be argued that the humility make changes to his own approach was actually the main positive to take out of the season.

With the team suffering two sobering back-to-back defeats post-lockdown, Arteta attempted to make Arsenal steelier, switching formations from the asymmetric 4-3-3 he started with, to a 3-4-3 that mainly ceded possession and was best on the counter-attack. It was said to be a compromise of his ideals of sorts because of the dominant, front-foot style used by Man City when he was coach. There, he said, one of the first things that struck him was that, on “the very first day Pep took training, he got the whole squad out on the pitch and told them: ‘Manchester City does this when we have the ball and we do that when we don’t have it.’ And all of them understood exactly how we were going to play. It was non-negotiable. That talk lasted 15 minutes, but in those 15 minutes City was born. Everyone knew what would be asked of them from then on.

“He explained that sometimes we would adapt our game: ‘There’ll be alterations here and there depending on how our opponents attack and defend but basically our football will be exactly as I’ve just said.’

“We’d all watched his Barça and Bayern play and Pep insisted that this philosophy would continue. He showed the players footage and kept talking them through his ideas. It was clear that there was no going back. We knew how Pep’s Manchester City was going to be. And all it took was 15 minutes.”

People were surprised how quickly too, Arteta was able to transmit the same such ideas in his first game as manager, which was a 1-1 draw with Bournemouth, however, soon after lockdown he realised his team needed a change. He acknowledged that they didn’t have the personnel to implement this style – whilst some, like Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi didn’t adhere to his supposed “non-negotiables” (though others like Mainland-Niles and Ceballos went the other way and improved their commitment) – therefore, he fell back on what made him a success as an assistant: to look for ways to bring the best out of his players.

Will he try to go back to the style of play that he began with? That really, though is a non-question because he never truly did move away from it; he just realised his team were unable to control the game for extended periods. He admitted this after his sixth game in charge, against Sheffield United: “I think there were things we could have done better to put more pressure on the opponent, to bring the ball into certain areas where we could rest with the ball and control the game better.”

As such, he has adapted the system so that the team could stamp their technical quality in moments rather than exaggerated periods in matches. The semi-final goal in the 2-0 win over Manchester City was a good example of that, with the team for the most part, content in the game to soak up pressure. But when they did have possession, they were not scared to go backwards and reset, to play out of the box with their goalkeeper, before a move which saw all but one player touch the ball, ended with a goal. If Arsenal under Arteta are not having as much of the ball – they average just 46% possession in all competitions – when they do have it, they still have an unwavering commitment to do it the right way, displaying the same principles of a team that wants to dominate.

Indeed, Arteta knows that to be successful, you have to pass out well, but perhaps what has changed recently is that the homogeneous possession style that Pep popularised, need not be be the only way to play. It is merely the base; the key is how you create numerical superiorities between-the-lines and that, numerous teams have shown, can be cultivated in different ways. “Sometimes it is down to individual quality, but the whole structure is probably even more important in order to be a threat in the spaces that you want to attack,” said Arteta in an interview with Sky Sports. “How consistent you are in maintaining those attacks also depends on the structure behind the ball. Everything is linked together and the players have to understand that.

“It takes time because in small spaces, every detail, every touch, every movement is critical. And sometimes it’s not just about giving the ball to somebody, it’s about when. Do I do it now? Or do I do it one second later? A difference of 30 millimetres on a pass can change everything.”

He adds that because Arsenal have lost their creative edge in recent years, he’s had to recast the side and find other ways to attack. “Look at the players that we had in the past at this club in those positions,” said Arteta. “You go back to (Santi) Cazorla, to (Tomas) Rosicky, to (Andrey) Arshavin when he played there, to (Aaron) Ramsey when he played there, to (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan when he came in. Even Jack Wilshere used to play in those pockets all the time.

“That is a lot of players who are now not here. We have to renew that cycle, because if not, those kind of players won’t be there for us anymore.

“That [signing more creative players] is one of the areas we can improve, but also, how important those players are will depend on the way we are going to attack, because some different teams do it differently.

“Liverpool, for example, do it in a different way, without using the pockets in that manner, and they are still very effective. You see the assists created by their two full-backs compared to the No 10s that Manchester City have, for example. It’s an equal number but a completely different style. So there are different ways to do it.”

That “different” way was probably highlighted best in the 2-1 FA Cup final win over Chelsea where the plans he had been working on in the previous matches, seemed to culminate in the perfect balance. That is not to say it is the same as him using his players in their favoured positions; but more so he used them where he could take advantage of their strengths. Therefore, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still played a mainly left-sided role, but he had freedom to make the runs as he might as a central striker, as much as possible. Alexandre Lacazette dropped off and linked play like a false 9 (which in turn, bolstered the midfield); Hector Bellerin and Nicolas Pepe seemed more in tune with each other than before, whilst on the other side, the positioning of Mainland-Niles and Kieran Tierney allowed the formation to switch seamlessly to a 4-4-2.

This fluidity is afforded by the “structure and gameplan” that Arteta has implemented where all the players know which zones to occupy and are spaced in a synchronised and specific. Emiliano Martínez spoke about this after the game:  “Arteta is a great coach,” he said in an interview with Marca. “He is one of the best modern trainers today. In six months he has won a title, the FA Cup, one of the best cups in England and one of the oldest in history. He is going to be one of the best coaches in the world. Guardiola said that at Man City everyone had learned from Arteta. In training we see that he has a clear idea of the game, he surprises us day by day.”

What’s great about Arteta is that takes a holistic approach to team-building. His selections are mainly based on the principles of play that he preaches, but it also takes into account the opponent and how comfortable the players are in the system. This is not a new idea of course, but these days coaches are so hung up on “philosophy” that they find it difficult to look for another solution when they get stuck. To strike a compromise is almost dirty. For Arteta, however, philosophy, though very important, seemingly cannot be separated from pragmatism. That is to say, he has shown so far that he believes that theories and ideas are only useful insofar that they can be put into practice. Although, perhaps that should not be unexpected of a man who played under David Moyes, and mainly excelled as a deep-lying midfielder for a manager like Arsene Wenger who actually didn’t care much positional play in his own half because he didn’t want to put his team into trouble.

The flexibility of approach that Arteta has shown – to be able to find answers in ways nobody expected him to, is probably the biggest takeaway of Arsenal’s season going forward. It’s clear that he still has his core ideas [which is broadly this: “We can’t demand attacking players to generate things just like this. We have to have the play sustained behind them, to tie everything together. We need to arrive in better positions as many times as possible for them to be able to create as many situations as we want. It is the overall structure, the way we play and approach the game”] so whilst it is expected, for the 2020/21 season, he will revert to a 4-3-3 of type and try to play a more dominant, fixed-possession style, he realises he can only do it by adjusting to the tools he has in front of him and find a way that suits them. By signing Willian, Sporting Director Edu, has indicated the the steps they are taking to “rebalance” the squad to the way Arteta wants – but the fact the manager mentions, Willian’s “versatility” suggests adaptability will still be a key featyre of his approach.

As Guardiola said of his then-assistant in September 2019, Arteta “has an incredible work ethic, and he has a special talent to analyse what happens, and to find the solutions.” It seems as if Arteta is doing that already at Arsenal.

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