Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: Arteta finds balance by going back-to-basics

Could this 3-1 win against Chelsea breathe new life into Mikel Arteta’s reign as Arsenal coach and kick-start the season? One would certainly hope so, because all the good things in display in this victory – high-intensity, purpose, confidence – have sorely been absent in the seven-weeks or so previously.

In that sense, you’d hope it’s not a one-off, because Chelsea are the type of opponents Arteta, in his one-year in charge, has traditionally favoured playing against – those who tend to have more of the ball, those have pre-set patterns of play, and that make it easier to prepare against.

Indeed, Mikel Arteta spoke about before the game, before Arsenal’s chastening 4-1 league cup defeat versus Manchester City, that he has “zero interest in ball possession. I’m interested in what we do with that ball and how efficient we are.” In that respect, the upcoming games against Brighton, Crystal Palace and Newcastle United, where Arsenal are expected to have more of the ball, will be a bigger indication of how healthy the team are under Arteta, whether the green shoots of recovery displayed here are longer term.

In any case, Arteta prepared the team perfectly against Chelsea from the off, using a 4-2-3-1 formation we have infrequently seen since he took over. The shape, first of all, provided a solid springboard for Arsenal to press and counter-attack, making great use of the youthful and energetic line-up the manager selected. The tempo was set in the midfield. Arteta knew that Frank Lampard likes his three central midfielders to line-up, almost flat, across the pitch; Ngolo Kante holding, with Matteo Kovacic and Mason Mount to the right and left of him respectively. Therefore Arteta essentially asked his three in the middle to man-mark (see image at top). However, this loosely included Mohamed Elneny – ostensibly the deepest midfielder – because he didn’t want him dragged out and lose structure, so he instead asked Bukayo Saka to shift inside and block Mount. So in a sense, it was 4v3 in the centre. Arsenal completely nullified them there such that Lampard was forced to make a change at half-time and push Kante to a more advanced role to draw the attentions away of Granit Xhaka who was marking him.

The other noticeable thing about the change in shape – or rather formation – was the relaxing somewhat, of the positional play philosophy that Arteta has attempted to implement since be took over. There were still specific instructions given to players about which areas of the pitch to occupy – for example, as mentioned, Saka was asked to move inside from the right flank, which in turn allowed Hector Bellerin to hug the touchline; whilst Emile Smith-Rowe was mainly told to gravitate towards the left as Gabriel Martinelli joined the centre forward, to create a certain symmetry in the build up – but overall, the positioning seemed less restrictive.

Perhaps it was more noticeable in this game because Arsenal eschewed possession for a more direct approach, and in the coming matches we may see a return of the former approach. Yet, it has also been evident in the lead up to this game that Arteta has loosened his ideals a bit, so as not to let his players be bogged down by the extra instruction, and to help them concentrate on their game. Previously, he had resorted to the 3-4-3 formation that had generally served them so well at the start of this, and towards the end of last season, but that only had its benefits to a point.

Initially, Arsenal were very good at playing out from the back, the formation morphing into a sort-of 4-2-4 to beat opponents press, yet over time, the team struggled increasingly in the middle and end parts of the pitch. Fans have tried to stay positive throughout this period because it was clear that it was the one high-class skill Arsenal had, of which allowed them to compete against the bigger sides particularly, but they had hoped Arteta would build on it and add other other traits, such as quick combinations and cut-backs which we saw when he was coach at Manchester City. However, the attack quickly deteriorated and in the end the team lacked ideas such that it restored to spamming crosses. As Thierry Henry said of Pep Guardiola, his job was to put “everything in place to get the ball up to the final third of the pitch and then trusts his team to finish the job in the only area of the field that can’t be planned for.

It can be argued that the team was never really suited to playing this way and the ideals needed scaling back. Even at the start of Arteta’s reign, his team struggled to hit many shots, xg continues to plummet, whilst now, it seems that this Arsenal is the least creative of incarnations we’ve ever seen at the Emirates. Arteta is aware of this this issue saying by losing these no.10s, Rosicky, Wilshere, Ramsey, Mhkitaryan, Iwobi, he’s had to try and recast this side, find different ways to attack. “Liverpool, for example, do it in a different way,” he says. “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 when Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final. In winning the trophy, Arteta seemed to have assessed the profile of his players such that he didn’t necessarily need to use them in their best positions, but used them in 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.

But as mentioned, since about November 1, when Arsenal defeated Manchester United 1-0 in the league playing this same way, things have dissipated. That one way of playing became predictable, stale, and effectively lacking cohesion in the final third. It will be interesting to see if this Chelsea win becomes the template.

Certainly the personnel chosen brought renewed zest to the front line. It also seems like Arteta went back to basics somewhat and allowed the players to use a bit of their intuition to figure out what to do. That was highlighted by the improvisation shown by Saka when chipping the goalkeeper for Arsenal’s third, whilst the inclusion of Smith-Rowe signalled the need to have players who can take control of the ball in the final third. The youngster played in the no.10 role, mainly towards the left-side, but would follow the ball to the right if it went there, and indeed, came up with the assist for Saka’s aforementioned goal by drifting to the flank. Smith-Rowe viscerally makes Arsenal look more fluid because his understanding of space is superb, knowing which areas to occupy and when. Arteta loves these players and indeed, it makes implementing his positional style easier. He’s very much hands-on still with how he wants his team to but players like Saka, Smith-Rowe just make it seem a bit more off-the-cuff.

Peviously, it may have been argued, shorn of such individuals, he tended to overcomplicate the way Arsenal attacked, putting too much emphasis on coaching to get it right. (For example, he asked the team to look to create triangles on the flanks in order to get into good areas to cross the ball, but by doing so, he took a bit of initiative out of the side, and inventiveness).

Granit Xhaka also had an exemplary game, scoring a stunning free-kick for the second, and playing a gorgeous pass to Kieran Tierney in the lead up to the opener. His role noticeable shifted too, less concerned about dropping into left-back, and more central to play. He really sensed the spaces to be when Mohamed Elneny moved towards the right slightly, and then was able to pick up the ball in central positions and spray passes.

This Mikel Arteta’s 53rd game in change of Arsenal, and broadly, you could say that this was his third formation change – going from the 4-2-3-1 he started with, switching to 3-4-3 and then now settling on a back-to-basics of sorts 4-2-3-1, but without the numerous positional distractions. One wonders how the system develops because it’s expected Arteta will want more control, more domination. But for now, he’s not too concerned with that. It’s all about moments; what you can do with it when you have it. Certainly, it’s the time for Arteta to deliver at Arsenal.

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