On Saturday, Mikel Arteta instructed both of the Arsenal full-backs to play more conservatively, with Hector Bellerin tucking into central midfield at times. But given the players who play in those positions, is this tactic actually helpful?
Before lockdown, one of the most noticeable tactical wrinkles that Mikel Arteta introduced was his use of the two full-backs. With winger Bukayo Saka filling in at left-back, Arteta amended his Arsenal team to deal with the personnel available to him.
Starting in a 4-2-3-1 shape, Arteta pushed Saka into advanced areas, almost playing like a left-winger at times. He moved a central midfielder across to cover the vacated space and tucked the right-back, either Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Hector Bellerin, inside as a result.
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It worked well. Saka was a huge offensive threat when he pushed forward, delivering dangerous crosses into the penalty area and even notching a goal or two, while the inverted right-back role aided the team’s attempts to play out from the back when under pressure. It provided an extra option in front of the centre-halves, spreading the pitch wide and making it difficult for opponents to press Arsenal.
This weekend, however, Arteta shifted his shape. With Saka playing in central midfield in place of Granit Xhaka and Sead Kolasinac starting at left-back in his place, Arteta switched the roles. Saka would drift into the wide channels from central midfield, providing width when the Gunners were in possession, while Kolasinac remained more conservative in his positioning, not necessarily tucking inside but remaining deep to provide cover against the counter-attack. Bellerin, meanwhile, remained in an inverted right-back role on the opposite flank.
This meant that neither full-back pushed forward in what is now considered a more orthodox manner. They tucked inside or stayed deep. Very rarely did either push forward on overlapping runs, as was previously customary at Arsenal.
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This is not necessarily a bad development. That Arteta has a clear and defined plan is already a step above the confusing mess Unai Emery routinely trotted out. At least the players are given specific roles that are intended to fit together and comprise a cohesive system. And for the most part, the position rotation that Arteta implemented worked. Arsenal looked well-balanced.
But when considering the players that are playing these roles, you cannot help be think that their best assets are being curtailed. Kolasinac and Bellerin are exceptional at bombing forwards. Kieran Tierney is a tremendous crossed in advanced areas. Only Maitland-Niles seems to fit this more central-midfield-like role.
Of course, it is up to the players to adapt to what the manager wants. And if the full-backs are unable to execute the role that Arteta demands of them, Arsenal will have to find replacements. But there is reason to think that their best qualities are being curtailed, and that is not ideal when trying to build a team.