With wins against each of the top four Premier League teams in 2020, Mikel Arteta has already shown he has the tactical acumen to compete with the very best.
Arteta’s Arsenal are organized and adaptable, while still maintaining the manager’s core principles; it’s the perfect balance. Unai Emery once said that he wanted Arsenal to play like a “chameleon team” with a clear emphasis on tactical flexibility. Well, Señor Emery certainly tinkered with a plethora of colors in his team selections, but the vast majority of them came out hideous (think Lucas Torreira playing as a number ten).
Randomly implementing new formations and tactics every week became detrimental to our results and performances, for obvious reasons. A team without some basic level of continuity can not generate consistent performances. Emery was in many ways the polar opposite of Arsene Wenger. In his final years as manager, ‘Le Professeur’ hardly tweaked his game plan, regardless of whether Arsenal were facing Stoke City or Barcelona.
Yet Arteta has been able to strike the perfect balance between the two extremes. While he has a clear philosophy and certain “non-negotiables”, he also considers how to best exploit the opposition without sacrificing his core principles, such as playing out from the back. In particular though, Arteta’s understanding and prioritization of space over rigid formations has been a key driver of Arsenal’s success.
We first saw this in the pre-Covid period from December to March. Injuries to Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac forced Bukayo Saka into the starting left-back position. While on paper Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1, the out-of-position teenager pushed extremely high up the pitch as a de facto winger, while Granit Xhaka dropped back as an auxiliary defender. This played to both players’ strengths, with Xhaka able to display his long-range passing ability and Saka being absolved of some defensive responsibility.
On the right hand side, Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Hector Bellerin would tuck in centrally as an inverted full-back to bring some balance to the team, as Arsenal primarily attacked from the left. With this system, which at times took a 3-2-5 shape, Arsenal went eight league matches unbeaten to start 2020, including a fabulous New Year’s Day win over Manchester United.
Fast forward to August 1st, and the FA Cup final was another stroke of genius from the Arsenal manager. Both Arsenal and Chelsea lined up in similar three-at-the-back formations, but Arteta undeniably out-coached Frank Lampard on the day, as detailed by The Athletic’s Michael Cox. Maitland-Niles again played a big part, only this time starting at left wing-back.
Maitland Niles’s constant movement off the ball in the midfield drew Reece James out of position, enabling Aubameyang to get isolated with one of the Chelsea center-backs, and the Arsenal captain did the rest. It was all part of Arteta’s gameplan, to exploit the space in behind Chelsea’s wing-backs.
I truly don’t think Arteta believes in using rigid formations; rather, he instructs each player to cover a certain space and move where needed to open up passing lanes, depending on where the ball is. In order for that to work, he will undoubtedly need players who are both versatile and positionally intelligent. This makes the Maitland-Niles to Wolves rumors all the more puzzling; he has been extremely valuable in our biggest wins and looks like the prototypical Arteta player.
One thing is clear; Arteta has already shown he has the tactical shrewdness to go toe-to-toe with the league’s best, which is incredible considering that he is 38 years old and about nine months into his first head coaching job. The early signs have been extremely encouraging, and Arsenal fans have plenty of reason to believe that the best is yet to come.