In this sponsored article, Martin Green looks at at the Five Clear Changes that Mikel Arteta has already made to Arsenal.
Former Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta has generated an immediate upswing in confidence levels at The Emirates after replacing Unai Emery in the dugout. The Gunners began 2020 with a magnificent 2-0 victory over Man Utd, and their first-half performance showed a disillusioned fanbase that the future could be a lot brighter at The Emirates. These are the five clear changes Arteta has made since taking the reins:
Arteta is extremely impressive in press conferences and post-match interviews. He carries gravitas and speaks with clarity, intelligence and eloquence. Thus far the Spaniard has not dodged a single question put to him, and his answers have been music to the ears of most Arsenal fans.
It stands in stark contrast to predecessor Unai Emery, who was routinely mocked for his command of English and his insistence on wishing every interviewer a good evening. Players were said to openly perform outrageous impressions of the former PSG boss during the latter stages of his tenure at The Emirates, while youngster Bukayo Saka confessed that he relied on assistant manager Freddie Ljungberg to bridge the communication gap.
Emery deserves credit for his determination to master the English language. However, he often struggled to get his point across in interviews, so it is hard to see how he could have clearly communicated his strategy to players. There are no such problems for Arteta, who moved to Glasgow to play for Rangers in 2002 and then spent the vast majority of his career in England, first with Everton and then with Arsenal.
In interviews, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Pep Guardiola. Arteta served as the Man City manager’s assistant as the team surged to consecutive title triumphs, and he carries himself in a similar fashion. He knows the club well from his five years as a player and he also learned from one of the best coaches of all time in Arsene Wenger. Yet Arteta is very much his own man, and it is interesting to listen to him explain what he wants from his players in clear, concise terms.
A Stylistic Overhaul
Arsenal were a total mess under Emery. He failed to address the defensive blunders that defined the late years of Wenger’s tenure, but he also sapped any semblance of attacking ambition out of the team. The result was that they conceded more goals and scored fewer under Emery than they did during late Wengerdom, while the football grew increasingly turgid.
In a 2-2 draw against bottom club Watford earlier this season, they faced 31 shots and had just seven attempts on goal themselves, so they were lucky to escape with a point. Unheralded opposition regularly had more shots on goal than Arsenal. Emery chopped and changed his formation and his starting 11 with alarming regularity when results started to go south, but nothing worked. By the time he was axed, the Gunners were marooned in mid-table, with a negative goal difference, and they had no discernible style.
Ljungberg was unable to galvanise the squad or provide an upturn in results when handed the reins on a temporary basis. Arteta was parachuted in to save the Gunners’ season, and his impact has been immediate.
He has sent Arsenal out in a clear 4-2-3-1 formation, while calling upon Guardiola’s famous deployment of inverted full-backs to give the Gunners a numerical advantage in midfield. Sead Kolasinac was given a licence to bomb forward against Man Utd, with Granit Xhaka slotting in at left-back to provide cover, and it was extremely effective.
Before the game, you could see the players practicing combinations in a pre-match drill under the supervision of Arteta’s assistants, Steve Round and Albert Stuivenberg. Man City players always seem to know where their teammates will be and where to play the ball, as they have had the tactics drilled into them, and Arteta has brought this policy with him to Arsenal. He claims that football is all about habit and angles, and his players had all the right angles in that first half against Man Utd.
They looked ambitious in possession and they pressed ferociously when they did not have the ball. There is now a clear style for the players to buy into, chaos has been replaced by meticulousness, and the early signs are promising.
Winning the Respect of Senior Players
On his first day as Arsenal boss, Arteta laid down the law. He demanded a change in energy, said he would not tolerate anyone hiding, and promised to dispense with any player that does not buy into his vision or is not good enough to see it through.
The Spaniard also pledged to engage in detailed conversations with squad members to find out what was going wrong and how best it could be fixed. He was seen putting an arm around Reiss Nelson after his first game in charge, a 1-1 draw with Bournemouth.
He has an aura of authority about him, but he also conveys warmth and openness, and the players have responded well to his approach. After the Man Utd game, man of the match David Luiz offered thinly veiled criticism of Emery’s regime and he was full of praise for the turnaround in mood that Arteta has already generated. He said the players are now about to “work with happiness” and “believe in what they are doing”.
“I believe he can improve every player,” said Luiz. “Mikel is a great coach and knows football. He was a great player, he brings things and I believe in his philosophy. We are going to do big things in the future, but step by step.”
Arsenal are clear outsiders in the race to finish in the top four, and if you take a look at the bookmakers’ predictions, you will see that they still feel the jury is out on Arteta. But the players believe they can flourish and he is starting to win over the fans too. They have a clear identity for the first time in years, and that is something that everyone connected with the club can get behind.
Playing Torreira as a Holding Midfielder
Lucas Torreira was one of the players to suffer the most under Emery’s confused tactical approach. The diminutive Uruguayan looks like a world-beater when deployed as a holding midfielder, but he struggled to adapt to the box-to-box role Emery deigned to assign him this season.
He was frequently too far off the pace to break up attacks, and he ended up being dropped in favour of Matteo Guendouzi. Ljungberg reinstated Torreira, but he has really blossomed under the tutelage of Arteta, who has clearly instructed him to play in a much smaller space in front of the back four.
The results have been impressive. Torreira looks like a player reborn, charging about in terrier-like fashion to win the ball back and making a number of key tackles throughout the game. Luiz was man of the match against Man Utd, but the honour could easily have gone to Torreira. He is at his best reading danger over a period of up to 10 yards, and he looks best in a compact set up, so Arsenal have already benefited tremendously from this tactical switch.
Finding a Place for Key Players
Emery was never able to find a way to incorporate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe and Mesut Ozil into the same team. They are Arsenal’s four most expensive players and they all command high wages, so it was a shame to see one or two of them regularly left on the bench.
Arteta sent out all four of them against Man Utd and they managed to form an effective attacking unit. Pepe had his most impressive game in an Arsenal shirt, while Ozil – long heralded as the poster boy for Arsenal’s brittleness and laissez-faire attitude, led the way with 10 ball recoveries and covered more ground than almost anyone on the pitch. Aubameyang was tracking back like a man possessed, and Arsenal looked full of menace whenever they broke.
Rather than trying to shunt players into a system they struggle with – a key characteristic of the first half of the season under Emery – Arteta has rapidly created a system that suits the players he has at his disposal. Xhaka struggles in the cut and thrust of the midfield battle, so he has been deployed deeper alongside Torreira.
Against Man Utd he was able to play the neat and tidy passes he is renowned for, without squandering possession or committing the sort of reckless fouls that infuriated fans so badly. Xhaka was happy to regularly fill in at left-back in order to allow Sead Kolasinac – a poor defender but a devastating attacking force – to go bulldozing forwards and wreak havoc.
Aubameyang would tuck inside next to Lacazette, dragging Aaron Wan-Bisakka out of place, and that allowed Kolasinac room to manoeuvre. On the other flank, Ainsley Maitland-Niles – a midfielder converted into a full-back out of necessity – has looked a lot better in an inverted role that sees him regularly move into his favoured midfield position.
These are encouraging signs, as Arsenal no longer look like a team trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Arteta has rejuvenated Arsenal and they look more organised than they have in years, while key players like Luiz, Ozil and Torreira now have a system that allows them to show off their best attributes, so Arsenal fans can feel optimistic about the new direction their beloved club has taken.