Sunday, November 27, 2022

Freedom of expression + square pegs?

On yesterday’s Arsecast Extra, there was a big discussion about Mikel Arteta, his methods, what we think we’re learning about him, and lots more.

As ever, the usual caveats apply. If we accept that this Arsenal team is a work in progress, then so is he. This is his first job, he’s been in it for exactly 10 months now, and the circumstances of his appointment and what he’s had to contend with in such a short space of time have been exceptional. I use that word deliberately because I can’t remember any manager starting his career in a job with so many and varied things to deal with (you all know what they are, so I don’t need to go over them again).

I think it’s also worth remembering that just a couple of months ago we ended what was our worst Premier League season in decades with an FA Cup success, beating Man City in the semi-final and Chelsea in the final to add to our record number of trophies in this competition. There were signs of progress and reasons for optimism, and I know I shouldn’t have to clarify that I feel it’s way too early to start making definitive judgements about a manager, but sometimes online you kind of have to, so I just did.

Obviously though, it’s hard to feel like everything is sunshine and lollipops after your third defeat in six Premier League games. If you can compartmentalise losses to Liverpool and Man City, it’s much more difficult to do that when you get sucker-punched by Leicester City. That’s not to disrespect them them, because they are a good side, but as we seek to catch up to the best teams, we need to see us do better against the ones with which we’re basically on the same level.

Much of what James and I talked about centred around the team selections, players being used in certain ways, or other players not being used at all. The word ‘handbrake’ came up, and there’s clearly an element of Arteta wanting specific things from players which are, in some ways, restrictive. It’s not that he doesn’t want his team to attack, but he wants them to do so using preordained patterns which look great when they come off, but leave us, as fans, frustrated when we continue to work the ball to try and find the right moves at the right time.

I think it’s fair to say that in trying to increase the solidity of a team which looked like it could be countered on at any time by a collection of peg-legged U12 boy-scouts, there has been a price. Whether you view it as caution, risk-averse, overly-choreographed, or something else, is a personal thing. When it comes off, as it did for some spectacular goals on the way to the cup success, it’s great. However, I think the FA Cup final winner is a kind of demonstration of what we’re missing at the moment – individual freedom of expression.

Hector Bellerin bursting forward, one of the few players in this team who carries the ball with any kind of frequency. Then Aubameyang’s piece of individual brilliance to turn the defender inside out (Oh Zou!), before an impudent finish. It feels, at the moment anyway, as if the players are reluctant to try things they might previously have done, and that Arteta just needs to loosen the shackles a little bit.

Another interesting aspect, after we saw Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang start on the right against Leicester, and Eddie Nketiah started on the left against Rapid Vienna, is the idea of players being played out of position – nominally at least. This isn’t to reopen the Aubameyang at centre-forward thing again, even if that’s in the podcast chat, but I wonder if what we think of as out of position isn’t exactly that to Arteta. I think it’s more ‘Player in a position to do a job I want him to do.’

It has actually been a recurring theme throughout his short tenure so far. Off the top of my head, examples include:

Sokratis at right-back: Ok, it didn’t last long and it only happened a few times, but he preferred a central-defender to a more obvious option in Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

Kieran Tierney at left centre-half: I know his role is such that he very often plays higher up, almost like a left wing-back, and he has played here for Scotland, but he’s a left-back primarily.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left wing-back: He’s a right-footed player who has played most of his football for us on that side. That he’s so versatile doesn’t make this an obvious example, but I still think it fits.

Dani Ceballos playing deeper in midfield: The Spanish international said himself that under Arteta he played in a way which wasn’t common for him.

Willian at centre-forward: Not an experiment I’d like to see again, but it happened.

Bukayo Saka on the right of the front-three: Again, it’s not completely out of his comfort zone, but he’s played almost all his football for us on the left.

Joe Willock as the False 9/right-side of front three: More often a late substitute role, but still one that sees him used outside of his more obvious central midfield position.

I’ve already mentioned Aubameyang on the right, and even if you prefer him in the middle you can’t make the argument that the left is ‘out of position’ because he has scored so many of his goals there. You could even potentially throw in the use of Granit Xhaka when he drops into the back-line, or what we saw from Mohamed Elneny last week when he played a substantial part of the game in what would normally be considered the right-back’s area, allowing Bellerin to operate further infield and higher up.

Which is to say I don’t think he views these players as out of position, per se, but pieces on his tactical chess board which give him the structure to try and implement the game-plan he has in his mind. So far this season though, it hasn’t really paid off as much as we’d have liked (and I’m sure he’d have liked too). It’s far too simplistic to say we just need to attack more or ‘go for it’ with more frequency, but I do believe there’s a balance to be found between a side that’s highly-organised, and one which feels like it has some freedom of expression as I mentioned earlier.

Does Arteta need to trust his players a bit more? Let them off the leash? Allow them to take some risks in terms of positioning or passing? Put in place a more attacking system? I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I think we can safely say that there’s a need to do something to make this team more effective going forward, because right now that’s what’s hurting us. It’s not as if Leicester were all over us and pounded us into submission. Our lack of fire-power left us open to that late Vardy goal, and that’s where the focus needs to be as we prepare for our upcoming games.

Anyway, I doubt this is something that Mikel Arteta isn’t well aware of himself, what kind of solution he tries to find will certainly be interesting. For now though, I’ll leave you with the podcast below, so if you haven’t already had a chance to listen, get stuck in!


This Arsecast Extra was recorded with ipDTL

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