Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Next Step

One of the most fascinating aspects of Mikel Arteta’s premiership is the total lack of a managerial back story. Broadly, we knew how Carlo Ancelotti would operate at Everton, that he would cock an eyebrow and try to cobble together the system and set of principles that most suit the players at his disposal. This summer he bought two players who he had worked with previously.

The Jose Mourinho “three season syndrome” narrative is so deeply entrenched that we wait for it to unfold impatiently. Even when his managerial reigns do not especially conform to this pattern, we retrofit the events to fit the mould. Guardiola’s intensity, we are told, begins to wear on his players after a similar time period and, again, we take that theory and work backwards from it, whatever the evidence shows.

With Arteta, we have no narrative luggage, save for the fact that he worked under Guardiola and, therefore, will likely try to instil Guardiolan principles in his team. A lot of the evidence has borne this out so far, in fairness. Now Arteta is ten months into his reign, we know him better and we know what to expect from his Arsenal team.

He has cleared the first hurdle, or assignment, of his project with Arsenal- he has made the team more solid, more organised and given it an identity. Unai Emery never quite managed to clear this hurdle but, after ten months, we can say that Arsenal are no longer the ramshackle defensive outfit they once were. The manager deserves commendation for that.

I have had some concerns over the way in which Arsenal attack for a little while- as I detailed here. Arsenal currently average 8.2 shots per game so far this season- only West Brom and Crystal Palace have averaged fewer. There is the caveat that the Gunners have faced their two most difficult assignments of the season at Anfield and the Etihad, but this is an ongoing trend.

Last season, Arsenal were 15th in the Premier League for shots per game with a measly 10.7 per 90. There are no two ways about it, this trend absolutely has to change and it has to trend upwards significantly and quickly. 10.7 shots per game brought Arsenal a lowly 56 goals despite having two £50m strikers and a £72m winger. It is virtually inconceivable that Arteta’s side can finish in the top four by averaging anything fewer than 15 shots per game. (All of last season’s top four were over this mark, Leicester, in 5th, finished just a smidgen under with 14.7).

Many Arsenal fans quite reasonably argue that Arteta’s first assignment was to build a solid base in defence and midfield before he gets to the attack. That may very well be the case but it is a projection at this point. There is no managerial history for us to draw on and there is, as it stands, no obvious roadmap to the vast uptick needed in attacking dominance. At the moment, it’s wishful thinking to say he will improve the attack. Wishful thinking doesn’t mean it won’t happen, of course, but an optimistic premise is all it is until we have evidence.

Arsenal have an unbalanced attack, for sure, but the forwards are not constrained by the quality deficit present in their defensive and midfield personnel. The Manchester City performance, more than the result, sparked some very interesting debate. Arteta’s side largely looked solid and they stayed in the game which is a marked improvement on the ghosts of their Etihad past.

However, they simply didn’t have a good plan to try and score a goal and that became increasingly obvious as the game drew on. Playing Willian as a false 9 proved to be too clever by half but it was also a sign of desperation from a manager who hasn’t really worked out how to make Arsenal a slick attacking team yet.

Arsenal have a signature attacking move under Arteta, an eye of the needle method where the ball travels seamlessly from goalkeeper to striker. It is, however, an exceptionally precise methodology of attack that has to be constructed absolutely perfectly from one end of the pitch to another, meaning it will be a rare means of goals.

Not only that, but everyone is wise to its choreography now. City simply blocked up Arsenal’s left-side, appreciating the vast left-sided bias in the Arsenal attack. There isn’t enough attacking quality in midfield to build through the centre and whoever is playing on the right, be it Willian or Nicolas Pepe, might as well bring a magazine and a beverage onto the pitch for all of the ball they see.

Thomas Partey might change this and if Arsenal can funnel the ball over to the right flank once in a while, it might build some of the unpredictability they are sorely lacking. Arteta also wanted Houssem Aouar this summer, so he is not blind to the lack of presence his team offers between the lines of opposition midfield and defence.

There are other options available to Arteta too- none of which will turn Arsenal into overnight world-beaters but that might offer improvement nonetheless. Lewis Ambrose convincingly argued the case to move Aubameyang into his favoured central role. There are downsides to playing him there, of course- his lack of link-up play for instance- and they won’t suddenly disappear but they do have to be balanced against the fact that he is averaging 1.2 shots per game so far this season.

Moving Auba to the centre also offers Arsenal the opportunity to play their most creative player, Bukayo Saka, on the left-hand side. That brings another high end-product player into the forward line and it gives Auba the freedom to take up other spaces and keep defences guessing. Hell, he might even be able to drift over to the right and keep Pepe or Willian company.

The time is coming for Arteta to instigate the next phase of his revolution and that means Arsenal becoming a far more effective attacking outfit. However, that is not an easy equation for him to calculate. Can he make Arsenal more threatening without sacrificing a lot of the solidity he has built into the team? The players in defence and midfield are largely the same ones that have let a more enterprising Arsenal down before.

David Luiz and Mustafi are not different players under Arteta, Granit Xhaka didn’t become faster or more press-resistant and Dani Ceballos is unlikely to become a goal and assists machine. The manager has built a structure that hides some of those weaknesses as best as he can. Becoming a more potent attacking outfit will mean exposing some of those old frailties again and re-opening old wounds.

How Arteta finds the balance between adding a pinch of spice to his attack without the bowels of his team exploding will be fascinating. There is no argument, Arsenal absolutely must evolve into a better, more confident attacking side during this season and the manager is going to have to change something to make that happen. How he handles it will be fascinating. This is where the real test of Mikel Arteta’s managerial chops begins.

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