“We are asking them to do something different, to play at a different pace, much more aggressive and at the moment they suffered.” So said Mikel Arteta following his first home match in charge of Arsenal, a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea where the team had led for much of the game before succumbing to fatigue and allowing the visitors to score twice in the closing stages.
On that afternoon, I recall the exhausted players on their haunches in the centre circle, defeated by a mixture of Chelsea’s counter attacking precision and their own lactic acid. However, Emirates Stadium rose as one to applaud the effort of the players. After a few months in the mire of Emery’s directionless side, watching an Arsenal side tire itself out pressing and harrying an opponent felt refreshing and like a positive direction of travel under a new coach.
However, a press has never really materialised under Arteta’s stewardship. Last season, Arsenal averaged 14.3 passes per defensive action, passes per defensive action is the best existing metric to measure how voraciously a team presses. That average placed Arsenal as the 11th most industrial pressers in the league.
This season, the pressing metrics are even lower, suggesting a team that does not seek to win the ball back from the opponent but rather waits for them to cough it up again. Allied with Arsenal’s very slow and deliberate build up play, it makes the team a very tough watch to be honest. A team that doesn’t try to win the ball back quickly or even try to get the ball forwards with much purpose can be difficult to engage with.
Look, pressing isn’t everything. But you certainly don’t want to be on par in that regard with the two teams most likely to be relegated. pic.twitter.com/FSB8slMwN8
— Shamile Smith Rowe (@dopegooner) October 20, 2021
It is surprising that Arteta’s Arsenal are so averse to the high press given that Guardiola’s City are so good at it. Arteta, of course, had never actually managed a team before he was appointed by the club so he has no prior history for us to comb over. I sometimes wonder whether we are assuming that he is trying to turn Arsenal into Manchester City lite when the evidence probably doesn’t support that conclusion.
It’s not that Arsenal don’t press at all, Art de Roche wrote a good piece in The Athletic last season ($) about how the forwards form a kind of pincer movement to prevent the opposition from playing through certain areas without actively trying to take the ball from them. This has proved quite easy to play around because the wide forwards usually move a little in-field to form this flirty press and it’s quite easy to evade by using wide spaces and isolating Arsenal’s full-backs.
It’s a shame really because one of the team’s principle issues, to my mind, is that they have good broken play forwards (Aubameyang, Martinelli, Pepe) who aren’t fantastic build up players. (Smith Rowe and Saka are decent build up players but can be just as effective in broken play). Winning the ball high up the pitch before releasing those forwards into space strikes me as a viable route to turning the attack into a more consistently threatening unit.
It does seem quite strange that the early indication under Arteta was that Arsenal would press high and play out from the back and both of those tenets seem to have been semi-abandoned. Arteta might have reasoned that he didn’t have the players to execute either tactic in those early months.
That rings less true now that the team is full of players that he either bought or awarded new contracts to. All of which brings me to the question, what is Mikel Arteta trying to do with this Arsenal team? I am not sure I can see it and that might be a failure of sophistication on my part.
I don’t think he has quite fallen into the tactical soup Unai Emery splatted face first into with regular formation and personnel tweaks. You can predict an Arteta starting line-up and formation without erring too much but I am still not sure what it is Arteta really wants his team to do.
I suspect his lack of actual managerial experience and his association with Guardiola has allowed us to project certain tactical principles onto him. Without these, I wonder what the impression of his football would be. I know I often complain about a style that is too structured for its own good but, in all honesty, I couldn’t tell you that is what I see, it is just what I suspect.
Many of us think we have an idea of Arteta’s theory and project accordingly but to watch this Arsenal team without those suspicions, it is difficult to see what the plan is. I can make out the structure to the point that the defence is ‘tilted’ so that Tomiyasu is more third centre-half than deputy to his winger while Kieran Tierney pushes up on the left and plays almost like a left forward.
I can also make out that Arteta wants one of his midfielders to almost entirely desert the middle of the field to play as a proxy left-back. I *think* he bought Ramsdale and White because they can play longer passes that either break lines or evade the midfield press. I can see where you would move the counters on the Arsenal whiteboard but I just can’t see anything beyond that.
Arsenal are in a space where they are trying to punch above their weight and the teams that typically do that have a strong USP. Bielsa’s Leeds play(ed) “murderball” and matched up one v one all over the pitch. Brentford can go over the top of you and bully you in your own penalty box. Leicester use Jamie Vardy to stretch you and if you contain him, it makes space for Iheanacho to drift in from the right like Mahrez used to.
Burnley play four four fucking two and compete for knockdowns. Liverpool punch above their weight and everyone knows about their style (though they have deployed the Gegenpress more like a secret weapon to be used on big occasions than a tactic they adopt twice a week nowadays).
What is Arsenal’s USP? If you are an opposition analyst preparing for a game against Arsenal, which play or strategy is keeping you awake at night? What is Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal about? Possession? Pressing? Counter attacking? It’s not important to put a name on it but it is important to make the opposition feel tentative and I don’t think that Arsenal do that.
I am minded of something Jack Lang said on the Totally Football Show over a year ago now, “Arteta’s Arsenal is like a student that has revised to pass an exam but can’t apply the knowledge in real life situations.” It remains as cutting and apt a piece of commentary as it was last winter.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto