“At 3-1, after, we had to make 300,000 passes in the opposition half and when they have the right moment to come at us, then we can attack them. We didn’t do that. The game was open and you had the feeling that the game was open right until the end.”
These were the words of a frustrated Mikel Arteta after a 3-2 victory over Watford back in March. Arsenal controlled the vast majority of the game but could not put an arm’s length between themselves and the home side, who were allowed back into a basketball style encounter.
Rob Holding came on for Martin Odegaard shortly after Watford reduced the arrears to 3-2 in the dying minutes. Holding was very much a “break glass in case of emergency” style substitute last season, especially away from home. The sight of Holding trotting towards the Gunners penalty area while holding five fingers aloft became a meme in its own right.
Clearly, this is not a sustainable practice, and it just cannot be the football vision of a coach whose playing career was forged in La Masia and whose coaching career came to prominence beneath the Guardiola umbrella. In that post-Watford press conference, Arteta said as much, arguing that the way to kill opponents is to starve them of the ball.
Last season, Arsenal didn’t have enough players who could do this, particularly as the season wore on and Cedric and Tavares, both of whom are uncomfortably jerky in possession, filled the full-back slots. During Saturday’s pre-season victory over Everton, Arteta could not veil his rage as Ainsley Maitland-Niles shonked an easy pass out of play.
Mikel Arteta fuming on the touchline with Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ cheap give away of possession. #afc pic.twitter.com/VeHLSPZKPJ
— afcstuff (@afcstuff) July 17, 2022
Maitland-Niles’ awkwardness in possession is one of the key reasons that his Arsenal journey is arriving at its final destination. His refusal to accept his versatility as a strength is another key reason, of course. In pretty much every other way, Maitland-Niles is the archetypal Arteta player. Comfortable as an inverted option in both full-back positions, either in a back four or a five and in midfield, he fits the Artetatarian mould in many respects.
Arsenal are about to fork out in excess of £30m for Oleksandr Zinchenko because he has a similar sense of utility. The difference is that Zinchenko averages 90% pass completion during his five seasons in England. Maitland-Niles averages 80.6% completion. The respective technical levels are poles apart.
Likewise, on the face of it, Lucas Torreira would provide acceptable cover for Thomas Partey. Torreira has always played his best football at the base of a diamond and Arsenal play a version of a diamond, with Partey deepest, Xhaka and Odegaard to either side of him with the number 9 drifting away from the penalty area to knit moves together. Torreira is wiry and physical, the Gunners could do worse as a Partey deputy, even leaving aside his obvious failure to settle in England.
However, the Uruguayan fell out of favour with Arteta early on and it’s because he is an average technician on the ball. He also cannot push away from pressure with the ball at his feet. Maitland-Niles actually can do this, as can Zinchenko and Partey. The ability to pass quickly and accurately and evade pressure in small spaces are absolutely key principles for the way Arteta wants Arsenal to play.
Gabriel Jesus is extremely competent in tight spaces, wriggling away from pressure and running at opponents. I thought this video provided a really nice illustration of where and how Eddie Nketiah has improved over the last year or so, it is very obvious what the Arsenal coaching staff have worked on with Eddie. We know he has penalty box instinct, his game outside of that really does seem to have come on in droves.
Eddie Nketiah isn’t the player he was a year ago. His body shape has completely changed, and he’s now comfortable on the ball. #Arsenal have much more than just a poacher. Very exciting time for his development. #afc
— Adam Keys (@adamkeys_) July 17, 2022
Fabio Vieira feels like an Arsene Wenger signing. A player of this ilk wasn’t really considered a priority by many (rightly or wrongly) and he is a young technician who can play as an 8, a 10, a false 9 or a winger. It feels like a very mid-Wenger reign acquisition. While he is still a prospect, it feels like Vieira has been brought in just to up the technical quota of the team wherever he ends up plugging into the formation. Like a well-appointed admin assistant or freelancer brought in to bolster the graphics department.
Technical security and the ability to operate in small spaces, either by passing or driving away from pressure, defines Zinchenko’s game wherever he plays. Last summer’s transfer market, broadly, saw Arsenal try to do two things. 1) Sure up the defensive base of the team, with Ramsdale, White and Tomiyasu.
2) They brought the technical level up a notch with the permanent signing of Martin Odegaard. This summer it feels like Arsenal have two predominant objectives. 1) More goals. Hence Gabriel Jesus and a new deal for Eddie Nketiah. And 2) a heavy sprinkling of ball players more towards the Odegaard mould.
In Arteta’s eyes, I think improving Arsenal in possession has distinct advantages for both the defence and the attack. He largely has the defenders that he wants and William Saliba has arrived to reinforce that further. However, part of defending better is not allowing the opposition to have the ball. Manchester City don’t keep clean sheets because their snarling centre-halves would eat a baby to protect their goalkeeper.
It’s because they don’t give you the ball in the first place. Arsenal also need to score a lot more goals than they have in recent seasons. It goes without saying that smoother build-up and opponents who are more tired from chasing the ball ought to aid this too. Replacing Tavares and Holding with Zinchenko and Saliba seems to be a positive move in this direction from a defensive standpoint.
Vieira, Jesus and, depending on where he plays, Zinchenko being added to the mix in the middle and final thirds brings that level up too. I would imagine that Smith Rowe and Martinelli will be encouraged to work on their ability to combine in short spaces and to pass more imaginatively too- we know both are capable of producing end-product but both probably need to sharpen up on the part before that.
It’s an entirely predictable occurrence that Arteta wants his team to major in possession. They have always minored when it comes to pressing and transition and even the signings of Ramsdale and White were, in part, about improving ball progression from the back. Now, the plan seems to be to be able to keep the ball in more advanced areas once it has been progressed- for the benefit of the attack and the defence.
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