From Mikel Arteta’s first Premier League game in charge against Bournemouth in December 2019 to his 100th in a 2-1 win over Fulham on Saturday, the last two and a half years have brought many changes at Arsenal. And it hasn’t always gone well. .
Arteta’s tally of 53 wins from his first 100 league games is the second-highest total of any Arsenal manager behind Arsene Wenger’s 54. The Spaniard has also recorded 16 draws and 31 losses. The rise in point totals from his first 50 games (75) to his second 50 games (100) is an indicator of how the turbulence surrounding his 12-month or so has given way to clarity.
Arteta had clear ideas at the beginning of his mandate and these took time to materialize, on and off the field.
His ideas around culture off the pitch soon became clear. They asked him in his first press conference what he wanted to change about the club. He said: “We have to build a culture that has to sustain the rest. If we don’t have the right culture, in difficult times, the tree will tremble. So my job is to convince everyone, this is how you are going to live and if you are going to be part of this organization it has to be in these terms and in this way.”
The fortunes of Mesut Ozil, Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are the greatest exponents of what Arteta and technical director Edu Gaspar called “cleaning up the squad”, and that operation has been more arduous on the pitch.
On the pitch, the manager’s desire to invert his full-backs was made clear at Vitality Stadium in 2019. On that day, and in the weeks that followed, Ainsley Maitland-Niles played at right back and moved into central areas. The academy graduate wasn’t a sure-fire starter, so that aspect of Arsenal’s game wasn’t consistent, but it was after the arrivals of Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko, who give Arteta flexibility in those areas. .
The now familiar 4-2-3-1 setup is Arteta’s most common formation, and while a 4-3-3 form was always understood to be the ultimate goal, he has seen the need to experiment with a defense of Tree men. Sometimes also.
The 3-4-3 set-up was a means to an end during the 2020 FA Cup winning campaign. Absorbing the pressure and catching teams at half-time worked well at first but quickly became obsolete. With Ozil out of Premier League and Europa League teams, Arteta cut off his nose to spite his face in his first major call as manager.
The lack of creativity meant that Arsenal had only one rhythm and were predictable on the ball. Too easy to play against, this coincided with his worst league run with Arteta as they went seven games without a win, a manner which may have resulted in a sacking at another club.
If anything, that period was proof that Arsenal wanted Arteta for the long term, which was made clear by the three-year deal he signed in May.
Boxing Day 2019 may have been the start of this journey, but Boxing Day 2020 arguably carries greater significance. A change was needed and the introduction of Emile Smith Rowe as number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 proved essential. Not only did Arsenal have a link between midfield and attack, but the speed of attacks was also increased thanks to Smith Rowe’s ability to move the ball forward with limited touches.
The arrival on loan of Martin Odegaard weeks later helped maintain that creativity. Playing Smith Rowe on the left, Odegaard in the middle and Bukayo Saka on the right as a more technical trio behind a striker was beneficial that year, but Arsenal still relied heavily on Kieran Tierney flying down the left flank.
That confidence flowed into the 2021-22 season and was particularly evident in the opening day loss at Brentford. Tierney was Arsenal’s third-highest placed player, finishing the game with seven “key passes” having received the ball 25 times from Granit Xhaka, the highest passing combination for Arsenal on the night.
Arsenal were short-handed by the absences of Aubameyang, White and Alexandre Lacazette due to COVID-19 and it wasn’t until the late-summer arrivals of Odegaard (on a permanent deal), Tomiasyu and Aaron Ramsdale that steps forward were made.
Defensively, the new five from Ramsdale, Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel and Tierney gave Arsenal solidity. That drive also brought a different dimension to Arsenal’s game on the ball, with the team initiating attacks from behind.
However, as in the previous season, it was not until the winter that they found a true rhythm of attack.
Until that point, Arteta’s set-up occasionally resembled more of a 4-4-1-1 (with Lacazette behind Aubameyang up front), with most of the attacking drive coming from Saka and Smith Rowe on the flanks. Coinciding with Xhaka’s return from a two-month knee injury alongside Thomas Partey and a stronger base to build attacks from behind, the move to a 4-2-3-1, with Odegaard number 10, helped Arsenal. to move the ball a lot. faster on the field.
However, that formation quickly morphed into the 4-3-3 we’re seeing now, with Odegaard operating more like a right-sided No. 8 combining with Saka, and Xhaka pushing up on his left.
Sharper, more determined passes put them up front in games. As shown in the chart above below, they were creating the highest quality opportunities since Arteta took over. With their expected goals (xG) rising beyond 2.0 per game in this period, they also averaged 14.5 sequences that ended in shots, their highest tally since Wenger’s last season as manager in 2017-18.
Another important component of Arsenal’s improvement in 2021-22 was the arrival of set-piece manager Nicolas Jover. The previous season, Arsenal scored just six goals from set pieces (17th in the Premier League). That number rose to 16 last season, the third-highest in the league, and so far this season Arsenal are best in set-piece goals with four in four games.
In addition to their efficiency attacking set pieces, last season they didn’t concede even a corner until April, which provided another vital advantage to their game.
Despite these improvements, there were still some big hiccups last season. Arsenal only won one league game after conceding the first goal of the entire campaign and that cost them dearly. Aside from their 2-1 win against Wolves in February, they seemed to be lacking in ideas or the ability to regain control of a game once the opposition got ahead.
These were imperative improvements and, so far, Arsenal seem to be better equipped for these fixtures than they were last year. Arteta’s 100th game against Fulham provided a chance to prove that, and they did, with their change of form and ability to create good chances before equalizing and winning the game.
The performance at Crystal Palace, particularly from William Saliba and White, also showed composure and maturity, which were absent at Selhurst Park in April.
Beyond that, just like last summer, the signings of Gabriel Jesús and Zinchenko have clearly raised the starting eleven. Their quality is obvious and they have both transformed the way Arsenal play, with more rotation to make Arsenal less predictable in possession and to provide more efficient pressing.
To get to this point, Arteta’s 100 Premier League games in charge of Arsenal have required a lot of heavy lifting.
He revisited his formula during the early stages when bumps in the road arose but, particularly in the last year, his vision has become clearer as players have become more independent on the pitch.
There are no guarantees that this season will go smoothly, but Arsenal have given themselves a solid platform to build on and ensure that at least Arteta’s next 34 league games are promising.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)