There has been a renewed sense of optimism among a notorious fanbase from North London. On paper, not a lot has changed as the side have only won 1 league game, however significant, out of the 4 that their new head coach has been charge of. But the mood has been lifted since the arrival of Mikel Arteta and it’s warranted.
Arsenal have had to oversee 2 other personalities on the touchline prior to the Spaniard’s arrival this season, with neither showing any conviction in their methods. Freddie Ljungberg can be excused as he was merely an interim appointment but there was a sense of overwhelming dread among the Gunners that their side didn’t even receive the new manager bounce that so many of their contemporaries have been subject to.
Unai Emery, on the other hand, was offered the task of replacing the ozymandian figure of Arsene Wenger. Emery’s side huffed and puffed but didn’t quite make it past the finish line. In his first season, there was a lot of optimism and a top-4 spot in the league and Europa League trophy seemed to be in the bag but a collapse towards the end of the season in both competitions had a more fatal blow than anyone could’ve realized at the time.
As is so often the case, these are the small margins that define organized sports. Emery knows this better than most after overseeing the impressive 4-0 victory against Barcelona in the first-leg of the 2016-17 Champions League campaign, which would ultimately be the genesis for ‘La Remontada’.The Gunners had been consumed by this fragility long before Emery stepped through the door and Emery didn’t do a great job of masking it.
Ljungberg’s position looked precarious very early, which forced the hand of the Arsenal hierarchy. The Swede, in all honesty, looked a relieved man after suffering a humbling against reigning Champions Manchester City.
Arteta was, of course, sitting on the opposite dugout in the place he once called home. It wasn’t the first time that he was in awe of the man he was now working under. Mikel Arteta grew up idolizing his superior as a boy in the fabled ‘La Masia’ academy. He didn’t quite make it at his boyhood club but used his cerebral talents to carve out a successful career nevertheless and accommodated himself to different cultures with spells in France before his many years in England at Everton and Arsenal.
Guardiola isn’t the only top manager, who is aware of Arteta’s meticulous nature but there’s another from North London not so long ago who was enquiring about his services in Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinian was teammates with the Catalan during their time at Paris Saint-Germain.
Arteta also had other influences during his time in England in David Moyes and Arsene Wenger, who he played under. One might wonder what Arteta might’ve learned under Moyes but Moyes like Wenger was someone who had control over the structural hierarchy at the club and Arteta will be hoping that he can gain that sort of control over time at the Emirates.
He will, of course, have learned a lot about the values and principles that Arsene Wenger had infused in the club and will be hoping to carry on those traditions while he is in charge of the club. Arteta’s time at Arsenal, Barcelona, and Everton would suggest that he’s prepared for the expectations of not just the first-team but also having a style of football and using players from the academy and developing them to become players for the first-team.
Having accounted for all the influences that Mikel Arteta has had so far, the most important job the Catalan has is to make a material impact on the field and despite results suggesting otherwise. His team shape in possession is most similar to the side that Guardiola played in his second season at City with inverted full-backs helping keep numerical superiority in midfield.
On paper, Guardiola hardly ever uses a 4-3-3, which looks more like a 2-3-2-3 formation in possession and was famously called the W-M formation, popularized in the 1920s -30s by Hebert Chapman. Would it be a complete surprise to find out that Chapman was most famous for his time at, you guessed it – Arsenal football club.
One of the positive indicators for Arteta has been the number of individual improvements throughout the first-team, namely; Lucas Toreira, Granit Xhaka, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and David Luiz. Even Mesut Özil, who ultimately needs to be improved upon has been getting far more touches than he has in the last 18 months.
Xhaka and Niles seem to have taken roles of inverted full-backs in a manner not too dissimilar to Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker under Pep Guardiola and their individual characteristics would suggest that they have similar strengths. Lucas Torreira looks at home again, sweeping up any danger and keeping the game ticking by playing quick one-touch passes, allowing David Luiz to find passes in a manner not too dissimilar to what we saw from Kansas city Chief’s Patrick Mahomes, earlier in the week.
It’s made the Gunners far less vulnerable to transitions with a more compact shape out of possession. They’ve also played in the expansive fashion that their fans have been spoilt with for all these years by having at least two players stay wide at all times. Sead Kolasinac and Bukayo Saka have been rotated and the same goes for Reiss Nelson and big signing Nicolas Pepe.
There’s still a lot to work on as Arsenal haven’t been able to sustain high levels of intensity throughout the 90 minutes but this could mostly be due to change in regime and no pre-season but the signs are good even though the results don’t show consistency and the fans have seemingly warmed to it.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang receiving a 3-game suspension, it might hurt Arsenal’s chances for a top-4 finish but it’ll be interesting to see if Arteta partners another midfielder with Özil and plays the two advanced 8s that Guardiola has become synonymous with during his career. Arteta’s hand has been forced to instead opt for Aubameyang and Lacazette but it would seem a great time to experiment with Matteo Guendouzi in a more advanced role, which could help Arsenal sustain pressure for larger periods in future games.
If there’s one lesson we can all take from Ozymandius, it’s that nothing lasts forever and Arsenal fans will be hoping that their malaise into mediocrity will come to an end with this appointment and a little help from everyone else in this rebuild. The signs have been good so far and Arsenal fans will be cautiously optimistic of what’s in store for them over the next two years.