If there’s one club whose fine form you might not trust in recent years, whose neat triangles and pretty flower arrangements make you suspicious, it’s Arsenal.
It’s well-deserved skepticism, two and a half years after a false dawn project and almost two decades after a delicate period in the club’s history. The rest of the world may have caught up with Arsène Wenger’s mid-noughties aesthetic, but when that familiar shyness takes over, it’s still those who blame Arsenal for always trying to get the ball in play.
Still, there’s a lot about their peak start to the 2022/23 season that looks and feels different, no matter how fair or unfair the accusation that Arsenal’s games have been easy. Their victories to date have been marked by a swagger and a tactical precision that suggest Mikel Arteta finally has the team he needs to play the menacing, surgical, dead-eyed football he was taught by his mentor Pep Guardiola .
Since Arteta’s appointment in December 2019, we’ve seen many variations on the Guardiola model, from formation changes to improvisational attacks, but in hindsight almost all of these iterations were nothing more than reactive problem-solving until Arteta got the right players to give full oomph.
Positioning, possession and pressing perfection
Arsenal’s passing is dictated by extremely detailed coaching, telling players exactly where to position themselves and when to move, with the pitch being zoned and the overall shape endlessly and flawlessly sculpted to form triangles across the pitch form. The idea is to play rondos back to front – and thanks to an excellent summer window, it finally seems to be working.
Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus brought years of Guardiola training with them from their days at Manchester City and settled in straight away, the former dictating play as a centre-back while the latter brings an urgency and forward momentum to Arsenal’s game.
Jesus has received 65 progressive passes this season, more than any other player in the Premier League, reflecting his movement as the new orchestrator from the top – and Arsenal from a side with stale possession that is quickly disintegrating, into one with depth and depth has transformed purpose; a wall pass to keep the rondos going and a dribbler (38 so far, the most in the Premier League) to boot.
These two are supported by Thomas Partey’s rise in form as an anchor and metronome. Arsenal are now sixth in possession, up from 17th last season, while the Ghanaians lead the table in tackles at 2.6 per 90. Partey’s solidity allows Granit Xhaka to focus on his excellent distribution and Martin Ødegaard to dictate the pace from a higher starting position. The Norwegian is brimming with creative cunning but also has an average of 2.0 possession wins in the last third per game, fifth most in the division.
The combined effect was to make Arsenal far more considered and consistent both in and out of possession, creating a measured passing game that revolved around the width and depth of the field. As reflected in their numbers this year compared to last year, Arteta’s side have improved dramatically in terms of a number of ball possession and passing stats:
And although Arsenal’s pressing is mediocre compared to other Premier League clubs in 2022-23, they are doing it very efficiently, finishing fourth in high rallies (61) and first in high rallies at goal (13) – although they rank 12th in the chart for total pressed sequences (86).
One stat shows exactly how this targeted and skillful pressing relates to Arsenal’s possession control; They top the charts (at 23) for ball possession starts with shot end, which measures when a player regains ball possession to begin a passing sequence that ends with a shot.
Counters and set pieces are the hidden plus points
So much for Guardiola, but there is one way Arsenal differ from Manchester City. Arteta is more tolerant of counterattacks and a more direct, vertical attack method when appropriate. This is largely due to his squad boasting more straight-forward players than Guardiola’s, most notably Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, although he has also made a tactical decision to direct his centre-backs to break the lines.
Gabriel Magalhães and William Saliba have forged a strong defensive partnership – the stability of which no doubt contributes to Arsenal’s calm consistency later in the game – and are unusually good at carrying the ball out of defence.
Both rank in the top five in the Premier League for total carries this season, while Saliba topped the charts across Europe in Marseille in 2021/22.
It’s an indication of Arsenal’s willingness to pick their moments and push forward at the break or in the transition. They are third in the Premier League with 139 in total dribbles, just behind Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers, thanks to the penetrating work of Jesus (38), Saka (25) and Gabriel Martinelli (25). Most tellingly, Arsenal are fourth in the league for ‘direct attacks’ at 14, behind only Wolves, Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur.
Arsenal’s second surprising asset this season is their focus on set pieces. Her 4.40 xG from set pieces is the highest in the league; their .95 xG is third best; and they have scored five set pieces, most together.
Their swinging corners wreaked havoc last season, and it’s a tactic they’re clearly still using this year as every single one of their deliveries to the box is a whipped inswinger.
Manchester United defeat reveals potential mistakes
Clearly Arsenal have turned the corner but that’s not all good news and indeed Arsenal’s harshest critics would argue they were flatly beaten against their only tricky opponent to date in 2022/23 when Erik ten Hags Manchester United discovered a path to neutralize Arteta’s possession football.
In Blitzen, it was a very Ten Hag-like performance of intricate passes mixed with bursts of direct line passes as deep-lying Christian Eriksen sliced through to Bruno Fernandes. But for the most part, United broke away like an Ole Gunnar Solskjær team, limiting Arsenal’s ability to get past their opponents with their triangles or dribbling.
In the 3-1 loss, Arsenal faced the highest PPDA of the season (17.7) and fewest pressing sequences (3) but, tellingly, recorded their highest ‘direct speed’ of the season, taking the ball 1 .73 meters per second. more than twice as much as last weekend against Brentford (0.79). They also caught a season-high number of open crosses (13), despite having the fewest players in the opposing penalty area on average that season (2.8). Taken together, this tells the story of a more fearful arsenal, unable to pin down numbers, but also unable to find its rhythm that gradually develops through the lines.
The United game was one of just two occasions Arsenal have lagged in games this season and how they deal with adversity will certainly be tested in October.
Lack of squad depth the biggest problem
Perhaps United’s performance was a one-off, reflecting Ten Hag’s growing influence more than Arsenal’s shortcomings. But even if that’s the case, it’s worth noting that two of United’s goals were the direct result of positional errors by Albert Sambi Lokonga, who struggled to deputize for Partey. On the left, Kieran Tierney struggled to play Zinchenko’s role at centre-back, making Arsenal’s possession football much less fluid and ultimately contributing to the clunky performance.
It was the first sign that Arsenal’s squad just wasn’t strong enough to handle the demands of this particularly trying season. Even against Brentford there were signs of this problem as a substitute bench with the likes of Matt Smith, Lino Sousa, Rob Holding, Matt Turner and Ethan Nwaneri looked very weak. While it’s a great story, it doesn’t bode well for a strong squad for a 15-year-old to get minutes.
But Arsenal don’t need a title challenge for this to be a successful season. A place in next year’s Champions League and some silver medals in Europe are definitely on the cards for a team – and manager – who finally come together as Guardiola replicas.
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