Arsenal Watch: Gabriel Magalhães

22-year-old defender Gabriel Magalhães started his first game in the Premier League for Arsenal yesterday versus London rivals Fulham. The Brazilian was named the man of the match by BT for his exceptional performance as the Gunners won the game 3-0.

Before kick-off, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta named the defender as the central man in a back three. Last season, David Luiz occupied this role thanks to his outstanding ball-playing ability but his absence due to injury gave Gabriel the perfect opportunity to impress. The Brazilian was accompanied by Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney on either side in defence.

Considering the defender had less than two weeks of training and last played a professional game in March, some speculated he might need some time to settle. This became clear after the first few minutes of the game where his error nearly resulted in Fulham opening the scoring.

In the above image, wing-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles plays a simple ball back to Gabriel while Fulham forward Aboubakar Kamara presses high. A bit of miscommunication with goalkeeper Bernd Leno results in the defender nearly costing the team. Gabriel attempts to bring Leno into the game with his movement off the ball, but he failed to spot Kamara’s run.

This allowed the 25-year-old to latch onto the ball from Maitland-Niles’s initial pass, but his first touch was deflected off Leno’s hand, who luckily got in position at the right time. Gabriel was quick to retrieve the ball afterwards and moved it away from danger to prevent the Gunners from conceding.

In the short-term, this communication barrier could be a slight issue for the 22-year-old as he adjusts to his new life in London. Luiz, his fellow compatriot, is unavailable for selection due to injury so playing alongside defenders like Holding and Tierney could be challenging for him over the coming weeks.

Once he fully adjusts, I have no doubt that he’ll remove errors like this from his game. Apart from the one incident, the Brazilian was close to producing a flawless performance.

One area to Gabriel’s game that impressed me a lot was how comfortable he looked in the air. The 22-year-old doesn’t seem to be afraid of an aerial duel and constantly got himself in the right position at the right time to be the first man to win the ball.

In the first half, there were a few occasions where the defender was able to clear the ball with his head, and he looked great when defending set-pieces too.

Last season, this was one of Arsenal’s biggest weaknesses under Arteta. Of the 21 Premier League goals they’ve conceded under the Spaniard, 11 have come from set-pieces – five corners, three penalties and three free-kicks.

The manager brought in former Brentford coach Andreas Georgson as a way of improving the team’s handling of set-pieces and Gabriel’s arrival should help improve this area too. His presence in the box should help the defence win duels that they previously lost, reduce the number of goals they concede from crosses and it also gives them an extra option offensively.

Speaking of which, the defender was also able to score for the club on his debut. In the 48th minute, a beautiful corner delivered by fellow debutant Willian was headed home by Gabriel. Despite being crowded in the six-yard box, the 22-year-old defender did well to find space and towered over Fulham defender Michael Hector to score his first goal for Arsenal.

Aside from his ability in the air, the defender looked promising in the tackle too. His concentration throughout the game was solid and he didn’t make any reckless or unnecessary challenges either.

Considering this was his first game, coming up against a forward like Kamara was the right sort of challenge that Gabriel needed as he adjusts to the level of football in England and I thought he handled the forward very well.

While he’s received praise for his ball-playing ability in the past, it was surprising to see just how comfortable the Brazilian looked with the ball. Considering he was playing his first game in six months in a fresh environment, a few errors were expected. Instead, the defender ended the game with the most touches, passes, and also had a 95% pass accuracy.

The above graphic shows where Gabriel was positioned after completing each of his 113 passes. (Source – WhoScored.com)

During the match, I found it interesting that Gabriel shifted between the “David Luiz role” and as a left sided defender in a back four. It demonstrates how adaptable Arteta is as a manager and how quickly the team has to adapt to different circumstances.

Out of the two roles, I think the defender is far more suited to playing as a left centre-back, especially in the short-term. The Brazilian was exceptional with the ball under pressure and never lost possession with it either, but I’m not sure if he has the passing range that the middleman needs to thrive.

When Luiz is positioned here, his passing range is a major asset to the team because he could slow down the tempo of the game or start an attack in an instant with a long ball.

During the game, I noticed how Gabriel never really showed that eagerness to try a riskier long-range pass that could split the opposition or counter a high line. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Arteta could’ve instructed him to a play a simple game and the Brazilian still showed how reassured he looks with the ball, something the Arsenal defence lacks.

Unsurprisingly, it’s unfair to judge him after just one game but it’s worth mentioning that it was down to players like Tierney and Granit Xhaka to play those long balls down the other side of the pitch instead. A majority of Gabriel’s passes were across the defensive line or to a midfielder above him which you’d usually see from an outside defender.

Until Luiz returns from his injury, I’d like to see how the 22-year-old performs against harder opponents and whether he has that ability to perfect those long-range passes. It’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to this role where he shifts between two different defensive roles in game.

Arsenal lacks a proper backup option for Luiz when a back three is used and Gabriel could be that man in future depending on how he performs over the next few weeks.

There’s still a long way to go for Gabriel but I’m delighted with how he performed on his Premier League debut. Despite the factors that went against him, the 22-year-old grabbed his first clean sheet and scored his first goal for the club.

He looks convincing in the air, confident with the ball, and looked like he had been an Arsenal player for years against Fulham.

However, it’s important to remember that there’s still a lot for the young defender to learn and it’s crucial that fans don’t set their expectations too high. As he adapts to the English game, it’s possible that he makes more errors in future and this will all play a part in his learning process.

But after watching his debut, I’m excited to see how Gabriel performs against a tougher opponent in West Ham, next week. I have complete faith in him.

My rating – 9/10

The beginning of the Mikel Arteta Era

“I will give every drop of blood for this football club to make it better.”

On the 20th of December 2019, Arsenal made one of its biggest risks of the 21st century. The club was suffering both on and off the pitch and needed something new. Following weeks of interviews, Mikel Arteta, a coach with just three years of experience as an assistant, was named as the man to change Arsenal.

After just eight months into his first ever managerial role, the Spaniard has already started to transform a previously stagnant team. At the same time, he has already won his first major honour as a manager – the FA Cup.

Despite the early positives, it’s important to not let his current success paper over the cracks. There’s a lot of work to be done before the 38-year-old can establish himself as a top manager. He has started a solid foundation to build on ahead of his first full season in charge but there are certain areas that still need improving.


Transforming the dressing room.

When Mikel Arteta walked through the doors of London Colney for the first time as Arsenal’s new head coach, the squad left in a broken state. Granit Xhaka had recently been stripped of captaincy after clashing with fans, the team had won just one out of a possible 13 games in all competitions, and some even speculated that the Gunners could soon be part of a relegation battle.

But after just eight months, the club’s fortunes changed quickly.

In the Premier League, the team won nine out of a possible 20 games and were one point off 4th in the form table since Arteta’s arrival. While a 45%-win percentage isn’t the greatest record for a manager of Arsenal, it’s still a major improvement from the first half of the season.

Elsewhere, if anyone suggested in December that Arsenal could end the season with silverware, they would’ve been treated as delusional. Yet the Gunners lifted a record 14th FA Cup under the Spaniard.

From the day of his announcement to the final whistle at Wembley Stadium, Arteta has been the architect of this unpredictable transformation.

“I have to try and convince the players of what I want to do and how I want to do it. They have to start accepting a different process, a different way of thinking,” said the Spaniard to the press at his unveiling in December. “I want to get the staff and everyone at the club with the same mindset.”

When asked what he learned from his former boss, Pep Guardiola, Arteta said: “What I’ve learned mostly is that you have to be ruthless, you have to be consistent and you have to fit the everyday culture of the club to create a winning mentality.

“To sustain it is even harder, so every day is important, every act is important, every organisation is important.

“For me, the secret is that the people, the players and the staff, have to believe what they’re trying to deliver. You have to be able to transmit it, and people will buy into that.”

“It is first of all about how they live and some respect issues that have to be addressed. If they want to follow that they are in, if not they are out.”

Arteta’s ruthless approach was the breath of fresh air that was needed. If you didn’t follow his rules, meet his expectations or work towards the standards required, you’ll suffer because of it.

This might sound harsh to an outsider, but it’s what Arsenal had been lacking for years under Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery. Players were finally being held accountable if they crossed the line and the implementation of a ‘wheel of fortune’ was an intelligent way of punishing players for smaller crimes.

Arteta’s overall behaviour and his ideas helped him repair the broken dressing room that he inherited. There’s a noticeable togetherness in the squad which we haven’t properly seen since the early days of the Emery Era and it’s clear that the players believe in the Spaniard.

Seeing club-captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tweet “My Manager” to his 1.4 million Twitter followers after the FA Cup success is the perfect proof of this.

For the first time in ages, the team was united and as captain, Aubameyang was leading the charge towards success. If he does decide to sign a new contract like rumours seem to indicate, I have no doubt that Arteta will have played a major role in his decision.

The 38-year-old already has a track record of convincing players to stay at Arsenal, notably former club captain, Xhaka.

“I was very, very close to leaving the club,” the midfielder said after the victory over Chelsea at Wembley. “Mikel turned me around and gave me a second chance. He showed me he trusted me, and I have tried to give him everything back.

“Since Mikel came to this club a lot of things have changed. He has changed the mentality, the spirit, not only for us players, but in the group. Everyone knows exactly what their job is. We have a clear game plan. We are coming to training with happiness, we do amazing work.”

This happiness that Xhaka mentions proved that Arteta’s ruthless behaviour was needed. You could sense that joy from the team to their head coach during the FA Cup celebrations. A lot of time and effort has gone in to fixing the issues behind the scenes and Arteta couldn’t have done a better job.

Also, his emphasis on consistency helped the effectiveness of his strategies.

It didn’t matter if a player was the highest earner in the squad, most exciting talent, or even a recent callup from the academy, everyone would be treated fairly, and the same punishments would be applied when necessary like with the ‘wheel of fortune’.

Due to this, certain player’s relationships have improved over time like with Dani Ceballos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles while others look set on leaving this summer like Matteo Guendouzi.

The French midfielder has been absent from the squad since the 2-1 defeat to Brighton where he grabbed forward Neal Maupay by the throat. Since then, numerous reports have emerged about the 21-year-old’s poor behaviour and his refusal to apologise during disciplinary meetings.

Guendouzi’s actions have divided opinions and it has shown the consequences that players will face if they consistently and seriously cross the line under Arteta. The Frenchman had been training alone for months (as first reported in the above article) and now looks set to leave with Villarreal a possible destination.

From day one, the Spaniard announced that players would have to accept his changes and work hard if they wanted to continue as Arsenal players. His treatment towards the likes of Maitland-Niles and Guendouzi is living up to his own promise and it’s no surprise that the former “is in” while the latter “is out”.

This consistency and ruthlessness is what helped Arteta overcome the issues behind-the-scenes. It’s hard to believe that this is the same team that only a few months prior looked uninspired to play for the club while some reportedly mocked the former manager.

Arteta’s transformation of the dressing room has been a highlight and while he’s started to improve the team on the pitch, there’s more work to be done.


Building out from the back improvements.

Similar to his predecessor, Unai Emery, Arteta has implemented a system of starting the build-up phase with the goalkeeper. But the two coaches orchestrate this in different ways.

Emery’s idea of building out was more rigid and consistent in comparison to that of Arteta’s. But the problem was that this consistency was more of an issue for Arsenal than it was for the opponents. Starting off with the goalkeeper was fundamental in Emery’s system and the players were instructed to always follow this, even when they were being outplayed.

The 2-2 draw versus Watford is the perfect example of this:

Image

In this image, defenders David Luiz and Sokratis stay as close to Bernd Leno as possible. This opens up space for Watford to begin their press trap and the Gunners’ wide and midfield options fail to offer themselves. This causes a problem since the passing options are limited. If the goalkeeper looked to play it wide to either flank, the respective Watford player would’ve had an easy job intercepting the ball.

If you don’t remember, Leno played the ball to Sokratis who attempted to pass to Guendouzi. The ball played was too soft though and Gerard Deulofeu did well to deflect the ball into the path of Tom Cleverley who scored from close range.

Building out from the back only works when the positioning and space suit the playing side, yet Emery’s Arsenal always used this formula and it harmed them on the pitch. When a team constantly overloads you like Watford did in this game, it’d be smart to play it long to try and beat the press.

In comparison, Arteta’s variant has been more effective and he has made some necessary alterations.

This is mostly down to positional changes amongst the defenders and midfielders. The central pairing is spaced out further from the goalkeeper and they’re not aligned with the midfield.

This improved positioning has been evident ever since Arteta took over. In his first home game versus Chelsea, you can already notice differences.

When Leno has the ball during goal kicks, Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi create distance between themselves and the goalkeeper. Also, the full backs hug the touchline while the midfielders position themselves so they don’t stand parallel with the central defence.

This opens up more passing options for the goalkeeper with anywhere between four and six possible options usually created from the team’s positioning.

Crucially, Arteta’s Arsenal is not as reliant when using this build up formula and they’re not afraid to play the ball long.

This is such a basic improvement since the consistency of this in the past made the Gunners’ predictable and easy to attack against. Also, if the team is defending a lead like in the image on the right, playing it long is such an uncomplicated move that prevents errors.

Now, opposition sides have to be cautious if they press high in case Arsenal look to counter their high line. With energetic players like Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe occupying the flanks, Arteta has consistently done a great job at countering high pressing sides.

This was performed well by the Gunners during the FA Cup final versus Chelsea. In the first half, the Blues deployed a high line and put pressure on the Arsenal defenders when they had the ball.

This worked in the Gunners’ favour since they played long balls down the left to beat Chelsea’s defence with pace. In the first-half, Kieran Tierney’s passes down the flank to Aubameyang and Maitland-Niles were exceptional. His pass just after the 25th minute played a big role in Arsenal’s equaliser too as Aubameyang nearly got himself in a 1v1 situation but was brought down in the box to win a penalty, which he scored from.

On paper, some positioning changes and new instructions might seem basic. But it’s changes like this that have improved faults from Emery’s system and started to make a big difference.


Defensive issues that need fixing.

After years of countless errors, there’s a lot to discuss when it comes to Arsenal’s defence. This isn’t something that Arteta should be critiqued for, but parts of his defensive system have exposed weaknesses.

As I mentioned previously, when it comes to playing the ball out and passing under pressure, certain players struggle. This was a concern for Emery and still is one under Arteta because some defenders are not properly suited to ball playing.

Below are two examples that came to mind:

In this example, Tammy Abraham ran forward to win a long ball which quickly turned into a goal scoring opportunity thanks to an atrocious pass from Mustafi. The defender had lots of time to pass to Leno but his failed ball fell perfectly into Abraham’s path. The forward took the ball around the goalkeeper and was fouled by Luiz to win a penalty.

In this example, Watford used the same pressing tactic that worked well for them earlier in the season. Despite Roberto Pereyra and Danny Welbeck covering the passing lane to Ceballos, Rob Holding attempts to play the ball to him anyway. The Hornets easily win the ball and win a penalty seconds later after Welbeck was brought down in the box, again by Luiz.

The consistency of such basic errors is a concern and it’s important the club invests in some defenders that are comfortable with the ball.

When looking at the passing numbers amongst the current options, this becomes clear.

Stats gathered from WhoScored.

Considering Arsenal pass around the back frequently and look to control games, you’d imagine these numbers would be considerably better. But the defenders average a low number of passes per game and the accuracy could be better.

It’s no surprise that the Gunners struggle to play the ball out when some players are not suited to this type of football. For example, Mustafi and Chambers have passed the ball the most out of everyone, yet they also have the worst accuracy.

But, despite the faults, the management of certain players like Sokratis and Holding deserves some recognition.

In my opinion, the two look the least confident with the ball and it’s no surprise that they average the least passes per 90. They’re instructed to have the ball less than their partner and most likely lead the way with accuracy because they pass safely while someone like Luiz attempts riskier and long-range passes.

When you compare these numbers to opposition defenders in the league, these issues become clearer:

Stats gathered from WhoScored.

While most players here played frequently, I wanted to highlight how some of the league’s best defenders had performed in comparison to Arsenal’s back line.

Ultimately, the differences are surprising. From those selected, most had significantly higher short passing numbers, played the ball more times per game and managed better pass accuracy percentages too. Despite the high inaccurate number of short passes, these players make up for it with their outstanding numbers elsewhere.

Looking back, it’s quite alarming to see how reliant the club has been on Luiz for his ball playing ability. The Brazilian is the only player to come close to registering a high number of long balls per game and when taking matches played into consideration, he’s the only real player to fit in for his passing accuracy.

Arteta’s aforementioned changes to the build up play has protected certain players with the ball but there’s still room for improvement.

Speaking of which, another area that needs to addressed is the Gunners’ weakness at defending set pieces.

Since Arteta arrived, the team has conceded 21 goals in the Premier League. Of these goals, 11 were conceded from set pieces (five corners, three penalties and three free kicks). Of the final ten, two came directly from basic errors when the defender had the ball (Luiz’s failed control against Manchester City and Sead Kolasinac’s pass to Heung-min Son in the north London derby).

It’s impossible to prevent individual errors but defending set pieces is an area that should be improved on.

In the example above, Arsenal opted to zonally mark this Aston Villa corner but the positioning from the players is poor. When the ball is played in, SEVEN players crowd the right side in front of the goalkeeper while leaving the left side completely exposed. Everyone ignores Trezeguet’s run as the corner is played which allowed him to score an easy goal.

If Arsenal can stop leaking goals from set-pieces, they’ll win a lot more games next season. Sorting out positioning issues will take time for Arteta to fix but pre-season will give him opportunities to test out new strategies when defending different scenarios.

The bigger issue at hand will be winning aerial duels and having some well-rounded defenders.

Stats gathered from the Premier League.

Looking back at the numbers, it again becomes clear that Arsenal needs some changes in personnel.

Despite playing the most, Luiz’s winning percentages for duels and aerial battles should be higher for a player in his position. His 30 fouls is a major concern and while it’s not mentioned, it’s worth remembering he set a record this season for most penalties conceded by a player in one season with five.

It’s not surprising that Arsenal leak goals from set pieces and crosses when their first-choice defender struggles to win the ball in a lot of instances.

Going down the table, Sokratis and Mustafi’s numbers look good, especially when comparing to Luiz, but it’s worth remembering they played significantly less too. Meanwhile, Holding and Calum Chambers’ numbers are very underwhelming for Arsenal defenders and it’s impossible to judge Pablo Mari after just two league games.

Stats gathered from the Premier League.

Once again, a majority of the selected opposition defenders registered superior numbers in comparison to Arsenal’s defenders. In terms of first-choice options, Luiz’s numbers are lower than the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Harry Maguire, and Conor Coady.

The biggest issue for Arsenal is that while they have many defenders, each has their own weaknesses that disrupt the team. For example, Sokratis has always had a track record of being a good tackler and for winning duels but his ball-playing ability has always been a liability.

In terms of squad options, the Gunners are more than secure but what they lack is proper first-team options that can cover all bases. Arteta has done a decent job at fixing the defensive woes but there’s only so much he can do with the current selection of players. Bringing in at least one defender who’s superior in the ball and in the air will be crucial to the team, next season.


Chance creation struggles.

Moving away from the defence, Arteta has struggled to improve the Gunners’ lack of creativity.

In the past, Arsenal had been the home to some of the most creative players in the world like Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, and Cesc Fabregas. The club would constantly dazzle the world with some of the most exciting performances on a football pitch.

In 2020, that former identity looks non-existent. The Arsenal of today is a completely different side for all the wrong reasons. Performances are increasingly dull, midfielders create fewer chances and have less impact in front of goal while the team is scoring less too.

Stats gathered from Understat.

If you’re unsure about Arsenal’s desperate need to improve creatively, the above should convince you otherwise. It’s hard to believe that a team that used to pride itself on playing beautiful and attacking football has spent the past year struggling to register just a single assist per 90 minutes.

Without going into detail on statistics or tactics, poor management and decision making alone played a big part in this sudden decline.

Last summer, the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi left the club. On its own, these three departures dramatically drained the club’s array of creative players.

Arsenal sanctioned all three exits without securing a single replacement and showed no real desire to improve the team creatively.

In terms of midfield options, Ozil was the last man standing. Considering he played some of his best football when combining with the likes of Ramsey and Cazorla, the decision to not bring anyone in negatively impacted his performances too.

During his first press conference, Arteta said: “My first task will be to get to know the players better and get them playing the kind of fast, flowing, attacking football that Arsenal supporters around the world want to see.”

Despite his best efforts, the team still look far away from reaching the “fast, flowing, attacking football” that the head coach wants to implement.

Taking into consideration the aforementioned squad planning, it’d be unfair to completely criticise Arteta for his failure to overturn the team’s creative struggles.

Initially, he attempted to solve these issues by calling on players like Ozil, Pepe, and Ceballos to progress the ball into the final third and create chances but a lack of consistency prevented this from being effective.

Stats gathered from Understat. All players shown above played on five or more occasions under Mikel Arteta.

Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned trio progressed the ball most often with the most key passes per 90 (KP90) but they failed to translate this into assists. As the table shows on the right, neither Ozil or Ceballos consistently produced assists for the team and recorded 0.17 and 0.08 expected assists per 90 (xA90) respectively.

Regarding Pepe, his 0.30 xA90 is the highest amongst the squad since Arteta’s arrival. Interestingly, before Emery was sacked, the winger was far less creative having just 0.16 xA90 but he progressed the ball slightly more often with 1.95 KP90. Also, his xA90 figure under Arteta is higher than any Arsenal player achieved before Emery’s exit with Bukayo Saka having the second highest at 0.25 xA90.

This highlights how much of a mess the squad was creatively before the 38-year-old arrived.

While Emery’s departure was deserved, he too suffered because of the club’s lack of investment in creativity. The only difference is that the former manager failed to get the best out of the remaining attacking talents like Pepe, Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette while Arteta helped them improve during his first few months in charge.

In June, Arteta was forced to make a complete tactical switch after football returned. For reasons that remain unknown, Ozil was forced out of the team and on the pitch the club lost back-to-back league games.

Without his most creative player and with a defence that continued to leak goals, the Spaniard ditched his attempt of implementing an attacking-based system and created a system built around solidifying an “uncoachable” defence and countering the opposition.

While some performances were poor visually, these changes helped the team build a good run of form which culminated at Wembley Stadium.

A majority of the team’s “creativity” in the second half of his tenure came from the player’s occupying the wide areas. The Spaniard was forced into this change since he didn’t have a single creative player who could thrive in the middle of the pitch. Considering the focus was on them, it’s no surprise that players like Aubameyang, Saka, and Pepe were some of the most creative players under the 38-year-old.

Stats gathered from Understat.

In the first few months, Arteta did a decent job at improving the team’s creative numbers. Before football was postponed, his team registered more assists and had a slightly higher xA90 in fewer games.

While the numbers declined significantly in June, I’d attribute this to the switch in systems which focused more on defending rather than attacking.

The new system helped the team dominant high pressing sides like the aforementioned fixture against Chelsea, but the set-up and personnel limited the team’s effectiveness against deep blocks.

Arsenal lack players that are good at dribbling, can play the ball forward quickly and can stretch the opposition’s defensive line. These are all issues that Arteta can solve but it can only be achieved with the right players, which he currently doesn’t have.

Next season, he should bring Ozil back to the squad because he still has plenty to offer, even if it’s as a squad option, and Emile Smith-Rowe has a lot of potential and should be integrated into the squad.

Arteta’s coaching will improve over time but the best way for him to fully overcome this problem is with funding in the transfer market. The recent signing of Willian is a step in the right direction and links with Houssem Aouar are very encouraging.

At the same time, it’ll take more than just one or two new faces to completely transform an area where Arsenal has declined significantly in recent years. Looking back, it’s clear the Spaniard has a massive job on his hands if he wants to live up to the football he promised to implement.

A majority of fans (including myself) have thrown Emery’s name in as a counter argument to make Arteta look good. But if a slight improvement from his worst four months in charge is deemed acceptable by fans in the long run, the 38-year-old will struggle in the job.

Arteta has adapted well in the current circumstances but it’s not enough over an entire league season.


Football flexibility.

Finally, Arteta’s flexibility when it comes to his tactics and formations has been a surprise. A lot of managers tend to force through their ideas but Arteta has been the complete opposite. He has done well to adapt to different scenarios and has shown his eagerness to change if it benefits the team.

Most clubs tend to experience an improvement in results as soon as they appoint a new manager, but this didn’t happen for Arsenal. In fact, the club only won one league game out of eight when the managerial change was first announced. It was clear from the start that it was going to take time for the results to come.

Considering his first ever game in management was on Boxing Day, the 38-year-old couldn’t have started at a worse time. There was hardly any time to himself with the squad, to prepare for the upcoming fixtures and initially he didn’t have time to build the team that he wanted to play.

At first, the Spaniard resorted to the basics. A ‘traditional’ 4-2-3-1 formation was used, Lucas Torreira joined Xhaka in a midfield pivot, and the likes of Aubameyang, Ozil and Lacazette occupied their natural attacking roles.

Arteta’s insistence of going back to the basics proved beneficial in the long run as it helped to restore confidence to a struggling team that was lacking belief. Even when results remained the same, performances improved, and the 38-year-old built on this by slowly introducing changes.

Regarding the defence, Arteta effectively used Xhaka as a temporary left-back during his first few games in charge. This allowed the Gunners to temporarily play a back-three with Luiz occupying the central role and another defender occupying the right side.

This enabled the team to overload the left flank since Xhaka’s positioning allowed the full-back, either Saka or Kolasinac at the time, to combine with Aubameyang in the final third. This helped the Gunners create chances on numerous occasions against the likes of Manchester United, Everton and Newcastle.

While Emery also experimented with the Swiss midfielder as a full-back, Arteta’s organisation allowed him to excel. The 27-year-old’s positioning relieved the left-back of their defensive responsibilities and he helped protect the team in case the opposition looked to counter. If the Gunners pushed high into the final third, the midfielder could then drift into midfield and influence the game higher up the pitch.

As previously mentioned, Arteta adapted after football returned in June by switching formations. The swap from a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 gave the team extra security in defence and helped reduce the amount of goals they were conceding. The team already had experience when playing in a back three and the switch after the defeat to Brighton allowed the team to play with confidence.

Despite the new formation, Arteta implemented some similar game plans. For example, instead of using Xhaka as a temporary full-back, Arsenal instead stretched the field with a back three with either Kolasinac or Tierney positioned in the left centre-back role.

The Gunners continued to overload the left at times by using the same game plan since the left-sided defender took over most of the wing-back’s defensive responsibilities. At times, their attacking ability would even allow the team to transition to a back-four to reduce the gaps in case of a counter attack.

On the opposing flank, Arteta used the right-back in an inverted role to boost the midfield’s numbers.

First choice right-back Hector Bellerin has struggled for consistent form since returning from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) rupture, but Maitland-Niles has flourished. The Englishman’s technical and attacking ability allows him to thrive in Arteta’s system and he has delivered in big games against the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea.

When defending, the back-three formation gave the team greater defensive security since they could quickly transition to a back-five, if needed. Also, a midfielder would sometimes drop deep into the defensive line to make it more difficult for the opposition to pick out gaps.

During counter attacks, the Gunners would defend in a back four like before the break since the left wing-back was often away from the defensive line. If they returned in time, the team would use the same defensive structure to prevent conceding chances.

Overall, Arteta’s adaptability has helped improve the team defensively since his arrival but, as previously mentioned, the team’s impact going forward has been limited.

In the past eight months, the Spaniard has frequently experimented with different players in the attacking areas. Saka and Reiss Nelson have performed on both flanks, Ozil has infrequently performed well in his favourable ‘number 10’ role and Eddie Nketiah has impressed when leading the line.

While many areas have changed, the roles of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe have mostly stayed the same since Arteta arrived.

Out of the three, Lacazette has arguably been Arsenal’s most improved player since the managerial change. Given Arsenal’s lack of attacking midfielders, Arteta had to adapt to the remaining members in the squad and he helped bring out some of Lacazette’s best football in an Arsenal shirt.

Despite being positioned as a centre forward on the team sheet, the Frenchman’s impact was different than what was expected. The 29-year-old consistently dropped deep and played more as a de facto number 10 which gave Aubameyang and Pepe further freedom in the wide areas.

As the team lacked options down the middle, Lacazette was the key connector between the midfield and the attack and linked up well with players like Ceballos. Meanwhile, he always offered himself for a different passing angle, dragged out defenders to create space, and usually completed the most passes out of the forwards.

The Frenchman has improved a lot under Arteta but his lack of goals remains a major concern. Regardless of the role he plays, a measly six goals in 25 appearances under Arteta is an inexcusable record for a leading Arsenal striker.

With Lacazette constantly dropping deep, Aubameyang and Pepe essentially played as the strikers if you look at the team from a positioning basis.

Regarding the former, Aubameyang couldn’t have adapted any better to life under the new boss. Arsenal fans have consistently called for the forward to play down the middle but Arteta stood to his guns and ignored these messages. Considering how the Gabonese forward has performed, it’s fair to say the 38-year-old made the right call.

With Arsenal typically focusing their attacks down the left flank, Arteta’s system gets the most out of Aubameyang and always gets him involved in play. As noted prior, he does well when linking up with the attacking full-back and loves to combine with them to create an opportunity out wide.

Additionally, when you consider his sensational movement with his athleticism, you have a player that always causes nightmares for the opposition’s defence. The forward loves to make runs between the lines and has scored numerous goals by cutting in from the left flank.

Even if playing down the left fails to get the most out of the 31-year-old, his 16 goals from 22 appearances is a fantastic achievement when considering the amount of issues in the squad. If Arteta successfully implements an attacking-based system and improves the team creatively next season, the forward will continue to score goals for fun.

Elsewhere, Pepe has impressed during his first season in England, but he has struggled the most in attack. This is mostly down to minor faults in Arteta’s system though rather than an issue towards the 25-year-old himself.

Out of the three areas on the pitch, the Gunners haven’t looked as good when playing down the right in comparison to through the middle and the left. Luiz’s long passes and the midfield pivot help the team considerably down the middle and I’ve already discussed Arsenal’s attacks down the left. But there isn’t a clear plan for the right flank which has limited Pepe.

When the Gunners play the ball down the right, the Ivorian winger often finds himself isolated. This is because the likes of Bellerin and Maitland-Niles fail overlap the 25-year-old on a consistent basis which forces him to struggle. Also, since the full-back sits inside in an inverted role, it also leaves Pepe with a lack of options in the final third.

Next season, Arteta should instruct the right-back to overlap Pepe more frequently since it’ll allow him to thrive by cutting inside and working in the tight areas rather than be forced to create opportunities out of nothing.

The 25-year-old has had a decent debut season in London with 18 goal contributions under three different managers but there’s still a way to go before Pepe returns to his best form.


Conclusion.

In just eight months, Arteta has remoulded the club in more ways than anyone could’ve imagined or predicted.

Considering the circumstances in December, winning the FA Cup and qualifying for European football would be an impressive feat for any manager let alone one in his first ever managerial job. The Spaniard has united the dressing room, convinced key players to stay and everyone believes in what he’s trying to build.

There are still areas that Arteta needs to improve on like his in-game decision making and the team’s structure in attack, but these issues should be resolved in his first full season.

Now, it’s time for Arsenal to push on and support the 38-year-old. He’s got the potential to become one of the best managers in the world and has adapted tremendously to the current squad.

In order for Arteta to reach the next step of his career, taking the club back to the Champions League, he needs better players. Potential signings like Thomas Partey and Gabriel are favourable but it’s important to not get excited until transfers are confirmed.

On the 20th of December 2019, Arsenal Football Club made one of its biggest risks of the 21st century. So far, that risk has paid off.

Let the Mikel Arteta Era begin.

It’s time for a new era to begin.

Today, Arsenal finally announced the appointment of Mikel Arteta as the club’s new head coach on a three and a half year contract.

Continue reading “Let the Mikel Arteta Era begin.”