Arteta reverts to type
Earlier this month, Mikel Arteta outlined what he hoped to gain from this pre-season campaign.
First of all restoring fitness levels was on the agenda.
“Obviously the physical aspect is very important,” he told Arsenal.com.
“After five weeks, the players need to get in good shape and the best possible condition to compete at the levels that the Premier League requires.”
This was clearly on display during the Gunners opening game against Hibernian where Arteta set his side up in a 4-4-2 formation with the sheer intention of getting as many players on the pitch as possible to get minutes into their legs.
Having achieved phase one, though what exactly is the next step?
“Then mentally, we need to prepare the team with the ideas that we have, with the values that we have, with the ambition that we want to take into the league,” the Spaniard elaborated.
In other words it is time to start preparing Arsenal tactically for what tweaks their manager wants to make for the coming season.
Interestingly though rather than trying to shift the Gunners towards the 4-3-3 touted by some observers, it seems that Arteta is reverting to the 4-2-3-1 that was so successful in the early part of his reign at the Emirates.
What we saw at London Colney though was a far slicker version of what was on show in the latter part of 2019 and beginning of 2020.
Out of possession Eddie Nketiah shifted over from the left to form a 4-4-2 shape, and when they had the ball Arsenal operated in a Pep Guardiola-style 2-3-5, with Calum Chambers coming infield effectively to form the three.
Emile Smith Rowe darted around in the half spaces, and while players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe also constantly switched from their starting positions the 2-3-5 was a fundamental constant.
The tactics worked a treat against admittedly less opposition but it’s an exciting sign of what could be awaiting returning fans at the Emirates this season.
Arsenal apply pressure
Another thing that returned during Saturday’s game was the high press that we saw in the early days of the Arteta regime.
In fairness it was on display against Rangers, but this was more or less the first time we consistently saw it since the football world came to a halt due to COVID-19.
In Arteta’s first six Premier League and Europa League games Arsenal averaged 209.2 pressures per match (as per fbRef), but in the following six that dropped to 144.3. After project restart that fell again to 138.2 before dropping to an average of 120.7 pressures per game across their two main competitions last season.
At London Colney though the high press was back and in full force as the Gunners refused to allow their opponents time on the ball to settle.
Each and every one of Arsenal’s pieces of business in the transfer market so far suggests that Arteta is intent of having his team operate far higher up the pitch.
Nuno Tavares is a very aggressive front-footed full back, while Albert Sambi Lokonga – as we’ll discuss in more detail later – is an expert at getting the ball forward quickly. Ben White who is set to join them too is also a master of ball progression to help the team get closer to the opposition goal.
It might sound basic but the higher up the pitch they win the ball the more likely they are to score goals and that appears to be Arteta’s main tactical evolution for the coming season.
Arsenal’s Xhaka replacement
With Granit Xhaka set to leave Arsenal to join Roma very soon, much of the transfer talk around the club right now surrounds who they will bring in to replace him.
As mentioned before the Gunners have already done nearly three pieces of business this summer and it is thought that a new central midfielder could be the fourth.
Yves Bissouma, Ruben Neves and Manuel Locatelli have all been linked but there’s a possibility they might have already found their man.
Albert Sambi Lokonga made his first team debut on Saturday and showed all the hall marks of a potential starter at the Emirates for years to come.
The Belgian came on for Mohamed Elneny at half time and instantly quickened the pace with which the ball was being moved in the Arsenal midfield.
Alongside the immense Thomas Partey, Lokonga was metronomic, constantly looking to play the ball forward at every opportunity in comparison to the more ponderous play his Egyptian teammate can be guilty of on occasion.
Interestingly the role Lokonga was asked to play was that which Granit Xhaka normally takes up, dropping into the left half space to cover for Kieran Tierney‘s aggressive attacking runs while also dictating play from deep.
It was one he executed flawlessly.
The Belgian is only 21, and to expect him to take over as a regular Premier League starter so young might be a bit much.
The likelihood is that Arsenal will bring someone in to allow Lokonga’s transition from Anderlecht to be that bit smoother, but if that doesn’t work out he has shown that he is ready to make the step up if required.
Arsenal’s striking dilemma
It seems possible that the latter two could leave this summer though which would perhaps make things that bit smoother in terms of squad numbers for next season.
Despite scoring against Rangers, Nketiah has done little to suggest that he could be someone who is ready to make significant first team contribution right now and it seems as though the decision has been taken to start him in the games so far as an advertisement to potential buyers this summer.
Lacazette however, is causing more problems.
The Frenchman was outstanding against Milwall, popping up with a thumping header and providing a terrific dummy in the build up to Nicolas Pepe’s goal.
As well as that he tireless in the press constantly winning the ball back high up the pitch in line with the manager’s desires.
At 30-years-of-age he is unlikely to get the long-term contract offer he wants so it would seem likely that this is his last season in North London.
If he does end up staying though that creates a dilemma for Mikel Arteta who is reportedly interested in bringing in Tammy Abraham as a replacement.
Although only on an initial loan, Abraham would not be able to come in with Lacazette in the squad, but given the Frenchman’s current from it would seem a strange decision to sell him for what would likely be less than what it’s worth.
The decision is complicated further when you consider that Aubameyang has been used almost exclusively as a number nine since May, meaning the number of spots in the team for the forwards Arsenal have is reduced even further.
The summer window is officially open, and it’s going to be tough to keep up with the comings and goings in and out of the Emirates.
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It’s a dilemma most managers would like to have, but one that Arteta would surely like to resolve before the transfer window slams shut on August 31st.
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