Can Arteta Overcome Pep This Season? [Arsenal Tactical Analysis 23-24]

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Mikel Arteta’s football is highly influenced by his former mentor and current biggest rival, Pep Guardiola. However, it is also true that there are differences.

Basically, he emphasises the positions of players on the pitch. The five attackers in between the lines often occupy five lanes individually, and one of the defensive midfielders joins them against a back five to create a 6v5 overloads up front. This tweak is one of the characteristics of positional play, which Pep generalised in modern football. However, their energetic style with many young players is their own feature. They are willing to play directly in behind and attack quickly to threaten the opposition goal rather than establishing the possession. Additionally, they also choose to play long from goal kicks more frequently than Man City. This might come from the difference of the quality of playing out from the back, but they actively try to threaten the opposition back line, and that is one of the differences.

In terms of the tactics of out of possession, they are so different from Man City. In pressing, they try to press cleverly instead of just marking all outfield players. However, especially against Man City and Man United, the pressing was easily bypassed frequently. The reason of this is going to be discussed later.

In this article, the tactics of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal is going to be analysed based on their first five games from the Community Shield against Man City. I hope you enjoy this analysis.

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Build up

From goal kicks, Aaron Ramsdale often choses to play long rather than taking a risk by playing short against the opposition high pressing. Their shape when he decided to play out from the back is often asymmetrical.

William Saliba, who is originally a left centre back prefers to be positioned in the right side and often plays the first pass of a goal kick to Ramsdale. Another key feature is the positions of both fullbacks. In possession in the midfield, one of the fullbacks comes inside next to Declan Rice, but only when playing out from the back, both fullbacks often keep the width and they are the most important players.

One of the objectives when playing out from the back is finding a fullback to break the opposition midfield line. When one of the opposition wingers jumps to apply pressure on the centre back on the ball, the ball side fullback is a clearly spare player, so one of the attacking midfielders drops back to receive the ball from the centre back and play a first time pass to the fullback. This combination was often seen in the game against Man City in the Community Shield.

Both attacking midfielders, Kai Havertz and Martin Ødegaard are excel at dropping back to offer a passing lane for a centre back under pressure at the right moment, so they hardly suffer from lacking a passing lane in the middle lane, which means the opposition cannot easily lock them in.

Another way is pushing the fullback higher against a narrow 4-4-2. If the opposition focuses on keeping the compactness in the middle and one of the strikers presses on the centre back on the ball, the powerful pass towards the fullback is enough to break the opposition midfield line.

However, this pattern hardly functions well. Firstly, Ben White does not like to play to Thomas Partey and forces it frequently, but this cannot be a problem for only him. Partey often positions himself too deep and makes a negative touch towards the own goal, so it is difficult to break the opposition midfield line. Considering that they are willing to play long from goal kicks to avoid risks, this will not be a critical problem and Partey quickly moves inside as soon as the opposition sets a compact block instead of applying pressure on the centre back on the ball.

By the way, Arteta hardly changes the five attackers up front except for the striker, but he has been forced to make changes of fullbacks in almost every game, although some of them are due to injuries. Jurrien Timber was the first choice for the left fullback in the game against Man City, but after getting injured in the game against Nottingham Forest, Takehiro Tomiyasu was chosen to replace him. However, he was suspended due to the red card in the game against Crystal Palace, so Jakub Kiwior started for the third league game against Fulham. Then, the next game against Manchester United, Oleksandr Zinchenko played a vital role as the left fullback. Of course, there are differences in terms of the opposition pressing style, Timber and Zinchenko were brilliant as a fullback, not only as a false fullback. They understand how to break the opposition lines by playing around and this is the difference between Partey and them.

After Arsenal progressed the ball into the midfield or the opposition team decided to set a compact block, the shape is modified and it can be described as a 3-2-5 in many games or 3-1-5-1 against a back five (vs Nottingham Forest).

One of the fullbacks steps into the midfield next to Rice and forms the double pivots. This can be a left fullback if Zinchenko or Tomiyasu plays as a left fullback and White plays as a right fullback. Additionally, against a back five, Rice positions himself in between the lines and Havertz plays as a 10, which looks like a 3-1-5-1 and this was used in the game against Nottingham Forest.

In terms of keeping the possession at the back, like Man City, both defensive midfielders often drop into the back line to create an overload against the opposition first line.

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To progress the ball and break the opposition midfield line, there are mainly three options.

Firstly, Eddie Nketiah drops into the space where one of the midfielders created. As it was mentioned above, one of the defensive midfielders often drops into the back line. In case that one of the opposition midfielders does not follow him, he can receive the ball without any pressure. On the other hand, if one of them tightly marks the defensive midfielder, it is difficult to play to him. In this case, however, the opposition midfielder leaves huge space in the defensive block where Nketiah drops and receives the ball. Additionally, the hole in the opposition defensive block emerges when the opposition defensive midfielders are pinned by the attacking midfielders.

Nketiah is excel at finding a proper timing to drop and also playing forwards. In many cases, a dropping striker just plays backwards after receiving the ball, but Nketiah can not only lay it off but also play it to one of the attacking midfielders or wingers.

Additionally, he is also capable of running in behind the opposition back line. This can give the centre backs an option to play over. It is not only him, but Havertz, Gabriel Martinelli or Bukayo Saka can also run in behind. However, the mobility of Nketiah makes it difficult for the opposition centre backs to keep marking him and easy for the team to have different options to progress the ball into the final third.

Second option to break the opposition midfield line is finding Martin Ødegaard in the right pocket. His positioning skill is exceptional and he is always in a position where he can receive the ball in between the line.

He prefers to receive the ball in the right pocket of the block, but when the opposition wide midfielder steps up to press the centre back on the ball, he can drift outside to receive the ball. After receiving the ball, he often plays to Saka and they can advance into the final third.

The final option to break the opposition midfield line is just playing around. Both wingers are the key in the final third and they can receive the ball by a front foot which is away from the opposition fullback to keep the ball and take him on. Martinelli and Saka can create time and let teammates advance as a team.

Then, in the next chapter, how both wingers and other teammates try to threaten the opposition goal is going to be discussed in detail.

Final Third Attacking

As it was mentioned, both wingers are the main destinations of the ball to advance into the final third. They can take on the opposition fullbacks and beat them quite easily. This advantage of the quality helps Arsenal a lot in the final third, but it is not always. To help the winger, especially Saka, they have mainly two options. The first one is overlapping support by mainly White and the other is an option to play inside which is offered by Ødegaard.

The overlap can confuse the opposition fullback and help Saka to beat him and Ødegaard can create an option to play inside and exploit the space in front of the opposition back line. This wide triangle is the basic of their attacking tactics in the final third, but if the opposition manages to defend against this, another player shows up to offer another passing lane. The additional player is Rice.

As soon as recognising the space in the middle, he pops up to receive the ball from the winger. It is quite easy to defend against a triangle in wide areas by gathering defending players, but it is hard to keep focusing on the player who intermittently shows up from far area. Therefore, this Rice’s movement is one of the keys in the final third.

This pattern has been already performed by Man City frequently from last season, but the reason was the double pivots thanks to John Stones. If there is an only single pivot, if he leaves the position and joins the attack in the final third, there would be a huge gap in the middle, which can be exploited by the opposition in transitions. However, Thanks to Stones in the midfield, Rodrigo could go higher than before and strengthen the attacking in the final third. Similar to this, Arsenal can maximise Rice’s ability thanks to the false fullback.

After exploiting the space in the middle, Nketiah has been great at finding a proper timing to run in behind. When Rice or Ødegaard receives the ball in front of the opposition back line, a 2v2 against the centre backs often emerges. In this situation, how to create a gap and exploit it is the key and the timing to run into the gap is extremely important. If the timing is wrong, the striker will be offside or an available passing lane will disappear. In terms of this, Nketiah is extremely good at recognising the timing.

In terms of crosses, both wingers often deliver inswing crosses after dribbling inside and most attackers in the box are ready for attacking the back post area.

This back post cross created many chances and can be an important option against low block teams.

Overall, in the final third, both wingers play a key role and the most dangerous players. Additionally, especially from the right side, Ødegaard or White create effective options and Rice can also combine with them to exploit the space in the middle. Arsenal have various weapons in the final third thanks to both the quality of players and tactical combinations.


So far, many similarities with Man City have been discussed, but out of possession, Arteta’s side has a unique structure. When they press high, the striker and two attacking midfielders manage an underloaded situation with clever and tactical movements to lock them in a compact area. The unit of these three attackers in the middle is extremely important to force the opposition team to play outside. The basic shape is shown in the illustration below.

The pressing starts from the striker who makes a curved run towards the goalkeeper or centre back on the ball with cutting a passing lane to switch the ball. Then, all players shuffle across the pitch and create an overload around the ball.

After forcing the opposition goalkeeper to play to the targeted centre back, the attacking midfielder jumps to apply pressure on the ball. At the same time, the opposite side winger and attacking midfielder leave their initial marker and shuffle across to find new opponents around the ball to mark.

One of the strengths of this tactic is that they can ensure the overload at the back. It is common nowadays to see teams pressing high with marking all outfield players on the pitch to prevent the opposition from playing out from the back. However, this contains a risk of exposing the back line, which can be exploited by the opposition attackers. On the other hand, Arteta tries to accept the underload up front and keep the overload at the back. Therefore, the first pressing by the striker and clever movements of the attacking midfielders is extremely vital.

This sounds a great tactic, but the high pressing has been often beaten by some teams. For example, both Man City and Man United had the quality of the individual and group. The goalkeeper of Man United, André Onana could find the passing lane which should have been cut by the striker with his incredible technique and vision and Man City always found a third man to bypass the striker to deliver the ball to the spare player. After the high pressing fails, it turns into a 4-4-2 by Havertz dropping into the defensive midfield role.

The 4-4-2 is compact and narrow in the midfield. However, a winger, especially Saka tends to follow the opposition fullback, so if he goes higher, Saka drops into the back line, and it sometimes becomes a back five. And these characteristics are same in the final third.

Final Third Defending

In the final third, they defend with a 4-4-2 but Ødegaard often drops back to fill the vacant space in the defensive block. Overall, all players are willing to come back and they always have many players in the box. This hard work is the basic stuff but it really helps to reduce the number of goals conceded.

The back line is narrow and focus on defending the goal in the middle, so the wide areas are often covered by the wingers. As it was mentioned, especially Saka often drops into the back line and defend as a fullback. This helps both centre backs to stay in the middle and be ready for crosses.

The back line is controlled well and pushed up frequently as soon as the opposition plays back. Overall, the zonal defensive structure has been working well and it is possible to say that they are as solid as last season’s Man City. Not many teams can break this block down and score goals.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this.