Mikel Arteta's Arsenal vision coming to fruition

Can Arteta out-Pep Pep? Arsenal’s pressing and confidence playing out from the back are helping their manager’s vision come to fruition… so can they lay down another marker when they take on Guardiola’s stumbling City?

  • Arsenal make the trip to Manchester City in the Premier League this Saturday 
  • They were outclassed on their last visit in June, losing 3-0 as David Luiz had a game to forget  
  • But the mood is very different this time around with Arsenal in the ascendancy
  • Arteta’s philosophy is starting to become clear, especially in the bigger games
  • He has refined Guardiola-style high pressing and playing out from the back
  • But he’s pragmatic, too, with the Gunners effective despite little possession 

Remember when the Premier League burst out of lockdown in June and Arsenal fans quickly wished it hadn’t?

The very first day back and a miserable 3-0 drubbing by Manchester City. An error-strewn display in the rain exemplified by David Luiz being complicit in Raheem Sterling’s opener before being sent off.

Outpassed, outclassed, 33 per cent possession, no shots on target. Mikel Arteta sheepishly accepting the commiserations of his former boss Pep Guardiola at the final whistle.

Mikel Arteta gets a consoling pat on the back from his old boss Pep Guardiola after Arsenal were outclassed 3-0 by Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium back in June

David Luiz was a walking disaster that night as Arsenal were comprehensively outclassed

But the mood now feels very different – Arsenal have started the season brightly and Arteta’s vision for how he wants them to play is bearing fruit 

Four months later and the picture looks altogether very different.

Arteta’s Arsenal are the ones enjoying the feel-good factor. Three wins from four to begin the new Premier League campaign and progress in the Carabao Cup that included a penalty shootout win over Liverpool. Thomas Partey finally delivered close to the transfer deadline. 

More significantly, the clear emergence of an Arteta philosophy and signs of a more settled Arsenal team comfortable with how they’re playing and with what they’re trying to accomplish.

Over at the Etihad, there are growing fears Guardiola’s City are becoming trapped in a downward trajectory.

Defensive flaws were once again exposed – and ruthlessly so – when Leicester won 5-2 there a few weeks back. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United then hunted City into submission last time out.

Arteta and Guardiola on the training ground together in 2019 – it’s clear Arteta has learned plenty from his mentor but still wants to put his own mark on things

it hasn’t been the best start to the season for Guardiola’s side with a 5-2 home defeat to Leicester exposing continued defensive weaknesses

In contrast to June, Guardiola won’t relish the prospect of facing Arteta this Sunday 

Sure, City have played a match fewer than most but they’re 14th with four points from a possible nine. It’s early yet but they already trail Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea in the standings.

Guardiola will be bristling to get back to action after a fortnight of international games but the prospect of his old right-hand man Arteta and his rapidly improving Arsenal is unlikely to offer much comfort.

It was always likely that Arteta was going to be influenced by Guardiola’s highly effective way of setting a team up on the football field.

But even back in 2014, as his playing career at Arsenal wound down, Arteta already had a clear vision of how the teams he coached would play.

‘I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition. We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us,’ he said.

Remind you of anyone? It sounds very similar to Guardiola’s outlook and this before Arteta spent three years learning from him at City.

Arteta certainly had a clear vision of how his teams should play and this was nurtured during three years as Guardiola’s right-hand man at City

The Spaniard’s first half-season in charged ended with success in the FA Cup and there has been an encouraging beginning to the new season

Having settled into the Arsenal job he accepted last December, having drawn a few too many games as he decided on his best XI, having taken a tough stance against the likes of Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi, Arteta is getting there.

He’s taken aspects of the Guardiola blueprint and combined it with a practical edge depending on the opposition and the circumstances.

Arsenal can’t rival City’s squad, nor do they have the financial muscle at the moment to do so any time soon. But as their upturn in results and last season’s FA Cup triumph are showing, they’ve found a good way to play with what they have and it’s working for them. 

There were clear signs of Arteta’s plan coming to fruition during their 2-0 win over City in the FA Cup semi-final and bear in mind this was just a month after their capitulation at the Etihad.

One is the high press. Guardiola is the manager who once challenged his Barcelona players to win back possession inside six seconds or else drop 10 players behind the ball.

It’s the same at City, who don’t give you a moment’s peace, forcing the mistakes. But Arteta has his team putting in similar amounts of leg work to put opponents under pressure.

It was effective pressing by Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that panicked the City back line during the first-half at Wembley.

An example of Arsenal’s new emphasis on pressing high up the field came in the early minutes of their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City at Wembley back in July

 City are trying to play their way out from the back but Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are putting in the yards exerting pressure

A poor pass out by goalkeeper Ederson forces a mistake and suddenly Arsenal have created a good chance through their own pressure and endeavour 

The Gunners were unable to capitalise but the pressure certainly rattled City’s defenders

Arsenal couldn’t take the particular chances that resulted but it eroded the confidence of City’s defenders. A taste of their own medicine, if you like.

But the press remains a work in progress. Arsenal’s isn’t yet as sharp as Jurgen Klopp’s famously claustrophobic one at Liverpool, or even City’s, but it’s getting there. 

Then there is Arsenal’s new-found assurance when passing out from the back. thirty-two per cent of Arsenal’s possession has been in their own defensive third so far this season.

It’s something that can go horribly wrong – and Arsenal twice gifted City chances during the early minutes of the semi-final.

But their assurance grew and the opening goal, scored by Aubameyang from Pepe’s excellent cross from the right side, stemmed from Luiz dribbling the ball out of defence after a succession of passes in their own box.

Arsenal’s opening goal in their FA Cup semi-final win over City started in defence – David Luiz is seen bringing the ball forward on the left side after a series of passes in their own box

Because City have committed players forward into their traditional high press, Arsenal can quickly pass the ball beyond it and find space, such as Hector Bellerin on the right flank 

The movement for Arsenal’s goal at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final – a series of passes inside their own area before Luiz (No 23) sparks the move that goes through Kieran Tierney (No 3), Alexandre Lacazette (No 9), Hector Bellerin (No 2) and Nicolas Pepe (No 19) before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (No 14) finishes it off 

In matches against the likes of City and Liverpool, who employ such a relentless press, it’s often possible to pick out players in abundant space if you can break out the trap.

For that goal, City had pushed forward so high and Hector Bellerin was left completely free on the right, finding Pepe who found Aubameyang.

The combination of Arsenal’s own high press and confidence in their abilities to play out from the back form two central pillars of Arteta’s way of playing.

This Saturday, we can expect Arsenal’s defenders to effectively lure City forward, committing too many players, and then look for the space behind.

Indeed, since Arteta’s first game in charge last Boxing Day, Arsenal have scored 11 goals in the Premier League following a sequence of 10 passes or more. There have been 77 such sequences already this season, second only to Chelsea with 81.

There have been other good examples of late – in the Community Shield win over Liverpool, Aubameyang’s early opener started in Arsenal’s own box.

Liverpool’s players hared forward as soon as it became clear Arsenal were passing out from their keeper. But Arsenal’s defenders were assured enough to find the outlet and they countered brilliantly to score. 

Arsenal’s record against other top sides has improved since their loss at the Etihad in June

In those games, including the 3-0 loss to City, Arsenal have averaged just 36.4 per cent possession – suggesting, given the positive results in most of them – they are becoming more effective at making it count 

Likewise Aubameyang’s goal in the 3-0 opening weekend win at Fulham and Alexandre Lacazette’s opener in what ultimately was a 3-1 loss at Anfield in the league.

This sure-footedness in playing out from the back – even from keeper Bernd Leno, who has been involved in the build-up to two goals this season – is translating into a better record in the games that matter.

Arsenal’s record against other members of the so-called ‘Big Six’ had become torrid in the late Arsene Wenger era and under Unai Emery. They were frequently accused of bottling it in the biggest games, especially on the road.

But under Arteta, things have started to improve and it bodes well for this Sunday, when a trip to the Etihad might not carry the fear factor it had back in June.

They beat an admittedly free-wheeling Liverpool in the league late last season, plus City and Chelsea in the FA Cup. Liverpool were overcome again in the Community Shield, so recent form is good.

The early stages of the FA Community Shield and Liverpool are dominating. With the energetic press favoured by Jurgen Klopp, Arsenal’s defenders appear to have nowhere to go

Rob Holding finds the outlet, with Hector Bellerin dropping into a pocket of space on the right

Liverpool have committed three players so far forward, Bellerin is able to turn into space

Liverpool have seven players in Arsenal’s half and when Bellerin finds Bukayo Saka with a ball down the line, the Gunners can spring onto the counter-attack

Saka looks up and sees Aubameyang, picking out the forward with a great cross-field pass. The net is bulging seconds later and Arsenal go on to win 

A very good example of how Arsenal can successfully play out from the back came in August’s FA Community Shield win over Liverpool. The move starts with keeper Emiliano Martinez, traded passes between the defenders before Rob Holding (No 16) finds Bellerin (No 2). On their way forward, Bukayo Saka (No 7) picks out Aubameyang with a cross-field ball to score

On the opening weekend of the season against Fulham, Aubameyang was the scorer in another successful Arsenal move from the back. What begins with Bernd Leno (No 1) rolling the ball out to Gabriel (No 6), then goes through Granit Xhaka (No 34) to Bellerin (No 2), Mohamed Elneny (No 25), Lacazette (No 9), Willian (No 12) and then Aubameyang to make it 3-0

In the league game with Liverpool at Anfield, the build-up to Lacazette’s opening goal, they once again successfully play out from the back. Xhaka (No 34) is key as he gets the ball and feeds Lacazette (No 9). He brings Ainsley Maitland-Niles (No 15) into the move before continuing his run to round off the move.

What’s interesting is that in those games Arsenal have averaged just 36.4 per cent of possession. We’re seeing a greater cutting edge when they do get the ball, a speed of movement from back to front when opportunities arise. 

The old accusations that Arsenal played too many passes around the opponent’s box without penetrating have gone. 

During their time working together at City, Guardiola was always seen as the grand visionary with Arteta the training ground nuts and bolts man.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that all along Arteta did have his own philosophy – some parts similar to his mentor, others different, others tweaked a bit – and we’re starting to see it come to fruition. Now for another acid test. 

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