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What is Arsenal & Mikel Arteta’s New System?


What is Arsenal & Mikel Arteta’s New System?

Three matches into the new Premier League season for Arsenal, and the Gunners have won two and drawn one of those opening three games to see them sit in 5th-place in the table on 7 points – but following their 2-2 draw at home to Fulham on Saturday, a match which they really should have won, there has been an outpouring of discussion and discourse over the system that manager Mikel Arteta has used in these opening three games.

So, what is this supposed ‘new system’, and why is it causing so much discussion?

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Last updated 23/04/2024

What is it?

Key to Arsenal’s surprise title challenge in 2022/23 was the on-pitch system and how members of the squad were utilised in said system by Mikel Arteta – Arsenal would tend to set up in a 4-3-3 formation while out of possession, but when in possession, that 4-3-3 would transform into something more akin to a 2-3-5.

A regular starting XI lineup would see Aaron Ramsdale in goal playing behind a defence of Ben White, William Saliba, Gabriel and Oleksandr Zinchenko. Granit Xhaka, Thomas Partey and Martin Odegaard were the three men in midfield, while Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus made up a formidable frontline. But a central part of Arsenal’s ability to scythe through teams last year was their use of an inverted full-back, with Oleksandr Zinchenko primarily playing this role.

When the Gunners had possession of the ball, the Ukrainian, who is very comfortable on the ball and technically secure, would slip into midfield alongside Xhaka, Odegaard and Partey, leaving White, Gabriel and Saliba to defend as a back three. So with Zinchenko moving into midfield, the presence of four men in the centre of the pitch would create a numerical advantage in midfield for Arsenal.

And with Zinchenko on occasion sitting alongside Partey in midfield, it allowed Xhaka and Odegaard to also push further into the attacking third and towards the opposition box to devastating effect – Odegaard had the best goalscoring season of his career while Xhaka had his best ever season in an Arsenal shirt both performance and output-wise.

Xhaka and Odegaard pushing up into such advanced areas, with the already dangerous front three of Saka-Jesus-Martinelli, meant that Arsenal essentially had a 5-man attack. Now while having a 5-man attack is great for creating chances and scoring goals, it means that if a player does lose the ball, you can then be caught out in transition, which means that you also need to be defensively solid. And the Gunners were – because while there were the aforementioned 5 players in attack, the other 5 remaining outfield players were tasked with sitting and being ready to defend in case the opposition won the ball and launched a counter-attack.

Having 5 players back means you can defend a breakaway much more effectively, and so splitting the pitch with a zone for 5 defenders and a zone for 5 attackers was a tactic that worked a treat for Mikel Arteta. Even Ben White would occasionally overlap Saka on the right to make it an attacking frontline of six players to add a further body to the attack, and White could do so confident in the knowledge that Gabriel, Saliba, Partey and Zinchenko were behind him. Now this system made Arsenal many things – unpredictable, dominant, flexible, and very tough to play against.

So, What is all the Fuss About a New System?

Now in practice, the tactic and system being used by Arsenal this campaign is basically the same. The only real difference now is that the inverted full-back role is being played on the right-hand side of the pitch instead of on the left-hand side, and is therefore being played by a different player. Ghanaian Thomas Partey, usually found at the base of midfield, has started each of Arsenal’s opening three matches in the right-back position and has taken up the role as the inverted full-back in the system rather than Oleksandr Zinchenko.

But right-back, and playing as an inverted one at that, is not natural for Partey, and it was inevitable that there would be some problems as a result – this showed most recently against Fulham on Saturday. Leading up to the visitors’ goal inside the first minute of the match, Partey made a run into central midfield but inadvertently left a huge gap in the Gunners' backline as a result. Bukayo Saka’s pass backwards, while poor, was done with good intentions and arguably on autopilot – there would normally be someone in the vacated space to receive such a pass. But because of Partey’s unfamiliarity with the role, he pushed upfield when it was unnecessary to do so and thus left a gap, leading to Fulham scoring the opening goal of the game.

However, it is crucial to note that the decision to utilise Partey in this role is not really through choice - Mikel Arteta’s hand has been forced. In each of Arsenal’s three matches so far, a different player has been played at left-back where Oleksandr Zinchenko would usually be. That is because the Ukrainian has been out injured so far, only making his return with a 34-minute showing on the weekend against the Cottagers.

Zinchenko’s injury problems were well-documented last season, which meant that it was vital for Arsenal to bring in a player of a similar profile this summer, which they did in Jurrien Timber. The versatile Dutchman excelled in pre-season but then suffered an ACL injury against Nottingham Forest on the opening day, meaning that he will be absent for practically all of the remainder of this season - Mikel Arteta’s direct solution/replacement for the injury-prone Zinchenko was vanquished after just 50 minutes of action.

Takehiro Tomiyasu was drafted in at left-back for Arsenal’s following game against Crystal Palace on Matchday 2, but the injury-prone Japanese international was not as comfortable on the ball as Zinchenko, and was then unfairly sent off after 67 minutes which meant that he was not available for the clash with Fulham.

Therefore, Jakub Kiwior started at left-back against the Cottagers, but again, the Pole does not possess the technical ability on the ball that Zinchenko does, while Kiwior is also much more comfortable as a centre-back rather than on the flank. It is telling that Arsenal looked much better going forward when Zinchenko made his return. So while Jurrien Timber was brought in to provide both cover and competition for Oleksandr Zinchenko, his injury means that Arsenal are essentially back to square one.

So simply put, there is no ‘new’ system - Mikel Arteta seems to have merely flipped the dynamics of his usual system to the other side of the pitch due to the absences of the players who would usually fill the inverted full-back role on the left. But with Zinchenko now back fit for this weekend’s clash with Manchester United, might we see a return to the starting line-up that brought Arsenal so much joy last year?

With Zinchenko back, it means Thomas Partey can move back into midfield and Ben White can resume right-back duties, with William Saliba potentially being reunited with Gabriel at the heart of defence. The Brazilian’s absence in the opening three games has been conspicuous, with Arsenal looking to have lost just that little bit of security and confidence at the back without him.

With rumours of interest from Saudi Arabian clubs having turned the player’s head, that is thought to have been the reason for his absence. But there is another potential explanation, and it is one that would fit in with Mikel Arteta’s comments in the media of the absence being purely for “tactical reasons” – with Thomas Partey inverting infield from the right-hand side, it means that the three players left to cover in defence consists of Ben White, William Saliba and whoever is at left-back on the day.

Now, whichever three players stay back, they have to defend widely in order to cover all spaces well – that back-three essentially becomes two full-backs and one centre-back. With Ben White undroppable and more comfortable on the right-hand side, he would play the right centre-back role, and with Saliba being Arsenal’s best on-the-ball centre-back and arguably best centre-back, he gets the nod to take that central role of the three.

That would therefore leave Gabriel to take up a left-back role, which he does not possess the quality to do – therefore, due to the superior ball-playing ability of White and Saliba, Gabriel must be sacrificed for a player such as Tomiyasu or Kiwior who are more comfortable playing at left-back. Essentially, the only reason for Gabriel’s absence is because of Zinchenko’s absence. But with the return of Zinchenko, then if tactical reasons really are why Gabriel has been left out, expect the Brazilian to be back in the side this weekend.

Where does Kai Havertz fit in?

The problems are not strictly limited to just injuries, however, although they are a huge factor in this slight system tweak by Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard will also need to somehow find a way to integrate his £65m summer signing from Chelsea, Kai Havertz, into the side. With such a huge outlay on the German, they have obviously bought him for a reason – but what is that reason?

There has to be a way to fit him into the starting XI somehow, but there have long been question marks over what actually is Havertz’s best position. Is he a striker? Well, he played that role during his time at Chelsea, and he showed no real prowess at it. Is he a second striker or more comfortable in the No.10 role? Well, such a role has basically ceased to exist in the modern-day Premier League. Or is he better in more of a traditional No.8 role? Does he possess the physicality, creativity and other attributes required to play such a role – he hasn’t shown previously that he does.

So, where will Mikel Arteta fit him in? Because Arteta certainly won’t drop his captain and talisman Martin Odegaard for Havertz – the Norwegian’s position in the starting XI is undisputed. One of Declan Rice or Thomas Partey will take up the mantle of the defensive midfielder, which only leaves the left-sided midfield spot free for Havertz.

The German has so far failed to perform in the position this season, and it could therefore be argued that it is the personnel in this system, not the system itself, that is not working. Havertz simply is not able to perform in the role to the same standard as Xhaka, and that brings the overall cohesion and level of the team down.

Havertz is already low on form and confidence following his disastrous last season in a Chelsea shirt, and being played in a new position in a new system with new teammates will take time to adapt to. But Havertz’s poor performances have had a knock-on effect; Arsenal’s entire left-hand side is suffering.

Last season, the left-hand side trio of Zinchenko at left full-back, Xhaka on the left-side of the midfield three and Martinelli on the left wing all combined to devastating effect, with Zinchenko’s technical ability in building attacks, Xhaka’s non-stop-running and overall clever movement and Martinelli’s directness and willingness to take on his man a key tenet of Arsenal’s attacking prowess.

But, Havertz’s arrival has seemingly changed the dynamic – he is not on the same wavelength as Martinelli, with the two players having run into the same areas during matches and have played passes that have not reached each other, while Havertz has not even shared the pitch with Oleksandr Zinchenko yet. But with Zinchenko’s return to the starting XI imminent, there is hope that Havertz will now settle quicker and he will pick up some form. Zinchenko was key in unleashing both Xhaka and Martinelli last campaign – can he now do the same with Kai Havertz? Until the two have had a sustained run of matches playing together, it is perhaps unfair to judge Havertz just yet after only 3 games.

Is it just the players?

Furthermore, there is also an argument to be made that the system is not the result of Arsenal’s problems, but their problems are of their own doing.

Many times over the previous decade and going even further back, Arsenal have been the architects of their own downfall. For example, Aaron Ramsdale’s pass to Southampton’s Carlos Alcaraz within the first minute of their April clash last season that lead to the then rock-bottom Saints going 1-0 up. It was a game that ended up finishing 3-3 and effectively signalled the end of Arsenal’s title challenge.

Last weekend against Fulham, both of the Cottager’s goals were easily preventable. The first goal came as a result of a poor Saka pass backwards, while casual dawdling on the ball from substitute Zinchenko led to a Fulham corner - poor marking from the resulting corner led to Joao Palhinha’s equaliser. It was all very avoidable, and it is all down to individual errors – not because of a system. For all the talk of systems and profiles, going 1-0 down inside the first minute of a match as a result of a mistake does not help at all, and makes the rest of the match far harder.

But Arsenal have dominated in pretty much all aspects of their three matches so far, which Gunners fans can take confidence in. They have still performed to a high standard despite the changes to the starting XI, and now with the return of such a key player in Oleksandr Zinchenko, we can surely expect to see some much more assured and convincing performances from the Gunners over the coming weeks and months.