The retirement of Arsene Wenger in May 2018 prompted the dawn of a new era for Arsenal Football Club. Spaniard Unai Emery was hired as the successor of “Le Professeur,” and was expected to continue many of the traditions Wenger instilled at the club while also help to restore the winning mentality that had begun to wither in the Frenchmen’s final years.
To put it kindly, he utterly failed.
In his sole full season as Arsenal manager in 2018/19, not only did Emery fail to make the Top Four, but a strong Europa League campaign ended in an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to London rivals Chelsea in the final. The fast, fluid football that had come to be expected under Wenger deteriorated as quick as he departed. While Wenger encouraged his team to play with freedom, Emery placed an overarching emphasis on the opposition, and set up his side to stifle teams rather than expose them. The results were clear: In Wenger’s final (and arguably worst) season, Arsenal produced a shot difference of +170. Just a year later, Emery’s Arsenal faced a difference of -32. The team was not only creating less chances, but conceding more.
Emery’s time, and the fans’ patience with him, ran dry at the end of November of this season. A string of poor results led to his sacking, and after a brief period of Freddie Ljungberg as interim head coach, Mikel Arteta was appointed as the new manager on a full-time basis on December 20th. Signed as a player on the infamous 2011 deadline day by Arsene Wenger, Arteta spent his remaining playing days at the club before retiring in 2016. His coaching potential was swiftly spotted by Pep Guardiola, who brought him under his tutelage at Manchester City as an assistant coach.
Arteta’s appointment was seen as a gamble by many, but one the Arsenal hierarchy felt was worth the risk. The club believed they needed a young, inspired coach who was prepared to devote himself to a long-term project. The squad consists of both a very young core, but also a huge amount of deadwood — players who eventually need to be moved on as the club progresses and betters over the coming years. The Arsenal board felt Arteta was the perfect man for the job — three years learning his trade under Pep and a string of endorsements and words of praise from both City players and Guardiola himself solidified their beliefs. It was a sign of Arsenal’s confidence in Arteta that they were willing to hire a man that had never before managed a professional game.
So far, it seems as though the appointment of Arteta was the correct decision. One may disagree looking at the results since he took over at the helm, but the improvements go far beyond the scorelines. Since his appointment, the Gunners have won four, drawn five, and lost one in the Premier League while reaching the FA Cup Quarter Finals in the process, with the one obvious disappointment being their Europa League exit. The suspension of football came at an inconvenient time for the team, who had begun to string an encouraging run of results together, including three Premier League wins on the trot.
The largest marks of improvement, however, is both the way Arteta has got his team playing and the noticeable improved squad environment. Not only is the team chemistry markedly better, but the Spaniard has been quick to instill his style of football into the side. As evident on matchdays, Arteta has deployed a five man attack, with the shape behind altering depending on the personnel. Defensively set up in a 4-2-3-1, the team’s shape changes drastically when they spring forward. In Arteta’s first few matches in charge, the team formed a 3-2-5 formation in attack. Utilizing Bukayo Saka’s offensive prowess on the left hand side, Granit Xhaka moved from his accustomed left central midfield role to the left center back role, allowing Saka to push further forward. Aubameyang, deployed defensively in the left-wing position, drifted inside into a left forward position when Saka joined the attack. The central attacking midfield position, deputized by Mesut Ozil since Arteta’s appointment, drifted to the right-hand side alongside the right-winger to form an overload. Arteta’s vision was apparent from the off, with his idea of the ideal shape of his attack clear to see in his first game in charge at Bournemouth:
Ainsley Maitland-Niles, the right back during this game, moved inside to form a midfield pair with Lucas Torreira, while Saka, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ozil, and Nelson were given license to cause mayhem ahead of them, and the trio of Xhaka, Luiz, and Sokratis formed the defensive line.
Arteta’s willingness and capability to modify his side’s shape depending on his player selection became evident when Hector Bellerin fully recovered from his injury, marking his comeback with a sweet left-footed strike against Chelsea in January. Since his return to the side, Arteta’s shape behind the front five has altered. Xhaka now covers Saka in the left back role, while Luiz, Mustafi, and Bellerin complete the back four. Torreira, or more commonly Dani Ceballos shifts more centrally and acts as a lone central midfielder. Although Bellerin has become more reserved in his ventures forward, him doing so has allowed the front five to thrive while still retaining the teams defensive solidarity and lack of susceptibility to the counter-attack. The team, since Bellerin’s return, has shaped up more like this when attacking:
Although the side’s goal threat was not substantially improved in the teams first few games under Arteta, it was clear he was initially aiming to improve the defensive structure. He quickly implemented a well-organized high press, a stark contrast from the disjointed structure that existed under Emery. In his first nine games in charge, the team only conceded eight goals. In the nine games prior, the team conceded 16. Once he established his ideal defensive shape, he was able to work on the team’s attack, and it has showed: Arsenal are scoring an average of 1.78 goals per game, a marked improvement from pre-Arteta, where it stood at just 1.26 goals per game.
The signs are there — Arsenal are improving under Mikel Arteta. A rebuild of this magnitude was never going to happen overnight; in fact, Arteta has made drastic changes faster than even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans would have imagined. The team has clearly begun to find an identity once again, and the players’ belief and self-confidence has evidently risen. This summer will prove to be integral in order to advance Arteta’s plans for this squad and Arsenal’s future. Here are some things I believe should be done to help achieve his aims:
Continue to Promote The Young Core
If there is one thing that Emery can be praised for during his time at Arsenal, it would be his willingness and bravery to promote youth into the first-team squad. Last season, players such as Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock became fairly common fixtures in the side, despite their young age and lack of top-flight first team football. There is no denying that Arsenal have a plethora of young talent, and Arteta has clearly noticed that. He too has not been afraid to use the youthful options in his squad, with the likes of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, and the two aforementioned players all getting numerous opportunities in the past few months. It is vital that Arteta continues to promote Arsenal’s young core. He will also have new signing William Saliba, Emile Smith-Rowe, and a hopefully fully-fit Kieran Tierney (still just 22) at his disposal next season to add to this group. Giving these players first-team opportunities now will be integral for their development, and building parts of his team around these players will be extremely beneficial in the long-run. Establishing a core group of players will help to create a side capable of challenging for higher honors in the near future.
Do Everything in His Power to Keep Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the Club
There really doesn’t need to be much said about this. Our captain, our goalscorer, our best player. Argue it as much as you want, the man is in the form of his career and is vital to Arteta’s plans if this team is to progress in the coming years. It is clear to see why he may be enticed by the opportunity to move elsewhere — the promise of potential silverware may be more realistic at other clubs. However, if Arteta can convince him to be the leader of this next generation of players and this new era of Arsenal, he may decide to sign that contract. If he stays, and helps to rebuild this new Arsenal, he will become a true club legend. SIGN DA TING, Pierre!
Sell as Much of the Deadwood as He Can
There is no denying that much of the current squad lacks the quality to be an “Arsenal player.” There are still too many members of the first-team squad not up to the required standard, raking in massive wages while continuing to underperform for the club. Arteta must try to move on some of these players and recoup a decent price for them. This may have become more difficult in light of the current coronavirus situation, but some players will interest other clubs. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mohamed Elneny have both enjoyed fairly successful loan spells, and thus may be pursued by their loan clubs in a permanent deal. Other players such as Sokratis and Mustafi may be surplus to requirements, too. Arteta might have to make some tough decisions — he may have to move on some players in order to finance other desired transfers. The likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Sead Kolasinac, Rob Holding, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and even Mesut Ozil (I think he should stay, more on that soon) have all been rumored to be sacrificed in order to begin this rebuild. Expect a massive overhaul of the club this summer.
Bring in Young, Hungry, First-Team Quality Additions!
Arsenal do not seem to be in a financial position to make hugely expensive transfers this summer. At most, they probably have the funds to make just one marquee signing. It is key that Arteta identifies the areas of the squad that needs most improvement now and targets suitable players in those positions. It has been reported that Arteta has told the board he needs a Center Back, a Holding Midfielder, and a Attacking player. I would agree that those are Arsenal’s main priorities. Depending on who else leaves the club (the likes of Aubameyang, Torreira, and Bellerin are all rumored to have potential suitors) other reinforcements must be brought in. I think an Attacking Midfielder will become a bigger priority at the end of next season, but in the meantime, Arteta still has Mesut Ozil, Joe Willock, and Emile Smith-Rowe at his disposal. He must be selective about what reinforcements he needs, and at the moment, that position is not a priority. Arteta must be savvy in the market and promote his long-term vision to potential targets. See the below Twitter thread on potential Arsenal transfer targets for more info on this!
A Long Way to Go, But an Exciting Future
The Arteta era may have only just begun, but Arsenal fans should be encouraged and excited by the drastic changes he has made in such a short span of time at the helm. The coming summer will prove to be integral in continuing what he has started, and fans should expect huge alterations throughout the club. Be excited and get behind the manager, no matter what happens. Up The Arsenal!