Arteta’s Got to Do Something: Time for 4-2-3-1?

It is time to consider experimenting

While Einstein in fact never said that „the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different outcomes”, I would still argue that if you want different results than what you’re getting, you have to try different approaches.

I am not a seasoned football manager (as long as video games don’t count), so my opinion is strictly hypothetical. But I am positive that football is similar to chess or table-tennis in a way that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, and if you approach every challenge in the same manner you are in for a lot of – avoidable – disappointments.

As in table-tennis you play differently against an attacking player compared to someone else with a defensive style, and in chess you might follow different strategy against an opponent who is very experienced in opening play but less familiar with endgames than an opponent who plays quick, intuitive moves but are vulnerable to sudden sacrifices; it seems similarly self-evident that you play differently when you visit Anfield/Old-Trafford than when you host Aston Villa or West Ham.

It is not just about tactics. It is about priorities, possession, players and formation. Elneny might be a more useful asset (I hope there is no disrespect in the term in English, I have no such intention) than Xhaka, when it comes to break up counterattacks, but the latter would be my preferred choice when looking for defense-splitting passes against an opponent parking the bus. Against a team who seldom possesses the ball it might make sense to sacrifice a defender to have another body in the attacking third, but against a superior opponent the other way around could be more reasonable and trying to score from quick counterattacks and set pieces. While the trend of the XXI century that everybody has to defend, when the opponent is not interested in maximizing ball possession, we might involve a creative player who is less famous about his defensive contributions but has the capability of creating a handful of chances with sharp key passes and pinpoint crosses.

Hence my conclusion: a great manager must make his team ‘fluent’ in 3-4 different formations and playing styles! It will make it more difficult to predict his next line-up and strategy, furthermore it makes it easier to make substantial change during a game in the case when the opposing coach managed to predict the formation and found the effective countermeasures. Unless we dominate and win most of our games, there will be situations where Arsenal needs a game-changing substitution beyond the Willian-Pepe or Lacazette-Nketiah swaps.

Here comes the trap: if you agree with me so far there is a connotation. There should and will not be such thing as ‘Arteta’s system’ or Southgate’s system’. There could (and probably should) be his preferred playing style, but not being able to deviate from it – and not having enough experience in the alternatives – is a weakness. When after 25 minutes the opponent is leading by 2 goals, then it is a different game, and you might want to change formation before the 70th minute…

Coming back to TA’s previous topic, my intuitive viewpoint would be that both Arsenal and England have the right ingredients (players, backroom staff, facilities). It doesn’t make sense to replace half the squad when the opponent predicts your play and spoils your plans. Many of the people who were celebrating when we signed Willian are already demanding to sell/bench/release him. Which is obviously premature and unnecessary. As TA argued convincingly in August he can play as an AM, in a similar position as Fernandes for MU. But our belief means nothing as long as there is no data/evidence that supports or disproves it. Nevertheless I am confident we have the players to field a strong 4-2-3-1 team, without major compromises or having to spend 100+ millions in the next transfer window.

Formation A:






Formation B:






(Luiz and Ozil were excluded for their age/future, Sokratis, Mustafi and Kolasinac assumed to leave Arsenal in the January transfer window, no arrival is taken for granted. We have Macey/Hein, Saliba, Smith-Rowe, Willock, Balogun for the bench who didn’t appear in either formations.)

Don’t take me wrong, I am far from insisting that these line-ups above are the long term solutions of our problems (in fact, believing that there is a single formation solving all our problems would go against everything I wrote already). But the notion ’there is no place for an AM in Arteta’s system’ is no longer an excuse, as in Arteta’s system we have lost as many games as we have won (with a negative goal difference). I would like to see winning more games, and – with my admittedly limited managing experience – I don’t see any other way than experimenting. Maybe with an AM, or maybe with an entirely different approach. We probably don’t have to start experimenting against Leeds on the road, but we have the cup ties when playing imperfectly would be balanced by the squad quality. So at the end of the day the squad could get experience in different formations and tactics before they are thrown into the water on the deep end of the pool (Hungarian phrase, I hope its meaning is clear).

Arteta has my utmost trust and full support (maybe not ’ unreservedly’ as TA recommended, but not far off). Yet when he takes full responsibility for the big home defeat and the lethargic play against Aston Villa, I’m not feeling completely at ease. Admitting responsibility means that losing is not mostly the players’ fault and that Arteta is an honest and good guy. My problem is that WE ALREADY KNEW that he is a nice guy, and that the same team was already capable of defeating MU at Old Trafford.

What I would like to be reassured about is that he understands what went wrong – what mistakes he made – and he will not repeat them in the future. There are plenty other mistakes yet to be made. And with most of them I’ll be comfortable with, but the number of ’mea culpa’ cards in the deck is limited.

I’m not sure there is a way to defeat Liverpool at Anfield or Manchester City at the Etihad. But I’m pretty confident that there are many ways to win against Aston Villa in the Emirates stadium. So it is time to start exploring them. Maybe by experimenting with attacking midfielders. Or by something completely different…

By PBarany

24 thoughts on “Arteta’s Got to Do Something: Time for 4-2-3-1?

  • Thanks for the well written post, PB. I think Arteta will be planning to do things differently, but he will take his time as he is focussed more on players understanding their role(s) and responsibilities at the moment rather than the system side of things. Van Gaal, Guardiola and Klopp have all done this before him and it takes time.

    There is an argument to change formation etc to deal with every opponent appropriately and there is one for believing in your own strength and having a robust system that will overcome most teams by just sticking to your guns. I think Arteta is a system player in similar to the other managers mentioned, and so he will take his time.

    Having said that, you are spot on about adding a player to the centre of midfield, especially if we are going to four at the back. So Willian in the nr10 position or on the right side of midfield (in a flat line 4-3-3) could make a big difference in the way we control the game, both at the back and the front. It is also important to play ball-confident attackers on the wings, as I witnessed again whilst watching the Oranje strut their stuff over the last two weeks. This may actually be our biggest problem at the moment, and it is something HH has alluded too in previous posts.

    I am more excited about Martinelli and Nelson on the wings than Auba and Pepe. Key for me is that Arteta:
    A) plays three in midfield: Xhaka-Partey and one of Ceballos, Willock or Willian;
    B) plays ball confident wingers with ‘an individual action’ to get past players and excellent passers
    C) dares to allow the team to push up and have fast/clever midfielders and defenders to deal with turnovers, counter-attacks etc

    So, if I use my ideal team cap for a 4-2-3-1 (4-3-3) formation (and I don’t think we can afford to play without 3 at the back with Luiz in the centre this season), I’d go for:


    Either Willock or Partey could play a lot in the nr10 position and connect with Auba regularly. I would use Willock as he has the engine and athleticism to play the ‘Klaassen or Wijnaldum’ role, but either Willian or Ceballos, or indeed ESR when fit, could do this too).

    Partey = Wijnaldum
    Xhaka = F de Jong
    Willock = Klaasen
    Saka = Malen
    Auba = Depay
    Willian = Berghuis

  • Please find the latest team news update from our medical team ahead of Sunday’s match against Leeds United.

    Updates since last match:

    Mohamed Elneny
    Tested positive for Covid-19 while on international duty with Egypt.
    Mo is asymptomatic and following protocols ahead of returning to training. He is unavailable for this weekend’s fixture.

    Sead Kolasinac
    Tested positive for Covid-19 while on international duty with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
    Sead is also currently asymptomatic and following protocols ahead of returning to training. He is unavailable for this weekend’s fixture.

    Thomas Partey
    Left thigh. Thomas was replaced at half time during the match against Aston Villa and has sustained a strain to his left thigh.
    Continues to be assessed, will not be available for this weekend’s match and will continue his rehabilitation.

    Continued status on longer-term injuries:

    Pablo Mari
    Left ankle. Sustained significant sprain to ankle ligaments during Manchester City (a) on June 17.
    Pablo has progressed very well and is now integrating into full training.

    Gabriel Martinelli
    Left knee. Sustained injury during training on June 21.
    Gabi has also progressed very well is working well in group sessions and aims to integrate into squad sessions over the next two weeks.

    As part of Premier League protocol, all members of our first team squad and support staff continue to be regularly tested for COVID-19.

    Copyright 2020 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to as the source.

  • Great post PB!
    While I mostly agree with your thoughts, my impression of the Villa game was how strangely slow we seemed in that game. Not sure if there was something in the pre-game preps or overthinking (or if Grealish-Barkely just kicked up a gear that we were not fully prepared for). If this was at the heart of it, changes in formation may not help much. If it was due to one person slowing down our game, then certainly replacing that individual will help. But it wasn’t clear to me that there was a single individual who cost us that game. Hopefully it’s just “one of those days”. And that our prep for Leeds gets us to come out of the gates quicker. Certainly looks to be a tough game given their form.

  • Wow. Some interesting bits (I’d not read elsewhere) from a David Ornstein piece in The Athletic–
    The lede graphs:
    “The international break proved challenging for many clubs, not least Arsenal. Mohamed Elneny and Sead Kolasinac tested positive for COVID-19, several players were used by their countries more than the Gunners would have liked, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang slept on the floor of an airport and Willian courted controversy with a trip to Dubai despite the national lockdown.

    But for all the problems that occurred further afield, there have also been complications on their doorstep. Arsenal fell to a heavy defeat by Aston Villa in their final game before the pause in Premier League fixtures and it appears that tensions spilled into training the following week.

    Those who were not away with their national sides took part in a practice match last Friday and The Athletic has learned that as manager Mikel Arteta blew the final whistle, David Luiz took exception to a challenge by Dani Ceballos and retaliated by hitting him in the face, a scratch drawing blood.”

    Boring, boring Arsenal?


  • Interesting to see Omari Hutchison on the bench, first time for the lad in the U23’s…

    Two clean sheets on the trot.
    Another red card, third of this season, fortunately not costly this time.

  • Nikolaj Moller: Arsenal’s ‘super talent’ hailed as the next Ibrahimovic
    Arsenal Correspondent6 hours ago

    Given the nature of Thomas Partey’s arrival in the final hours of the summer transfer window, it is perhaps understandable that Arsenal’s capture of Nikolaj Moller on the same day failed to generate many headlines.

    The 18-year-old striker had been brought in from Malmo for a fee of around £500,000 and was immediately earmarked as a player who would link up with Steve Bould’s Under-23s squad.

    Moller was viewed as one for the future, the latest in a string of foreign additions during the summer designed to bolster Bould’s options at a time when many of his players were being sent out on loan.

    But wind the clock forward a couple of months and the towering 6’4″ Swedish teenager is busy ensuring that those who did not take much notice of his summer arrival are doing so now.

    It took Moller just six minutes to make his mark for the Gunners, scoring on his debut for the U23s against Manchester City. He now has three goals and an assist in his first three Premier League 2 games for Bould’s side, and his performances are attracting more and more attention.

    “We’ve had a lot of people from other clubs say ‘bloody hell, how did we miss him?’,” a senior figure within Arsenal’s academy told Goal.

    “He’s a very good player. He’s made a big impact already.”

    Moller was born in Helsingborg, a city which sits about 40 miles north of Malmo, and was first spotted by Sweden’s most successful club as an 11-year-old during the Helsingborgsklubben Ramlosa Sodra summer academy.

    The week-long summer school was run by Robin Asterhed, who now works for FC Copenhagen, but who at the time was a youth coach at Malmo.

    “We had a lot of players during that week and the standard was quite poor, so Nikolaj really stood out in that environment,” Asterhed tells Goal.

    “He was really quick and his technical skills were on a totally different level compared to everyone else.

    “He was pure quality in every sense when compared to the general player that week. You didn’t need a good scouting eye to see.”

    Moller eventually joined Malmo at 13, and was soon part of one of the club’s most successful age groups.

    A growth spurt, however, brought about some injury problems which caused him to miss a lot of football until he turned 16, when he would again link up with Asterhed – who was in charge of Malmo’s U17s side.

    “Niko was a year younger than the rest of the players in his age group, but his potential meant he was always one of the guys who was most ahead in terms of his development,” Asterhed recalls.

    “His control of the ball, his touch, his finishing. He could handle the ball under pressure, in tough situations at quite a high tempo. Having all this, plus having his size, it really helped him stand out.”

    And Moller did stand out, so much so that Bologna came calling.

    The Italian side spotted the young striker during a summer tournament in 2018 and convinced him that a move the following year would be right for his career.

    Moller impressed during his short time in Italy, and soon became known as ‘Ibra’ due to similarities with fellow Swede, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

    Bologna wanted him to stay and sign a professional contract, but the teenager opted to head home – returning to Malmo in January 2020 with the aim of breaking into the first team.

    He was soon a regular in the first-team training sessions and a debut looked certain, until Arsenal arrived on the scene.

    Gunners scouts had been scouring Europe for a striker and had been alerted to Moller’s potential. After watching him in action, the north London club made their move.

    The transfer was wrapped up swiftly, with Moller signing a contract until 2024, a deal which includes an option of a further year.

    His mother joined him in London for a few days when he first signed, but he is now living on his own in a flat close to Arsenal’s London Colney training centre.

    Given how his move came about and the speed in which it was done, the teenager could have been forgiven for taking his time to settle into his new surroundings – but he has done the exact opposite.

    The ease in which he has adapted has even surprised coaching staff at Arsenal, and last week Mikel Arteta rewarded him by calling him up to train with the first team while some of his players were away on international duty.

    “That was quite big news in Sweden,” says Asterhed. “The excitement of his talent is definitely growing.

    “If you break out all the qualities that a striker requires, Niko has them.

    “When he gets a really hard, high pass, he can bring it in at quite high speeds. He can dribble, and when he has the opportunity to finish, he can do that as he has the quality to hit the ball really well. So if you bring all those skills together, he’s a super talent.

    “The thing that I think about him is when it comes to a higher level when the space is smaller and everything goes faster, he still has something to develop to connect all those skills together and produce them in the game. He still needs to work on that.”

    Asterhed adds: “Nico has the quality to play at a really high level.

    “In some ways, he’s like [Nwankwo] Kanu. Maybe he doesn’t dribble as much as Kanu, but he has the ability to do that.

    “The Ibra comparisons, I think, are mostly because of his time in Italy. But there are some similarities with a young Ibra, definitely.

    “I think what sets them apart is the relentless pursuit of winning of Ibra. That decisiveness is not Nico’s strength at this point.”

    Moller has yet to make a senior squad since his move from Malmo in the summer, but will be eyeing the final games of the Europa League group stage as an opportunity to make his first-team bow.

    Victory for Arteta’s side in Molde on November 26 will secure qualification for the knockout rounds with two matches to spare, with the Arsenal boss expected to give several youngsters the chance to impress in the remaining games against Rapid Vienna and Dundalk should that be the case.

    Moller’s early-season form will ensure he is at the front of the queue, and few would bet against the striker making an immediate impact given the impressive way he has adjusted to life in England.

    The Swedish teenager may have had to play second fiddle to headline act Partey on deadline day, but he has been writing his own story at Arsenal from the moment he walked through the door.

  • HiTotal, yeah I’m trying not to overhype the boy but he really looks the real deal in terms of what he offers our attack, we are a tad pedestrian with our build up so the option to go long to somebody who can control an awkward long pass under pressure but who is also mobile is very encouraging to me and totally changes the variety of threat our attack could offer.

  • I think it’s a case of the old gang Total, that is Xhaka and Ceballos, unless Willock comes into the equation or maybe even Niles?

  • Yeah Kev, Arteta will have to think about this as I fear that the XhakA / Ceballos combo would not be strong enough V Leeds. Involving Ainsley may be a good shout.

  • Kev, thanks for the article and I agree with you and TA about Xhaka. Arteta may use him just because he’s the obvious in line, but this is exactly the kind of game that I used to always point out is the worst matchup for Xhaka, energetic pressing teams. I still want to see Ainsley tried out in midfield. I dont think it would go very wrong because he at least has strong defensive attitude to go with his overall talent.

    Also, St. Henry, it was my impression exactly about our low energy against the villains. I think I said we looked in a malaise. Though I also use that term for our attack in general lately.

  • Spurs looked very good and deserved their win they have a great balance between attacking and defending. Their counter attacking is so deadly at the moment with Kane putting in some nice assists.

  • Makayah, I have to concur about Tottenham. Levy outfoxed us. Fired Poch quickly as the Emery situation was falling apart. Mourinho was dying to come to Arsenal.

    Even at that time, I believed he’s a negative coach tactically and overall, though I still wanted him, to see what he could do with us. Even though I hate to admit it, the way he has the scum playing is better and more expansive than Pochettino, who the media loved. Poch team was overly defensive, and serial foul machines. Mouh is motivating the players and keeping them hungry even without his normal huge budget.

    I hate them and him, but I always give credit where due. We can only hope that their players will grow sick of him as his squads usually do, but for now, he seems somewhat reformed in his cretinous behavior. Almost likeable!

  • The thing is Arsenal was a much bigger job in terms of reversing the slide sand I am still bullish on Arteta so I can only hope they don’t win the league lol. Levy has also done a fantastic job with recruiting players and holding on to players while opening a bra and new stadium. They have done much better than we did with our stadium in terms of how we struggled on the pitch and with this pandemic climate.

    We often used to hear how the spending of Man City and Chelsea changed the landscape for us but Spurs are up against those 2 and increased competition from Leicester and Wolves not to mention an underachieving but cash rich Man U. I am happy Mou didn’t come here though given his rivalry with Wenger but more power to him for the job he has done so far after his stock fell considerably at his last 2 stops.

  • Well I thought Citeh were the much better team but were unlucky to concede so early and then with their chances. The Spuddies always have a good period when it is dark and dingy and then they mess it up again when the sun starts to shine again… Keep the faith! 🙂

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