Three wins in a row give us wings. It is easy to think positive now and there is no doubt that we have something to build on. But what has changed, and what are the positives that could be regarded as structural?
Eight Observations from a glorious week of victories and some excellent football:
- Obviously the biggest change has been our formation: from 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. You may say, ah it is just a change of formation and we are overstating the importance of it, but I would politely disagree. The previous formations isolated the three departments of defence, midfield and attack. As a result these had become almost self-sufficient and it just did not work. The team were focused on making attacking breakthroughs via the wings and opponents had sussed us out – we were just so vertical, one-dimensional in our attacking efforts. There was hardly a way through and as soon as we lost the ball we were very susceptible to counter attacks. Our midfield was often outnumbered, our defence left with too much space and too many opponent players to deal with, and our attackers were outnumbered and poorly fed. Something had to change.
- The beauty of 4-2-3-1 is that we can play like a harmonica: stretch ourselves out safely when we attack and become compact again when we are defending. The large numbers in midfield, effectively four or five, help us to do the ‘harmonica-ing’ effectively. We now have two walls – the two and the three – in midfield and they give us real balance and compactness, supporting both the defence and our sole attacker up-front. I think this really suits Arsenal’s history or, if you want, our DNA; and I think it is important for the team to reconnect with Arsene’s legacy. The idea of two defence minded midfielders and three attack-minded ones behind a sole attacker really seems to be making all the difference now. The ‘Three’ all have good engines and can defend, pass, control the ball and assist and score. The two at the back can also join the attack but their main role is to keep the pressure on behind the attack and deal with any loss of the ball as soon as possible, allowing the attackers to join the midfield and help regain the ball and start the next attack. They also have to cover for the very attack-minded full backs. It really has been both effective and at times very easy on the eye. But most importantly, it has led to a shift towards more efforts by us on target and just one goal conceded in three games. Early days of course but this formation change looks really good.
- In our new formation we have effectively two blocks of players: the block of four and the attacking six. Both interchange with each other depending on what is required. The block of four are the two CBs and the two defensive midfielders, supported by the keeper (often as a sweeper). They are mainly focused on defence but now and again one of the them can get involved in supporting the attack. This is often one of the DMs who is allowed to push forward. Xhaka had that role against the Chavs and Ceballos was our most advanced player v Sam’s Brommers. But the most important thing is that the DMs play mostly in line with each other and form a wall that will not be passed easily. The CBs Holding and Mari have been very effective and so have been Xhaka with either Elneny or Ceballos. There is nothing too fancy about them but they keep the machine running for 90 minutes and make us very solid. A fit again Partey and Gabriel will make the deeper midfield and central defence areas even stronger.
- Moving Saka to the right was a masterstroke by Arteta: it strengthened that side enormously and simultaneously freed up the Tierminator on the left. As a result we now have two wings that function really well. Auba/Martinelli work well with Tierney and Hector is working well with Saka. Bukayo is much more two-footed than I thought he was and what a revelation he has been on the right, with beautiful passes, goals and an assist to his name over the last three games. And the same goes for Tierney on the left who has been simply brilliant over the last few games. Paradoxically, but taking away the wing positions in the classical 4-3-3 formation as well as in the 3-4-3 positions, we have actually got much better wing-play now.
- The young players have taken their chances with both feet and thus reinvigorated our game. Arteta cleverly placed them in the ‘Three’ together and they have enjoyed themselves tremendously. The experienced players just could not find form and so mixing it up was a clever move by Arteta. Martinelli, ESR, Tierney, Saka, Bellerin and Laca are really thriving in this new system, but it is the youth revolution that has made such a big difference. We now have a Wall of Wolves hunting down the opposition and cleverly combining to break through the opposition’s defensive walls. Especially the (re)introduction of both Martinelli and ESR have given the team the much needed spark.
- This change of system is making some early victims. Auba, a pure panther of an attacker, is finding it hard to find his feet in the wolves-pack. His natural instinct to )wait for the ideal moment to kill and then pounce is being compromised by the need to work with the other wolves and supporting his buddies on the left side of attack. I think he will come good again, but it is a challenge for him no doubt about it. Pepe may find it really hard to get into this team and Saka’s recent move to the right is his worst nightmare. I am less positive about his ability to force himself back into the team; maybe he can be the sole CF but competition for this role is stiff. Willian too will have to work hard to get back into the team but as he can play in any of the ‘Three’ positions I am less worried about him. Furthermore, Eddie also has to be careful not to miss the boat now. In fact, all young players have all of a sudden a clear idea of what is required of them in order to make it at Arsenal. This may be frightening for some and especially those close to making it into the first team – AMN, Willock, Nelson, Ceballos – will know that the next five months could well be decisive for their careers at Arsenal. The next lot of talented youngsters may just be able to grab one or more chances, and this will be exciting to watch.
- Laca has started to score goals again and it really looks like this new system has given him a new lease of life. Three goals in 1.5 games is very impressive but it is his enthusiasm and connection with the attacking midfielders which has been especially good to see. Laca is on fire again and the big question is who of the young players can stand in for him if and when he cannot play? Is this a chance for Balogun or Molder to make a claim or is it a role that would also work for Eddie?
- Arteta deserves a lot of credit. He took a lot of stick but he has found a way to make our team play really good, often beautiful, football using the players much more effectively than before. Was he forced by circumstances like Allezkev has been suggesting? Did he get some tips from his former master Pep after the humbling League cup defeat? Or did he have a Eureka-moment all on his own? Whatever it was Mikel had to implement it, and boy have we seen change of fortunes in the last week!