It was clear after the 2-2 draw to Crystal Palace that despite recent wins against Norwich, Burnley and Tottenham, something still wasn’t quite right with Mikel Arteta’s tactical setup.
For the majority of the season, the Arsenal boss has decided to alternate between a 4-2-3-1 or a
4-3-3 system, with a double pivot of Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka/Albert Sambi Lokonga, or a single pivot with Partey in the middle and Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith-Rowe on either side.
Most Arsenal fans would admit that before the Palace game there had only been one excellent performance from the Gunners this season, which was against Spurs. In that game, Arteta played a 4-2-3-1, with Partey next to Xhaka in the pivot, much to some Arsenal fans’ dismay. However, after 45 minutes, Arteta (and Xhaka) had silenced the doubters with an excellent showing. Somewhat ironically, however, Xhaka picked up a bad injury in the second half, leaving the question; who replaces him?
Initially, Arteta opted for a straight swap, bringing in Lokongba against Brighton. However, the shortcomings of this option were immediately apparent, with Brighton dominating most of the game, and were unlucky not to come away with a win. Seemingly in response to this, the Arsenal boss decided to change it up against Palace, starting in the previously described 4-3-3, with a midfield of Partey, Odegaard and Smith-Rowe.
Once again, though, this didn’t seem to have the desired effect, with Partey being left alone to transition the ball from defence to attack. The 4-3-3 also meant that Bukayo Saka, whom many consider to be Arsenal’s most important player, started on the left-hand side of midfield, where he is clearly muted when compared to his performances at right-wing.
On top of this, Smith-Rowe was mostly positioned slightly off-center towards the right, despite a lot of his best moments in an Arsenal shirt coming when he is playing more on the left. In the first half, Arsenal lead 1-0 after an admittedly nice team goal through Nicolas Pepe, but they struggled creatively and 80% of their first-half xG came from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal.
A Saka injury at half-time forced Arteta into returning to the 4-2-3-1 used previously against Brighton, bringing on Lokonga. This was when its shortcomings were exploited by Palace, who pressed very high with numbers, and forced multiple errors from Partey and Lokonga, two of which led directly to both Palace goals.
The Gunners scraped a draw through a 95th-minute goal from Alexandre Lacazette, who only had 50 minutes in the Premier League prior to this. Lacazette made a notable difference as soon as he was subbed on, pressing well, and linking up with Aubameyang to create some much-needed openings.
So, going into the Villa game, Arteta had some decisions to make, namely, should he persist with the 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 or go with something different, and how does Lacazette fit into the equation? Since the signing of Aubameyang, Arsenal bosses have tried, and often failed, to play both the Gabon international Aubameyang and Lacazette together. Their chemistry is clear, and their link-up play can be devastating, something that Unai Emery exploited to its maximum in the 18/19 season.
However, it comes at a cost, with a two-striker system often leaving the rest of the team unbalanced, or with Aubameyang, who for a time was clearly Arsenal’s best player, being forced out onto the left-wing. In recent seasons Lacazette has played more like a false 9, dropping much deeper and seeking to get more involved in build-up play. And, as such, Arteta decided to take a bit of a gamble, and play what was essentially a 4-4-2 system, with Lacazette and Aubameyang both starting upfront.
The benefits of this system change were soon felt; Arsenal won the game 3-1 and dominated the majority of the game. Lacazette’s impact was felt through his energetic pressing and link-up play throughout, winning 80% of his ground duels, and making 2 key passes. He often dropped deeper into midfield, with the villa defence unsure whether to follow him or not, and the space he created and occupied by doing this really helped Arsenal play through the lines effectively.
He also won the penalty on the stroke of halftime, and would have contributed to another goal had it not been ruled out by a questionable foul decision. Although this change in system was perhaps designed to get the best out of Lacazette, Aubameyang seemed to benefit from it most, picking up a goal and assist.
So what next for Arteta’s Arsenal?
If Lacazette and Aubameyang can continue to rediscover their old form, Arsenal fans can look forward with optimism. Going into the season, many fans identified a key target in the transfer market as a new striker, who can link up play, press effectively and score goals.
However, in the form of Aubameyang and Lacazette, we already have strikers that can do those things and more. Additionally, if Arteta has found a system that is effective without Xhaka in midfield, that bodes well for both the long-term and immediate future, especially given the longevity of Xhaka’s injury.
However, in typical Arsenal style, Xhaka’s return coincides with the start of AFCON, which will create a whole new set of headaches for Arteta, as he will be missing Partey, Aubameyang, and other key players for nearly two months.
Overall, with an in-form strike partnership and a seemingly balanced midfield, Arsenal should hope to keep up the good form against Leicester and Watford, and while the trip to Anfield isn’t looking too appealing, there are many more winnable matches in the run-up to Christmas.
Arteta has never really seemed to know his strongest XI, or his preferred system, but he seems to be settling on a favourite, and if the players can keep up form and fitness, who knows, maybe Arsenal will find themselves in the top four fight come the end of the season.