A new season has brought a new system for Mikel Arteta, who has made subtle changes to his Arsenal set-up after a summer spend of more than £200 million. The principles remain the same as last year, as do most of the players, but the Arsenal manager has attempted to evolve and develop the structure of his side.
A return of seven points from three games represents a solid start to the new campaign, although there are grumbles within the fanbase that Arsenal are not yet as sharp and creative as they were for much of last season. Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Fulham, in which Arsenal conceded two cheap goals, was a source of major disappointment.
Here, Telegraph Sport analyses the changes that Arteta has made to his team this season, the possible reasons behind those tweaks and whether, after three games, they are working.
A new-look defensive shape
Last season, following Oleksandr Zinchenko’s arrival from Manchester City, Arsenal usually operated with a system in which the left-back tucked into midfield when Arteta’s side had possession. Zinchenko could do so because Ben White, William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes provided a defensive platform behind him.
So far this year, Zinchenko has not been fit enough to play from the start. Arteta has therefore decided to flip the system, and has asked Thomas Partey to play the “Zinchenko role” from the right-hand side, tucking in alongside new signing Declan Rice.
There is a difference, though, in what happens behind Partey when he comes into midfield. Last season, Saliba and Gabriel usually sat in the centre of the pitch as a defensive two. This year, Arsenal are effectively playing with a one-man defence – Saliba – in those moments. White is still pushing down the right wing at times, and the left-back (a different player in each of the three games) is playing wider on the other flank.
The dangers of this were made clear in the opening minute of Saturday’s match against Fulham. Partey pushed into midfield, and White drifted out to the right to help build an attack. At the back, Saliba was alone as the only central defender. When Bukayo Saka lost the ball cheaply, Fulham’s Andreas Pereira ran into an enormous gap in the heart of Arsenal’s defence.
The difference can be seen in Arsenal’s average positions against Fulham this weekend, compared to their average positions in the same fixture in August last year. The two matches were remarkably similar, with Arsenal dominating both occasions.
With continued murmurings of Saudi Arabian interest in Gabriel, the Brazilian’s exclusion from the team has raised eyebrows. Arteta has insisted that it is a tactical decision, though, and there is an obvious logic to it: last season, Gabriel provided the balance when the left-back came into midfield. This year, it is the right-back who comes inside. Arsenal therefore need a different profile of player on the left of their defence.
If this new shape sounds high-risk, it is worth considering that Arsenal have been defensively solid, largely, in their three matches. In their opening games, they have conceded only seven shots on target. They are not lacking control, and the opposition have rarely threatened. Their problem against Fulham was not structural, but rather the foolish errors they made at key defensive moments.
Xhaka out, Havertz in
Kai Havertz, Arsenal’s £65 million signing from Chelsea, has started all three Premier League games in the same position that Granit Xhaka operated in last season, on the left side of the midfield.
Havertz and Xhaka, though, are totally different players. Xhaka, who has been sold to Bayer Leverkusen, had spent most of his career as a defensive midfielder before he was pushed further forward last season, while Havertz has generally played as a forward.
To swap Xhaka for Havertz is a bold and attack-minded move by Arteta. Havertz is theoretically far more comfortable attacking the box and receiving the ball between the lines in the final third, but less experienced when it comes to the defensive side of the game.
It is clear that Arteta has tasked Havertz with making runs into the penalty area, as he did to promising effect in pre-season. What is less clear, though, is Havertz’s role as Arsenal build their attacks. Against Fulham he was simply not involved for much of the game: in his 56 minutes of action, the German had only 28 touches of the ball. In the same fixture last season, Xhaka had 71 touches.
It is a new role in a new team for Havertz and, evidently, it will take some time for him to adapt to Arsenal’s system. He is under increasing pressure to produce an impressive performance, however, as he also appears to have inherited Xhaka’s role as the most divisive player among the fanbase.
Asked if he is confident that Havertz will win over those muttering supporters, Arteta said: “Yes, I think so. I think he’s already done some really good things and on Saturday it was tough for him in certain moments. He got in some great areas again and the ball didn’t arrive. He should have already scored a lot of goals this season and that’s the thing that is missing there.”
Left side blunted
At the club’s training ground, Arsenal’s coaching staff hold “unit meetings” in which, for example, the left side of the team work together to create a collective understanding. Arteta believes in building relationships between players and, last season, Arsenal’s left-hand side was crucial to the structure of their attack.
With Zinchenko starting moves, Xhaka shuttling between boxes and Gabriel Martinelli charging at the opposition right-back, Arsenal had a thrilling balance of speed and control on that side of the pitch.
This year, the left side has not functioned so smoothly. The arrival of Havertz has changed the dynamic, and he is not yet on the same wavelength as Martinelli. There have been times when the two players have attempted to run into each other’s areas, and other moments when passes have not been played where the other wanted.
It has not helped the chemistry on the left side of the pitch that Arsenal have had to play with a different left-back in each of their three matches so far. New signing Jurrien Timber started against Nottingham Forest, but has since suffered a serious knee injury. Takehiro Tomiyasu came in against Crystal Palace, but was sent off. Jakub Kiwior started there on Saturday.
The hope, no doubt, is that the return to fitness of Zinchenko will make all the difference. The Ukraine international helped to unleash Xhaka and Martinelli last season, and Arteta will surely hope he can do the same with Havertz.
When Zinchenko and Fabio Vieira came onto the left-hand side against Fulham, Arsenal were a team transformed. Both of their goals came down that flank, and Zinchenko’s intelligent forward passing helped to pin back Fulham throughout the second half. It feels deeply unfair to judge Havertz until he has had the opportunity to play in front of Zinchenko, and to build a relationship with Martinelli.