From Mikel Arteta’s first Premier League game in charge against Bournemouthin December 2019 to his 100th in the 2-1 win over Fulham on Saturday, the last two and a half years have brought plenty of changes at Arsenal, and it has not always gone smoothly.
Arteta’s figure of 53 wins from his first 100 league games is the second-highest total of any Arsenal manager behind Arsene Wenger’s 54. The Spaniard has also recorded 16 draws and 31 losses. The increase in total points from his first 50 games (75) to his second 50 games (100) is an indicator of how the turbulence surrounding his 12 months or so has given way to clarity.
Arteta had clear ideas at the start of his tenure and these took time to come to fruition, on the pitch and off it.
His ideas around culture off the pitch quickly became clear. He was asked in his first press conference what he wanted to change about the club. He said: “We have to build a culture that has to sustain the rest. If we don’t have the right culture, in difficult moments, the tree is going to shake. So my job is to convince everybody, this is how you’re going to live and if you are going to be part of this organisation it has to be in these terms and in this way.”
The fortunes of Mesut Ozil, Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are the biggest examples of what Arteta and technical director Edu Gaspar called “cleaning the squad”, and that operation has been more strenuous on the pitch.
On the pitch, the manager’s desire to invert his full-backs was clear at the Vitality Stadium in 2019. That day, and in the weeks that followed, Ainsley Maitland-Niles played at right-back and drifted into central areas. The academy graduate was not a certain starter, so that aspect of Arsenal’s play was not consistent but it became so after the arrivals of Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko, who all give Arteta flexibility in those areas.
The now-familiar 4-2-3-1 setup is Arteta’s most common formation and despite there always being an understanding that a 4-3-3 shape was the end goal, he has seen the need to experiment with a three-man defence at times too.
The 3-4-3 was a means to an end during the 2020 FA Cup-winning campaign. Soaking up pressure and catching teams on the break worked well at first, but quickly became stale. With Ozil left out of Premier League and Europa Leaguesquads, Arteta had cut off his nose to spite his face in his first major call as manager.
A lack of creativity made Arsenal one-paced and predictable on the ball. Too easy to play against, this coincided with their worst league run under Arteta as they went seven games without a win — form that may have resulted in a sacking at another club.
If anything, that period was proof Arsenal wanted Arteta for the long haul, which became evident with the three-year deal he signed in May.
Boxing Day 2019 may have been the beginning of this journey, but Boxing Day 2020 arguably holds greater importance. Change was needed and the introduction of Emile Smith Rowe as a No 10 in a 4-2-3-1 proved pivotal. Not only did Arsenal have a link between midfield and attack, but the speed of attacks also grew quicker thanks to Smith Rowe’s ability to move the ball forward with limited touches.
Martin Odegaard’s arrival on loan weeks later helped maintain that creativity. Playing Smith Rowe out to the left, Odegaard in the middle and Bukayo Sakaoff the right as a more technical trio behind a striker was beneficial that year, but Arsenal still had a major reliance on Kieran Tierney flying up the left flank.
That reliance flowed into the 2021-22 season and was particularly evident in the opening-day defeat at Brentford. Tierney was Arsenal’s third-highest positioned player, ending the game with seven “key passes” having received the ball 25 times from Granit Xhaka — the highest pass combination for Arsenal on the night.
Arsenal were caught short by the absences of Aubameyang, White and Alexandre Lacazette through COVID-19 and it was not until the late-summer arrivals of Odegaard (on a permanent deal), Tomiasyu and Aaron Ramsdalethat steps forward were made.
Defensively, the new-look back five of Ramsdale, Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel and Tierney gave Arsenal solidity. That unit also brought a different dimension to Arsenal’s play on the ball, with the team starting attacks from the back.
As with the previous season, however, it was not until the winter that they found a real attacking rhythm.
Until that point, Arteta’s setup occasionally looked more like a 4-4-1-1 (with Lacazette behind Aubameyang up front), with most of the attacking thrust coming from Saka and Smith Rowe out wide. Coinciding with Xhaka’s return from a two-month knee injury alongside Thomas Partey and a stronger foundation to build attacks from the back, the move to a 4-2-3-1, with Odegaard as a No 10, helped Arsenal move the ball much more quickly up the pitch.
That formation quickly morphed into the 4-3-3 we are now seeing, however, with Odegaard operating more as a right-sided No 8 combining with Saka, and Xhaka pushing up on his left.
Sharper and more purposeful passing put them on the front foot in games. As the graphic above below, they were creating the highest-quality chances since Arteta took charge. With their expected goals (xG) climbing beyond 2.0 per game in this period, they were also averaging 14.5 sequences ending in shots — their highest tally since Wenger’s final season as manager in 2017-18.
Another major component of Arsenal’s improvement in 2021-22 was the arrival of set-piece coach Nicolas Jover. The previous season, Arsenal scored just six goals from set-pieces (ranking 17th in the Premier League). That number rose to 16 last season — the third-highest in the league — and so far this season Arsenal are joint-top for set-piece goals with four in four games.
Alongside their efficiency from attacking set pieces, last season they did not concede from a corner until April, providing another vital edge to their game.
Despite these improvements, there were still major setbacks last season. Arsenal won just one league game after conceding the first goal during the whole campaign and that cost them dearly. Aside from their 2-1 win against Wolves in February, it seemed they lacked ideas or the ability to wrestle back control of a game once the opposition went ahead.
These were imperative improvements and, so far, it appears Arsenal are better equipped for these encounters than last year. Arteta’s 100th game against Fulham provided a chance to show that — and they did so, with their change in shape and ability to create good chances before equalising and winning the game.
The performance at Crystal Palace, particularly from William Saliba and White, also showed composure and maturity, which were absent at Selhurst Park in April.
Beyond that, similar to last summer, the signings of Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko have clearly elevated the starting XI. Their quality is obvious and both have transformed how Arsenal play, with more rotation to make Arsenal less predictable in possession as well as providing a more efficient press.
To reach this point, Arteta’s 100 Premier League games in charge of Arsenal have required a lot of heavy lifting.
He overcooked his formula during the early stages when bumps in the road came but, particularly in the last year, his vision has become clearer as the players have become more independent on the pitch.
There are no guarantees this season will go smoothly, but Arsenal have given themselves a strong platform to build from and ensure at least the next 34 of Arteta’s league games show promise.