From Mikel Arteta’s first Premier League game in charge against Bournemouth in December 2019 to his 100th in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Fulham, the last two and a half years have seen many changes at Arsenal and it hasn’t always been smooth.
Arteta’s tally of 53 wins from his first 100 league games is the second-highest total for any Arsenal manager behind Arsene Wenger’s 54. The Spaniard has also recorded 16 draws and 31 defeats. The rise in total points from his first 50 games (75) to his second 50 games (100) is an indication of how the turmoil surrounding his 12-month period has given way to clarity.
Arteta had clear ideas early in his tenure and it took some time for them to materialize on and off the pitch.
His ideas about culture off the pitch quickly became clear. He was asked in his first press conference what he wanted to change at the club. He said: “We have to build a culture that has to sustain the rest. If we don’t have the right culture, the tree will shake in difficult moments. So my job is to convince everyone that this is how you will live, and if you want to be part of this organization, it has to be like this.”
The fortunes of Mesut Özil, Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are the greatest examples of what Arteta and technical director Edu Gaspar described as a ‘cleansing of the squad’ and this operation was more tiring on the pitch.
On the pitch, the manager’s desire to turn his full-backs was evident at Vitality Stadium in 2019. On that day and in the weeks that followed, Ainsley Maitland-Niles played at right-back, drifting into the central areas. The academy graduate wasn’t a specific starter so that aspect of Arsenal’s game wasn’t consistent, but it became so after the arrival of Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko, all of whom give Arteta flexibility in these areas.
The now-familiar 4-2-3-1 setup is Arteta’s most common formation, and while always recognizing that a 4-3-3 form was the ultimate goal, he saw the need to start with a three- Experiment man defenses sometimes too.
The 3-4-3 was a means to an end during the campaign to win the 2020 FA Cup. Equalizing pressure and teams catching up at the break worked well at first but quickly became stale. With Ozil left out of Premier League and Europa League squads, Arteta had his nose cut off on his first big call as manager to tease his face.
A lack of creativity made Arsenal quick and predictable on the ball. Playing too easily, this coincided with their worst league run under Arteta as they went seven games without a win – a form that may have led to a sacking at another club.
If anything, that period was evidence Arsenal wanted Arteta for the long haul, which was made clear with the three-year deal he signed in May.
Boxing Day 2019 may have been the start of this journey, but Boxing Day 2020 arguably has greater significance. Changes were needed and the introduction of Emile Smith Rowe as number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 proved crucial. Not only did Arsenal have a connection between midfield and attack, but attacking speed became quicker thanks to Smith Rowe’s ability to move the ball forward with limited touches.
Martin Odegaard’s loan weeks later helped keep that creativity alive. Playing Smith Rowe on the left, Odegaard in the middle and Bukayo Saka on the right as a more technical trio behind a forward was an advantage this year, but Arsenal still relied heavily on Kieran Tierney flying up the left flank .
That confidence bled into the 2021/22 season and was particularly evident in the opening day defeat at Brentford. Tierney was Arsenal’s third-placed player and finished the game with seven ‘key passes’ after receiving the ball 25 times from Granit Xhaka – Arsenal’s highest passing combination that night.
Arsenal were caught off guard by the absence of Aubameyang, White and Alexandre Lacazette due to COVID-19 and it was only with the arrival of Odegaard (on a permanent contract), Tomiasyu and Aaron Ramsdale in late summer that steps forward were made.
Defensively, the new look back five of Ramsdale, Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel and Tierney added stability to Arsenal. This unit also brought another dimension to Arsenal’s game on the ball as the side launched attacks from behind.
As in the previous season, they only found a real attacking rhythm in the winter.
Up to this point, Arteta’s line-up occasionally looked more like a 4-4-1-1 (with Lacazette up front behind Aubameyang), with the biggest attacking push coming from Saka and Smith Rowe. Coinciding with the return of Xhaka from a two-month knee injury alongside Thomas Partey and a stronger base to build up attacks from behind, the switch to a 4-2-3-1 with Odegaard at number 10 helped Arsenal gain the ball a lot move faster on the pitch.
However, this formation quickly transformed into the 4-3-3 we see now, with Odegaard acting more as a right-sided No.8 combined with Saka and Xhaka advancing on his left.
Sharper and more targeted passing put them on the front foot in games. As the chart above below shows, they created the best chances since Arteta took charge. As their expected goals (xG) climbed above 2.0 per game during that period, they also averaged 14.5 shot-ending sequences – their highest tally since Wenger’s last season as manager in 2017-18.
Another key part of Arsenal’s improvement in 2021-22 was the arrival of standard coach Nicolas Jover. Arsenal scored just six set goals last season (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 top of set goals with four in four games.
In addition to their efficiency in attacking set pieces, they only conceded from a corner in April last season, which gave their game another decisive advantage.
Despite these improvements, there were still major setbacks in the past season. Arsenal have only won one league game all season after conceding the first goal and it has cost them dearly. Aside from their 2-1 win over Wolves in February, they seemed to lack ideas or the ability to regain control of a game once the opposition took the lead.
These were imperative improvements and so far Arsenal appear better prepared for these encounters than last year. Arteta’s 100th game against Fulham was an opportunity to show that – and they did so with their changed form and ability to create good chances before equalizing and winning the game.
The performance at Crystal Palace, particularly from William Saliba and White, also showed a composure and maturity lacking at Selhurst Park in April.
In addition, similar to last summer, the signings of Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko significantly increased the starting XI. Their quality is evident and both have changed the way Arsenal play, with more rotation to make Arsenal less predictable in possession and to offer more efficient pressing.
To get to that point, Arteta’s 100 Premier League games as Arsenal manager have taken a lot of heavy lifting.
He overcooked his formula in the early stages as bumps hit the road, but especially in the last year his vision has become clearer as 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 on and ensure that at least Arteta’s next 34 league games are promising.
(Top Photos: Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)