In many respects, we didn’t learn a lot of new information during Arsenal’s win at Old Trafford on Sunday. Arteta has built a system that is a custom fit for games where Arsenal are not expected to dominate the ball. They had already beaten Manchester United (albeit at home), Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City under Arteta’s charge.
None of which is to take away from the execution or the satisfaction of Sunday’s victory of course. However, there were some subtle differences between this game and the aforementioned victories at the back end of last season- chiefly the ferocity with which Arsenal pressed and harried United.
We haven’t really seen much of a high press under Arteta and, given the players available to him at the back of the team, you can maybe understand why the defence and midfield have taken on a more stand-offish mid-block quality. Firstly, last season’s midfield combo of Ceballos and Xhaka doesn’t have the attributes for a high press.
Pressing high also compels defenders to jump out of their foxholes and snuff out enemy fire on the halfway line. A defence containing Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz is not one you want stationed high up the pitch and chasing towards its own goal. The selection of Mohamed Elneny alongside Thomas Partey in midfield was instructive for Arsenal’s tactic.
Elneny and Partey are both technically highly competent but are also superior athletes to Xhaka and Ceballos. I don’t think we necessarily saw the birth of a new long-term partnership a la Vieira + Petit or Cazorla + Coquelin on Sunday. I think maybe we saw the birth of a mix and match approach to midfield partnerships.
Some games will be Ceballos games, others Xhaka games, there might even be a sprinkling of Willock games in there too. Old Trafford, where Arsenal were drunk on the fumes of the high press, was an Elneny game. The Egyptian credits his limitless lung capacity to his childhood, where he would play football in the dusty Cairo heat for as much as ten hours a day.
In the November rain in Manchester, he put it to excellent use but those attributes won’t be required in every game. My forecast would be that Arsenal’s only true constant in central midfield will be Thomas Partey. You don’t spend £50m on a 27-year old as a rotation option and, on early viewing, his repertoire is more varied than his potential partners, who are all specialists in one way or another.
Arsenal have groomed the left-side of their team under Arteta, producing a slight left-sided attacking bias. Partey potentially changes this because, firstly, as we saw at Old Trafford, he gives Arsenal presence in the centre of the pitch. Since Mesut Ozil’s banishment, Arsenal have treated the middle of the pitch like lava, carefully choreographing their moves down the flanks (mostly the left flank).
The Ghanaian makes attacking in more central areas a more attractive prospect and, though not a creative player per se, with his loping stride he can hopefully connect the mend the fraying bonds between the midfield and the attack, who have been so disconnected that at times they might as well have belonged to different teams.
Crucially, Partey also likes to spray the ball to the right. Despite the slight left-sided bias, Hector Bellerin has become the Gunners’ most potent creative force this season. All of Arsenal’s best chances on Sunday- Bellerin’s cross to Aubameyang, Willian clipping the crossbar and Bukayo Saka’s header, emanated from the right flank.
In the build-up to the penalty that wins Arsenal the game at Old Trafford, Partey sends the ball to the right flank to Willian, who finds Bellerin’s underlapping run into the area, drawing the foul from Pogba. In Phil Costa’s profile of Partey he mentioned the player’s fondness for a clipped past to Atleti right-back Kieran Trippier.
Partey’s presence makes the right flank and the centre more viable routes of attack and Arteta will want to cultivate that further over the coming weeks and months. It’s fair to say that, recently, Arsenal’s left-sided bias has been sussed out by opponents, who have been able to manoeuvre Aubameyang away from the inside-forward slot and over to the touchline.
Building more attacks from the right and centre gives him the opportunity to join attacks in their final phase- as he did against Rapid Vienna a fortnight ago- rather than in their embryonic stages when he is marooned on the touchline. Partey can give Arsenal’s midfield athletic presence without surrendering any of its technical competency.
Arteta’s system has been flexible defensively, moving between a three and a four with Tierney and one of Saka or Maitland-Niles pivoting between positions. That was broadly the case again at Old Trafford but, if we were to introduce a crude equation into the scenario, previously it’s been a back five that occasionally morphs into a four.
On Sunday it felt much more like a four that occasionally became a five. The recruitment of Gabriel at centre-half has introduced a measure of aggression into the defence lacking in its other incumbents. If the midfield has become Partey +1, then the defence seems to be moving in the same direction with Gabriel.
Long-term, we think and hope that William Saliba will become his de facto partner but, for the time being, I suspect we will see a rotating cast of Luiz, Mustafi and Holding alongside the Brazilian. Gabriel was tailor made for Arsenal’s aggressive press at Old Trafford (his left-footed distribution is also loosening Xhaka’s grip on the team, technically).
In short, Gabriel is a player with the profile to engage attackers high up the pitch and make up the ground again if required. Arsenal’s midfield and defence had many ball dominant players, Gabriel and Partey have the tools to dominate space and, hopefully, that can help Arteta to release the handbrake and lead to a better functioning attack.
A midfield of Xhaka and Ceballos with a centre-half combo including any of Luiz, Mustafi, Sokratis and yes, even Holding (whom I still think, long-term, is probably more suited to deep and mid-block defending) is not capable of recovering into space if moves break down, hence Arteta has had to introduce some training wheels to cover their flaws.
The best attacking teams simply have to leave space behind them in order to dominate and overwhelm opponents; it’s an inextricable part of the tactical contract. Liverpool’s purchase of van Dijk was so transformational because he is a gifted one-on-one defender and you can largely leave him on his own to defend space.
Arsenal’s Invincibles defence was full of gifted one-on-one defenders who could recover into space and win duels. The introduction of Gabriel and Partey, hopefully, allows Arsenal the liberty of space left in behind and allows them to commit a little more to attack without the need for defensive and midfield hand-holding. Here’s hoping, anyway!