Mikel Arteta and Arsenal

For the first time post Arsene Wenger, Arsenal are looking like a proper club with a system in place and there is positive energy at the Emirates. We look at why trusting Arteta is Arsenal’s best bet at the moment.

Process – A word so convoluted in modern-day football parlance that it’s near impossible to fathom the way it will be used.

Yet, and funnily so, one of the most chaotic football operations in the Premier League has this word attached to it – Arsenal.

The man who brought this word to the club? Mikel Arteta. The former Gunners midfielder, who learned the tricks of management from none other than Pep Guardiola, finds himself in a precarious position ahead of the Premier League 2022/2023 season, which will looked upon as a campaign where Arsenal must crack on.

The Arteta Process and the need for it

It is easy to be despondent about Arsenal at the moment. The North London club are currently somewhere between a sleeping giant and an internet meme after the Gunners bottled the final few games of last season, losing their top-four status and dropping out of the Champions League for the fifth year in a row.

However, negativity festers like wildfire on the internet, and contrary to popular belief, there is a strategy and process at Arsenal that fans should get around. It is difficult to see due to the chaos and outrage that usually surrounds the discourse of the club. But if you look past the noise, you can see that Arsenal are slowly creeping back into relevancy and are primed for success in the years to come.

The North London club suffered a steep decline in the latter years of the Wenger era before completely capitulating under Unai Emery, losing their identity on and off the field. However, Mikel Arteta’s arrival in December 2019 started Arsenal’s slow journey back from the depths of mediocrity, with the Spaniard resetting their sporting culture and beginning the upheaval.

Removal of toxicity; Revival of faith

We can already see the changes behind the scenes. Arteta has redecorated the training ground and Emirates Stadium, reconnecting the club to its storied history and creating a better environment for success.

On the pitch, the renovations have been less stark, but the improvements have been clear as day. After two years of finishing in eighth place, the Gunners jumped three spots last season, finishing just five points behind Chelsea in third, nearly missing out on fourth spot to their north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

After inheriting a broken team which included players of the ilk of Shkodran Mustafi, Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Ozil, Arteta slowly renovated the Arsenal squad, weeding out the bad eggs that did not fit the system and bringing in players capable of performing the desired role.

Mikel Arteta’s first starting XI as Arsenal manager

Under Arteta, Arsenal ditched every ageing player on a bad contract signed under previous regimes – Ozil, Kolasinac, Sokratis, Aubameyang, David Luiz – to significantly lighten the wage bill and create a young mouldable squad in his image.

A core of young starlets

Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, and Eddie Nketiah were plucked from the academy, while significant investment was made in the additions of talented youngsters such as Ben White, Martin Odegaard, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Aaron Ramsdale.

Rather than rely on experienced veterans, Arsenal leaned on the promise of youth, finishing within a cat’s whiskers of a top-four spot despite fielding the youngest team in the league. Ramsdale (24), Tomiyasu (23), White (24), Gabriel (24), and Tierney (25) solidified the backline while also improving Arsenal’s technical quality in the buildup.

Martin Odegaard (23) found his creative juices halfway through the campaign and averaged the sixth most shot-creating actions per 90 last season, while Emile Smith Rowe (21), Gabriel Martinelli (21), and Bukayo Saka (20) propped up the attack, scoring 27 league goals between them.

The fountain of youth has delivered enough promise for the Arsenal faithful, and unlike feeder clubs such as Dortmund or Ajax, the Gunners will keep and grow with their core for the foreseeable future. As the graphic below shows, most of the squad are still outside their prime, and Mikel Arteta could expect a reasonable uptick in performances as they enter their peak.

However, despite their burgeoning crop of uber-talented academy stars impressing last season, the North London club still has plenty of work to do before they can reclaim their former glories. The biggest issue in the current squad was the lack of goals. The Gunners barely scrapped 60 in the league last year while the two clubs finishing in the top two – Manchester City and Liverpool – bagged more than 90 apiece.

Although Eddie Nketiah has shown considerable improvements in his link-up play and ability to hold the ball in his last 12 months, Arsenal needed additional firepower up top to bridge the gap to the best teams in the league.

Jesus – Arsenal’s saviour in attack

Unlike the summer of 2021, Arsenal have been swift in their business in this transfer window. The Gunners have addressed the positions that need upgrading and paid a slight premium to get deals over the line, with the most pivotal piece of business the addition of the Brazilian centre forward.

The four-time Premier League winner switched East Manchester for North London for a reported fee of £45 million and adds incredible versatility, technical quality, defensive work rate, and expert movement in the box to the Arsenal frontline – qualities which the Gunners have lacked in recent years.

Gabriel Jesus’ stats during 2021/22 season

Although Jesus frequented the wing for City, he will primarily occupy the number nine spot at the Emirates in their 4-3-3 system. As the data above shows, Jesus is incredible at getting into goalscoring positions (npxG of 0.44) and getting others involved in the play with his passing (xA of 0.23).

The Brazilian is also one of the best pressing forwards in world football – an integral aspect of what Arteta expects from his striker – and his defensive metrics indicate his perfect fit as the Arsenal number nine.

Vieira & the need for squad depth

The Gunners also signed Fabio Vieira from Porto to add some much-needed incision in the final third, while Matt Turner and Marquinhos are squad-fillers that provide nice depth. Viera is a Bernardo Silva regen, a left-footed playmaker who is impossible to press due to his low centre of gravity, tight turning radius and insane close control. Vieira is likely to add cover to Martin Odegaard as the right-sided number eight, but the Portuguese could force his way into the XI if Arteta shifts the Norwegian to his more natural side on the left.

The 22-year-old provided six goals & 11 assists for Porto in just 15 starts last season, and his excellent ball-striking and final ball delivery will add some killer instinct in the final third for Arsenal, a quality they missed in the run-in last season. Vieira also has an incredible weak foot, adding to the increasing number of ambipedal options in the current Arsenal squad.

Although Arsenal have been proactive in their pursuits of transfer targets this summer, the Gunners still need to do more business before the season begins. The squad needs depth at left-back and right-wing, as well as an additional central midfielder to replace Granit Xhaka, who is quickly becoming surplus to requirements at the Emirates.

Edu and Arteta have targeted Leeds winger Raphinha and Ajax defender Lisandro Martinez for these profiles, but the Gunners have failed to meet the valuation for either player thus far and might have to turn to other targets (Moussa Diaby, Oleksandr Zinchenko) for these roles.

Arsenal Probable XI 2021-22

As of today, the Arsenal starting XI for the Premier League curtain-raiser under the lights at Selhurst Park looks something like this.

Despite the expected homecoming of William Saliba, the back five that started the majority of last season is expected to stay the same. Thomas Partey, Martin Odegaard, and Granit Xhaka are the current first-choice midfield trio, while Gabriel Jesus joins Saka and Martinelli/Smith Rowe in the front three.

Though it looks like Jesus is the only real addition for Arsenal, the Gunners have actually made a significant step forward compared to the last campaign. In the back half of 2021/22, Arsenal were reduced to their bare bones, with only 14/15 players who you would consider starting XI quality.

Arsenal Squad Depth 22/23 (Players in red likely to leave in the summer)

The need to win & a tall order

With the additions of Jesus, Vieira and a couple more incomings at LB and RW, Arsenal gain City-like depth, with two players able to play in each position. The Gunners’ poor depth and untimely injuries to Partey, Tomiyasu, and Tierney were the primary reason behind their failure to grab UCL football last season.

Signing players who won’t cause a significant drop in quality in the XI will significantly further Arteta’s project, allowing the team to compete on two fronts and make a sustained challenge for the top four.

However, Arsenal’s biggest problem next year will not be their inability to rack up victories, it’s the competition around them. Unlike the pre-Pep era between 2013 and 2016 – where there were no great teams – the Premier League has risen to a different standard in the past five seasons.

With the world’s greatest coaches flocking to English shores, the technical level of the league improved, resulting in fierce competition for every single point.

The Premier League arguably has three of the best four teams in Europe, and Arteta is the only coach amongst the big six who hasn’t won a domestic or Champions League title within the last three seasons.

West Ham and Leicester have also emerged as a force in recent years, while the Saudi-powered financial doping up north will make Newcastle a European threat within the next two seasons.

It is an unprecedented mountain for Arsenal and Arteta to climb next year, and the margin for error in North London is razor-thin this summer. The seeds of the Arteta process have been sown for the best part of three years, now it is time for the crops to bear fruit.

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