How Arteta has taken Arsenal to the next level

By Alex Keble 21 May 2024
Arteta, Arsenal

Alex Keble on the incredible transformation under Spaniard to turn Gunners into title challengers

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Alex Keble analyses how Mikel Arteta transformed Arsenal from mid-table stragglers to title challengers.

Christmas 2020 was a bleak time for Arsenal supporters.  

One year into the job, Mikel Arteta was floundering. Arsenal were 15th in the Premier League table, with 14 points from 14 games and facing accusations of stale and uninspiring football. 

After the Unai Emery debacle and the lost final years under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal had never looked further away from the Premier League title. Even UEFA Champions League football was a distant memory and, to many, a futile dream under the current management. 

Three-and-a-half years later, Arteta’s Arsenal have produced a record-breaking season. 

The 2023/24 campaign may have ended in disappointment but in a sense their transformation is complete. An 89-point season is success by any measure. Twenty-eight wins and 91 goals are Arsenal’s best ever Premier League totals, even higher than the Invincibles. 

From Pep Guardiola’s apprentice to his main challengers at the top, Arteta has turned Arsenal into one of the best teams in Europe, and despite a trophy-less season their journey to this point, is worthy of celebration. 

Here’s the story of how Arteta turned Arsenal into title contenders again.

2019/20: Laying the foundation and an FA Cup win

In December 2019, Arsenal were at a low. Emery’s time as manager had ended untidily and Freddie Ljungberg was unable to steady the ship on an interim basis, leaving Arsenal in 10th, with 22 points from 17 matches, when Arteta arrived just before Christmas.

Straight away you could see his impact – if you knew where to look.

The Guardiola influence was there from day one: Arsenal almost immediately began playing in a structured way, looking more compact when defending and more rigid in their positions when on the ball.

You might remember the solid, patient and slightly-dull 3-4-3 formation; the gradual teaching of a complicated tactical process that made Arsenal dry to watch but tough to beat.

Arteta lost only one of his first 11 Premier League games in charge and ended the campaign with 34 points from 21 games, the seventh-best record in the Premier League in the time since he joined the club.

But of course what really caught the eye was the FA Cup win that summer, following the extend hiatus after COVID-19 struck.

At an empty Wembley Stadium, Arsenal showcased the best of Arteta’s ideas when they beat Man City 2-0 in the semi-final, their courageous passing out from the back - a sign of things to come - leading directly to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s crucial second goal.

A more stoic display in the 2-1 win over Chelsea in late July, notable for Emiliano Martinez’s heroics, gave Arteta lift-off – or so we thought.

2020/21: Loosening his principles to fight on

The patient, pragmatic 3-4-3 remained in place for the start of the 2020/21 season and for a while it was hard to see where Arteta was heading.

This is when the project hit its low at Christmas: 14 points from 14 matches and just four goals scored from the previous 10 Premier League matches.

Having frozen out Mesut Ozil in the summer, and with new signings Thomas Partey and central defender Gabriel Magalhaes struggling to settle, Arteta’s tactics started to look too restrictive and too demanding.

We should not underestimate the impact of COVID-19 here. It was the strangest of seasons, played in empty stadiums and throughout national lockdowns.

And it is to Arteta’s enormous credit he had the humility to find the solution: unshackle the players and let go of some of his tactical principles.

Boxing Day 2020 was a defining moment. Moving to a 4-2-3-1 formation, out went Nicolas Pepe and Willian, in came Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli, and a youthful Arsenal attack was given licence to roam.

Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-1 at Emirates Stadium to begin a run of five wins from six that lifted them to within five points of fourth.

Martin Odegaard arrived on loan in January shortly after to bolster the attack further, and although what followed was a little wild – more of a kitchen-sink approach from Arteta, following all that painstaking structure – the campaign ended with 19 points from the final eight matches.

Arsenal finished eighth, but Arteta had earned a reprieve. Some fans could see the structure that was being put in place and understood the gradual uprooting of the squad. Others were still unconvinced.

2021/22: Xhaka, Aubameyang and a surprise top-four chase

Trust the process. That was the mantra of Arteta believers. But it seemed lost when Arsenal lost their opening three matches of the season and Ozil, having left the club, tweeted those words after the 5-0 defeat to Man City in sarcasm.

For the second time of his tenure, Arteta was at a low point.

But now with the players he needed to stick to his guns, Arteta continued to gradually implement those Guardiola-inspired ideas - and Arsenal recovered to challenge for a top-four finish.

He did so by establishing a new foundation: Arsenal moved to a 4-3-3 this season, with Odegaard taking a starring role and Granit Xhaka implausibly becoming a key figure as a metronomic No 8.

Elsewhere, new signings Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale helped patch up the defence, and the combined effect was an Arsenal side calmer in possession and more self-assured as the season went on.

But just as significant was swapping out Aubameyang for Alexandre Lacazette, which happened only because Arteta fell out with his captain after he returned late from a leave of absence.

As with Ozil, Arteta was ruthless in moving Arsenal on from their era of player power and stars on inflated contracts.

His new team – young, hungry and disciplined – was finally coming together.

2022/23: The 50-point blitz and the fall

It took six transfer windows and a few formation changes but by the beginning of the 2022/23 season the linear journey of Arteta’s Arsenal was clear to see.

All those times the Gunners had been direct or counter-attacking, particularly in 2021/22, were not deliberate moves away from Guardiola but temporary adaptations as Arteta waited patiently for the right players.

That became crystal clear following a summer that saw Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko arrive from Guardiola’s Man City. With William Saliba back from Marseille and ready for first-team football, all of a sudden things clicked into place.

Still, nobody saw it coming. Nobody expected that outrageously productive half-season: 50 points at the halfway stage in a blitz not witnessed since Brendan RodgersLiverpool team of 2013/14.

Zinchenko was a revelation as an inverted full-back, the Odegaard-Partey-Xhaka midfield was better than ever, Martinelli had matured and Gabriel Jesus was the missing piece in the puzzle.

Everything was in place – until it wasn’t.

Of all the theories explaining how Arsenal let Man City back in, the really convincing argument is a lack of squad depth.

When Saliba got injured in March, Arsenal were five points clear, with 11 games to play. They went on to win only five of their final 11 games without him, conceding two-goal leads in the 2-2 draws with Liverpool and West Ham United and the 3-3 home draw with Southampton.

Similarly Arsenal were firing on all cylinders, with Gabriel Jesus in the side, but struggled through January and February without him, drawing 0-0 with Newcastle United, 1-1 with Brentford, and losing 1-0 to Everton in a critical period.

They fell hard, winning only 34 points from the second 19 games, a points-per-game average (1.79) identical to that of the 2021/22 season.

Many critics assumed they had simply regressed to the mean; that their one moon-shot at the title had been and gone.

They were wrong.

2023/24: Rice and Havertz lead a fully-matured team

In keeping with the story of Arteta’s tenure, Arsenal made great use of the summer window. In came David Raya, Declan Rice and Kai Havertz: three transformative signings.

The differences between this season and last are subtle, but in Raya they have better distribution from the back; in Havertz they have found the industrious “false nine" they have always craved; and in Rice they boast a world-class leader who controls the tempo to avoid those April/May collapses.

The experience gained from last season’s run-in and the natural maturing of the team has also played a part, as has their increased proficiency from set-pieces. Arsenal have scored 20 goals from set-pieces this season, more than any other side in the Premier League.

And the piece de resistance: Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes emerging as an iconic centre-back partnership.

They have helped the club to 18 clean sheets in the Premier League and the concession of only 29 goals, the fewest in the division.

But none of this was clear in the early months of the season, after a 2-2 draw with Fulham in August appeared to signpost the same flaws.

That all changed in October, when a coming-of-age 1-0 victory over Man City proved last season wasn’t an anomaly but the start of something special.

Nevertheless it wasn’t until a relentless surge of form through February and March, when Arsenal scored 21 goals in a four-game period, that we knew Arteta had completed the transformation to create a ruthless machine; robust enough to grind out games when necessary but with a free-flowing attack to rival any club in Europe.

It hasn’t always been easy to see the direction of travel under Arteta. He has come close to the brink at least twice.

But looking back, through it all he has been putting the pieces into place, turning the dial on the tactical specifics, and piece by piece, signing the players he needed.

Sixty-one, 69, 84 and now 89 points: every season under Arteta has seen incremental improvements. That’s all the evidence needed to trust the Arsenal manager when he says his team will come back stronger in 2024/25.

“Now it’s time to have a break, think, reflect, keep pushing, keep inspiring this team,” he said after the 2-1 victory over Everton.

"Don’t be satisfied because we want much more than that - and we’re going to get it." 

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