How Arsenal’s attack evolved since Wenger

Besides obvious focal points such as the start of the new season and new, flourishing signings Willian and Gabriel, was the impressiveness of Arsenal’s attacking.

How the Gunners attack has changed massively through the club’s many tactical changes and philosophies in the last three years, and it looks like it has arrived at a place of modern sufficiency. Let’s take a look at Arsenal’s attacking evolution since Arsène Wenger, shall we?

From outdated to confusing sidestep

There was a time when Arsenal fans could, more or less, take a toilet break from when their team’s attack started to when it finished. It was called “Wengerball”: a patient passing system all about controlling the game with possession of the ball in, usually, a 4231 formation.

Although you’d occasionally miss an absolute masterpiece of a goal — Wilshere’s goal against Norwich comes to mind — and it usually fared well against mid table teams, the horizontal passing play aimed to tire the opponent (and unintentionally the viewers at times) has lost its place in the Premier League now. It became too predictable, too easily countered by doing the opposite: all defending, lots of fouls and quick vertical passing, aka defensive counter-attacking, aka “the Stoke way”.

Wengerball was great in its days but had to change, and change came with Unai Emery and his “chameleon” philosophy.

“I want us to be a chameleon team, able to play in possession, in static attack against close opponents or to counter-attack,” he said in May 2019.

Emery wanted to include possession football, hard pressing and counter-attacking football all in the same bowl, and be the ultimate “protagonist” to his opposition.

At times “Emeryball” worked. At times we could see glimpses of how he wanted Arsenal to play, how to attack. Playing out from the back, intense positional pressing, overload the wings and quick passing when winning the ball back was the formula. 

He usually set his team up in a 4231 formation, like Wenger, however, when attacking, the fullback positioned themselves very high up the pitch, effectively turning the formation into a 2431 system.

Emeryball resulted in more than enough goals scored: 73 in the league in 18/19 (more than Tottenham and Chelsea who finished above Arsenal’s 5th league position). Emery’s Europa League expertise also took the Gunners to the final in Baku, where they were thrashed 4-1 by Chelsea.

But a big problem from day one was Emery’s stubbornness towards playing short passes out from the back; the start of the team’s attacking play. It was something every team countered by pushing very high up the pitch from every goal kick, which clogged Arsenal’s passing lanes. It effectively pulled the Arsenal midfielders and attackers further down the pitch and attacking became far more complicated from there. Not to mention the risk of losing the ball in very dangerous areas if unsuccessful… *Bringing back those painful Mustafi moments in 3… 2… 1…*.

Emery’s approach to each game was hit and miss, as it changed too often. There were many shades of this Arsenal chameleon, and thus, unsurprisingly, Emery’s philosophies never cemented themselves with lasting success; it was too much to process for the players and nothing really settled. The team were a tactical nomad, roaming without a proper home. Along with a defence leaky as a rainforest cloud, it was concluded an unsuccessful first attempt at elevating the club into the top four again.

Emeryball saw Arsenal score 57 goals and concede 47 times in the Spaniard’s last 30 games in charge. The Gunners kept 7 clean sheets in that time. They also didn’t win any of their 5 games against other top 6 team in that period.

Emery’s famous quote “I prefer to win 5-4 than win 1-0”, was certainly no lie.

But his reactionary strategy with new tactics and tweaks on a regular basis depending on the opponent was a confusing sidestep for the club in a chaotic time also off the pitch.

After his sacking, the Spaniard admitted his version Arsenal failed “to make the final step”. A step it seems Mikel Arteta has made in impressive fashion.

A new system with the right tweaks (that clogged the defensive leak)

Interestingly, Arteta and Emery’s Arsenal share quite a few of the same attacking ideas: intense pressing and especially quick passing in attack are common denominators. 

Just compare Aaron Ramsey’s goal against Fulham in 2018 and Aubameyang’s goal against the same opponent in their first game this 20/21 season.

However, Arteta focuses more on vertical passing, not letting the opponent get back into defensive shape, which utilises Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s pace better too.

Additionally, Arteta is using a 343 system as his main formation, which looks like a 325 system when going forward. When attacking, more Arsenal players make offensive runs often disorganising the opponent’s structure or simply creating a majority of players on the break. Passing patiently in front of the opponent 18-yard box is rare nowadays.

There is more fluidity in attack too. The players change positions and roles more frequently. Often Kieran Tierney at left centreback will make runs down the left side while Granit Xhaka takes his place, playing as a very deep playmaker. This will see the actual wleft wingback move into the middle creating new spaces for attacking.

Maybe the key difference, though, is that the current pressing system is more confrontational. It is about forcing mistakes from the opposition and winning the ball back high up the pitch rather than suffocating space, like Emery preferred. A great example of Arteta’s pressing is both goals against Liverpool in their 2-1 win in July. The pressing system which aims to win the ball back or force an error did exactly that — twice — which resulted in two magnificent goals for the Gunners.

So far in Arteta’s 30 games as boss, Arsenal have scored 49 goals (8 less than Emery) but conceded only 27 goals (20 less than Emery). Arteta’s Arsenal have also kept almost twice as many clean sheets as Emery in their last 30 games: 12. The defensive leak has indeed been clogged. In this period, Arsenal have beaten other top 6 teams 5 times in 9 tries.

Afterthough

I believe communication is a big factor as well in Arsenal’s improvement. Arteta has effectively gathered everyone at the club on the same page, tactically and culturally. Emery failed inthis sense. Arteta’s philosophy and the system he utilises, remains the same no matter the opponent to a large extent, unlike Emery. There is no confusion. The players know exactly what to do. There were lots of talk about players being unsure exactly what Emery wanted from them. This uncertainty is gone and it has created a handbook everyone shares. This was perhaps Emery’s biggest failure at Arsenal, along with the lack of tactical consistency.

Wenger’s outdated tactics became a step back for Arsenal. Emeryball was a confusing sidestep. But it seems Artetaball is a sizable step forward.


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