Mikel Arteta most recently has decided on a tactical switch, switching from a 4-2-3-1 to more of a 4-4-1-1 and so far, it's worked a treat. Arsenal have collected wins from both league games since the switch beating Aston Villa at home 3-1 followed by an impressive 2-0 victory against Leicester at the King Power Stadium. The 4-4-1-1 shape isn't too different to Arteta's so far favoured 4-2-3-1 but since the switch, it's proved to be more effective as Arsenal have looked more structured and energetic in their approach.
In this tactical analysis, we will have a look at Arsenal’s bright start to their most recent tactical change which has helped Arsenal grab early goals against both Aston Villa and Leicester City.
Arsenal have shown variations when building out from the back on goal-kicks. They have put on display both a more direct approach to their build-up but also one that uses short, quick passing combinations.
Arsenal will use the more direct approach when being pressed. Both Aston Villa and Leicester on occasions have attempted to press Arsenal when building from the back and by doing so, they looked to man-mark Arsenal. To counter this, Arsenal's defence and central midfield will look to drop, dragging their markers with them and in turn, this creates space between the defending team's midfield and defence. Arsenal's wide men will look to occupy full-backs/wing-backs whilst Lacazette and/or Aubameyang will look to drop from the forward line to the space in front to the defence. Aaron Ramsdale will find either of the strikers with a direct ball bypassing the press and put Arsenal in an advanced position with just one pass.
Arteta's boys will also look to play out from goal-kicks using short passes with the time, space and players in position to do so. The attacking midfielder, which has been Alexandre Lacazzete, would drop very deep in the half-space to add another body and give Arsenal a numerical advantage as the defending team attempts to man-mark Arsenal.
Lacazette has been vital during Arsenal's build-up phases dropping deep, creating overloads and linking up play but he's also stayed further ahead, pinning back defences allowing space from any potential ball carriers adding variation to Arsenal's build-up phase.
Emile Smith-Rowe also plays a role when Arsenal progress with the ball dropping deep in the half-spaces creating overloads and was helped by Nuno Taveras overlapping adding width to Arsenal's attack. This allowed Arsenal to manipulate space by making counter-movements. Lokonga would join the left side creating a triangle (diamond if Partey also shifts), making a run a left-winger could typically make, into the channel. With Lokonga doing this, it allows Emile Smith-Rowe to come in central, the area previously occupied by Lokonga, to freely receive the ball and create for Arsenal.
When Arsenal lose the ball higher up the pitch, rather than counter-press attempting to win the ball back right away or force a mistake, Arsenal would regroup into their 4-4-1-1 shape whilst the ball-near player may press the man on the ball.
Arsenal also actively look to force their opponents wide as their structure of a square-shaped back-four with two centre-backs and two defensive midfielders can force the opposition away from verticality during transitions. In their games against Villa and Leicester, Arsenal completed most of their defensive duels in the wider areas.
In an attempt to win the ball back, Arsenal form wide defensive triangles as their press is intensified and body orientation is key forcing the play out wide. To force their opponents wide, Arsenal will look to cut off passing lanes centrally whilst the player pressing will curve his run, directing the player on the ball to play to the flanks. As soon as the ball is played, Arsenal's wide players will begin to press the receiver to trap them wide to limit their options. The diamond is formed by the ball near players. So if Arsenal are attempting the win the ball on the left side, the diamond could be made up of the left full-back, left-sided central-midfielder, the left-winger and either Lacazette or Aubameyang, more than often it is Lacazette.
To stop the opponents playing out from the back, Arsenal would also use a man-marking system but remain patient with their pressing. Against Leicester, they worked hard cutting off passing lanes and pressed when a Leicester player received the ball facing towards his own goal - this forces the play to go back again. If Leicester worked the ball wide, Arsenal would then shift and still remain patient with their press until Leciester looked to play forward down the flank, then, Arsenal's full-back will press and that wide diamond will be formed again.
In the game against Leicester, every one of their eight interceptions in Leicesters half happened in the wide areas. Demonstrating the area Arsenal looked to force their opponents. Against Villa, one of their six advanced interceptions happened centrally. Arsenal have done well limiting the quality of chances for their opponents. Aston Villa accumulated an xG of just 0.63 whilst Leicester had an xG 1.47 - Arsenal creating better goalscoring chances in that regard in both games. (xG 3.83 vs Aston Villa / xG 1.51 vs Leicester)
Arsenal’s attacking shape during the build-up and creation phase has resembled something of a 2-4-4 with Saka so far being the furthest forward, as we've seen both Lacazette and Aubameyang drop to receive and link-up play. And when Arsenal win the ball back, they look to counter in their transition.
We have seen a slight change with how the full-back approaches the attack. Keiran Tierney was a heavy attacking presence in the 4-2-3-1, often receiving the ball and operating in the opposition half but with the tactical switch, the full-back is a little less adventurous but that also forces the defending team to mark deeper in the Arsenal half. As Arsenal have been man-marked, the defending team usually matches their wing-back with Arsenal's but with Tavares being slightly deeper, means the defending wing-back has more ground to cover. This also creates space for Emile Smith-Rowe on the left with there being less defending presence.
With an overlapping fullback and central midfielder, Arsenal created overloads in wider areas where they played small passing combinations before switching it to the isolated flank, while knowing someone like Thomas Partey is positioned to curtail opposition counter-attacks. This method is known as "overload to isolate"
The 2-4-4 sounds like an aggressive attacking shape but it can also offer defensive stability in central zones to recover possession and recover from errors. Even when Arsenal became exposed in the wider areas, Thomas Partey or Albert Lokonga would shuffle across and Arsenal to retain some degree of balance as others regain their position.
Alexandre Lacazette has played a vital role in possession. Though the striker is known to be a striker, he's been deployed as a no10 where he can show his excellent hold-up and link-up play helping Arsenal progress with play.
Lacazette has a great ability to position himself in areas that disrupted the defending team's shape, creating overloads in wide areas and making unselfish movements from side to side during the team's build-up and creation phase. And what he may get less credit for is his work off the ball, being a workhorse. During both the Aston Villa and Leicester game, the French striker was tasked with marking the no6, the player looking to drop and receive the ball for the attacking team.
Unfortunately, that wraps up this brief analysis focusing on Mikel Arteta's tactical switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-1-1. Will it remain? Gooners will certainly be hoping for these performances to be replicated with slight improvements. Keiran Tierney will likely be a man for man switch with Tavares when the Scottish international returns to fitness but questions may be asked "where does Xhaka fit in?"