Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola was disappointed to lose Mikel Arteta from his backroom staff and following his start to life at Arsenal it is easy to see why.
While Arteta was unable to guide Arsenal into the top six in the Premier League last season, he secured Europa League qualification by winning his first trophy less than eight months into the job in the form of the FA Cup.
It is not just silverware that has appeased a large section of the Gunners faithful, though. It is a club favourite returning and attempting to implement a style of football that supporters became accustomed to during the illustrious reign of Arsene Wenger.
With an aesthetically pleasing approach, Arsenal are once again looking capable of mixing it with the best teams in the Premier League.
A serious test of their mettle awaits on Saturday; Arteta travels back to the Etihad Stadium to take on his former mentor Guardiola.
Sharing the ball
It was quickly evident that Arteta was working towards an improvement in Arsenal’s playing style after replacing Unai Emery last December, and there has been no let up.
Since Arteta’s first game at the helm on Boxing Day 2019, the Gunners have scored 11 Premier League goals following sequences of at least 10 passes – more than any other team in the top flight over the same period. That means over a quarter of all the Premier League goals scored by Arsenal under Arteta (40) have been preceded by a sequence involving a minimum of 10 passes.
City have accumulated just six such goals in the top flight over the same timeframe, while Arsenal’s 11 has already matched their total from the entirety of Emery’s tenure. Across all competitions the Gunners’ haul rises to 14, which is still two more than Guardiola’s side.
It appears clear that the possession-based, passing approach favoured and honed by Guardiola has rubbed off on Arteta. However, his team have also begun to prove themselves capable of impressing even without that ball.
On a run
The Gunners have averaged just 36.4 per cent possession in their past six games against ‘big six’ opposition in all competitions but have been defeated in only one of those matches – a 2-1 loss to Liverpool in the Premier League this season.
During that stretch Arsenal overcame City and Chelsea to win the FA Cup, while also beating Liverpool to the Community Shield and eliminating them from the EFL Cup, both in penalty shoot-outs.
Opta’s expected goals (xG) model suggests it could well have been a different story, though. In those six games, Arsenal outperformed their xG (5.82) by two goals and the six they conceded was five fewer than their xG against (11.19).
So while Arteta’s men have been on an impressive run against ‘big six’ opposition, the sustainability of that form can certainly be called into question. It will no doubt be hoped the signing of defensive midfielder Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for £45million will help them take a step towards achieving that.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 4, 2020
A factor that runs in Arsenal’s favour ahead of the trip to the Stadium, however, is their use of a back three.
When faced with a three- or five-man defence, City tend to struggle. In their past 10 such matches, Guardiola’s team have been defeated on five occasions – they have also lost three of their previous four.
The Gunners used a back three in their FA Cup semi-final against City in July and managed to seal a 2-0 victory despite only having 29 per cent of possession.
City were wasteful on that occasion, with only one of their 16 shots hitting the target. Arsenal had a quarter of the attempts on goal, but every single one required Ederson to make save. They only had an xG of 1.09 (City’s was 1.68) but proved incredibly clinical and benefited from Guardiola’s side failing to match them in that regard.
The Gunners will seemingly once again need to be deadly in front of goal and defend astutely for Arteta to get the better of his former mentor.
His plan for Arsenal and the influence of Guardiola is clear, but further improvement still appears to be required if they are to fully re-establish themselves among the Premier League’s elite.
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