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Xtra Tactics: Analysing Mikel Arteta's Arsenal - the tactics behind Man City's former assistant

Ahead of the Manchester City's opening fixture in 'Project Restart', we take a look at Mikel Arteta's tactical blueprint ahead of Arsenal's trip to the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.

With football returning from its COVID-19 induced hiatus, Manchester City are set to face Arsenal in the Premier League, and even though the ground may be empty, this is still set to be an exciting tactical match-up.

In this matchup, we’re set to see Pep Guardiola take on one of his coaching students, as Mikel Arteta of course graduated to become manager of Arsenal from his role as Guardiola’s no.2 with at the Etihad.

Although he’s only been in the job for a short period of time, Mikel Arteta has showcased his footballing philosophy - beginning to instil his brand of play onto this Gunners side already.

This is the general line-up we see. What is particularly interesting is the centre-back pairing of David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi, as well as Bukayo Saka converted to left-back, and the double pivot of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos.

However, as Pep Guardiola said himself, “formations are just telephone numbers”, and this is not the shape the Spaniard has his players operating within in-game phases of play.

How Arsenal build from the back

One of the most clear, and perhaps unsurprising based on his previous employers, principles of Mikel Arteta’s managerial ideology is a willingness to play out from the back.

At Manchester City, he had front row seats to the best school in the country when it comes to building from defence, but the patterns of play that he uses to provide his side with the numbers to do this are relatively original.

Granit Xhaka’s role

The first element of his build-up play from the defensive third that we'd like to mention is how he utilises Granit Xhaka. Mikel Arteta drops the Swiss international from the double pivot, closer to the centre-backs. This creates numerical superiority as they look to play out. Here, Xhaka becomes an auxiliary centre-back.

If you take a look at Granit Xhaka's touch map, it does reinforce that this is the type of role he plays. The below illustration highlights Xhaka's touches against Newcastle United:

This type of movement is something Pep Guardiola has done everywhere, from Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, to Rodri with Manchester City today. His defensive midfielders tend to drop in the middle, whereas Mikel Arteta's go wide - but the overall aim is the same.

As well as producing numerical superiority, Xhaka also helps out simply by being left-footed. Having a left footer on the left side is an asset to progressing the ball vertically - take Aymeric Laporte's impact at the Etihad as a prime example within the current Manchester City side.

Not to mention, Granit Xhaka's movement to deeper positioning allows Bukayo Saka to advance and play as a pseudo-winger - more on this later.

David Luiz - 'Libero' and Liability.

One of the other interesting elements of how Arsenal conduct their build up play under Arteta, is how they transition from the defensive third. A big part of this is the eccentric centre-back David Luiz.

In defence he can be pretty lackadaisical, but on the ball he’s really quite good, completing 48.4 passes out of 56 on a game-by-game basis. Out of those passes, 25 attempted are considered ‘long’ (according to FBref.com’s definition of a long-pass being further than 25 yards) with 19.5 being successful.

A fantastic example of David Luiz as a ball-playing centre-back is this against Newcastle, where he brings the ball out the defence and plays a great pass to Aubameyang:

Now, I am fully aware that David Luiz can be a mistake waiting to happen, and for every vertical pass to forge attacking moves, he can do this...

BUT he can also be an interesting player to watch, and DOES have ball-playing capabilities. It really depends on what David Luiz decides to turn up in Manchester come Wednesday night.

Arteta in the final 3rd.

We’ve covered Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal on the bases of build-up and transitional play, so let’s see how they attack.

Earlier, I mentioned how Granit Xhaka dropping back to the defensive line provided the back three with numerical superiority. But, these movements also have ramifications further up the pitch, since it allows Bukayo Saka to advance and take up a high wing position.

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Look at these heat maps from two games of Mikel Arteta's reign, and you'll understand how he's utilised by the former Everton midfielder.

Bukayo Saka becoming, in essence a winger, means Aubameyang can tuck inside. On the team sheet, Aubameyang is listed as a left-winger, but in reality he plays in the half space.

Below we can see Saka taking up a position high and wide on the left-wing, with Aubameyang tucking in:

This attacking system is relevant for two reasons:

1. Aubameyang, thanks to Saka's movement, is able to tuck inside and play centrally, which is important as he's Arsenal's danger man.

2. Aubameyang tucking inside gives license to Saka, a natural winger, to go forward and do stuff like this:

Another reason why this is interesting, is because it seems to be a direct influence from Pep Guardiola to Mikel Arteta during their working relationship at Manchester City.

This attacking structure has been used countless times by Pep, during Arteta's tenure at the club. Take this as an example, where we can see Benjamin Mendy taking up a position high and wide up the field, with Raheem Sterling tucking in against Newcastle:

This match against Tottenham early on in the 2019/20 campaign is a good example too. Raheem Sterling has actually adopted a very central position, so Ilkay Gundogan steps in. The personnel is fluid, but the overall aims remain:

One other interesting element of Mikel Arteta's build-up play is the five forwards they tend to attack with. If you look at the below image, you can see they push five men forward, and this not only something Pep Guardiola does regularly but also something Mikel Arteta has picked up and implemented at the Emirates:

This is really interesting, as it displays Mikel Arteta's influence from Pep. Clearly Arteta has a similar ideology, and ultimately that's why he was employed as Pep Guardiola's no.2 for so long, but seeing him deploy his philosophy into another side is fascinating.

Rounding off

All in all, Arsenal are definitely building something special.

Mikel Arteta is a coach that has a clear-cut philosophy on how he wants to play, and I believe that the idiosyncrasies in his tactics that come from Pep Guardiola are very interesting.

Playing against Manchester City will definitely be an enthralling encounter, with Arteta up against the man he has learnt an awful lot from. Of course, this game certainly won't define Arsenal's season, let alone Mikel Arteta's tenure at the club, but seeing how he sets his side up at the Etihad will be interesting.

Will he shift from his principles and adopt a more pragmatic approach? Or will we see him outmatched against a more experienced counterpart. Of course, we don't have the answers, so we'll have to wait for the 17th, as Premier League football returns.

Finally...

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