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5 skillful improvements seen from Arteta’s Arsenal team during their nine unbeaten match run

Arsenal are looking good, aren’t they? At the very least they’re looking better than before, although considering how exceptionally dreadful they were that can be an unjust term to use.

September and October have been fun. Very fun. Embarking on an undefeated streak across both months, the idea that the season doesn’t start until the summer transfer window closes has never rang truer.

Remove those opening three matches from the history books and Arsenal would sit second in the table behind only Chelsea. If only it worked like that.

Instead the focus is on progression. Some teams require a quarter of the season to kick into gear; some teams come out of the blocks firing; some teams falter in the latter stages; and some teams are consistently good or bad throughout.

5 tactical improvements seen from Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal team during their nine-match unbeaten run in the Premier League and Carabao Cup

Nobody knows which of the above Arsenal will fall into. Ten games into a Premier League campaign is still far too soon to be coming to conclusions. What can be deciphered, however, is trends; spells of form to indicate the direction one team is heading in.

Arsenal’s trend is upwards. Any nine-game stretch without loss provides data that can calculate that, in the same way the 22-game unbeaten run under Unai Emery revealed how unsustainable or fortunate the team were, with a dip due at any point.

Reasons as for why the Gunners have taken strides towards becoming a more well-rounded unit with more positive points than negative ones has its roots in the personnel. But even though Mikel Arteta has had a better quality of player to select from, they still have to perform certain tactical roles to help maximise their output.

As this run without defeat aims to reach double figures when Watford head to the Emirates Stadium next, what improvements have been made across this spell that have transformed the outlook? A few spring to mind.

Arsenal’s trend is upwards. Any nine-game stretch without loss provides data that can calculate that, in the same way the 22-game unbeaten run under Unai Emery revealed how unsustainable or fortunate the team were, with a dip due at any point.

Reasons as for why the Gunners have taken strides towards becoming a more well-rounded unit with more positive points than negative ones has its roots in the personnel. But even though Mikel Arteta has had a better quality of player to select from, they still have to perform certain tactical roles to help maximise their output.

As this run without defeat aims to reach double figures when Watford head to the Emirates Stadium next, what improvements have been made across this spell that have transformed the outlook? A few spring to mind.

1. Capitalising on Fast Starts & High Pressing

While the difference in quality of the ‘fast starts’ Arsenal have made across Arteta’s tenure is debatable, what they aren’t are some new innovation never before attempted.

This team have sought to get their noses in front early on in matches – almost every side would like to do likewise – they’ve just been extremely poor at it.

Sometimes labelled as ‘domination’ by the manager last season when in fact it’s more closely resembled a three-year-old trying to beat up his adult brother, the amount of penetration and threat posed in many of these spells has been borderline laughable. Arsenal have been on top, but held at arms’ length.

What has been seen over the course of this run is the team capitalising on these periods. Overall they’re quicker, more dynamic, and have players making threatening runs in all directions.

Some of the openings, specifically in the three most recent home Premier League matches and the trip to Leicester, have been breathless. The energy levels are exceptional, and pivotal in their execution and effectiveness is the coordinated high pressing.

One outstanding criticism of Arteta has been his inability to coach a press: Arsenal couldn’t handle them, or inflict them. This team looks vastly more assertive out of possession and the triggers have been drilled into the players’ minds to the point where they’re near subconscious actions.

The pressing has been integral to these fast starts not only being quick and tenacious, but able to be sustained over longer periods and make Arsenal threatening even when they don’t have the ball.

2. Well Organised High Line With Perfect Central Defenders

Perfect? For what Arsenal want to do, they most definitely are.

In terms of where they are and where they can be then Gabriel and Benjamin White are not ‘perfect’ yet, but they are two well-scouted centre-backs who’ve been brought in to aid Arsenal’s quest for more front-footed football.

What is excellent about both is that they’re as capable playing in their own box batting out crosses and blocking shots as they are pushing high up as Arsenal compress the pitch. Both quick across the grass, agile and able to pick a pass, sometimes they look more like central midfielders than central defenders. That’s a compliment.

Considering the profiles of both it’s bizarre how long it’s taken the manager to decide to start pressing with more intensity higher up the pitch. The whole team is suited to it. And now that they are, there is the insurance policy of Gabriel and White (who did an excellent job on Jamie Vardy in the opening 25 minutes of the Leicester win, for example) in behind to have that platform.

A lot of work has been done on the training pitch to see those two in sync, and that is not ignoring the role of Takehiro Tomiyasu, whoever is at left-back, and Aaron Ramsdale in forging this as a unit.

However, as a high line, the White and Gabriel combination is looking increasingly well organised.

3. Keeping the Midfield Simple – With Options

Across this entire run the best performances have been the ones where the midfield has been kept as a simple double pivot. No fancy movements, no unnecessary cover, just two players working in sync who offer options on the ball and protection in front of the back four.

Looking at the displays where Arsenal suffered brings Brighton into the frame. The Seagulls are a strong side and that has to be taken into account, yet fielding a duo of Sambi and Thomas Partey while asking the Belgian to effectively play left centre-back was to nobody’s benefit.

Even when Granit Xhaka was in the team against Tottenham he wasn’t tasked with moving into those zones, areas he normally always picks up. Then, against Crystal Palace, when Arsenal weren’t in control they looked frail centrally and too easily played through with just Partey in there.

Switching over to Aston Villa and Leicester, where Sambi and Partey were very much a central midfield partnership, tells a different story: Arsenal were able to progress the ball centrally with more fluidity, protect the back four and allow their pivot to fluctuate between No. 6 and No. 8 duties in tandem with one another.

Two players with skillsets to match either, Villa in particular saw the best of Sambi come out. In terms of team pressing it also makes Arsenal more functional, and as much as there was giddiness over the initial implementing of the 4-1-4-1, the team has looked more structured and progressive with two midfielders acting as midfielders.

4. Adding Threat From Set Pieces

It’s quite the stat: in the last four matches in all competitions Arsenal have scored more goals (5) from set pieces (excluding direct free-kicks) than they did in the entirety of the 2020/21 Premier League season.

Hats off to Nicolas Jover on this one.

The former Manchester City set piece specialist was headhunted by Arteta over the summer as Andreas Georgson departed for Malmö FF, who had left behind some fantastic framework to build on.

Exceptional organisation and solidity in defensive set pieces, the issue was at the other end. Arsenal were toothless. They had put all their eggs in one basket.

Jover has taken time to start putting his stamp on this team, having already come under scrutiny during pre-season when Arsenal were leaking goals from corners and free-kicks galore. Clearly premature thoughts, he’s now overseen significant change.

Introducing Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka on dead balls more often and abandoning some of the ludicrous routines that were previously in place, Arsenal now offer genuine threat from such situations – no team in the division has score more set piece goals this season.

A marked improvement.

5. The Speed of Build-Up Play

One of the more alarming statistics that kept cropping up last season was the speed of Arsenal’s build-up. Perhaps for those who don’t tune in every week it provided some insight, but supporters of the club didn’t need it in writing. They knew plain well.

No team built play up through the thirds slower than Arsenal. Lowest in metres gained per second, and not far off the bottom of the list for passes per shot, it was pedestrian to the point of pensioner.

Teams could stroll back into shape and once the ball was cleared it took an excruciatingly long time to get it back to the final third. It was boring beyond belief.

Arsenal have also been guilty of being boring this season, in fairness. In other words, not fun. But there has been a steady increase across this run and the speed with which Arsenal attack is vastly improved. Almost all of the aforementioned traits play their part – options in midfield, high line and high press – as well as having a better quality of progressive players: Gabriel and White and extraordinary improvements on Holding and Mari.

Someone like White who can carry through the lines are switch play effortlessly is aided by Gabriel whose fizzed balls into feet catch the opposition off guard.Having Smith Rowe on the left to drive in possessionhelps, just as two nimble, press resistant midfielders like Sambi and Partey do too. Aaron Ramsdale’s otherworldly distribution plays a huge role too, and Arsenal can go back to front with blistering speed.

In terms of specific reasons why build up is faster, a lot of it is down to personnel and understanding the economy of touches. Other statistical elements help explain the matter, such as Arsenal averaging 11 less progressive carries per 90 minutes than last season (sample size klaxon) with a greater emphasis on playing through the lines with pace.

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