“Over coached”, “control freak” — the rally cry of those frustrated with Arsenal’s play and the way Arteta is managing their progress. Is it right? Fair? Possibly, although I prefer to describe Arteta’s play and identity as, “highly structured” and “clear visioned”.
Semantics? Forgive me.
While I find the people picking up the banner and joining the #ArtetaOut movement some of the most ridiculous members of this fanbase, matches like Arsenal’s against Leicester City are a prime point for their frustrations. Arsenal looked like a side set out to simply follow orders. Move the ball to the safe man, retain the possession, probe for the opening. The word ‘probe’ here feels as though it is being used dishonestly. Probing normally comes with the intent of finding an opening and taking it, Arsenal seemed more in the mood to shift that responsibility onto the next player, side-to-side, following their instructions.
Last week, I wrote a piece on Dani Ceballos’ 90 minutes against Leicester and talked about the rigid positioning he was asked to keep for nearly 80 minutes of the game. It’s true, the attacking play of Arsenal can feel very robotic. Lacking fluidity. Lacking the appearance of a cohesive team that understands how to react to individual moments of something ‘different’, to come together and create team brilliance. Even Arsenal’s three astounding team goals against Manchester City, Liverpool, and Fulham recently have the feeling of a play drawn up on the chalkboard and rehearsed until the sun goes down.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Not every team is capable of the producing ad hoc brilliance like Jack Wilshere’s goal against Norwich, nor do they need to be. But this last weekend, we may have seen what a side looks like when it lacks almost all structure.
Watching bits of of the Manchester United – Arsenal game, there were moments where United’s side seemed as though they were calling out for a little more hands-on coaching to aid their structure. A midfield in disarray at many moments. Individual talents going rogue from the system to try and make plays, but having it come off feeling disconnected from the other 10 players on the pitch. Arguably having more talent on an individual basis be overrun by two hard working players in Partey and Elneny, rewarded for their work and belief in a system laid before them by their manager.
Belief. It’s a word used a lot by Arteta early on in his time as Arsenal’s manager. He has asked the club, the players, his staff, and the fans to have faith in him. After winning the FA Cup, Arteta turned to the club doctor Gary O’Driscoll and asked exclaimed, “I told you, I told you. Believe in me, my friend.”
Once again, belief was a topic of discussion after Arsenal beat Manchester United for the first time in 14 years at Old Trafford. Asked what a win like that does for players’ belief, Arteta said, “It generates the belief and it binds everyone together.”
“Everyone’s going to feel really part of it because players who haven’t played so many minutes in the Premier League until recently will be involved. Everybody has to be ready and if we want to perform at that level, we’re going to have to use this squad.”
“Everybody has to be contributing and focused on what they are bringing to the team. That’s the question you have to ask of yourself. It’s not just on the pitch, it’s off it as well and in training. We’re looking at what you can bring to the team, how you can help and how you are contributing. I’m really happy with the team.”
That belief from the players is visible on the field. A belief in the coach, a belief in their own abilities, a belief in what their teammates can offer, but mostly a belief that their system can yield wins in major matches. Which begs the question, which is better — over coached and high on belief, or given freedom but left adrift?
I understand the obvious answer is somewhere in between. That’s the goal state of any team. To have a style of play that yields results while putting complete faith in players to create.
If that’s the end product, I’ll forgive Mikel for not believing the Arsenal side is capable of it, yet, and putting in place a more rigid system where each player understands their well-defined role. Player’s lack of understanding on the level Mikel has them at, is partly what led to many of Emery’s problems. Players were confused on their role, what was expected for them, where to be, and when to be there.
Is Arteta’s system one that is going to cost the effectiveness of certain players? I think one could argue that. We may have seen it to some extent with Mesut Ozil and, more recently, we heard reports of Willian being challenged to get a hold of it all to an extent that allows him to compete with the best. I’m here to say that’s alright!
It’s also a system that is getting not only more from some players, but their best. Look no further than Mustafi last season and now Mohammed Elneny. The phrase “like a new signing” is oft abused, but here we are with a player that has come back into the Arsenal side, performed at a consistent level day in and day out, and is elevating his game under Arteta’s system. His performance against Manchester United was nothing short of a career best. At the risk of sounding like a gushing fan (which I am), he absolutely manhandled the likes of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. There were moments that Bruno was dropping all the way into the backline to try and get on the ball with space.
And I get it, it’s a team effort. It really is. As immense as Thomas Partey, Mohammed Elneny, and Gabriel’s performance was, it was also the whole team frustrating United’s players into, essentially, losing the plot…whatever that plot was.
So, is it a flawless system that will yield no more hiccups? Absolutely not. This rebuild is going to take Arsenal a few years. It’s going to have its ups like Manchester United, and it’s lows like Leicester City. The transition to an attacking team is an arduous one. Having a system the players believe in, a coach that is delivering a consistent message to them, one that’s making little tweaks each game and learning during his own early career stages, that’s what gets Arsenal across the finish line.
I wrote, as many did, that the handbrake was still on. That Arteta needed to take off the handbrake if he wants to attack. And to an extent, I stand by that notion. When Arsenal go up against a team that wants to spend 65-80 minutes in a low block and seize opportunities, the completely rigid play will need to adapt and need to be a bit more daring. But the structure, the identity, the communication, and the hands-on approach of Arteta? That’s got to stay for now.
It’s yielding results for the defense who have conceded the fewest goals in the league. It’s showing the team they have the ability to compete with the best (not just talking about Manchester United who are not the best), and it’s instilling faith that they as a team are capable of adjusting the way they play, over time, to be a flexible, dynamic, winning side. And THAT, is worth the feeling of being “over coached” during these growing stages.
This squad needed an overhaul, needed a rebuild, and we have to accept that in Arteta’s world that’s a hands-on project right now. But that’s a heck of a lot better feeling than what United have on their hands.
Alright. Leaving it there. Something to think about as Arsenal get ready for Molde on Thursday and Aston Villa at the weekend. Maybe mentally prepare for the Emi Martinez – Bernd Leno debate that rages on.
Enjoy the day, keep enjoying the win!