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An analysis into Arteta's 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3

Throughout the course of a turbulent first full season in charge at the Emirates for Mikel Arteta, the Spaniard has tinkered with the setup during different stages of the campaign. Variations in the 3-4-3 have been on display, particularly the hybrid 3 at the back system which was utilized up until boxing day.But what’s clear is that the former Arsenal captain sees longevity in his side playing a back four in and out of possession. Arsenal fans have seen their club use a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 under Arteta but uncertainty still revolves around which system the Spanish tactician will deploy.Arteta's 4-2-3-1:Emile Smith Rowe’s availability enabled Arteta to transition away from the hybrid 3-4-3 and deploy a 4-2-3-1; a system that the Arsenal boss began with when he took over back in 2019. The Croydon De Bruyne provided the Gunners with a fundamental aspect that was missing previously, a creative link between the opposition defensive and midfield line. The 20-year-old's inclusion into the eleven enabled stronger connections to Arsenal’s front three and was effectively the catalyst in the upturn in results since Christmas. When analyzing this formation, the structure both on and off the ball is very clear to see.1) Build up playDuring the first phase of play, Arsenal progress forward with a 3-2-5 shape in possession. The way this is utilized depends on the starting eleven. Xhaka, a key performer since Arteta’s arrival, usually drops into the left center-back role, giving Tierney license to bomb forward and create natural width. But when Chambers is selected at right-back, the versatile Englishman is the one who drops back and plays as a third center-half, which allows the two central midfielders to remain within close proximity to each other.2) Transitioning forwardAs the Gunners move into the opposition half, the in possession shape morphs into a 2-3-5, with Tierney and Pepe or Saka holding the width initially.The other three attackers consist of two creators who are given roles of facilitating progression and applying creativity when Aubameyang occupies the centre-forward role. The Gabonese international struggles with his back to goal and the presence of two playmakers between the lines helps minimize this particular deficiency.The dynamics are slightly altered when Lacazette leads the line for the Gunners. The 30-year-olds ability to act as a link player from a deeper position is his best quality, which allows the Arsenal boss to select inside forwards who play on the shoulder and attack the spaces vacated by the Frenchman.3) Out of possessionTypically, the Gunners defend in a 4-4-2 mid-block. Central compactness provided by the narrow midfielders and forwards forces the opposition to move towards the flanks; an important advantage with this system and it’s a setup that has created foundations for adequate centre-half protection.What's very apparent under Arteta is that the defensive stability installed within the team has helped reduce the frequency of chances. The key phrase to take is ‘defensive stability without being a defensive team’. It’s easy to nullify attacking threats by defending deep and having no intention to play football. But maintaining attacking principles and having a solid base is a difficult balance to achieve; which Arteta has managed to find with this particular system. Statistically, this point is proven as only Manchester City have conceded fewer goals than the Gunners since Christmas.Arteta's 4-3-3Following Kieren Tierney’s injury against Liverpool at the Emirates, the absence of a naturally left-footed full-back hindered the in-game dynamics. When the 24-year-old was previously ruled out of action within the January period, Cedric and Pepe formed a partnership through the left; a combination that Arteta viewed as a short-term solution. But instead of resorting back to these familiar principles, the Arsenal manager opted for a 4-3-3.
In terms of out-of-possession, there are no differences structurally to the one on show in a 4-2-3-1. Arteta still insists on his men to retreat swiftly into a 4-4-2 mid-block when defending, with the wide players supporting the full-backs and the two central midfielders screening the center-halves.Regarding build-up patterns, whilst the 3-2-5 is still retained, there are differences in the way certain individuals are utilised.
With the 4-2-3-1, the left-winger on paper is essentially a creator, predominantly operating within the left half-space.
But under this system, the absence of a double pivot allows for the inclusion of two creative midfielders, with the left-winger playing as a conventional wide player. Arsenal’s 2-0 victory at St James’ park is a good way to illustrate this.
Advert InsertedPositioned at left-back was Granit Xhaka and instead of overlapping the Swiss international remained in a deeper position, which allowed Ceballos to venture forward and partner Martinelli in attack, who provided the width. On the opposite flank, similar principles were applied, with Odegaard performing the same role but within the right half-space.4-2-3-1 vs 4-3-3The sample size of games under the 4-3-3 is considerably lower than the 4-2-3-1 and it's because the latter gives Arteta the opportunity to use current key players in more favourable positions.
Arguably one of Arsenal’s most important players is Kieren Tierney and it's imperative that the Scottsman is deployed in a way that allows him to flourish.
But under a 4-3-3, Arsenal's number 3 wouldn't be as effective, and the reason why is because the expectation is that Arteta will on most occasions stick with a 2-3-5 shape within the opposition half. This particular formation would require the full-backs to tuck inside rather than overlap since the number 8’s will be the ones who build partnerships with the wide players.
Whilst Tierney is capable of fulfilling this role, it’s certainly not the way to get the best level of performance out of him. The former Celtic defender is a final third machine, and his ability to beat his man from a standing start along with providing consistency with his final ball is essential for chance creation.Midfield warrior Thomas Partey is another player who springs to mind when analysing individuals who are more suited to a 4-2-3-1. Despite having a mixed start to life in an Arsenal shirt, the Ghanaian international is an integral cog within the starting eleven, providing athletic qualities that his midfield teammates lack in abundance. Whilst the 27-year-old can operate at the base of midfield, he’s best suited in a pivot as this gives him greater license to showcase his offensive qualities such as ball carrying and dribbling.
Report linking Yves Bissouma to the Emirates further indicates that Arteta will remain faithful to this system since the Mali international also thrives when partnered next to someone. Both he and Partey would be tailored together in central midfield partnership, as the two would increase Arsenal's capabilities in sustaining pressure for prolonged periods because of their ability to win possession back high up the pitch.Final thoughtsThe 4-2-3-1 shares many similarities to the 4-3-3 and has shown to provide sustainability both in terms of performances and results. Perhaps in the future, Arteta may change squad profiles and move towards the latter formation, if he is still in charge of course.
But right now, the expectation is that the 39-year-old will stick with the current setup, especially when considering the targets Arsenal have been linked with along with the advantages the 4-2-3-1 currently provides.Hope you enjoyed the read! Please comment below as I'm intrigued to know your thoughts.