Arsenal’s best results under Mikel Arteta have come in a style markedly at odds with the philosophy the Spaniard outlined when taking charge last December.
“There are some things that have to have a blueprint,” he said at the time. “We have to have passion, we have to be dominant, we have to be aggressive. We have to play in the opponent’s territory as much as we want. I want the ball, I want to attack them as much as possible, I want to prevent them from attacking me as much as possible.”
Four victories stand out from Arteta’s first year in charge: a Premier League success over already crowned (but still record-chasing) champions Liverpool in July, back-to-back wins against Manchester City and Chelsea to claim the FA Cup before a first league triumph at Manchester United in 14 years. In those 360 minutes, the Gunners managed 10 shots on target and averaged 35% possession.
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Many Arsenal supporters hoped for an approximation of Pep Guardiola’s tactics after Arteta’s three-year apprenticeship at Manchester City, but by excelling in neutralising opponents in one-off fixtures, so far there have been closer parallels between Arteta and Jose Mourinho. Therefore, Sunday’s north London derby presents a huge test for Arteta: the managerial rookie who has earned praise for doing a tactical number on rivals with superior talent faces the master of the art form, himself enthused by a renaissance that has taken Tottenham Hotspur to the Premier League summit.
The age of the Mourinho masterclass has not passed, as many believed. The 57-year-old registered his own notable double against Man City and Chelsea, securing four points in a week with a resounding Europa League win in between. In those two league games, Spurs had three shots on target and averaged 37% possession.
And yet, both clubs are still trying to eradicate some bad habits. A persistent theme of Mourinho’s public narrative at Tottenham has been a desire to instil a winning mentality, a hard-nosed ruthlessness that can help a talented team take the final step towards silverware after five years of progress under Mauricio Pochettino. Arteta initially wanted Arsenal to be tougher, removing the soft underbelly originally formed in the final years of Arsene Wenger’s reign as underachievement was met with resignation rather than defiance — the thinking was “solidity now, swagger later.”
The problem for Arteta, 38, is that those promising and undeniable early signs of solidity are disappearing. Only Leeds United’s profligacy in front of goal prevented the Gunners from suffering a third consecutive league defeat, and now he takes his beleaguered team to Spurs attempting to mastermind another smash-and-grab against the restored master of that particular art.
Mikel Arteta’s best results have come from playing a pragmatic style against better opponents. But Sunday sees him up against the master of this tactic, Jose Mourinho. MOLLY DARLINGTON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Wednesday marked a year to the day since Unai Emery beat Tottenham 4-2 in his first north London derby as Arsenal boss. The Gunners recovered from 2-1 down in stirring fashion, roared on by an Emirates Stadium crowd that rallied behind a renewed work ethic and fresh impetus; one commentator described it afterwards as a performance that “pressed and powered Spurs into submission, [providing] further evidence of their transformation under Emery.”
There has been a rush in some quarters to rewrite the all-too-brief Emery era as 18 months of confusion and misery, but his first season was just a handful of good results away from Champions League qualification and a first Europa League triumph in the club’s history. Three defeats and a draw from their final five Premier League games, combined with a 4-1 humbling by Chelsea in the Europa League final, marked the start of a capitulation that, by November last year, eventually cost Emery his job and left Arteta scrambling from the start to rebuild a sense of purpose.
This work started from the ground up, on and off the field, forming the genesis of a more disciplined tactical approach. He prioritised and rewarded hard work and focus over excessive expressionism, essentially reversing the opposing balance from the Wenger era. Arteta recognises it will take several transfer windows to create the squad he wants and a short-term pragmatism has therefore permeated his tactical approach, perhaps best exemplified by switching regularly to a back three in an effort to provide greater defensive stability to a notoriously fragile team. Yet that is threatening to come at the alarming price of attacking returns.
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Arteta has been criticised in recent weeks for an overtly rigid setup, seemingly restricting his forward players in a manner awkwardly contrasted with the goal-scoring largesse of Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane across town. It is a point Arteta acknowledged this week when discussing the team’s lack of goals, having scored just 10 in as many Premier League games and recently going more than seven hours without a league goal from open play.
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“We’ve been winning matches producing similar numbers, but we’ve been very efficient,” he said on Wednesday. “That sometimes is a state of energy, a state of mind, a state of confidence that you are doing everything right. When it gets to the moment you hit [the ball] and it doesn’t hit the post, and if it does hit the post, it goes in. That’s the difference. Football, in the end, is about the cohesion and the energy and belief of the team.”
It’s also about individual form. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s remarkable scoring record endured despite the turbulence of Emery’s tenure, but he’s scored just once in the league since the opening day of the season — a penalty at Old Trafford. Combine that with Alexandre Lacazette and Willian’s ongoing slumps, Nicolas Pepe’s struggles to justify his £72 million price tag and Eddie Nketiah’s inexperience; Arteta has only really been able to rely on Bukayo Saka to provide a consistent threat when deployed in more advanced positions.
Son Heung-Min is flourishing at Tottenham in a way that Arsenal’s forwards are struggling to replicate. Michael Regan/Getty Images
Switching Aubameyang to a centre-forward position is both an admission that Arsenal’s best player has been too peripheral of late, and an acknowledgement that they lack a striker capable of knitting the play together as efficiently as Kane, who has thrived in a deeper No. 10 role this term.
Son has scored nine goals in 10 Premier League games on just 20 shots. His expected goals is 3.9. With Son and either Steven Bergwijn or Gareth Bale bursting forward on the counter-attack, Kane has nine assists in the league to date. His expected assists is 4.33. Both Son and Kane are excelling in terms of maximising opportunities, and their partnership is thriving in a way Lacazette and Aubameyang once did under Emery.
Arteta’s setup relies on his players delivering similar efficiency, but they are falling short over a long-enough period now to cause concern. Equally, Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos were superb against City and Chelsea by giving Arsenal a foothold in the game, but the suspicion remains that those displays were an exception to a more mediocre norm. They therefore do not yet possess the defence or midfield capable of controlling matches to dominate big opponents and so are deployed in a more conservative fashion — albeit not to Mourinho’s most extreme park-the-bus levels — in an effort to nullify an opponent and take the chances when they come.
While Mourinho palpably revels in playing the role of spoiler, this approach is a means to an end for Arteta.
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“Even when we were winning we were still a long, long way from what I want,” he said. “And when we’re losing, you obviously see things even further, but again the margins between where we were losing and winning have sometimes been really, really small. There are reasons for it and it’s going to take time, I’m sorry.”
Arsenal are heavily invested in Arteta and they are determined to give him time to realise that vision. He has worked hard behind the scenes to instil greater professionalism in a squad prone to slacking off and the players have responded in turn with an improved level of commitment, for the most part. But he will simultaneously need to get results in the short term to avoid further scrutiny over his methodology and ability to get the best out of a squad that, while flawed, still possesses enough quality to at least challenge for the top four.
If both Tottenham and Arsenal continue in a similar vein, Sunday’s game is likely to be a tactical affair with both teams reluctant to take the initiative, preferring to limit their mistakes and pounce on their opponents’ flaws. Spurs did this to perfection against City, and Frank Lampard was consequently more cautious than usual in tailoring Chelsea’s approach a week later. Perhaps Arteta will have July’s meeting in mind, when Arsenal had 63% of possession and controlled long periods of the second half, only to register just four shots on target and lose 2-1 to a pair of poor goals.
Mourinho has managed Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester United — arguably Arsenal’s three biggest rivals — yet never lost a home game against the Gunners, winning six and drawing four times. Arteta will need to hatch a plan on Sunday. The difficulty is, however, that Mourinho has seen them all before.