One of the most noticeable aspects of the Arteta Arsenal remodeling is the surgery that takes place along the team’s spine. The current head coach approved big money exchanges for Gabriel Magalhães and Thomas Partey last summer and also signed Pablo Mari. Arsenal loaned Martin Odegaard on loan in January, and this summer Albert Sambi Lokonga has already been referred, Ben White will follow (and there is also strong talk of a move for Aaron Ramsdale).
Arsenal have finished eighth in a row, so spinal surgery shouldn’t come as a surprise. This summer; Not only are Arteta and Edu taking steps to work on key areas of the pitch, they’ve also decided to leave David Luiz (definitely) and Granit Xhaka (very likely) the pitch. Xhaka and Luiz were two of Arteta’s most trusted and integral players.
So why the willingness to let her leave? Age matters, Luiz is 34 and his contract has expired, Xhaka is 29 with two years left and has its highest economic value (as Arsenal is currently reminding us of the lavish Roma). The reason both players have been trusted so much is because of the way they circulate the ball. Luiz – in the right midfield – and Xhaka – in the left midfield – were Arteta’s two main exit strategies when it came to building the game from behind.
Xhaka made more passes into the final third than any other player in the Premier League last season (via FBRef). By and large, Xhaka tried to move the ball forward with short or medium passes, while Luiz did so with long diagonals. Only Shkodran Mustafi, who also played as a right central defender, tried more long passes per 90 than Luiz last season at Arsenal (source: FBRef).
The problem with both players is that they are pretty one-dimensional, they are elite passers-by, but to fulfill their roles they have to sit in their slots and not move very far. Luiz and Xhaka are both players who have to sit very deeply, Xhaka is not particularly quick on the turn and while Luiz is not lazy, he often reacts to opposing attacks so deeply that he could order a hot dog in the hall.
Neither player was particularly skilled at “kicking” the ball and propelling it forward. This was less of an issue with Luiz due to his pass range, but Xhaka tended to play his series of moderate value passes in the same left channel because he must occupy the same space. Xhaka and Luiz are in the Arsenal ranking for progressive carry-overs per 90 in 11th and 12th place respectively. Arsenal were in 13th place as a team for this figure in the Premier League last season (source: FBRef).
This means that Arsenal is easier to contain for the opponents as their moves have to start very deep and their two key ball overturners are very static. This often resulted in what Tifo Football aptly referred to in the video below as the “Arsenal Donut” effect. With the main ball players sitting so deep it was easy to defend in large numbers and keep them out on the edges of the pitch and away from the central zones.
The integration of Emile Smith Rowe into the team improved this somewhat, although his role is even more noticeable in broad positions, where he often shuffles over to create large overloads with the full-back and broad striker. Since Xhaka and Luiz had to operate from such a deep area, they couldn’t shrink space in the last third and keep the teams under pressure – a topic I picked up in this column from last season.
Bukayo Saka is such a valuable player for Arsenal because he can pick up the ball in the curve and drive it through crowd scenes. Gareth Southgate picked up on exactly this attribute when he used Saka as a key element of his open-minded English team at Euro 2020. England are also struggling to get the ball out of central rooms and Saka works as a kind of “cheat” who fixes the team’s ball progress problems with his knife runs from the middle to the last third.
We can already see Arteta’s recruitment attempts to address Arsenal’s ball progression issues. Pablo Mari and Gabriel are both touchy defenders who like to attack attackers high up and bring the line of defense with them. Both are also good at covering the space on their left, which is valuable to Arsenal because Kieran Tierney’s running strike from the left-back is so crucial.
Thomas Partey was perhaps the most obvious attempt to address the team’s passivity. Only Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson carried the ball per 90 more often into the last third than Partey last season. According to Phil Costa’s profile of new signing Albert Sambi Lokonga, “the 21-year-old sat in the 93rd percentile for accurate passes in the last third and progressive passes (Wyscout data) and in the 94th percentile for accurate passes,” in the Jupiler League last season.
Phil continues, “When opportunities arise (on both legs), he prefers ambitious passes that involve greater risk but greater reward when breaking deep lines of defense.” Sambi is far richer than Xhaka and when a pass into one central zone is blocked, he is much more likely to take the ball for a short walk to open up the space before releasing it.
Like David Luiz, Ben White is a right central defender and like Luiz the long, driving pass within his reach. After playing for Bielsa’s Leeds in a back four and Graham Potters Brighton on the right of a back three, it can be seen why Arteta finds his profile attractive. The bottom line is what White can do that Luiz can’t is to help Arsenal move higher.
Firstly, his athletic profile is superior to Luiz’s, he’s very adept at covering the left space with a probing right full-back or even a right central midfielder who wants to frolic in the final third. The video below, also from Tifo Football, explains very well some of the qualities Arteta attracts to Ben White, but in a nutshell it’s about squeezing the pitch, playing a higher line of defense and keeping the teams at bay in their defensive third and keep them under pressure.
Nuno Tavares isn’t a recruit to the team’s backbone, but his similarity in profile to Kieran Tierney means less disruption when he’s unavailable. Last season, Cedric Soares and Granit Xhaka’s square pegs were chiseled into this round hole, affecting Arsenal’s ability to advance down the left.
Essentially, the signing of Sambi (who, admittedly, will likely start out as a squad player) and the likely arrival of Ben White take Arsenal further up. Coupled with the captures of Partey, Gabriel and Pablo Mari, this should mean the team can get much closer to the opposing goal and not treat the central areas of the pitch like a colony of lepers.
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