Mikel Arteta seemed to have Arsenal sorted last season, albeit they fell short in their ultimate aim of winning the Premier League. But with Ben White bombing down the right, Aaron Ramsdale a huge personality in goal, Gabriel at centre half, Thomas Partey patrolling midfield and, usually, a recognised centre forward in Gabriel Jesus or Eddie Nketiah, they were a force to be reckoned with again.
Which is why, in what has been an unconvincing start to the season, fans and pundits have been somewhat bemused to see him tear up that formula and start again.
Partey now plays as a full back who comes into midfield. Gabriel cannot get a look in while White has moved to centre half. Against Fulham, Arteta had Leandro Trossard as a false No 9, one of those tricky, technical players, wafting into forward areas; and David Raya has been signed, you suspect to replace Ramsdale in the long term.
With Manchester United, their opponents on Sunday, also not exactly consolidating their credentials, Manchester City’s potential rivals already run the risk of looking like phantom title challengers.
Why mess with a winning team? The answer lies partly in the fallacy of that statement: Arsenal finished five points behind Manchester City and have to improve. Evolve or die is the mantra.
Arsenal were a force to be reckoned with last season as they used the same system throughout
The Gunners have made tweaks this season, though, and have looked unconvincing at times
Eyebrows have been raised over Mikel Arteta’s decision to shake up a winning formation
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Yet it also lies in plethora of assistant coaches, boffins, tacticians, TV watchers and software experts employed by every Premier League club these days.
Every club has a war planning room with several staff, some with PhDs from MIT and Cambridge University, known as the analysis department, producing graphs and stats on all their opponents.
Arteta says the technology is moving so fast that it is not just a case that it is a gamechanger from 10 years ago. Even from this season to last, you have to change up again.
‘Believe me, it’s a different game,’ said Arteta. ‘And it will be very different in a year’s time. And it’s very different to a year ago and two years ago.’
Where once, a 4-4-2 might suffice, on Friday, Arteta countered questions about his formation by quizzing the interrogator as to which formation he meant? ‘The other day there were 36 different formations in the match,’ said Arteta. ‘Against Manchester City, 43. So I don’t know what formation we talk about?’
Then, on a lengthy analogy diversion as to how he takes different routes on his daily commute depending on conditions, he compared the questions he gets on tactics to him, a Spaniard with a few years’ experience living in the capital, to quizzing a London taxi driver about the options.
‘I would know nothing compared to him because he will tell me all the back streets and options and the best times.’ The message was clear: my job is a lot more complex than many think.
An analyst who works for a major club sympathises with Arteta’s dilemma. ‘Arsenal have to be better than last season to win the league or keep up with City and he has to tweak it,’ the analyst tells Mail Sport.
Arteta says technology is moving so fast that you have to make changes or getting left behind
An analyst who works for a major club sympathises with Arteta’s dilemma so far this season
‘Coaches and teams can’t get away with doing the same thing. If they try something on Saturday, by Sunday the rest of the league has analysed it.
‘Because of the size of the analysis teams and the access to the software they have, they might even know what the triggers [the team’s supposedly secret signal] are for a team to invert the full back.
‘They’ll be able to identify that and come up with a plan to counter that and exploit the weaknesses. That is what sets the top coaches apart. Pep [Guardiola] is obviously the big one, in his ability to innovate and make the slightest tweak.
‘Clubs might work all week on stopping a movement and then he might change it ever so slightly, so players are: “Well, we worked on stopping this? But they’re not doing it! They’re doing something else!”
‘That is what separates the top coaches from those that might be a bit of a flash in the pan.’ An analyst who works for a major club sympathises with Arteta’s dilemma.
Once you could surprise a team with a new formation and more or less get away with the same tactic for a few weeks. In 1987, QPR manager Jim Smith played a 3-5-2 system with a sweeper in the old first division.
Coaches Albert Stuivenberg (centre) and Nicolas Jover (left) have influenced the Spaniard
It had never been seen in England and QPR were improbably top of the league after 10 games, having won eight of them. The plan only faltered when they met eventual champions Liverpool at Anfield in October and lost 4-0.
But QPR still finished fifth. In the digital age, life is not like that. They would have been found out within a fortnight and the job of a Premier League coach really is a relentless game of shadows, feints and bluffs.
‘It’s something that has moved on so rapidly in the last 10 years and the emergence of analysis departments has a lot to do with the quality of football we see in the Premier League across the board, not just top teams,’ says the analyst.
‘Coaches can’t afford to go three, four, five games seeing if something will work. They have to change on the fly. It’s absolutely a game of cat and mouse. There’s a lot of double bluffing. “We want you to think this is our weakness, but we’re planning to make you think that, we’re prepared for that”.’
For Arteta, his analysts are Kevin Balvers and Ben Chadwick. Probably his main influences are his coaching team, Albert Stuivenberg, Nicolas Jover, Carlos Cuesta and Miguel Molina. Together, they will have hatched these current plans.
Bonded by their time at Barcelona and then as colleagues at Manchester City, Arteta is often seen as Pep’s Mini-Me, which explains why he is working so hard to out-Pep his mentor.
Ben White (left) could return to right back against Man United, paving the way for Gabriel to come back into the fold
‘Pep does some stuff on the fly because he has that quick thinking brain but he will have worked on new plans and Arteta is cut from the same cloth,’ says the analyst.
At the end of it all, with Oleksandr Zinchenko set to be fit to play today and Partey injured, Gabriel could be back at centre half with Ben White at right back, making it back to the game plan of last season.
And yet Arteta will doubtless say otherwise.
The game keeps changing. His nemesis keeps evolving. And until he can out innovate Pep Guardiola, Arsenal will remain second best.