Can Arteta’s Arsenal Win the Champions League in 3 Seasons? by AI
When Willian mentioned that Arteta had projected for Arsenal to win the big-eared trophy within three years, his statement was met with derision by many and they had good reasons to find the suggestion ridiculous. Arsenal has just finished 8th, and were practically bang average in the league last season.
For all that, Arsenal’s season had also been sabotaged under the listless and quickly-toxic management of The Man Who Must Not Be Named. Under a more stable management, maybe the Queen’s team might have done 10 points or more better. What is clear is this: given other factors stayed the same, had Arteta started the season as a coach, Arsenal could have qualified for the Champions League.
However, last season in the English top-flight was not a great one for CL-hustling teams not named Liverpool. It should be reasonably expected that it would take several more points than 66 to clinch CL qualification in the upcoming season. My projection would be around a 6-12 point improvement on the medium side, so at least 75 points should be enough next season to qualify teams for the Champions League. This has been above the average number of points required for the CL in the last six seasons. Arteta’s Arsenal will need a 20 point improvement, or 6 more wins than last season.
Liverpool did it two seasons and could have done it before that against Real Madrid, you know, before Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Lorius Marius happened. Liverpool have shown that it can be done and how it should be done. At Jurgen Klopp’s introduction, Liverpool were no where near this current Arsenal in terms of squad talent.
This was the squad that Jurgen Klopp inherited:
Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet
Defence: Nathaniel Clyne, Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho, Alberto Moreno
Midfield: Lucas Leiva, Emre Can, Philippe Coutinho
Attack: Adam Lallana, Divock Origi, James Milner
On the bench were Adam Bogdan, Kolo Toure, Joe Allen, Jerome Sinclair, Joao Carlos Texiera and Connor Randall.
Only 3 out of that list have proven to be capable of playing in the Champions League. Coutinho, Milner, Emre Can.
This is Arteta’s Arsenal squad for his first full season:
Goalkeeper: Bernd Leno, Emiliano Martinez
Defenders: Hector Bellerin, Cedric Soares, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, David Luiz, Sokratis Papasthopoulus, Skhodran Mustafi, Rob Holding, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes, Calum Chambers, Pablo Mari, Kieran Tierney, Sead Kolasinac
Midfielders: Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi, Mohammed Elneny, Joe Willock, Emile Smith-Rowe,
Attackers: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, Willian, Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson.
Granted, some of these might leave but certainly not the very best of them. I count at least ten very competent players and that is on the low side.
Klopp looked at the team he inherited and said that they would win at least one trophy in 4 seasons. Arteta has won one major trophy in 6 months. It is hardly a stretch to say Arsenal have more personel resources than Klopp had.
Blame the executive hierarchy all you want but they have actually done a better job than most in recruiting talent and the academy has been very good at developing plausible EPL youngsters. Since Arsene Wenger’s last year (choosen because they would have began to start planning for life after the Professor), Leno, Tierney, Luiz, Sokratis, Mari, Ceballos, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Pepe, Willian, Guendouzi, Torreira, Martinelli, Saliba and Magalhaes have all been recruited. Although there has been varying degrees of success, there has not been one blowout apart from Mustafi, and he yet may be redeemed. The academy has also pumped out Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson, Alex Iwobi, Eddie Nketiah and Bukayo Saka since that time. That’s not even counting the ones that have been let go like Ismael Bennacer, Jeff-Reine Adelaide and one particular player who was not good enough for Tony Pulis. Most of these youngsters are destined for a long career in Europe’s Top 5 leagues, and some, like Saka, are dead-certs to operate at a Champions League level.
Talent-wise, Arsenal have not done too bad. That much is clear. So why are they not in the Champions League?
I would blame the sudden emergence of Liverpool and Tottenham as CL contenders. You see, Arsenal points-accumulation has been pretty much consistent, if gradually worse, over the past couple of years. On average, over the past decade, since we no longer contend for the title, we tend to bring in just about enough points to remain among the elite.
The problem with “just about enough” is that you are prone to missing out if others around you improve. Remember Liverpool clinching CL qualification over us on the last matchday of 2017 season? The one-point miss to Tottenham in Emery’s first season? Even if we had retained Emery this season and managed to not totally collapse under him, we would have been competitive for CL places till the death. The gap has consistently been narrow, if slightly widening. That is the reality.
All Arsenal need, it appears then, is either a fortunate break or outright competency. Competency would imply coaching. Luckily for them, it seems as if they have got the latter in Arteta. In fact, if there was one word I think would be used to describe Arteta’s reign going forward, it should be “competency”. We will see.
So back to that comparison to Klopp’s initial Liverpool. Compared to that team, Arsenal are a far cry away in inherent quality. Yet, in 4 years, that same Liverpool team had arrived in consecutive CL finals.
What other European comparison exists? RB Leipzig and Olympique Lyon, perhaps worse teams in terms of playing talent alone. Also Ajax went from losing in the Europa League final to Mourinho’s Manchester to the semi-finals of the CL three seasons later. It looks as though any highly competent (read as well-coached) team with a piece of luck has a good chance at a deep CL run. This then begs the question: Can Arteta build a competent team? In other words, has Mikel Arteta shown that he can be a great coach?
Let’s have one more look at the playing talent available to Arteta.
Across the frontline, Arteta’s Arsenal are elite with the addition of Willian to a roster of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe. That’s nearly as good as you can get talent for gold.
In the midfield, Granit Xhaka is the only clear CL-level talent Arsenal have got. Ceballos played some serious ball after the lockdown but it’s not quite clear yet if he can solidify at a higher level. In the central defensive positions, Arsenal have a million centrebacks plus David Luiz. And in Gabriel Maghalaes and William Saliba, they have a potential CL-quality pairing. David Luiz is great in a back 3, OK in a back 2, while all the rest shuffle between average and above average with more upswinging when it comes to Mustafi. Arsenal have no obvious problem in this area. And at fullback, in Bellerin, Tierney and Maitland-Niles, they have absolutely no issues at all (plus when you think about Bukayo Saka’s devastating talent there). Goalkeeping-wise, Arsenal are also CL quality.
So, currently, Arteta is only a good midfield away from the basics of what should be a very talented team. That’s not too bad for a first year start.
Lyon has recently confirmed that Arsenal are seriously pursuing their 22-year-old midfielder, Houssem Aouar. To get an instant guage of his quality, nobody has supplied more assists in the Champions League since the 2018/19 season than he has. Then there is also a big interest in Thomas Partey of Atletico Madrid. Even if Arsenal got just one out of the two, that would make them light-years ahead of Liverpool’s first iteration under Klopp.
Arteta has shown that he can work effectively with lesser talents or improve underwhelming players. Ceballos, Luiz, Niles, Mustafi, Xhaka all looked reborn under him. Mohammed Elneny did not look out of place against Liverpool. The likes of Saka, Pepe, Lacazette (who had a very bad patch of form) should all do even better next season. But enough about talent, let’s talk about how Arteta might organize a team that can qualify for, and win, the CL.
What does it take to be a top team nowadays?
At the beginning of his tenure, Arsenal played quite expansively under Arteta, retaining possession and constantly finding a free man running into space especially on the left. Ozil returned to the side, Maitland-Niles played as an inverted fullback and Arsenal roundly defeated Manchester United in January in the best expression of Artetaball available. After the Europa League exit to Olympiakos, Arteta switched to the 3-4-3, which has proved to be highly effective against top teams and just so-so against less talented sides.
In both the 4-3-3 and 3-4-3, one quality stands out in Arteta’s Arsenal team more than most: compactness. Whether Arsenal are pushing up, dominating possession or sitting back to soak up pressure and break quickly, they have been compact and tough. Players are not spread out too far from one another and when you combine that with relentless pressing, you’ve got the basics of a very good team.
Liverpool and Manchester United are examples of highly compact sides. Irregardless of playing talent, compactness is the first thing you need to be able to play successfully against top sides. Another highly compact side is Atletico Madrid, even if they don’t play as expansively as others. Compactness gives your opponents smaller spaces to operate in, it increases pressure on their decision-making, both in terms of speed of execution and cost. If you miscontrol the ball against any of the above sides, you are very likely not getting another chance to organize yourself.
Whatever you do must be done well or you will lose the ball. And if you don’t make the decision quickly enough, you will likely find yourself outnumbered and in a very uncomfortable situation.
Pressing and compactness are two sides of the same coin. You can press more effectively if you are compact. Teams like Bayern Munich and Liverpool hold high defensive lines because of compactness.
They want everyone closer so they can press better and apply high pressure on their opponents. If the defenders were in their own penalty box, while the rest of the team was deep in the opponent side, vast stretches of space would open up in the midfield and that would allow the other side the time to gather the numbers and calm to properly attack against the defenders around the penalty box once they got out.
This is what happened under Unai Emery. Arsenal pressed high and hard but Emery was afraid to play a high defensive line (when the best in-possession defender you’ve got is Mustafi, you have good reasons to be afraid), so while the midfielders and attackers would often apply pressure up the pitch, the defenders would stay back, leaving large spaces in the midfield once the opponent play out of the press. It was a common sight during Emery’s last season to see Arsenal’s defensive line deep and exposed as opponents ran towards them. And what happens when you give your opponents the time and space to directly attack your defensive line frequently? You concede an unholy number of attempts on your goal.
To press high successfully, everyone has to press high, too, including your defenders. By doing that, you shrink the space available to your opponents and make it easier to pressure them. Occasionally, they might successfully play out of your press. If it is a ball in behind, that’s what you need a sweeping keeper for. A goalkeeper who is able to rush out and claim a through or high ball is essential to this system.
Why do you think Arteta’s Arsenal want to continue with Bernd Leno and not Emiliano Martinez? Although both good goalkeepers, the German arguably sweeps better than the Argentine.
If you somehow got your press by-passed, compactness allows you to defend better. The likes of Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City don’t like defending in their penalty area and you can see this in how aggressive these teams are in springing the offside trap. If you don’t play the through ball on time, your receiver will be offside. If you do quickly play the through-ball, then your execution is more prone to error and the keeper can successfully sweep it up.
Another benefit of compactness in the defensive phase is that it allows you to defend better in numbers in your penalty box. If your opponents hold the ball instead of a direct counter, since your midfield is close to your defence, they can get back quicker and in numbers.
You can also counterattack better and safer if your attackers have followed the ball back. Since they are closer to the rest of the team, they will have better support to play out the ball and if the counterattack fails, you still have the numbers to protect your side of the pitch. If the counterattack is blocked or unable to progress, the rest of the team can move up and recycle the ball until they are back in the high-pressure possession shape.
Liverpool are a great example of this. If they can’t counterattack you out of their low defensive shape, they recycle the ball as the rest of the team comes back up and they start building in your side of the pitch again. To counterattack in this system, you will need very pacy wingers who can also play very well in possession. Serge Gnabry, Ivan Perisic, Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane…
This is what Arteta is trying to build at Arsenal. We have already seen that he can make the team compact both in possession and out of possession. This is one of the best indicators of his coaching pedigree. He adapted to a less possession-oriented style with the 3-4-3 because of a poor midfield and error-prone defense. And this is also a great indicator of his quality as a coach, his ability to effectively adapt to an optimal style.
Arsenal have signed a possession-based left-footed defender in Gabriel Maghalaes, despite having a dozen other options already. This is why he signed Pablo Mari in January, someone who has played well in Jorge Jesus’ high-pressure possession system. This is why David Luiz contract was extended and why Mustafi will continue to play as long as he is here. Arteta is preparing the basics of a defence capable of playing the ball and sustaining pressure high up the pitch. It would be a huge surprise if Arsenal don’t revert back to the ambitious, high-pressure system that Arteta used earlier on in his tenure.
Arteta’s Arsenal have shown that they are capable of effectively pressing the best possession teams in Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. They have also shown great prowess in the counterattack, as well as proficiency in the build-up and ball-progression phase. Bring it all together and what you have is the ingredients of a competent team capable of going far in the Champions League.
How long will it take for Arteta to bring it all together? He thinks it will take 3 seasons, maximum. Pep Guardiola took 2 seasons with a more talented and resource-rich side. Jurgen Klopp took 4 seasons with a worse side than either of them. 3 seasons sound about just right. That is, if Arteta proves to be almost as good as either coach. So far, according to what I see from Arsenal on the pitch, he’s done nearly as best as either of them might have.
Arsenal will need more quality recruitment over the years. Aubameyang might soon require replacing. Lacazette may not last another season. The entire midfield would do very well with new players. The front office has shown that they do not lack ambition in their targets (Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang) and that they can acquire an undervalued player whenever they want (Guendouzi, Tierney, Leno, Martinelli). The recruitment potential is quite good and will be needed over the next few seasons. In the addition of players of Saliba’s and Magalhaes’ profile, the whole recruitment setup looks extremely good on paper.
And that is the thing about current Arsenal and Arteta: everything looks good on paper. And we are slowly showing it on the field of play.