Arsenal’s recent creativity issues have led to calls for the Spaniard to ditch his 3-4-3 formation in favour of utilising a flat back four. However, Gunners legend Nigel Winterburn says there is much more to work to be done to improve his former side’s creativity issues than just switching systems.
When Arteta took over from his predecessor Unai Emery back in December 2019, he inherited a team that was struggling on the pitch and completely devoid of confidence.
The players were said to be confused by the former Sevilla boss’ convoluted instructions, while his constant switching of tactics and personnel left the club in the midst of an identity crisis.
Arteta has instilled belief back in his players and worked to reconnect with the fans, however, on the pitch, the narrative prior to his arrival was that he would adopt the more free-flowing styles of his mentors Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola but that has not yet come to fruition.
Instead, the ex-Manchester City assistant opted to make his side more compact to stop conceding so many shots on goal. He initially deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation, before switching to 3-4-3 in the latter stages of last season.
The counter-attacking nature of the system helped the Gunners record impressive wins over Guardiola’s City in the FA Cup semi-finals and champions Liverpool in the Premier League.
Arteta has persisted with variations of the 3-4-3 this season, and while it provides a solid defensive foundation, Arsenal have struggled to consistently create chances, especially against teams that operate with a low defensive block.
The north London club’s most naturally creative asset, Mesut Ozil, hasn’t played a game since March and his latest snub saw him dropped from Arsenal’s 25-man Premier League squad.
With the Gunners failing to land Lyon playmaker Houssem Aouar in the summer transfer window, the Spanish boss has been forced to look for more innovative ways to build attacks through the middle of the pitch, utilising wingers Bukayo Saka and Willian in more central positions.
‘My gut feeling is Arsenal will eventually switch to a back four,’ Winterburn told Metro.co.uk. ‘When Mikel Arteta came in he started with a back four and switched to a back three as it was unstable.
‘It really shouldn’t affect the way you approach, the chances you create, it’s all about belief, it’s all about possession. Whether you want to press or sit, how far you want to travel with the ball and your combination passing.
‘It’s a combination of things [to improve chance creation], you have to decide when you’re playing against teams whether you are going to try and press high and win the ball back earlier, which is always going to give you more opportunity because you’re in advanced areas so you don’t have to travel between all departments of the opposition team to create chances.
‘If we’re sitting back a little bit, which every team has to do at some stage, it’s the ability to keep possession, but moving through the lines quicker, we’ve got better at it, but against the big teams it’s somewhere we struggle at times.
‘When we try and play out of the back we still lose the ball quite quickly, or it breaks down on the halfway line. At times, we have done it and cut through teams, but we need to get better at doing that on a regular basis, not only against the big teams but all the teams.’
The Gabon international is an easy target as he can disappear in big games when he operates on the left-wing. While Winterburn feels he is most effective playing out wide, he can see the forward being deployed up front against top teams away from home.
‘People are talking about Aubameyang playing in the wide position and why didn’t he play up front in the loss to Manchester City,’ Winterburn added.
‘He’s never played consistently up front for Arsenal and all his goals have come from a wide position, but the focus does tend to come onto him when we have less possession and he gets less touches of the ball. That is going to happen if we can’t regain the ball quicker.
‘Maybe Mikel Arteta will look at the bigger away games sticking Aubameyang upfront with two different wide players. He tried Willian there against City and that might happen in the future again.’
Winterburn played alongside some of the best centre-halves in Arsenal’s history, including the north London club’s record appearance holder David O’Leary and the indomitable Tony Adams.
Summer signing Gabriel Magalhaes possesses the big frame and tenacity that the Gunners have been lacking in their backline in recent years, despite only being 22 years old and some way off the finished product.
The Brazilian has impressed Winterburn since making the £27million switch from Lille, and he has zero doubts about the centre-back’s ability based on his first few games for the club.
‘Gabriel is quick, he’s rough and rugged, I think he’s going to do a good job for Arsenal,’ Winterburn said.
‘We’re just waiting to see whether he’s going to play in a back four or back three as the centre-half role changes slightly. There’s no doubts in my mind he’s a good player.’