After this 1-0 win over Norwich City, an Arsenal team that had appeared to be in free-fall now have a foothold in their season.
This may not have been the convincing scoreline Mikel Arteta needed to dispel the doubts surrounding his management. But it was a start. And the 4-3-3 formation Arsenal finished the match in perhaps even provided a look at the shape of their future.
Arteta may feel, justifiably, that the margin of victory should have been greater.
Arsenal had 30 attempts on goal in the course of the game — the most they have mustered in any Premier League game under his management, and a full 29 more than they had in their previous outing, against Manchester City two weeks ago.
It’s improvement. And, as before, it’s a start.
It should not go unnoticed that 20 of those 30 attempts on goal came in the second half. That can partly be attributed to the state of the game — once Arsenal went ahead with 25 minutes to go, Norwich were forced to open up — but it also owes something to a crucial change in shape.
In the 62nd minute, with the game still goalless, Arteta sent on Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe, switching from the 4-2-3-1 formation Arsenal had begun with to a 4-3-3.
He has long spoken — both privately and publicly — of his desire to see Arsenal eventually evolve into using that system. It is the same formation that has been the bedrock of his mentor Pep Guardiola’s success at Manchester City. In December 2020, a year into his reign, he admitted: “We want to move to a 4-3-3 but for that, you need a lot of specificity in every position but now in five or six positions, we don’t have it.”
Now, after a summer of significant transfer business, they might do.
When Arteta and technical director Edu presented their plan to sign Partey to Arsenal’s owners last summer, the potential shift towards a 4-3-3 formation was cited in the discussions. Now Arteta has deployed it in the Premier League. The indications are that we will see plenty more of it before this season is out.
Arsenal started on Saturday with the more familiar 4-2-3-1 shape, but there was still a sense of adventure. Five of their six summer signings were handed starts, including league debuts for Takehiro Tomiyasu and Aaron Ramsdale.
The selection of the 23-year-old Ramsdale at the expense of Bernd Leno in goal had a symbolic weight: after conceding nine times in losing their opening three league games, Arsenal were looking to establish a new defensive platform.
Arteta’s bold selection seemed to energise the Emirates Stadium crowd, who roared their approval as their team produced an encouraging opening 20 minutes. The Arsenal crowd are often criticised over the ground’s tepid atmosphere, but this gave the lie to that accusation, the home fans audibly willing the players to find a breakthrough, to find their feet.
By half-time, however, it was as if the early wave of optimism that had engulfed the Emirates had subsided, leaving just the bare reality of Arsenal’s situation: three-and-a-half games into their Premier League season, still awaiting their first goal.
Something needed to change, and Arteta deemed it was to be both the personnel and the team shape.
There have been glimpses of the 4-3-3 previously: he used it when chasing the game away to Aston Villa in February. There were echoes of it in the 5-0 defeat by Manchester City last time out before the international break. Although Arsenal lined up with five at the back, they fielded a solitary holding midfielder with free eights ahead. On that occasion, it was difficult to judge its success: Arsenal’s game plan was undone by individual defensive errors and Granit Xhaka’s first-half sending off.
That is another part of the appeal of this system: it just might enable Arsenal and Arteta to escape their apparent reliance on Xhaka.
Against Norwich, it was Partey who came off the bench to anchor the midfield, with Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard roaming ahead of him.
On a day when the name of Patrick Vieira was sung heartily again by the supporters, after the former Arsenal captain managed Crystal Palace to beat their arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 in the early kick-off, Partey showed the value of a dominant midfield presence.
With Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka on the flanks, at times it was as much a 4-1-4-1 as a 4-3-3. Suddenly, Arsenal had numbers in attack. Suddenly, Arsenal had threat — and only poor finishing and excellent goalkeeping from Tim Krul prevented the margin of victory being greater. As it was, a controversial goal bundled over the line by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was all that separated the teams at the final whistle.
Perhaps there was something kamikaze in in lining up with just one defensive midfielder champions City at the Etihad but isn’t that partly what Arteta’s Arsenal have been crying out for? An element of risk, a willingness to lean into the attacking gifts of the likes of Saka and Pepe, rather than fall back on caution and organisation? And at home against promoted, pointless, one-goal Norwich, the ambition and adventure felt entirely appropriate. Though it was only once they leaned into their attacking talent that the visitors gave way.
There were other positives for Arsenal today, with their new arrivals earning plenty of credit.
Ramsdale had a relatively comfortable Premier League debut for the club, despite the narrow lead. Fellow debutant Tomiyasu looked a natural fit for the system, and was dominant in the air, winning seven of his eight aerial duels. Ben White produced several pieces of play that seemed straight out of the David Luiz playbook — the good version — including a delicately clipped through ball down the line, and a nerveless drag-back inside his own penalty area. Albert Sambi Lokonga was an assured presence in central midfield at age 21, and already looks to be an astute acquisition.
Odegaard is a player whose technical quality is often lauded, but whose work-rate and willingness to lead the press is sometimes overlooked. In the Norwegian and Smith Rowe, Arsenal have two creative midfielders who are also prepared to do the dirty work. It was Smith Rowe who regained possession in the build-up to the goal. It was then notably Partey who played a line-splitting pass to release Saka.
It’s that trio of Odegaard, Smith Rowe and Partey that means a 4-3-3 is now a realistic option for Arteta.
It is those three players who could hold the key to unlocking Arsenal’s season.
This was barely half a step along the journey to where Arsenal want to get to. But perhaps, in that final half-hour against Norwich, there was a glimpse of the possible destination.
This article was originally published on The Athletic. Follow @theathletic and @theathleticuk on Twitter.
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