Arsenal: 6 changes to expect from Mikel Arteta next season
It's all change at Arsenal this summer - so how will Mikel Arteta's side play next season?
In Mikel Arteta's first 18 months with Arsenal, the club have finished eighth, twice. To say that the honeymoon period might be over for the ex-captain is perhaps the understatement of the century.
Still, there are mitigating circumstances - namely a pandemic, club austerity and the fact that Arsenal knew exactly what they were getting into by hiring a man with no experience. The Gunners' form, post-Christmas, was actually very encouraging - and the club managing to convince Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Kieran Tierney and most recently Emile Smith Rowe all to commit their futures should be a testament to something.
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But with so many transfer rumours, it's hard to know what direction Arsenal are heading in. What will this team actually look like next season? Here are six things that you might not expect from Arsenal next season...
1. Ben White to play right-back
A £50m centre-back signing for your club is not to be sniffed at - especially when the memories of Shkodran Mustafi are still fresh in the memory. But while Arsenal fans are generally welcoming the imminent signing of England star, Ben White, there are certainly questions being raised about why so much money is being spent, here.
Arsenal have already added Gabriel and Pablo Mari on Arteta's watch, along with giving a new deal to Rob Holding. French wonderkid William Saliba is now heading for a third loan spell - and anyway, the defence has looked a lot more solid under the Basque boss's tenure. There are bigger problems creatively.
Perhaps the lack of noise around a new right-back is telling. White could well play there - but don't expect him to overlap Saka. Think of him as a defensive full-back, instead, used more like Kyle Walker is for the England team, tracking left-wingers off the ball, staying back on the ball and moving in more centrally while Arsenal are building play.
It would mean Arsenal could get White, Holding and one of Mari or Gabriel in the same side, keeping the defence robust and the defensive line a little higher. Expect to see it at least a few times, this season.
2. Bukayo Saka as a no.10
Arsenal's starboy is capable of playing in virtually any position on the pitch - but while Bukayo Saka has become Arsenal's best right-winger over the past year, that might not be where he plays this season.
Whatever formation Arteta favours, he defends and attacks with the same principles. Arsenal attack across five channels: Kieran Tierney pushes ahead from left-back and often, Arteta has favoured Aubameyang on the left-wing cutting in, with Alexandre Lacazette up front. That leaves Smith Rowe as a no.10 and Saka on the right. But that could all be about to change.
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With Aubameyang slowing down slightly - but still explosive across short distances - we could see a more creative talent on the left wing for Arsenal, with Auba actually up front. That could move Saka in centrally, with Nicolas Pepe keeping width on the right.
Arsenal are looking for a replacement for Martin Odegaard - who returned to Real Madrid after a good loan spell in the second half of the season - but if targets turn out to be too expensive, Arteta might opt to shuffle his current pack.
3. Joe Willock to feature more
Joe Willock was actually one of the most exciting players to come through Arsenal's academy of his age. There was certainly as much hype about the youngster as there was for the likes of Saka and Smith Rowe.
But Willock performed poorly as a no.10 for Arsenal and he doesn't suit a midfield pairing. He can be isolated easily - especially when he combines with the likes of Aubameyang, who's an off-baller runner, and Pepe, who's tasked with doing something unpredictable, rather than being careful in possession.
But with the emergence of Smith Rowe, the continued development of Bukayo Saka and the likes of Albert Sambi Lokonga and Thomas Partey in midfield, there are plenty of assured passers around Willock, giving him license to link up and get into the box.
Arsenal have a distinct lack of goals from midfield and Jonjo Shelvey showed exactly how easy it can be to unlock Willock's potential. This could be his breakthrough campaign if Arteta plays it right.
4. A move to a 4-3-3
The 4-3-3 formation has been central to Mikel Arteta's footballing education - and yet the Arsenal manager has barely deployed it himself, favouring a 3-4-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Could he be about to move to a three-man midfield?
Xhaka always looked better in a double-pivot but with the Swiss deep-lying playmaker is very nearly out the door. Willock has had a breathtaking loan spell at Newcastle United and could help instigate the change.
Thomas Partey is certainly physically and technically capable of playing as a lone no.6, with Mohamed Elneny and new signing Sambi the other options for the position. That would make Smith Rowe the most advanced midfielder, with either Sambi or Willock as the no.8.
This would certainly make sense, given the transfer targets that Arsenal are being linked with. James Maddison can play in a three-man midfield and Manuel Locatelli was a no.8 for Italy over the summer at the Euros. Perhaps this is how Ainsley Maitland-Niles could rejoin the fold...
5. No more Pepe on the left
Nicolas Pepe has had a strange time at Arsenal since becoming the club's record signing for £72m in 2019. He's blown hot and cold: every time he's looked like he's turned a corner, either Willian has signed or an 18-year-old has emerged as the standout option in his position.
Arteta's move to put him on the left wing was a masterstroke to boost his confidence. It meant he didn't overthink his game and wasn't constantly looking to cut back in on his favoured foot; when he moved back onto the right, he finished the season strongly.
But Arteta's choice to move Pepe to the left was sometimes also one of necessity. With no left-footed left-back in Tierney's absence, Pepe offered vital width: he doesn't have to do that anymore with Nuno Tavares secured as a back-up.
It's much more likely that we'll see Aubameyang, Smith Rowe and Martinelli as left-wingers for the Gunners, cutting in, with Pepe and Saka competing for spots on the right. Pepe could even be used centrally. If he starts this season how he finished the last, Arteta will be a happy man, indeed.
6. No midfielders dropping into the backline
Granit Xhaka has played the best football of his career under Mikel Arteta. Now he's going to Roma though, it's not entirely certain whether Arteta will directly replace him.
Xhaka drops into the defence during build-up for Arsenal, filling in on the left-hand side to give Tierney the license to push ahead. But given that Arsenal have two left-footed centre-backs, it's probably not something that Arteta will bother doing unless he has a player similar to Xhaka.
Arsenal have been linked with Ruben Neves and Manuel Locatelli in recent months to replace the outgoing Xhaka. Both play as no.8s, so perhaps we won't see whoever replaces Xhaka - if anyone - operating deeper.
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Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. An encyclopedia of football shirts and boots knowledge – both past and present – Mark has also been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals for FFT and has written pieces for the mag ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career. He once saw Tyrone Mings at a petrol station in Bournemouth but felt far too short to ask for a photo.
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