Death by '300,000' passes: The shaping of Mikel Arteta's Arsenal vision

Mikel Arteta in Arsenal training - Death by '300,000' passes: The shaping of Mikel Arteta's Arsenal vision - Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Mikel Arteta in Arsenal training - Death by '300,000' passes: The shaping of Mikel Arteta's Arsenal vision - Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Mikel Arteta was exaggerating for effect, but the point still stood. Speaking after a nervy 3-2 win at Watford in March, the Arsenal manager made it clear that his team needed drastic improvement in one key aspect of the game.

“We had to make 300,000 passes in the opposition half,” said Arteta. “We did not do that. The game was open and you had the feeling that it was open right until the end.”

It is a central tenet of Arteta’s footballing philosophy – he learned the game at Barcelona, and worked under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City – that the best way to win the game is to keep the ball. For the opposition, it is death by a thousand cuts. Or, as Arteta might put it, death by 300,000 passes.

Midfield control crucial to rising league position

For Arsenal and Arteta, who face Tottenham Hotspur in the north London derby this weekend, this level of control has not been easy to find. The Spaniard inherited a chaotic side when he took over from Unai Emery and the tactical evolution since then has been gradual and slow, with more than a few bumps in the road.

In the second half of last season, though, it started to become clear that Arsenal were getting there. The midfield was changing shape, the forwards were pressing more effectively and the ball was being circulated with more purpose. Anyone who watched them regularly could see that a shift was taking place, even if there were still ups and downs.

This season, that process has accelerated rapidly. Suddenly, Arsenal are playing with the midfield control that Arteta has always wanted, and they are strangling their opponents as a result. Arteta’s side have won six of their seven league matches this season, and on the balance of play should really have won the game they lost, against Manchester United.

Fabio Vieira celebrates scoring Arsenal's 3rd goal with Granit Xhaka, Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba during the Premier League match between Brentford FC and Arsenal FC at Brentford Community Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Brentford, England. - David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Fabio Vieira celebrates scoring Arsenal's 3rd goal with Granit Xhaka, Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba during the Premier League match between Brentford FC and Arsenal FC at Brentford Community Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Brentford, England. - David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

It is mature, progressive football, and Arsenal look more like Guardiola’s City than at any point since Arteta joined the club in December 2019. Against Brentford on the last weekend before the international break, Arsenal played pass after pass, forming triangle after triangle in midfield, and they barely conceded a chance of note. It was a team transformed from their trip to the same stadium last season, when they lost 2-0 in shambolic fashion.

This mastery of possession has been the most significant change for Arsenal since last season, and is perhaps the most obvious reason why they are currently sitting at the top of the Premier League table.

In seven matches this season, they have averaged a 58 per cent share of possession, compared to 53 per cent last season. They are now playing an average of 519 passes per match, compared to 481 passes per match in 2021-22. They are also averaging 302 passes in the opposition half each game, up from an average of 266 last season.

The location of these passes is relevant: Arsenal are playing higher up the pitch, in more dangerous areas. This both pins the opposition back, therefore protecting the Arsenal defence, and means that Arteta’s side are often closer to goal when they regain possession. This season they are winning possession in the final third an average of 5.6 times per match, up from 4.9 in 2021-22 and 3.7 in 2020-21.

To further underline the point, Arsenal actually played more passes per game in 2020-21, Arteta’s first full season, than they are now. Crucially, however, only 51 per cent of those passes were in the attacking half. This season, almost 60 per cent of Arsenal’s passes are being played in opposition territory.

The counterpoint to all this is that Arsenal have enjoyed a relatively kind run of fixtures this season and that, in their most challenging match of the campaign so far, they lost to United. But the progression is still so striking – as is their position in the league table – that it cannot be easily dismissed.

What is behind Arsenal's on-field transformation?

So, how have they done it? Firstly, the shift of Granit Xhaka into a more advanced midfield position has altered the shape of the team. Xhaka is pushing higher up the pitch, as a left-sided box-to-box player, rather than sitting in a holding position. The 4-2-3-1 formation has become a 4-3-3, and Xhaka has already contributed to more league goals (one goal, three assists) than he did in the whole of the previous campaign.

This change began in the second half of last season but has gathered pace in recent weeks, especially following the arrival of Oleksandr Zinchenko. The former City left-back has drifted into midfield when he has played, allowing Xhaka to play further forward and therefore giving Arsenal another passing option in the opposition half.

Up front, the mobility of Gabriel Jesus has also added a new dimension to Arsenal’s attack. The Brazilian roams into wide areas, exchanging short passes with his team-mates, and has helped Arsenal to maintain possession in advanced positions. Last season, the more ponderous Alexandre Lacazette was not so fluid in attack.

At the back, too, the return of centre-back William Saliba from his loan in France has brought added composure and coolness in possession. In seven Premier League matches, Saliba has completed 425 of the 456 passes he has attempted, an accuracy of 93 per cent. Arsenal’s third goal against Brentford, scored by Fabio Vieira, started with Saliba spinning past Ivan Toney and playing a quick one-two with Thomas Partey.

A more mobile attack, a more progressive midfield and a more secure defence: all of it has come together to make this the most formidable Arsenal team since Arsene Wenger’s time as manager. Whether it means they are capable of challenging for the title is, of course, another matter, but there can be no doubt that they are improving quickly – and that Arteta’s vision is finally taking shape.