The utterances offered by footballers before European games tend to be crushingly banal but Shkodran Mustafi offered an insight that lingered in the mind when asked, in the buildup to Thursday’s visit of Dundalk, what it is like to train under Mikel Arteta.
“I’ve never had such detailed training sessions,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not always nice … it’s not that you jump around and have fun and score a lot of goals. It’s more about focusing and knowing when you go to the next game that you know exactly what you have to do.”
No criticism was intended: Mustafi’s point was that the Arteta regime puts meticulous preparation, with a keen emphasis on the specific challenge an opponent will pose, before anything else. It recalled conversations with Arsenal players during the latter half of Arsène Wenger’s reign. Back then, it was not uncommon for them to walk off the London Colney pitches raving about the twists and turns of the small‑sided games they had just enjoyed.
In reality a mix of both approaches is required, in training and its translation into matches. That is the balance Arteta must strike and, in their Premier League fixtures at least, Arsenal have struggled to make it work. They are unquestionably well drilled; everybody knows his job and those who cannot quite plug in are conspicuous by their lack of starts.
Their defensive work is generally light years removed from the shambles of late-stage Unai Emery but the problems lie in their progression to the other penalty area. Whether or not Old Trafford on Sunday is the place to test this particular theory, Arsenal need more madness in their method.
The statistics bear out an impression that strikes the eye: Arsenal’s play has been laboured. They are fourth-bottom in the league for shots taken and were only two places better off than that last season.
Since scoring three against a woeful Fulham on the opening day, they have struggled to find threatening positions consistently. That is particularly a problem when, as Arteta has pointed out on a number of occasions, opponents increasingly set up with a “low block”: in layman’s terms, sitting deep. Leicester uncharacteristically opted to try that at the Emirates last Sunday and survived in comfort.
Arsenal keep possession assiduously and figures from Opta show their average passing sequence lasts longer – 13.33 seconds – than all 19 of their rivals’. So far, so good, especially when the highlights of Arteta’s tenure have been a clutch marvellous back-to-front goals that illuminated occasions such as, most significantly, the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City.
But Arsenal are 13th in the ranking for “progress”, which measures the distance moved upfield per sequence, and rock bottom when it comes to the speed at which those moves carry them up the pitch. For a side who forced high-profile errors with their off-the ball efforts in the summer they have been conservative on that front too, sitting among this season’s bottom four in measures of pressing intensity.
Opponents have largely cottoned on that, late last season, Arsenal inflicted significant damage by playing through the press and then going through the gears. When teams sit off, they seem unable to pick up the pace. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has cut an isolated figure out wide in the past five top-flight games; he has not scored in any of them, or come especially close, and it amounts to his worst league run since joining in 2018. Without space to run into it has been too easy to shepherd Aubameyang away from goal and too hard for those charged with feeding him to find him in dangerous areas.
Arteta has hinted he may yet move Aubameyang to the centre-forward position, perhaps even for the duel with United. But that, on its own, would not loosen the shackles. If one takes at face value the suggestion that Mesut Özil does not fit Arteta’s blueprint, to some extent the manager appears cursed by his personnel.
A flat central midfield is a hindrance, with Granit Xhaka and the never-quite-convincing Dani Ceballos an unnecessarily safe pair to work alongside Thomas Partey. It was a breath of fresh air to see Joe Willock, overdue a strong performance, bursting between the lines to excellent effect against Dundalk.
Bukayo Saka has the quality to add intent and movement to the three if allowed to graduate full-time from his upbringing on the wing. Perhaps it does not help that Arteta holds little trust in his other wide options, pointing out again on Thursday that Nicolas Pépé’s flair as a risk-taker needs to be better accompanied by sound decisions.
Arsenal are crying out for a player like Houssem Aouar, but their summer-long pursuit ran aground before the transfer deadline. Arteta knows that and it is too early to decry him as a pragmatist, if that term has to be used pejoratively, even though Arsenal are hardly gung-ho.
He has had to reshape the outlook of a lop-sided squad that is, for the most part, not plucked from the top bracket and the propensity to keep half an eye on the wing mirror is little surprise.
That will probably not change against United, who Arsenal have not beaten in the league at Old Trafford since 2006. Arteta’s obsessive planning has ensured they do, at least, stay in games against the established top six and fare akin to the grind of United’s draw with Chelsea last Saturday looks possible. That would be no disaster but the overriding questions will remain.
“When you go into the game you have the same picture you had from the training session and that helps you a lot,” Mustafi said.
Arteta must decide how, and when, he can let his players loose with the palette.