In March of this year Mikel Arteta was asked how close he was to achieving his dream Arsenal line-up. The Spaniard’s answer was telling.
“Very far. Very, very far,” he said. “There’s still a lot to improve, a lot of quality to add.
“(We need to be) much more efficient in decision-making, much quicker to open situations up. We need more control of games, more defensive actions in the opponent’s half, fewer giveaways, more clean sheets. There’s a lot to do, more goals, more creativity.”
The as of yet unattainable signposts of success that Arteta spoke about in that presser are things he admitted he feels can be achieved with one substantial tweak to the Gunners set up.
Thus far the Spaniard has fielded his side in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3 formation, but this is something he has said that he does not want to have to continue doing in the long term.
“For me the way we occupy space and who is going to move in there is more important than the formation,” he told DAZN in December.
“And from there we have some very similar players that are not used to play in those positions so we have to keep changing the formation a little bit.
“We want to move to a 4-3-3″
There are reasons though that we are yet to see this plan put in to action during Arteta’s 19 month reign at the Emirates.
“For that, you need a lot of specificity in every position but now in five or six positions, we don’t have it,” he went on to add.
However, Arsenal’s activity in the transfer window so far would suggest that that is something that he is trying to address.
football.london understands that the Gunners are interested in signing Houssem Aouar.
They came close to signing the Frenchman last summer only to miss out late in the window and could move to sign him this time around with Lyon’s asking price having reduced considerably.
While no formal offer has been made thus far the interest is intriguing for a number of reasons.
Firstly it is an indicator of how seriously Arsenal are taking their quest to solve their creative crisis this summer.
Emile Smith Rowe is already in the squad and is expected to sign a new contract, but there is an understanding that the 20-year-old cannot do it all on his own.
If it is the 23-year-old they end up going for then it is intriguing to think how he might fit in to the 4-2-3-1 set up Arsenal found success with last season.
Aouar is not an out-and-out number 10, while Arteta has shown a preference for more defensively minded players in his double pivot.
Even if the Spaniard were to relax his safety first approach in the midfield it’s difficult to see him asking Thomas Partey to do the lion’s share of the defensive work given that the Ghanaian was convinced to join from Atletico Madrid on the promise of being able to exhibit his box-to-box abilities.
Could then this be a sign that Arteta is finally edging closer to his preferred 4-3-3 formation.
Interestingly the sale of Granit Xhaka would seem to add further weight to this argument.
football.london understands that Granit Xhaka is set to join AS Roma imminently for a fee believed to be in the region of €18-20m, despite some reported late interest from Juventus.
Contrary to the popular narrative the 28-year-old was one of Arsenal’s best players last season and continued that form into an impressive Euro 2020 tournament with Switzerland to the shock of many commentators who clearly hadn’t been watching him play since Boxing Day.
However, he does not really possess the skillset generally required to thrive in a 4-3-3.
Usually midfielder in this system have the mobility he lacks and while it could be argued that the Swiss could player in the deeper role, receiving the ball with his back to play is by his own admission not one of his strong suits.
While it’s unlikely that many would have placed him at the top of their ‘for sale’ lists this summer, his imminent departure is perhaps another sign of the tactical evolution that is set to come at the Emirates.
Of course it depends on which midfielder the Gunners sign to replace him.
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Albert Sambi Lokonga is set to complete his move from Anderlecht relatively soon and could play in the number six role, but the 21-year-old is expected to be joined by a more experienced arrival to shore up the midfield with Yves Bissouma, Ruben Neves and Manuel Locatelli all linked.
Last season Arteta was patient in transitioning his side towards his preferred formation safe in the knowledge that he had garnered enough good will in the bank from supporters and those within the club from his early FA Cup and Community Shield successes.
This time around there is no such luxury. The Spaniard’s early transfer activity so far would suggest he knows that.