Those days when possession was nine-tenths of the Arsenal way are no more and manager Mikel Arteta makes no apologies.
There have been too many times when they stood by the principles forged under Arsene Wenger, only for stronger teams to tear them apart. It has happened regularly at Liverpool, where Arsenal have conceded 30 goals in eight games in all competitions and not won for eight years.
Arteta witnessed it at close quarters when he was captain, suffering in the heart of midfield, and he has been determined to address it as the manager.
Mikel Arteta is determined to get wins with Arsenal, and has been changing their style of play
Arteta and his Arsenal side travel to Liverpool on Monday for a clash against the champions
‘I am here to win,’ he said, ahead of Monday night’s trip to Anfield. ‘We have to prepare for the game by finding scenarios to win. If I am proposing something very difficult that is going to expose our team, I don’t think I am acting in the best favour of our players.’
He learned at clubs where principles of play are important, where style matters, and yet perhaps the most important change he has made since returning to Arsenal has been to strip away the pretence and serve up some realism.
Under Arteta, they have played 32 games in all competitions. The games when they made the fewest passes, and took the fewest touches, were in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City and against champions Liverpool in the Premier League in July. They won both despite surrendering possession, just as they did when they faced Chelsea in the FA Cup final and Liverpool in the Community Shield.
It was probably easier to make the adjustment without fans inside the stadium vocalising their impatience and pressurising the players.
Arsene Wenger’s strategy of keeping possession fell apart when they played stronger teams
‘One way now in football doesn’t work,’ said Arteta. ‘Unless you are very, very superior to the opponent all the time. The players we have available can change our gameplan. We have to be able to adapt.’
For years, Arsenal have not been good enough to take on the best teams at their own game but still refused to abandon the purism of their approach.
‘Sport has to encourage initiative,’ said Wenger while discussing the counter-attacking prowess of Leicester in 2015-16 and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea the next season.
‘If it rewards too much teams who don’t take the initiative, we have to rethink the whole process because people will not, forever, come to watch teams who do not want to take the initiative.’
Even when Wenger deployed a more pragmatic gameplan to good effect, as he did at Manchester City in 2015, the last time Arsenal won at the home of any of their Big Six rivals, he could not bring himself to persist with it.
He believed a counter-attacking style could not be successful in the Champions League and could not be adopted as the dominant culture in a club with serious intentions to develop elite footballers through their academy. He was also certain it could never be imposed on big players.
Arsenal beat Liverpool at the end of last season, despite having fewer passes and possession
‘Big players want the ball,’ he insisted, but Arsenal needed a reset because they want to win, too.
Another key success for Arteta has been to persuade captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to stay. He would not have signed if he was worried about the direction of travel under the new boss.
‘Results always drive belief,’ said Arteta. ‘The players have to be comfortable with the plan. They have to realise we can achieve what we want when we jump on to the pitch. Then they will feel more secure. They will know or expect what is going to happen so it doesn’t surprise them or shock them.’
Aubameyang is Arsenal’s greatest threat and with 11 goals in his last 12 games is flourishing in a 3-4-3 which releases him to attack the penalty area from the left, a potent weapon against teams who push full backs on. Together with a determination to tighten up at the back and inject more aggression and industry, casting out those who cannot or will not commit, Arteta has generated a positive vibe.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is Arsenal’s greatest threat, and is flourishing in the 3-4-3
With the early glimmers of success came the change in title from head coach to manager, a show of trust and a little extra power which helped when it came to the recruitment of players and staff. The latest addition is Andreas Georgson, a set-pieces coach from Brentford.
‘It’s where a high percentage of goals are scored and conceded,’ said Arteta. ‘It has a great impact on results and points at the end of the season, so it’s another aspect of the game you have to dominate.’
In the weeks ahead, armies of analysts will focus their software on finding ways to combat Aubameyang’s threat on the break.
It might lead Arsenal back towards possession as they improve defensively and add players with craft and imagination, without losing the piercing change of pace which has inspired the revival.
It would explain interest in Jorginho, a tempo-setting conductor in midfield who Pep Guardiola wanted when he and Arteta worked together at Manchester City.
Until then, spirits are high because there will be more than one dimension to the Arsenal way.