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Unraveling the Mikel Arteta formula that changed Arsenal players in ten days

Unraveling the Mikel Arteta formula that changed Arsenal players in ten days

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Half an hour of Nicolas Pepe in action was all it took to make you believe that there really might be something different about Arsenal under Mikel Arteta.

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Where once there was confusion, a sense of 11 separate plans being executed at varying times with wildly different levels of success, now there is cohesion. What is all the more impressive is that it has not come through Arteta forcing individuals to subsume their individual qualities to fit into the system.

Instead Arteta has united them in liberation offering what looks from afar to be an elegantly simple plan: work hard off the ball and you will be free to express your qualities on it.

There has been no tactical radicalism under Arteta, no abandoning of the squad that achieved so little under Unai Emery. Indeed barring the presence of Mesut Ozil in this side there is not all that much to distinguish it from the teams his predecessor wheeled out to ever-decreasing returns.

The elegance of Arteta’s early revival lies in its simplicity. For a large part good players have been placed in their most natural positions and freed to do what they do best.

No-one exemplified that quite like Pepe. The problem with the £72million club record buy hadn’t so much been that he lacked quality – in almost every game he played there were flashes of ingenuity – but an uncertainty over how to apply it. Even on the attack Pepe had seemed skittish, taking one touch too many, one moment to think about what should have been instinctiveWith a steady, intelligence presence behind him in Ainsley Maitland-Niles (and the strides being taken by the 22-year-old in each of the three games Arteta has managed are remarkable indeed) Pepe was liberated in attack to play his natural game. Like every other player in this team he was expected to run the hard yards out of possession – in his hour of action he attempted as many tackles as Nemanja Matic, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindelof combined – but when Arsenal had the ball you could see the shackles slipping away from the Ivorian.

An early, slightly scruffy goal from Sead Kolasinac’s cutback gave Pepe impetus but if there was a moment that truly sparked him into life it came soon after when Luke Shaw first failed to foul his opponent after a precise first touch and then found himself sliding into irrelevance as the Arsenal man’s quick change of direction took him past the left-back’s attempted tackle.

The winger was now intent on bullying Shaw out of a career, stopping with the ball at his feet and savagely presenting it to his opponent, well aware that the moment Shaw made a play for the ball he would simply whip it past him and bear down on goal.

Here was Pepe doing what he knows best; it could not have looked more simple for him.The same was true across the pitch. Sokratis Papasthopoulos, such a skittish figure at the back this season, seemed to be relishing in the simple things. See ball. Win ball.

As his centre-back partner David Luiz explained: ‘If you work with happiness and believing what you are doing it is totally different, so I’m happy with everybody.

A dig at the previous regime and its tactical inferiority complex this doubtless was but Luiz also offered a reminder that the most productive workplace is a happy one, that players will work harder in an environment where they feel valued. Perhaps that explains why no player on either side covered more ground in the first half than Mesut Ozil, the man who began the move for the opening goal not by playing an outrageous through ball but by tracking back diligently.

Tactically there are patterns emerging that ought to outlast the new manager bounce, attacking moves that look to have been carefully constructed on the training grounds of London Colney. You might even have confused the build-up to Nicolas Pepe’s opener with a Manchester City cover version.

An underlapping full-back drives to the byline before rolling the ball back to the winger, bursting infield from the other flank to stick the ball into the bottom corner? Pep Guardiola’s going to want a writing credit for that Mikel.

Expect to see more twists and adjustments as Arteta grows more familiar to his players; the squad already does extensive video work with their new head coach and there have been deliberate attempts to give training sessions a more match-like intensity

And yet the genius of the improvements under new managers often lie in their simplicity.

Bukayo Saka was the subject of some gentle mocking earlier this week when he relayed what appeared to be a blindingly obvious revelation that he had gained from Arteta. “Maybe one thing that I’ve picked up straight away is that when nobody’s pressing you, you don’t need to pass the ball,” he said.

“What you can do is just get the ball, drive the ball forward a bit and wait for someone to come to you, commit a player, then pass it.Then that man will be free or that man will have less pressure on him. It’s just attracting players before you pass the ball off, which will help our team-mates a lot on the pitch.”

That might be merely football 101 but for a squad worn down by Emery, a man who could but tailor his every team to the strengths of his opponents, it is a blessed relief to focus on what they can do. It also indicates an inherent level of trust from Arteta that if Arsenal can get the basics right they can be successful without rigorous micromanagement.

Put good players in their best positions. Trust them to work hard without the ball and show their skills on it. Arteta, the managerial rookie, is making this coaching lark look rather straightforward.

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