Heading into the 2020/21 season, it’s no secret that Mikel Arteta is in favour of using a 4-3-3 for the basis of Arsenal’s shape on the pitch. There may be variations of this but the desired foundation is of which he first attempted when returning from lockdown.
Two losses using the system against Manchester City and Brighton resulted in the move to a back three.
Although this worked in the short-term, as it helped the Gunners lift the FA Cup, it was more a means to an end than a shape the Spaniard wanted to build his team around. The main indicator of this was how much more stable the side were in the defensive and middle thirds compared to when they reached the final third – a problem which haunted them constantly after the restart.
The midfielders Arsenal have targeted in the transfer market are clear indications of the ambition to revert to variations of a 4-3-3. Prime candidate, Thomas Partey would serve as a great box-to-box option to drive forward from midfield while the pursuit of Dani Ceballos would help restore the link built with Granit Xhaka last season.
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Signing this duo in particular would go a long way to improving Arteta’s midfield issues but there are players already at the club who stand to benefit from this season, and Joe Willock is one. Despite his appearances becoming more often from the bench under Arteta, the 20-year-old still managed to rack up 44 games [20 starts] in all competitions for Arsenal last season.
Over the course of the season, the midfielder was used in different roles with varied success. Both Unai Emery and Arteta used him as the side’s No.8. while also giving him opportunities in deeper positions where he could advance forward to have greater effect.
As was the case with almost every Arsenal player last season, Willock had inconsistencies in regard to his performances. After an impressive start to the season, his form dipped and was only seen in flashes once Arteta took the helm as starting less frequently hurt his chances of building proper momentum.
What will give himself and his head coach encouragement ahead of next season, however, is how his qualities mesh with the demands put on the side in attack.
Before lockdown, Arteta was set on playing a 4-2-3-1. Arriving in the midst of a hectic Christmas period, this was the system he chose and not wanting to veer away from that with such a tight schedule at the time was understandable. As a result, Willock’s minutes mostly came in the No.10. position, and with a new structure set in place behind him, he flourished.
Rather than having his No.10. drop deep to get on the ball and create, patterns were put into place to allow space to be created for them to hover in and drive forward. As analysed in more detail here, this involved the Arsenal backline drawing in opposition…