How Arsenal improved this season

It is an unassailable truth that Arsenal progressed this season. Just the fact that Arsenal are in 2nd place should be enough but in case it isn’t:

xGD per90

  • 2019/20: -0.22
  • 2020/21: +0.23
  • 2021/22: +0.39
  • 2022/23: +0.81

And here is the ranking of Arsenal among all clubs in the “big five European Leagues” sorted by xGD per90:

  • 2019/20: 56th
  • 2020/21: 31st
  • 2021/22: 23rd
  • 2022/23: 8th

The question for me isn’t if Arsenal have shown progress, it’s how? And the other question is where can we show more progress in the future, how do we get even better next season?

How Arsenal got better is that they got several players in who can play the box midfield that Arteta wanted to play this season. In case you’re not clear on why Zinchenko was coming inside, it was in order to create overloads in attack and also provide some defensive stability. The helpful guys at TIFO IRL have a video on why the top teams are playing a box midfield which I strongly encourage you to watch but I can summarize.

Essentially, Arteta wants to play positional football. This means that Arsenal want players in all of the five zones across the box (central, two half-spaces, and two wide) but in order to achieve that, he needs to create overloads and use the players at the back to move the opponents around and open up space. Moving Zinchenko into the midfield gives us, essentially, five players in defense, and five players in attack with two players in each of the five zones across the pitch. This positional play is why we saw Xhaka get a career high 12 goal events (5 goals, 7 assists) and why Ødegaard did as well (22 goal events, double what he did last season). Those two players play in the half spaces in attack, two critical roles in the box midfield.

In addition, Gabriel Jesus offers something that Arsenal didn’t have with Auba and Lacazette: not only can he drop deep to collect and create space behind him for Xhaka or Martinelli to attack, but he can also turn and take on his defenders. He’s not great at the long outlet passes which Arsenal started deploying toward the end of the season when things weren’t going great but he is very good and I would say essential when Arsenal want to play with the ball on the ground (essentially when Saliba is healthy).

The other key thing was, of course, Saliba. At the start of the season, I wondered what would happen to Saliba. Arsenal had brought in Benjamin White at great expense and had shipped the French phenom out. I honestly thought Arteta was done with him. But one thing we have learned these last two years is that Arteta is tough and will make tough decisions but he’s also willing to work with players who are willing to work with him. You can see that in the redemption arc of Xhaka and Saliba, I think. And I’m keeping that in mind with Smith Rowe who seems to be in the dog house a bit right now. I know I bore some of you with this but I believe that Smith Rowe is perfect for Arteta’s positional system and he could be the breakout star next season if he’s given/earns a chance.

Sorry for that digression! What Saliba adds is of course passing but also he’s quick and can cover for when Partey makes mistakes – which he does a lot more often than you may have noticed, largely because Saliba was there to help out.

Another big change at Arsenal was a nominal back three. White and Saliba played together, which I definitely didn’t see happening, along with Gabriel out wide covering Zinchenko. But and this is where White’s versatility comes into play, with White’s ability to drive forward and with Saliba’s control and speed, Arsenal were actually able to turn that back three into a very high pressing back two. White could join the attacks, make overlapping runs, and create overloads. This is the reason White got career highs in both goals and assists (2 and 5).

Defensively, Arsenal continued to use a high press system in order to win the ball back in the opponent’s half. Again, Jesus makes a difference here with his energy and understanding of the positional system.

And finally, we saw another interesting tactic deployed by Arteta this season. When Arsenal attack on the left side of the pitch, they do a thing where they isolate Saka on the right. With the ball on the left and with the oppo defense focused there, they can clip a ball across to Saka who will have a one-v-one. This is intentional, as the Englishman has incredible first touch and can beat a man one-v-one or just cut inside and have a shot. Which he did quite a bit!

Ok so, that’s how Arsenal play and why they went from 5th to 2nd this year. Tomorrow, let’s look at what they need to do to improve and stay in title contention.



  1. Great Post Tim. Very insightful. Looking forward to tomorrow. Have a good evening

    1. Perfect move for Arsenal, hopefully we can get in a player like Mac Allister to play in that spot.

      1. Agree, he’s been pretty good this year, but I’m fine with him leaving on a relatively high note. Mac Allister would be great, but can’t see him along with Caicedo and/or Rice…too much spending on midfield when we have some other priorities. I think Viera was part of the replacement plan here, but I’m not yet convinced by him (though also not completely ready to give up).

        1. Or Sambi. I still think Sambi was bought to replace Xhaka. But his loan hasn’t been exactly great.

      2. Wouldn’t Tielemans on a free make more sense? He’s a left footer.

        1. He’s right footed. I think we need someone athletic before we check other attributes. Caicedo is the dream for me.

          Other than all these EPL midfielders who else can play those roles 8 and also 6 that’s worth scouting and is obtainable by us?

    2. I’ll be sad to see him go, although I think we definitely need an upgrade there. But, I just like the guy and it seems every else does as well. I’m happy he’s getting a, reportedly, big payout for his last contract. 4 years for a soon to be 31 yr old. Good for him.

  2. This analysis makes it even more clear to me how much the Saliba/Tomi injuries disrupted a whole variety of things beyond just the center of defense.

  3. Caicedo
    Rice-according to leaks seems like our number one target. I don’t see that potential people are referring to? What makes people think he can add goals/assists/improve long balls and be press resistant ?

    Maddison -injury prone

    Who of the above is obtainable and would you sign? I think we need 3 midfielders. A 6 and two 8s dependent largely on what Arteta decides to do with ESR. I think vieira should be replaced with a more physical profile player.Height and Athletic.

    Right winger

    Alternate centre forward

  4. Granted I haven’t watched him much but based on what I’ve heard I was thinking that maybe Patino could come in and be Zinchenko’s understudy but I’ve seen reports that he’s leaving. Maybe we have someone in the academy that has been learning the inverted left fullback role.

  5. We have to be happy that the team improved from last year. Being in a position to win the title was not in the script, and huge credit to Arteta for getting us there. Im proud of this team, all things considered.

    Was struck by a comment in your previous post, that you can at once be happy with how we played to March, and frustrated by the loss of form…. those things are not mutually exclusive. That’s how I feel too. These guys gave us a lot of pleasure. They built a togetherness with the fans. If that togetherness is to mean something, the fans in the stadium shouldn’t walk out on our own players when they play badly. Stay and applaud them. This is “through thick and thin” business too.

    On Saliba. He did not have a redemption arc, as you say. He showed us, in an Arsenal shirt, exactly what he spent the previous two seasons showing everyone in the shirts of Nice and Marseilles. Saliba in our team the previous season and we likely get champions league ahead of Spurs. That’s how good the kid is. For me, it wasn’t about being prepared to work with the manager… it was having the character to not give up on a club bouncing him around like a beach ball, and show Arteta his quality if given pre-season time. And once he did, he was an instant lock for RCB. Instant. Never looked back. Xhaka’s case is different. Xhaka went from car crash in waiting to solid as a rock.

    So, all things considered, well done, boys. Well done, Arteta. Not one of us can say that we expected top two.

  6. City currently doing a number on Real Madrid. 80 minutes in and RM has only 1 shot on target and less possession than what we had, despite RM having basically their full team.
    City is too good, and we shouldn’t really feel badly about finishing second to them.

    1. I would just add here that City didn’t just beat them, they stomped RM. I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen a Champions League winner like that just get so utterly housed.


    As much complaining as is had about City being able to spend big, (the comparison doesn’t include salaries), but let us acknowledge they have an exceptional coach, solid recruitment strategy and are well run. They’ve spent less on transfers the past 5 years than a lot of other clubs.

    This is how Bayern dominates the Bundesliga – they are just better at everything compared to the other German clubs. City are the new Bayern. Arsenal have a better chance of winning the Champions League now than winning the league;
    City might slip up over the course of two games, but not over the course of 38.

  8. Nice to see that you haven’t given up on ESR.
    I think to increase goal tally, he and øde need to play together.
    Maybe Rice is needed to facilitate that.
    Would probably need a defensively stronger LB than zinchenko in that scenario.
    And need a better passing CB than gabriel

    To win CL, we need more midfieldery versions of ESR/øde
    And better 1v1 defender than Ben White, someone who can lock up mbappe/vinicius/rashford/isak etc.

    Backup for Saka is interesting.
    I don’t want to block cozier Duberry’s path into the team and he looks ready to me.

  9. let me say, i expected arsenal to finish 3rd behind liverpool and man city. liverpool did what they did this season, which i didn’t expect. however, i’ve referred to man city as an unstoppable force. being chased by them is akin to being chased by the terminator; it’s terrifying because terminators are precise, persistent, and lethal beyond anything on earth. except for a glitch, they’re unstoppable. it’s the same for my borg and jason analogy.

    i never believed fabio was intended to be cover for xhaka. he was meant to compete with odegaard. however, when xhaka goes down for one reason or another, you have to put another center mid in before putting a striker or defender in that position or you’re gonna lose that young player you just spent £30 million on less than a year ago. arteta has a team to build and fabio is part of that team.

    full disclaimer: this next part is some shit i completely made up. i feel the biggest shortcoming with the loss of saliba was to gabriel. his defending became spastic and erratic. that, in my opinion, was due to the lack of trust he had in other’s who weren’t named saliba. as a result, instead of making the plays he was supposed to make, he was trying to make every play. he’s been flying into last-ditch challenges all over the field instead of trusting his defensive partner. it reminds me of vermalen after gallas left. saliba in the side seemed to exude calm to gabriel.

    1. I’ve heard the Gabriel criticism from others so you’re not alone in that. There’s definitely some truth. Gabriel plus Zincheko, minus Saliba and with either Kiwior or Holding beside him was not great. Add in that Xhaka basically has never covered anyone defensively and you have an entire side of the pitch that is vulnerable.

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