Arteta’s Arsenal and thoughts on FM as a football simulator

A while ago an interesting tactics discussion took place at the Dictacte the Game HQ. Following podcast S02E19 (where the question was put to us whether a Mourinho-esque park-the-bus tactic could be succesfully implemented on FM20), a debate arose between CrusaderTsar and yours truly regarding the tactical reality of current day football and how FM works as a football simulator.

A game of it’s age

Ihor’s point was that football was growing a bit samey as most teams look to imitate or develop from the reigning counter-pressing style established by Klopp and the German school, and that whatever variety or divergence we can take from that mould becomes very hard to replicate on FM as the Match Engine seems hellbent on making the gegenpress the one tactic to rule them all.

A random FM player traying to resist pressing that “Counter-press” button on the tactics screen…

He does have a point. When earlier this month SI released the player’s statistics for this iteration of the game, there was little surprise when it was found that the most popular tactic and formation was the 4-2-3-1 Gegenpress. However, doesn’t it make sense that the ME for a football simulator mimics reality? Whilst hardly with that level of consistency, how likely is it to find that any side playing a sort of modern and attractive football is using some sort of 4-3-3 with a focus on pressing and possession based football? To change the focus of the matter, should we ever get FM(19)30s, would we be shocked to find the most succesful style was the WM?

Personally I feel we’re living in a tactics golden age, or are close to one. With ever increasing speed, a new breed of young managers have been taking the possibilities within the game to new-found heights. As The Athletic’s Michael Cox pointed out in his recent analysis of the match between Atlético de Madrid and RB Leipzig, it can sometimes feel like teams playing more conventional formations and tactics are playing a style of game from a by-gone era. Even Pep Guardiola, the genius that revolutionized football barely 10 years ago has been questioned to be any longer at the forefront of the tactical battle. The evolution of football tactics has always been a dialectic process, a sort of Kuhn’s paradigm cycle were the principles of the existing set of ideas can be pushed and challenged and then the paradigm shifts. Something like that… my philosophy is dodgy at best, don’t judge.

Arteta joined Arsenal as a player in 2011 as part of the panic buys post 8-2. He quickly gained a first team spot and the captaincy, and leaving a legacy he will look to build upon as manager.

So it’s clear to me that any sort of version of the ME where widely different ideas work to their greatest would be hard to pull off, but also rather contrary to the reality of football. The question remains, tough, how flexible within the current idea-set is the current ME. Sure, it’s great at achieving the dominance of modern counter-pressing teams, but how big are the possibilities within that landscape. Enter one Mikel Arteta Amatriain.

The Arteta 3-4-3/-3

As an Arsenal fan, the way in which Mikel Arteta has steadied Arsenal’s ship after the disaster of Emery’s second season, with seemingly nothing but his Pep-with-hair style of communication amazes me. Being someone who had initially resisted his appointment due to his lack of experience (but also due to not wanting the club to fall deeper into the barcelonisme that has been taking root ever since the days of Cesc Fàbregas), I’ve had to take my hat off to the quickness to which he has convinced players and fans (myself incluided) that he’s the right man for the job. His recent win at the Community Shield vs Liverpool has once again highlighted some of his best qualities as a manager, chiefly amongst them his tactical smarts.

Former gunners manager Unai Emery was apparently revolutionazing the world of theoretical physics when someone tossed that old football at him and got the man perplexed for days. The result was his Arsenal tactics.

With matches quickly coming and going after the restart of european football post lockdown, he’s been increasingly using what has become the staple of this early Arteta era, the 3-4-3 that switches to a 4-3-3 (which I’ve named 3-4-3/-3 for the purposes of this article).

It’s one of great interest to me, as it showcases the Spaniard’s ability to create a favourable situation out of a rather limited tool box, but it as it falls within the same shape-shifting formations that have been used by other young, tactically smart managers thoughtout europe. To reference again Michael Cox in the formerly mentioned article, it was this style of shape shifting and positional movement that baffled Atlético’s defense.

Arsenal’s average positioning vs. Liverpool per whoscored.com. Is it a 5-2-3? Is it a 4-4-2? Is it a 3-5-2? You decide, but it keeps the opponents guessing.

As such, I figured this was an excellent model to try and test FMs Match Engine’s flexibility; can the ME replicate the forefront thinking of the very same era it’s clearly drawing from?

Into the lab

Now, as anyone who has ever tried to replicate a real life tactic will tell you, managers operate with a tool box far greater than what us could ever have, and perfect replications are impossible. However, I do feel that FM offers quite a punch for the buck in terms of the tactical spectrum, particularly when you consider it also gets you a world wide scouting network’s worth of data and fully fledged simulation of the footballing world.

As for how the 3-4-3/-3 works, I’ll point you to Michael Cox’s article on Arsenal’s play from the back vs. Manchester City and FMS’s analysis of Arsenal v. Liverpool at the Community Shield. They do a much better job than I could of explaining the intricacies of the system. But for a quick and easy recap…

On defense, Arsenal sets up as a 3-4-3 or a 5-2-3, depending on your reading of roles and positions. This helps cover up some of Arsenal’s defensive flaws, and keeps them from exposing some of their more inconsistent performers like David Luiz and Mustafi by the simple adage of “strength by the numbers”, with them also dropping more or less depending on the opposition, in order to gain a time and space advantage to maintain the shape and occupy the correct spaces.

In midfield, Granit Xhaka sits deeper, and one of Dani Ceballos or Joe Willock often marauds a bit forwards, looking to help the press and be ready for a quick counter, while up front Lacazette drops centrally and aids on the build up, but also acts as a focus point for a long pass and works marking out any deep playmakers the opposition might be trying to take advantage of. Out wide, Aubameyang operates as an inside forward on the left as the main goal threat, and one of Saka, Pepe or Reiss Nelson does a similar (if less agressive) task on the right. They are the main pressing options. The real magic, though, happens as the team regains the ball.

As Arsenal looks to build from the back, the left side shifts to morph into a 4-3-3, with Kieran Tierney, originally the left centre back, pushing forwards and wide to become a left back. This frees Ainsley Maitland-Niles (a player who’s intelligence I’ve always praised) to operate as a sort of 3rd midfielder/4th attacker, depending on situation. As FMS explains, his runs largely depend on Aubameyang’s placing and attacking of spaces. When PEA attacks the inside, AMN runs wide to force the opposing wide defender to stay put, essentially giving the Gabonese a 1v1 situation. When the striker runs wide, the Englishman can run inside and attack the half-space created by the defense focusing on Auba. It’s an excellent use of the Arsenal squad’s strenghts while shielding their obvious weaknesses. So… can FM do it?

Well… sort of

The way I set up was as follows.

As you can see, it’s not the best or most perfectly balanced tactic. I can think of one or two ways to improve it right away, but it would fail at this test’s goal, to see if we can replicate with consistency the Arteta 3-4-3/-3. For the test I loaded the Premier League with no extra leagues and took up Arsenal with a top level manager as to minimize the effects of manager support and other factors. I disabled the first Transfer Window so there was no meddling on the squad and also relieved myself of any tasks other than team selection. Through the Editor I made myself unsackable so a poor run of form wouldn’t ruin the experiment and removed injuries at the start of the season as Tierney is a rather key player on this whole thing. Let’s look at the results…

The first test was to see whether the team’s attacking and defending shape were as overtly different as they are in reality. We have some encouraging signs.

As you can see from the example taken from a 4-0 battering of Bournemouth, the defensive shape (left) forms a somewhat clear 4-4-2 as it transitions to the attacking shape (right), with AMN (15) tucking in next to Xhaka (34). This, however, was the easy part, as with the predetermined role of a IWB, this was the expected behaviour.

Much more difficult, in truth, was gonna try and replicate both Kieran Tierney’s movement as a left back from the centreback, and AMN mixed runs into the final 3rd. How did we fare with that?

From the Combinations map from that very same match, we can see that indeed Tierney is pushing higher and wider than his courterpart on the right, Rob Holding (16). His heatmap is also very promising, showing him taking a wide and agressive position. AMN’s positioning, however, is less clear.

When examining his heat map and his passes completed/received information, it’s clear that despite Aubameyang cutting inside from the AML position, very few times has the LWB taken to go wide.

Looking at a different match, we can see the pattern holds. The positioning is accurate and KT effectively plays somewhat as intenteded, but the complex variation on Maitland-Niles’ role is hard to replicate.

1) KT’s passes on the final third vs Holding’s 2) Tierney’s heat map 3) Holding’s heat map.

It was at this moment that I decided to go for a slight alteration of the tactic, inspired in a comment The Scribe made once about a IWB playing with the Look for Overlap TI activated, which lead to the player ocasionally exploiting the left flank. I also gave Tierney the PI to dribble more on an attempt to have him push higher in possesion as a LB.

The heat map is one of Tierney after a 0-0 draw vs Chelsea, and it makes it look as the change has probaly enhanced his “leftbackness”. On the other hand, and once again, results on AMN era limited at best. It could be that as an attack duty his movement cannot be tempered as much as we’re looking for, though I’m not convinced he’d push forward as hard as we want as a IWB-S. Maybe the key is to use him as IW-S on the LM, but time is running low on this experiment, and in any case we have reached the answer we were looking for.

Indeed, while tricky and requiring of the kind of fine tuning a fast experiment like this cannot provide, the current FM match engine gives us enough tools to put into practice some of the latest developments from the games most forefront thinkers.

It is not, however, an easy thing. Without the right amount of attention and care that such undertakings require, this has proven quite the unsuccesful tactic. As of December 27th, Arsenal are sitting 15th on the table, which truly makes this experiment more of a replicate of the last days of the Emery era, but again, I feel that has more to do with the absense of a manager than anything else.

What that says about Unai Emery’s work at Arsenal, I leave for you to decide, but it sure feels good to be stepping into the Arteta era, and it’s very interesting to be able to adapt at least some degree of the Basque manager’s tactical tricks.

Until next time, thanks for reading.

Published by fromero92

Argentinian writer and journalist

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