Arteta's role in Arsenal attack understated yet vital

Mikel Arteta certainly isn't one of Arsenal's flashiest players in attack. His contribution in the final third of the pitch tends to be several square balls played into the channels. He has only two league assists and two of his three league goals have come from the penalty spot. The one goal he scored from open play was controversially given despite the fact he appeared to be in an offside position.

Those are hardly overwhelming statistics but they mask just how vital the Spaniard is to the Arsenal attack. It's easy to brush over the offensive contribution of a player whose offensive game mostly revolves around unglamorous, high percentage two touch passes. While it's easy, and indeed correct, to say his significance to the Gunners attack lies in his ability to sit just in front of the back four, circulating passes from side to side and dictating tempo, it's much more difficult to quanitfy how those skills make Arsenal a better attacking side.

Tempo in possession is important to any football team- teams that fail to move the ball quickly are easy to defend. Tempo is particularly important in Arsene Wenger's possession-based philosophy. Arsenal have never been a physically strong team that uses powerful midfielders to jam the ball down their opponents throats (like, for instance, the Chelsea teams that played 4-3-3 under Mourinho and Ancelotti). Their attack is based around intelligent movement off the ball and keeping the ball moving from player to player quickly.

It is Arteta's ability to keep the Gunners passing tempo high that is his main asset to Wenger. He finds space just in front of his back four and behind Arsenal's more advanced midfielders and provides his teammates with an easy pass when no other option is available. He generally receives the ball deep in midfield and plays a simple pass to a teammate with a touch or two. Rarely is he playing a defense splitting 35 yard through ball- it all looks rather ordinary on television and he doesn't seem especially threatening to opposition defenses. However, he allows Arsenal to continually move the ball at pace. With Arteta consistently providing an easy passing option, he prevents his teammates from being forced to hold on to the ball while they wait for a pass to open up- a situation that makes a team static and easy to defend. An unmarked Arteta allows Arsenal to keep the ball moving quickly and forces the opposition defense to shift as quickly as the ball moves.

Lately opposing teams have picked up on Arteta's importance to the Arsenal attack and employed either an attacking midfielder or forward to deny Arsenal easy passes into the Spaniard. As a result, Arsenal's movement has been much slower and they've become a more static, predictable side. In Arsenal's 17 league games, Arteta has completed more than 80 passes in nine games and fewer than 80 passes in seven games. In those games he's had fewer than 80 passes Arsenal have won twice, drawn 3 and lost 3 for an average of 1.13 points per game and are averaging just 0.75 goals per game. In games he's had more than 80 passes the Gunners have 5 wins, a single defeat and 3 draws for an average of 2.00 points per game and are averaging 2.78 goals per game. This is a remarkable difference made all the more staggering by the controversial nature of the only two wins Arsenal have picked up when Arteta has completed fewer than 80 passes. The first was a 1-0 win over QPR when Arteta picked up the winner in the final 10 minutes despite replays showing he was offside. The second was their recent 2-0 win over West Brom when a controversial penalty given for a clear Santi Cazorla dive changed the complexion of the game. Arsenal weren't especially threatening in either game. Aside from their two penalties against West Brom they could only muster one other shot on goal. 

Teams will by now have picked up on the fact that denying easy passes into Arteta makes Arsenal static. It was shocking last night to see Reading leave him unmarked for the duration of the game. While Brian McDermott's side had more problems than just how they defended Arteta, particularly their defense on Arsenal's left flank, it was telling that Arsenal's most fluid offensive performance in some time coincided with the Spaniard ending a four game spell in which he'd failed to complete 80 passes (he completed 93 last night). It'll be interesting to see how the Gunners adjust moving forward as more sides look to take Arteta out of games. As important as quick ball movement is to the club, it'll be crucial they find another way to dictate tempo.