Arsenal currently lie 7th in the Premier League table. After losing their first 3 games of the season, the Gunners strung together an 8-game unbeaten streak in the league. However, since the 4-0 thumping at the hands of Liverpool, Arteta’s men have lost 3 of their last 4 league games including a 3-2 loss against Manchester United and 2-1 defeat at the hands of Everton. The problem for Arsenal seem to be their style of pressing. Let us try and understand why they are struggling.
The Gunners used a 3-4-3 set up against Manchester City. Apart from that game, they have largely used a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation. Against Crystal Palace and Burnley, Mikel Arteta deployed a 4-1-4-1.
Defensively, the Gunners have maintained a fairly standard approach. They often look to press the opposition high in a 4-4-2 shape. The problem with this kind of pressing is that it hasn’t, arguably, worked out too well for Arsenal.
After 15 games in the Premier League, the Gunners have conceded 22 goals. Their xG against is also poor, at 23.8. They allow almost 14 shots a game, from an average distance of 16.3 metres. To understand better what is the problem with this style of pressing and why it isn’t working for Arsenal, let us try and determine the fundamentals of such a system.
Possession – An Auxiliary to Pressing:
Only 2 teams focus more pressures in the attacking third than Arsenal. Both Manchester City and Liverpool share 2 common, intertwined traits:
- Possession: Liverpool average 63.1 % possession in the league, second only to Manchester City at 66.5%
- Presence in Defensive Third: Manchester City and Liverpool average just 24.78% and 24.54% of all their pressures in their defensive third.
In comparison, Arsenal average only 49.5% possession. 31.85% of all their pressures are applied in their third.
It is important to understand why possession is necessary. Keeping the ball for the sake of it serves no purpose. From a defensive perspective, possession helps in the following ways:
- The team without the ball naturally runs more than the team with the ball. High pressing is a very strenuous ask on the players, and minimizing the amount of time Arsenal actually defend will help players channelize their energy better. Currently, Arsenal average only 122.1 pressures per 90, the second-lowest in the league. Manchester City average less but have almost 17% more possession every game.
- Possession itself serves as a defence mechanism. Basic logic states that a team cannot concede as long as it has the ball. Instead, the ball could be channelized through players like Aubameyang, Saka, Smith-Rowe and Odegaard more regularly. In the words of Juanma Lillo, “There is no greater security than to have the ball.”
- Most importantly, the team with the ball controls the shape of the field. The team in possession can exercise more flexibility and force the defending team to bend their shape. Quoting Juanma Lillo, “It is what happens previously that permits you to win the ball back where you lost it. If you have not ‘travelled’ as a team with the ball, then you cannot win it the moment it is lost. If you are too far away from where you’ve lost it, you cannot go and press the opponent; you will have to make a big physical effort, and they will be able to make their decision calmly. Now if we as a team can go and together, there we can go press- and steal the ball. So, what determines if I can win the ball back, is what has happened before and until I win it.”
Space Between the Lines:
When Arsenal press in a 4-4-2, there is a big space left between the two lines of press. The wingers maintain their positions wide, while the forwards press the opposition centre-backs. However, Arsenal’s double pivot of Partey and Lokonga/Xhaka often sits just ahead of their centre-backs. Similarly, the full-backs also drop deep.
This gives the opposition a lot of space between the lines to play out from the back. In the words of Johan Cruyff, “If you have the ball, you must make the field as big as possible. If you don’t have the ball, you must make it as small as possible“. It is not possible for Arsenal to adequately achieve this in such a scenario, where a passive midfield backs a proactive front-line. Furthermore, allowing such space allows the opposition midfield to take their time and pick out even more threatening options.
As Graham Taylor said, “In football, time and space are the same thing”. Allowing the opposition too much space presents an immediate risk to the backline.
Structure in Possession:
A good structure in possession facilitates the team to effectively transition into its defensive structure and vice versa. Arsenal generally take up a 3-4-3 shape in attack. However, while defending, it is a 4-4-2 setup. While transitioning out of possession, Arsenal often move out of relation to the ball and space.
For example, we generally see Smith-Rowe occupying the left half-space while Tierney/Tavares provide width. However, when possession is conceded, the left-back immediately backtracks to join the defensive line. Smith-Rowe is often caught in-field too. This automatically provides a progression outlet to the frontline.
High Press: How High is Too High?
The blame for excessive space between Arsenal’s defensive lines cannot be solely placed on the double pivot. Arsenal’s frontmen often venture too high up attempting to execute their press. The midfield cannot afford to follow suit, because spaces behind the defensive and midfield line are extremely dangerous as well.
Another problem for Arsenal is the apparent lack of clarity in the execution of pressing triggers. Aubameyang and Odegaard often attempt to apply pressure the moment a goalkeeper plays a pass to his centre-back. However, the centre-backs are in more than a comfortable position to deal with it, they are very comfortable receiving the ball facing forward since they have a view of the whole field and time to pick out the right pass. Furthermore, Arsenal’s supporting pressers do not effectively cut off passing lanes which renders the first line of press useless. Aubameyang ranks only 39th percentile for pressure success % this season for all Premier League forwards.
1. Effective Use of Possession: Not only do Arsenal maintain average possession, but they also seem to do very little on the ball. From this season:
|Metric||Rank in League|
|Carries into Final Third||5th|
|Carries into Box||14th|
|Passes into Final Third||6th|
|Passes into Box||4th|
|Crosses into Box||5th|
Although their numbers look decent, Arsenal often seem to lack intent or the cutting edge in possession. Only 30.72% of all their passes move towards the opposition goal.
2. Adjust the Approach: Some of the best Gegenpressing managers in the world utilize a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-3-2 to press high. Arsenal can easily adjust shape into a 4-1-3-2 in defence as well. Logically speaking, a team looking to press high is always at a disadvantage. The team looking to play out of the back can always maintain a numerical superiority. This all comes down to the goalkeeper. The keeper acts as an extra man during the build-up, giving the team a numerical advantage on the ball.
The only way to create an advantage then would be by pressing the opponents into positions that benefit Arsenal and cause a problem for the opposition. Marco Rose, Ralf Rangnick, Julian Nagelsmann and Jurgen Klopp make use of the side-line as an extra man. In their 15 games, Arsenal have encountered a double pivot 8 times, and a single DM 7 times this season. Irrespective of the formation, however, the goal of their forward line press should be the same:
- In a goal-kick situation, maintain the centre-forwards to be narrow.  and  indicate the actual positions Arsenal forwards occupy. Playing narrow helps cut off passing lanes to the central midfieldSouthampton
- Passive pressure from the centre-forwards against a progressing centre-back, Instead, press should be triggered when there is a loose touch, a player receives the ball facing his own goal, or in the example, a pass is made to the wing.
- Utilise the secondary line of 3 along with the frontline to execute a side-overload. Centre-backs maintain a high line but are aware of the threat of wingers’ attacking space.
- Win the second ball