For any team, the transition from offensive to defensive structure following a turnover of possession is key. For possession based teams such as Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, it is especially important to counterpress well and delay the opposition in the event of a loss of possession for several reasons; most importantly, it eases the fears of being exploited by fast breaks and counter attacks, and helps the team to achieve the holy grail of possession based sides – sustained pressure. Thus, we see the dual significance of defensive transitions, both for defensive robustness and offensive capacity.
Setting up a good counter-press from the defensive transition is one tool that Arsenal can utilise to maintain possession as much as possible and therefore launch relentless waves of attacks, while also being able to exploit the opposition’s own defensive transition. Jurgen Klopp put it best – once describing his gegenpress as ‘the best playmaker in the world’. Arsenal’s willingness to counter-press is reflected by the team’s general pressing statistics – this season, Arsenal ranked highly in final third pressures and pressure success rate, despite lacking an athletic presence at centre forward for large parts of the season. Arsenal ranked 5th in final third pressures at a rate of 38.5 p90, behind Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds and Chelsea. Arsenal’s success rate when pressing also ranked fairly high, finishing 6th at a rate of 30.2%, behind Manchester City, Liverpool, Brighton, Southampton and Chelsea.
This represents a marked improvement on the figures of the same metrics from the 2020-21 season, averaging 4.6 more final third pressures p90 and improving the pressure success rate by 1.8 percentage points. We also saw Arsenal managing much more high turnovers than the 2020-21 season, winning the ball and starting a sequence within 40 metres of the opposition goal 55 more times for a total of 321, ranking 5th. Thus, Arsenal have been much more willing to press high and have done so with greater success, including in counter-pressing scenarios. Where Arsenal have lacked in recent seasons is the intensity of the press; Arsenal rank 11th in passes per defensive action (ppda), allowing 13.6 passes between defensive actions per 90, although Arsenal’s performance in this metric has shown an upward trend over the season.
What makes a good counter-press? The key components of a good counter-press consist of pressure, covering, and compactness. Players closest to the ball immediately move to press the ball; should they be beaten by a pass or dribble, the next closest player presses. Secondary players provide cover shadows for potential passing options, while far side players cut off space by squeezing the pitch and making the structure compact. Here, we see an example of Arsenal’s counter-press in action against Manchester United:
In this scenario, Arsenal provides its own take on counter-pressing principles. Following Granit Xhaka’s turnover of possession, he does not immediately engage in the press; he briefly jockeys to maintain a suitable distance between himself and the player on the ball, Bruno Fernandes. At the same time, Odegaard sprints back to compress the space towards the touchline, further cutting off infield routes and limiting Fernandes to a predictable pass to Cristiano Ronaldo, who has taken up a wide position. This enables Arsenal to gain the advantage of the touchline as an extra defender, triggering the press of Xhaka. Simultaneously, Mohamed Elneny, who is covering on the right of a back three due to Cedric Soares’ run, covers the channel, while Cedric retreats from his advanced wide right position and Odegaard continues his run to cover Ronaldo’s 4 and 6 o’clock angles.
Thus, from turning the ball over in a central position, Arsenal is quickly able to direct the ball towards a wide pocket of space that is easier to press; Xhaka’s aggressive pressure and cover shadow forces the mistake out of Ronaldo, who quickly attempts to pass to his only infield option Jadon Sancho, only to pass it behind him where the ball is retrieved for Arsenal by Gabriel Maghalaes. Additionally, note the subtle infield movement of Elneny once he recognises Ronaldo’s intent; he quickly moves closer to Ben White to provide support in the event of Sancho receiving the ball from Ronaldo.
Here we see Arsenal not only implementing the pressing, covering and compacting principles of the counter-press, but through a pragmatic, patient approach, Arsenal are also able to reduce the variability of Manchester United’s play, making it much easier to defend. This is reflected in Arsenal’s middling ppda performance; Arsenal are often willing to let their opponents make passes before choosing the opportune moment to press and win back possession, although Arteta will be keen to raise the intensity of the press to gain greater control of games. Ultimately, Arsenal’s counter-press is effective but not yet fully evolved, as Arteta will look to add pressing specialists such as Gabriel Jesus while allowing the team to mature, so that eventually the team will press with greater ferocity in the style of Liverpool or Manchester City.
Arsenal’s tactic of forcing teams into wide spaces to press them has been a common theme, and with good reason. In the above example, Xhaka loses the ball in a central zone, and yet Arsenal force the mistake out wide; in this sense, they create an artificial wide turnover. A 2018 study by Pascal Bauer and Gabriel Anzer on counterpressing finds that a higher proportion of unsuccessful counter pressures result from central turnovers compared to the equivalent figure for successful counter pressures, as indicated on the heat maps:
They also find another key factor that influences counter pressure success rate – the proximity of players to the turnover. Bauer and Anzer found that when teams had a numerical superiority within 10m radius around the ball, possession was won back within 5 seconds 36.2% of the time, compared to 30.2% of the time when the opposition had a numerical superiority. Thus, Arsenal also prioritises surrounding the ball with players quickly; Ronaldo is swarmed by 4 players in red and white after receiving, and within 3 seconds, Arsenal have possession again, showing a good balance between urgency and a gung ho pressing style. The ability to surround the ball quickly also speaks volumes about Arsenal’s in possession structure; the team is able to maintain compactness and spacing, allowing players to quickly compress the pitch and surround the ball following a turnover, whilst creating a varied passing network with multiple avenues for progression and good coverage of zones.
Here, against Brentford, Arsenal again display their counter-pressing structure and principles, while taking a more patient approach:
Following Gabriel’s misplaced pass that was intercepted by Christian Norgaard, Odegaard sprints around Norgaard’s blind side to cover his infield options, again compressing the pitch and controlling the direction of play. Thomas Partey then shifts up to meet Norgaard but does not jump in, rather, he positions himself slightly to the left of Norgaard to cover the direct pass to Vitaly Janelt, who is being tracked by Cedric. This results in Norgaard attempting a through ball for Janelt’s run which is overhit, with White and Cedric on hand to mop up.
Again, we see Arsenal attempting to compress the space to either force a mistake or create a pressing opportunity, while White and Gabriel provide cover for passing options further downfield. Odegaard’s tireless work rate and sprinting is a key component of this, as he does much of the work to increase compactness. Additionally, Arsenal’s structure again ensures that there are players already close to the ball through their positioning, thus, combined with their efforts to ensure compactness and direct the play, it reduces the amount of ground that the players need to cover and keeps the defending front-footed, which suits profiles such as Xhaka’s, who certainly wouldn’t count pace or defending on the back foot as his strong points. Arteta’s usage of different profiles to construct Arsenal’s counter-press and minimise weaknesses has been a strength, and could point to the reasons behind links for Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans; while he struggles to cover ground at pace like Xhaka, he is combative, works hard and excels at defending on the front foot, all strengths that Arsenal’s settled and transitional defensive strategies should amplify.
Of course, Arsenal’s counter-press can be breached; the timing of the press may be off, the positioning of the cover shadows may be wrong, leaving dangerous passing lanes open for the opponent, or players may simply be bypassed through a dribble or pass. Additionally, the team may occasionally encounter scenarios in which the counter-press cannot be deployed due to the area of the pitch in which the turnover occurred. The best remedies to these issues are to increase technical security and to raise the intensity with which the players press. However, it does help that the team has capable athletes such as Partey to delay the opponents with his recovery pace, giving the team time to fall back into shape, which it does quickly. Here, against West Ham, we see Partey concede possession in a dangerous area with most of the team upfield, however, his athleticism and recovery tackle delays West Ham’s attack, allowing Arsenal to take up a settled defensive shape:
Having an athletic duel monster in the single pivot is another weapon for Arteta to utilise as somewhat of a failsafe on the occasions that a counter-press is not possible and the team needs to delay in order to fall back. Proactive, assertive defenders also help with this, and the likes of Gabriel and White have not shied away from stepping up to halt opposition counters with the press having been breached. Athletes around the team such as Saka, Martinelli and Odegaard are further countermeasures to help the team to quickly fall back into a defensive 442 or some variation of it.
Arsenal’s defensive transitions are well thought out; they are not only effective because they regain possession or switch to a defensive shape quickly, but because they simplify the game for the defenders and reduce the need for players to backpedal covering large spaces. This naturally situates players closer to the ball and shifts play to wide areas, thus making it much easier to regain possession within a matter of seconds. Furthermore, Arsenal have done well to evaluate defensive situations and choose when to implement counter-pressing or fallback strategies. Ultimately, Arsenal will optimise their counter-press by adding greater intensity, consistency and fine tuning, allowing the team to regain possession swiftly and sustain pressure for 90 minutes, the hallmark of an elite possession based side.
Gooner since age 5, I have always been passionate about articulating my thoughts on the Arsenal. Never got to witness our golden years, but a firm believer that they will return. Supporting Arsenal can be a rough ride at times, but Paul and Dave have given me a platform to release all that stress, for which I am very grateful.