23 games played, 17 victories, 3 stalemates and 3 defeats. 54 precious points on the board, which places The Arsenal at the top of the tree, on course for a special outcome. Astonishing. Not even the staunchest Mikel Arteta fan would have envisaged the Gunners becoming favourites for the title before a ball was kicked, let alone past the halfway mark of the season.
It’s remarkable, utterly ridiculous really given how deflated this young group would have felt after losing out on Champions League football to their bitter rivals Spurs in the dying embers previously. For a large chunk of the squad, this was their very first top-four pursuit and unfortunately, they failed at the last hurdle following revised objectives. Moral was low, as documented in the All or Nothing series, and the real question that everyone was asking was “how would Arsenal react?”
Many predicted the aftereffects would have a significant, detrimental impact. Both ex-players and pundits shared similar views, piling on bucket loads of criticism and voicing their concerns. But Arsenal used this negative and doubtful energy as motivation. Motivation that has propelled them to a new level. A level that has sent shockwaves across Europe, with no other side barring Napoli perhaps playing a more glamorous brand of football.
How have they done it? What’s the answer to explain their form? A multitude of things really, but two aspects stand out. Firstly, incorporating a winning mentality. As time passes, projects should move forward at a desirable rate. In order for this to happen, level raisers must be prioritised.
There is so much you can do as a coach. But ultimately quality dictates potential. Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchneko have not only added this but both are successful graduates of Pep Guardiola ideology, with the duo playing key roles in Manchester City’s dominance over the years. They’ve been there and done it; valuable experience.
The second point is remaining confident in methodology. Consistent principles of play engrained into the squad behind the scenes and a culture that never deviates; to win in fashion as that’s what brings unity and that’s what convinces people over project sustainability. Arsenal always enter games with the mindset to dominate proceedings in all phases with and without the ball, the latter in particular being the catalyst to the club’s rise and the fundamental focus of this piece.
Ferocious, high energy, and a fearless attitude. Previous articles on Arteta’s form of positional play alongside a piece on the Gunners’ North London Derby victory back in early October describe the Juego de Posición principles the former club captain has implemented. Similarly, without the ball, there is an identity, structure, and superiorities on display, with consistent roles assigned.
1) A Pep clone?
A Manchester City clone is the frequent phrase placed on Arsenal. Is Arteta stylistically similar to Guardiola? Yes, but not entirely. There are many details the former prioritises, that his previous boss doesn’t necessarily see as a critical need, one of which is physicality spread across the pitch.
“Without the physical side of the game you cannot compete.”
Almost every single Gooner would have seen his famous post-match rant following the club crashing out of the third round in the FA Cup a year ago against Steve Cooper’s Nottingham Forest.
“When I lose a duel, I’m upset. When I lose the small-sided games I’m upset. Because that’s the ******* standards.”
He demands the basics, he demands fight and he demands a team that has both the physical and psychological tools to offer superiority in 1v1 situations. Gabriel Magalhães, William Saliba, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, etc. The list is endless. Strong January and summer links to Declan Rice and Moisés Caicedo further strengthens this point.
Guardiola on the other hand places complete trust in technical excellence. He will not make a compromise. Quality in possession, defending with the ball, and not conceding territory for any substantial period. Certainly, any level of criticism of this generational manager should be limited given his transformational impact on the beautiful game along with the accolades achieved.
But he isn’t perfect, nor is anyone within the industry, which is what makes football so fascinating and entertaining. Weaknesses will always be apparent and one could argue that in high-octane European fixtures, Guardiola side’s have struggled. At times there will be in-game scenarios where one must dig deep. One must be willing to suffer as a unit. But his teams have shown occasionally the inability to handle game states in which they have no choice but to withstand pressure. Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League semi-final is a great example to demonstrate this point.
So this is one area where he and Arteta differ. The latter is prepared to utilise a more pragmatic mindset, showing greater willingness to accept phases of play in which the team may have to adopt a strategy that perhaps goes against the norm. For example, Arteta’s ability to drill the team in a mid to low block has been one of his key strengths, which stems all the way back to his triumph in the FA Cup, beating both Manchester City and Chelsea to clinch number fourteen.
Moreover, emphasis on physicality and a settled eleven has been what’s made this Arsenal team click in the press. Many refer to positional play principles in possession but it’s equally as valid without the ball. Superiority is the aim. How you achieve this quality depends on the coach. It’s all about managing space. What areas require maximum protection (overloaded) and what areas can be left slightly empty (underloaded).
Rewinding back to post-lockdown saw Arsenal move to a hybrid 3-4-3, a shape that shifted to a back five in deeper areas. Arteta recognised the fact that the central defenders and midfielders inherited simply did not have the required toolset to dominate games against the best (i.e. Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and Liverpool in the Community Shield). In order to maximise chances of obtaining the desired result, it was imperative that the last two lines (excluding the goalkeeper) were packed and a 5-4-1 settled shape offered this margin of safety.
Fast forward to today and it’s a completely different story. Arsenal are incredibly aggressive and at times are even willing to leave themselves light at the back. Why? Because of recruitment. Look at the profiles. Individuals who provide reliability in isolation and possess the characteristics to cover large spaces with authority and conviction. To expand on this further, the Gunners’ outstanding victory at the Bridge along with the tactical tweak against Liverpool should offer greater clarity.
2) Dominance at the Bridge
Shown below is Arsenal’s setup during situations in which Chelsea have goal kicks, with Graham Potter’s men aiming to build passages of play from the back.
Arsenal’s shape slightly alters depending on whether the west Londoners play out through the left or right. But regardless, the approach remains the same, a man-to-man zonal pressing scheme.
When the words ‘man to man’ are echoed, Marco Bielsa’s time at Leeds United immediately springs to mind but there is a clear difference. The Argentinian’s methods were incredibly aggressive but also naive against greater ability, as they regularly found themselves on the receiving end of some woeful scorelines. For example, if the centre forward dropped deep and into the left back area, a Leeds centre half would continue to follow him, thereby vacating spaces at the heart of the backline. Whereas at Arsenal, individuals are assigned specific zones that they must dominate, marking whichever opposition player is occupying these areas of interest.
Breaking down Arsenal’s approach with simplicity, Arteta essentially wants his men to force the opponent to go long and make it a duel-winning contest or into playing passes toward the flanks before forming a cage of suffocation. The reason for this is due to the restricted range of motion players have on the touchline (180°) relative to central space (360°), which in turn creates more opportunities to force errors and turn over possession.
Initially, the frame below shows Gabriel Martinelli curving his run from out to in once Trevoah Chalobah receives the ball from goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. Essentially, the Brazillian is responsible for two players; the full-back (Cesar Azpilicueta) and centre-half (Chalobah).
Whilst Chelsea may have numerical superiority on paper (4 vs 3 shown below), the positioning of the Arsenal trio ensures that this advantage is not significant. The intention is clear. Arsenal want to push Chelsea to the wide areas and with Jesus cutting off the passing lanes to Mendy and Thiago Silva whilst Xhaka is touch-tight to Ruben Loftus Cheek, Chalobah has no choice but to either punt the ball forward upfield or deliver a clipped pass into Azpilicueta. He chooses the latter.
With the ball being delivered with a projectile motion as opposed to a ground pass due to Martinelli’s run, this gives Zinchenko the opportunity to lock on and meet his marker quickly.
In this situation, Azpilicueta manages to squeeze a channel ball to Connor Gallagher and this is now the trigger for anchor Partey to stifle any threat posed between the lines, as he regularly does. The Ghanaian dispossesses the former Crystal Palace loanee, with Xhaka within close proximity to collect the loose ball.
Notice the cage Arsenal have formed, constraining the space Chelsea players can operate in along with the man-to-man scenarios spread across the field. There are zero numerical overloads present for the Gunners but what they do have is that qualitative physical edge, which goes back to the point of recruitment. Individuals like Partey who thrive in duels, both ground and aerial enable Arsenal to apply controlled aggression.
Similarly, the next example offers the same method applied but this time Jesus shows dynamic intelligence. Initially Chelsea attempt to play through the lines on the opposite side, with Silva on the ball to begin with.
Jesus, just like Martinelli curves his run so that Silva can’t shift play to the left and is instead forced to carry the ball into midfield. But with no available passing options, he hesitates to which Jesus anticipates, dispossessing his fellow countryman and allowing Arsenal to carve an opening.
Arsenal’s number nine drives forward with intent and forces Mendy into making a save. The Gunners score the all-important decisive goal from the resulting corner and it all stems from Arsenal’s approach without the ball. Minimal fear, creating opponent anxiety and capitalising on this nervousness through being stronger in the mind but also in the action. A great illustration of dynamic superiority from Jesus.
3) The all-important change
Arguably one of the biggest obstacles Arsenal faced this season was in their exciting encounter at the Emirates against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Maybe this is a laughable statement given the Reds’ monumental drop-off, languishing in eighth place at this time of writing. But regardless, this is still a team that Arteta has struggled against since his return to N5.
Yes, the Spaniard has got the better of the German back in 2020, in the Premier League, Community Shield and Carabao Cup but stylistically Liverpool have had a frequent knack of being better in all aspects; mentally, physically, and technically.
This however changed on the 9th of October. The north Londoners’ 3-2 triumph was their first major statement. Without doubt wins against Brentford and Spurs were eye-catching, with the former referred to as the best collective performance of the season. But to take three points whilst going toe to toe against a side that was not so long ago regarded as elite was a special moment although it certainly wasn’t plain sailing despite xG suggesting otherwise (Arsenal 3.03 – 0.87 Liverpool).
A tale of two halves really, with the opening 45 minutes being rather disappointing from Arsenal’s perspective despite opening the scoring within the first minute and going into the break ahead following Bukayo Saka’s back-post finish in stoppage time. Shown below is the setup Liverpool utilised in build-up and how Arsenal would press depending on which direction the Reds would play towards.
Immediately it can be seen that the away side has a clear numerical advantage within the first three lines (including the goalkeeper Allison Becker, 7v5). Essentially, the Gunners have left themselves with more cover at the back to deal with Darwin Nunez and Diogo Jota dropping into deeper areas, hence the positioning of both Xhaka and Partey, just in front of the backline.
Arsenal’s structure along with their surprisingly passive nature for prolonged periods enabled Liverpool to have sufficient control within the first and second phase, with both Thiago Alcantara and Jordan Henderson dictating proceedings for at least 30 minutes of the half.
Arteta spoke to Jamie Carragher in a recent segment for Sky Sports on how Henderson was an issue for the Gunners and the following screenshots will go into this in slightly more detail.
Joel Matip can be seen below in possession, with Jesus ready to apply pressure. The centre half delivers a square pass to Trent Alexander Arnold.
Martinelli is slow to engage, giving the Liverpool full-back the opportunity to execute a progressive pass into Mohamed Salah’s feet, who drops deep to collect the ball.
The Gunners’ lack of intensity continues with Martin Odegaard not cutting off the simple pass from Salah to Henderson. The Liverpool skipper now has time and space to deliver a through ball for Nunez to latch onto.
As the cutback is delivered, Saliba can only direct the ball toward goal to which Aaron Ramsdake deals with comfortably. There were a few more instances in the half where Liverpool were able to find themselves in promising situations like the one described, behind the last line due to the overload present in the centre of the park.
Having said all this, Arsenal went into the break ahead against the run of play. So to expect them to alter their approach perhaps may not have been the first thought. Arteta however knew that change was necessary given the general in-game flow. A change that goes down as one of the boldest moves he’s made this season, going man for man in the press, which was the catalyst to second-half domination.
Bravery. The only word to describe this. Going 4v4 as shown below, across the last line is bold, especially against an attack that can cause serious damage alongside the fact that Arsenal didn’t need to chase given the scoreline.
The most noteworthy point to consider is the Xhaka tweak, who is remaining tight to Henderson, thereby preventing any numerical overloads present in build-up, outside of goalkeeper Allison. Effectively the extra second the away side had in the engine room in possession was diminished and whilst as simple as it may seem, these sorts of finer details decide results.
The shape can be seen in action below, with the following sequence just one of multiple examples showing how the north Londoners were able to maintain substantial control, sustaining a plethora of attacks in the process.
Following Van Dijk receiving the ball from Matip, Saka is ready to apply pressure with a curved run, with the intent of forcing the Dutch international to pass to Kostas Tsmikias whilst also ensuring the half-space is protected.
Similar to the Chelsea sequence, this is now the trigger for the full-back, in this case, White, to lock on and meet his man. The Poole-born warrior’s body positioning along with the pressure applied ensures that Tsmikias isn’t able to escape, with the only option nearby being a channel ball to Diogo Jota.
When one action is completed, another follows. Every trigger and each moment kickstarts another process. White does a superb job of creating tension and forcing the former Olympiacos defender into making a quick decision.
Liverpool’s number 21 manages to squeeze an aerial pass into Jota and this is now Saliba’s job to initiate the next phase of play and mitigate the Portuguese international’s influence, to which Arsenal’s £30 million towering defender remains sharp and alert, ready to pounce on Jota failing to control the ball.
With Saliba now under pressure, the structure takes over (positional superiority), with Arteta’s system well equipped at ensuring support is predominantly available, nine times out of ten at the very least.
Short distances, close proximity, and a tight, secure network; this is what the 40-year-old has implemented from day one, although it’s become more apparent through patience and greater squad quality. Partey can be seen above stepping outside of Roberto Firmino’s cover shadow, giving Saliba an easy passing option.
This situation is almost identical to the initial Chelsea example, with the only difference revolving around who is called into action. It’s amazing to watch, incredibly difficult to withstand and the evidence is right in front of everyone’s eyes. Arsenal are two points clear at the top, with a game in hand for a reason. The partnerships developed across the pitch has given Arteta’s men a significant collective cooperative edge in and out of possession.
For example, when Saka receives an inside pass from White, that’s the trigger for Ben to simultaneously overlap and offer a natural overload (maximum to minimum width principle). When Odegaard drops into the midfield line, attracting the opposition nearside central midfielder, Saka is now isolated 1v1 against the full-back, which is the trigger for White to deliver a channel ball for vertical penetration. When cutbacks are delivered, there is usually one player pushing the backline deeper, with two ready to receive in the pocket that has now opened up whilst another will hover around the back post ready to pounce on a potential second ball or farside cross. When Odegaard makes an underlapping half-space run, that’s the signal for a potential diagonal switch to Saka. When Xhaka pins the full-back, that’s the trigger for a potential diagonal switch to Martinelli.
These are just a small selection of many automatisms seen in every game. Likewise, in the press, it’s the same. Identical trends, consistent patterns and frequent triggers. A man-to-man pressing attitude that is based on one motivation; to win the ball back and squeeze as a unit for prolonged periods, with the graph below demonstrating this, courtesy of @markrstats.
Only Manchester City statistically hold a higher line than the Gunners, with the difference being very marginal, whilst nobody other than Chelsea deliver greater levels of intensity.
What’s even more impressive is the fine balance of an aggressive off-the-ball approach and a secure rest defence both on display, thereby giving the Gunners the platform to mitigate the volume of threatening transition scenarios the backline face in the event of the press being broken, with the chart from @StatsBomb below illustrating this.
As shown, barring Manchester City and Valencia, no other team concedes fewer Zone 14 entries per 90 minutes than Arteta’s men across Europe, with Lyon being the only side who are more likely to have a defender within five yards of the ball receipt.
Immediately the examples along with the graph above show that despite applying full throttle, the north Londoners recognise the importance of protecting crucial spaces, with the common ‘five men in front of the ball and five behind the ball’ approach taken.
4) Final thoughts
Last Wednesday, it appeared that Arsenal failed the ultimate test, on paper. The 3-1 defeat against the Champions of England left many deflated and worried. But when diving into the game at nanometer level, Arsenal showed yet again why their rise is sustainable. Going toe to toe, remaining confident in principles, utilising a man-to-man press created problems for Guardiola’s men. Everything discussed in this article can be applied to this encounter, with Ederson forced to go long throughout the 90 minutes.
36% possession. The lowest the Citizens have ever had under the former Bayern Munich coach. Jack Grealish said in his post-match interview that the north Londoners ‘were the better team’.
Tomiyasu’s half-volley hit over the bar, Eddie Nketiah frustratingly missing two golden headers, Saka not striking with his right foot instantly, Nketiah millimeters away from converting Tomiyasu’s cross and Xhaka messing up two final actions in the second half. Arsenal should have won the game and the players only have themselves to blame.
Let’s look at more positives though. Tactically it was a game of chess and Mikel was superior as he reacted to Guardiola’s in-game tweaks quickly throughout the game, something that will be discussed in another article in the next few weeks.
Be encouraged. This Arsenal team may have experienced a turbulent last few weeks, prior to their dramatic victory on Saturday against Unai Emery’s Aston Villa. But when they are on it, there is nobody better.
Believe. That parade in north London must happen.
We are The Arsenal.
I really hope you enjoyed the read and any comments would be much appreciated.
If you would like to know more about me, follow my Twitter account @RjArsenalBlog, which is where you can access all previous articles.
25-year-old Gooner who loves talking and writing about football
I’m always looking forward to your article and I really enjoy this present one. I wish you could write frequently here. You make us deeply understand the game more than what we already know
Really means a lot John, thanks so much. Work sadly cuts my time short but I’ll try my best to be more frequent here.
Brilliant post matey. Enjoyed reading and hats off for the detial. Have sent it to a few fellow gooners. They may not comment but they definitely read
Thanks so much, glad you liked it and hopefully those who you sent it to enjoy the piece as well!