Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Arsenal's £65m question

One of Kai Havertz’s only redeeming qualities that he brings to Arsenal is hold-up play. Then why is Kai Havertz dropping wide or into the left half-space, and Eddie Nketiah is the one receiving the ball with his back to goal? That is the £65m question.

Figure 1.1 - Declan Rice passes to Eddie Nketiah.

First, take a breath and realize Arsenal’s situation is not that bad. It needs tweaking. Several new players have joined the team in key spine positions, and it’s early preseason. Expect dips.

The roles should be reversed. Nketiah should drop into the half-space, and Havertz should hold-up play.

Figure 1.2 - Havertz charges forward as Nketiah gets muscled off the ball by Raphael Varane.

You did not pay £65m for him to be the third man, running into a challenge.

Figure 2.1 - Solution on March 12, 2023.

I mentioned several months ago that I would die to see this in the absence of Granit Xhaka.

Leandro Trossard central, Gabriel Jesus in the left half-space, and Gabriel Martinelli at left-wing. Jesus often ran back to help in defense and was quite good at winning back the ball. He would be dangerous running at defenses like Martinelli does. Overload the left-wing, isolate the right-wing.

Jesus has always been a better creator than a finisher. He has a high work rate, is an underrated tackler, and a world-class passer. Put him in the left half-space.

Suggested 3-2 build-up structure with the left-back inverting.

My solution would be to have Gabriel Jesus drop into the left half-space in the first phase to get out of their own half. Let Havertz stay higher up the pitch. The left-back inverts to form a 3-2 sub-structure.

I don’t like Declan Rice as a holding midfielder. He moves too much. He needs a role that would allow him to be expressive and run up the pitch. Work with a 6 not be the 6. He can be trained to be a 6, but that would put a cap on his potential. He has way more to offer. Would you limit Franz Beckenbauer to such a reserved role because that’s who he resembles?

That’s why I’ve placed him at left center-back. He was a center-back when he played at Chelsea. Imagine how dominant Arsenal would be in possession with two elite ball-playing center-backs on either side of William Saliba. Jurrien Timber and Declan Rice fit the bill and then some.

I love Ben White and Gabriel, but they don’t offer that same potential. It’s not as dominant.

And yes, Rice is right-footed. On paper, it shouldn’t work, but in practice, both Declan Rice and Kim Min-Jae look more comfortable playing on the left, even though they’re both right-footed. Maybe this is due to their “aggressive nature” when they drive with the ball. They can shield and cut infield with their stronger foot.

Declan Rice in a 2021 interview talking about people saying he should play at center-back instead of as a holding midfielder:

“It’s laughable,” said Rice. “I think you can see in my game I’m never a centre-back. I feel like I’ve got too much ability to be playing at the back.

“I want to be progressive and athletic. I feel like I can do that in a midfield sense. I feel like now I’m not just a holding midfielder anymore.”

Correct Declan, you’re not just a holding midfielder. As an outside center-back in a three-at-the-back, you have the freedom to get forward. Push into the midfield.

Figure 4.1 - Declan Rice left half-space switch to Jarrod Bowen.

I could imagine this scenario playing out with Rice stepping out wide or forward into the left half-space and either combining with Gabriel Martinelli or pinging switches to Bukayo Saka. Let Thomas Partey or Jorginho do the boring stuff and unleash Rice.

In the second and final phase, it can morph into several different structures. Play Havertz on the right where the angles for him are better.

Figure 5.1 - 3-3-4 with a lone pivot.
Figure 6.1 - Simple 4-4-2
Figure 7.1 - 3-4-3 diamond

Arsenal have Champions League football next season, so they’ll need to remain flexible. The schedule will be packed. Timber can invert from the right, Kiwior can come on, there are many options.

The main problem is that Kai Havertz can’t be the lone center-forward. He’s not clinical; his finishing is poor, but that can be trained into him with time. He has good instincts but poor execution.

You don’t buy a center-forward for £65m if they can’t finish. They would need to come in for another specific purpose. Another position.

Kai Havertz to The Athletic, August 2021:

“More or less, I’m a midfield player but I like to go into the box.”

That’s a second striker.

Mikel Arteta when they signed Kai Havertz:

“Kai is a player of top quality. He has great versatility and is an intelligent player. He will bring a huge amount of extra strength to our midfield and variety to our play.”

Mikel Arteta on Kai Havertz, Declan Rice, and Martin Ødegaard:

“When they play 55 times together, they will be better. It will flow better, they will understand each other better and will be more dominant and better.

But it takes time to glide and we have to respect that. But I saw a lot of positive things, and things I like much more than the game we won the other day against the MLS even though the result is very different.”

And Mikel Arteta clearly agrees. A second striker it is, but Arteta can be stubborn and slow to make changes, so will he stick with this midfield experiment or will he use Havertz higher?

Figure 8.1 - 3-2-2-3 box midfield.

That’s why a 3-2-2-3 box midfield that they used last season just doesn’t really work now. Havertz shouldn’t play at left center-mid, and he can’t play as the lone center-forward. So where’s he going? Why did you buy him? That system won’t work; out the window it goes.

It’s puzzling why they would want to completely alter a system that was working so well. 248 days. Arsenal set a new record last season for spending the most days on top of the Premier League without winning it.

All they needed was:

  • A replacement for Rob Holding: that’s Jurrien Timber.
  • A right-footed center-back who could play center center-back in place of William Saliba in case: Don’t necessarily have that.
  • Keep Granit Xhaka for one more season (nope) or sign a left center-mid: Gabriel Jesus or can they get Muhamad Kudus?

It’s a strange one, but they’ll eventually figure it out. It may hurt their chances of finishing in the top four depending on how quickly they’ll be able to figure it out. There is a lot of competition in the Premier League this season.

Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Aston Villa have all strengthened significantly, plus Manchester City, Newcastle, Brighton, and Brentford. It’s closer than last season. Every game will be a slog.

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