Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Arsenal's thicket

September 26, 2023 — Attempting to dribble through Arsenal’s defense is like navigating through a dense thicket of tall trees. One lanky player sticks out a leg, you get by, and then another. But a relentless Tottenham eventually forced mistakes.

The trees:

  • William Saliba: 193cm
  • Gabriel: 190cm
  • Declan Rice: 185cm
  • Ben White: 182cm

And then Kai Havertz at 186cm when he gets subbed on.

It’s noticeable when Arsenal square up out of possession that they have the height advantage.

James Maddison or Dejan Kulusevski would attempt to dribble up the middle of the field and fail as one leg gets tossed out, and then another, and then another. Telescopic legs.

Arsenal have assembled the height to dominate but get too excited by the occasion or game state. They are poised but they don’t act calm. They were good last season at being the ones to control the tempo but now they feed into a higher tempo.

I noticed early on in the game Arsenal were expending a lot of energy to maintain an impassable compact shape. Four Tottenham forwards attempted to attack but Arsenal just as quickly shifted their entire midfield behind the ball. 8v4.

It worked. They enveloped Brennan Johnson, James Maddison, Dejan Kulusevski, and Son Heung-min. This made it a basketball game. Back and forth, back and forth, up and down the field. Tiring work. But this is not a sustainable model to run on this season.

It might work when you play FC Zürich, Bødo/Glimt, and PSV in the Europa League on Thursday’s but I don’t think it will work as well when in the Champions League against PSV, Lens, and Sevilla with 2-3 days rest between matches.

That’s not a knock on the quality of the opponent, even though the quality is normally higher, but it’s more the expectation of those matches. The Champions League anthem holds a greater weight ringing in your ears throughout a match. It’s different. The intensity is higher.

Arsenal should easily top that group but a season in the Champions League is a mentally exhausting marathon.

And it’s not the trees that tire, it’s the rest of the team. Once Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, and Fabio Vieira began to succumb to fatigue chances opened up. Players get caught up field. Everything becomes looser between the lines.

Figure 1.1 - Dejan Kulusevski drives infield as Son Hueng-min overlaps into space.
Figure 1.2 - Dejan Kulusevski passes the ball to Son Hueng-min, and then Brennan Johnson drops back to receive the pass from Son.
Figure 1.3 - David Raya's acrobatic save to deny Brennan Johnson the goal.

The chances will appear central because Tottenham like to cut in from the touch-line wide. It only takes one of those midfielders in Arsenal’s second line to not arrive and there’s an opening in a half-space. Tottenham under Ange Postecogolu don’t hesitate. They attack.

Earlier in the half, Arsenal would have had three men covering Kulusevski, not allowing him to even advance into an area where he could cut in.

If Arsenal applied a more conservative slower approach out of possession that allowed them to maintain an overload central, rather than attempt to be everywhere, I think they would have had a greater chance at maintaining a higher level of defensive security for longer periods. The threat is central, eliminate the threat, win back the ball, control the game.

Then rotation kicks in. With 2-3 days rest you need to rotate because you can’t afford to not get points in the Champions League. Declan Rice comes off injured, Jorginho is subbed on, tackled, that’s football, Tottenham equalize for their 2nd goal off his mistake. The imbalances created when a starter comes off and the second choice comes on, or a second choice starts, is new dynamic in the Premier League for this young team.

Managing the intensity of their play and rotation will be the new challenges for Arsenal that they did not have to face last season. They could go full bore in the Premier League before but they have to find a balance that will allow them to compete for everything.

I’m excited to see how Arsenal prioritize each competition.

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