Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Arsenal could have walked away with the league

Arsenal transformed from a nearly unbeatable team, capable of passing through opponents while denying teams a chance on goal, to a team that most could stop. Still good defensively though. If they had retained Granit Xhaka and maintained the same style as last season, I believe they could have walked away with the league title this season.

This has been my opinion since the very first preseason match. They changed too much at once.

Ideally, you should only implement 2-3 changes at a time. However, they overhauled the system with Rice at left center-mid, Kai Havertz playing on both left and right, Zinchenko not being as involved, inverting, the holding midfielder floating to the right of Ben White, blocking his progression, and playing more directly, among other changes. My head is spinning thinking about all of the changes. They made numerous personnel and structural changes when the previous system had them at the top. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They tried to fix something that had already put them at the top.

Winning the league is never easy, let alone the dominance they displayed last season.

Make one change. Substitute Declan Rice for Thomas Partey, or Gabriel as I recommended here. Keeping Xhaka and play with the same lineup as last season, which kept them at the top of the league for 248 days. Even if they still sign Havertz, they could have eased him into the team, much like they did with goalkeeper David Raya for Aaron Ramsdale. They rushed the process because they believed they were invincible, and they might have been had they taken it slower.

Newcastle started on the front foot. The crowd at St. James’ Park plays a significant role in any match there. You must quiet them, or the atmosphere will engulf you.

Figure 1.1 - Arsenal's 4-3-3 with Declan Rice at left center-mid and Kai Havertz at right center-mid.

One positive note is that Kai Havertz is playing on the right, which is better for him, as noted at the start of the preseason here. However, it doesn’t change the fact that most of his passes are inaccurate. Havertz has been used on the right sporadically, but he must be there today because Martin Ødegaard is not in the lineup. Hopefully, Arsenal will begin to experiment with Ødegaard at left center-mid, so Havertz can continue to play on the right, or try Havertz at right center-bench. His misplaced passes disrupted too many attacks.

The physicality in this game highlights the makeover Arsenal underwent in the summer. Last season, they passed through Newcastle and won, as detailed here. This season, they are looking to use a more direct approach to brute force their way into Newcastle’s half.

Figure 2.1 - Newcastle counter-pressing during an Arsenal goal kick.

Teams are getting tired of dealing with aggressive counter-pressing and playing out from the back. They are adopting the strategy of building a team with the most technically gifted tall trees and hoofing the ball up to them, bypassing the opponent’s initial press. They might even bring back the classic 4-4-2 formation for good measure.

Newcastle looked dead tired halfway through the first half, which suggests that the Champions League schedule is taking a toll on them. It would be in Arsenal’s best interest to turn this into a high-paced basketball game, without fear of turnovers. Make Newcastle run up and down the pitch, and they will eventually tire.

I was really disappointed with Newcastle’s summer transfer….

I had to stop typing this mid-sentence during the game when Kai Havertz flew into Sean Longstaff.

Figure 3.1 - Kai Havertz diving off the ground with studs up into Sean Longstaff.

The entire match changed after this challenge from Kai Havertz. It wasn’t a red card in my opinion but if he made a tiny bit more contact, it’s a clear straight red. Can’t leave the ground with studs up.

Fabian Schar, Anthony Gordon, and Sean Longstaff all received yellow cards for protesting the challenge, and Dan Burn was holding his back after a fall. Now, Newcastle can’t afford to go hard into challenges. One unnecessary yellow card, and they would be down to ten men. Bruno Guimaraes was making very questionable decisions, and he was lucky not to receive a red card for sticking an elbow out shortly after this challenge.

Regardless of your opinion on the refereeing decisions in this game, I think we can all agree that we’d prefer the focus to be on the football, not the officiating.

You almost feel that Newcastle needs that anger, the grit, to get the adrenaline going to overcome their tiredness. The crowd playing a big part.

With Dan Burn off, you might think that the weakness is now substitute Valitino Livramento at right-back. Kiernan Trippier switched to left-back, and Gabriel Martinelli got a chance to go one-on-one against Livramento. If you were a betting man, you’d expect Martinelli to dominate Livramento.

Figure 4.1 - Gabriel Martineli, Declan Rice, Oleksandr Zinchenko overload the left-wing.

But Livramento did incredibly well. Despite his performance, Mikel Arteta noticed this weakness and moved his players to the left to overload that wing. Put the pressure on. Martinelli, Rice, Havertz, and Zinchenko all began to bear down on the substitute.

Figure 5.1 - Gabriel Martineli, Kai Havertz, Bukayo Saka, Declan Rice, and Oleksandr Zinchenko overload the left-wing.

Then, around the 80th minute, Saka and Trossard joined in. Eddie Howe countered by switching ball-winner Joelinton to the right to help mark Martinelli and stem the tide.

Figure 6.1 - Oleksandr Zinchenko makes a run into space, and Gabriel Martinelli passes the ball to him.
Figure 6.2 - Oleksandr Zinchenko crosses.

This change from Arteta allowed Arsenal to create a few high-quality crossing chances, but Newcastle shifted into a full 4-5-1 formation, similar to the Champions League style against PSG, to clog the middle and effectively stop Arsenal from causing any damage as they grew more and more tired past the 70th minute mark, leading to lots of uncharacteristic errant passes.

Now that Arsenal lost, if Liverpool and Aston Villa win their games on Sunday, Arsenal will sit outside the top 4 in 5th place, and Newcastle move up to 6th. The Champions League schedule is beginning to take a toll on these two teams. The top 8 is quite volatile – two losses can drop you to 8th, while two to three wins can propel you to 1st or 2nd. It’s the closest the league has ever been.

When I was rudely interrupted by Kai Havertz in the 36th minute, I was going to say that I was disappointed in Newcastle’s summer transfer window. They looked exhausted at the end of last season and lacked depth at center-back, as mentioned here. I believe it’s crucial for them to acquire a left-footed center-back in the January transfer window, even if it’s just a backup, if they want to compete for a top 4 spot.

Match: Newcastle 1-0 Arsenal, November 4, 2023

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