Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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Is Arsenal intentionally attempting to win set-pieces?

Arsenal have a very simple game plan: Win the ball, control possession in the middle third, win a corner or free-kick. Repeat. Zero shots on target with only 0.13xG from open play against Porto. I’m beginning to suspect that lack of open play threat is intentional.

Figure 1.1 - Arsenal with possession in the middle third.

Almost no one can defend against Arsenal’s short passing patterns, bouncing between Saliba, Gabriel, Rice, and Ødegaard. Mix that with their ability to quickly close down the ball if they lose possession. They own the middle third.

What they lack is the cutting edge in the final third. This is something I’ve suspected for several games, but as time goes on I’m beginning to become more confident that this lack of progression central is by design.

Figure 2.1 - Kai Havertz attempting a cross into the box.
Figure 3.1 - Ben White attempting a cross.

From reading the body language of the Arsenal players in the box, it doesn’t seem like they expect the ball to be played to them. No one is rushing into position. They are getting into a position if the defender misses the block, but the goal doesn’t seem to be to get them the ball.

Do they move players into the box when the ball is played wide? Yes. Does it seem like the player crossing is aiming for the legs of the defender so it deflects off them to go out of bounds for a corner? Yes.

Figure 4.1 - 2023/24 Premier League matches sorted by teams with the most corner kicks in a single game with 58% possession or less. Data via StatHead

If possession is more evenly split, like it was in the second half against Porto, Arsenal had 58% possession, the safe play is a corner.

Arsenal lead the league with 14 goals from a free kick, corner kick, kick off, throw-ins or goal kick. The second closest team is Tottenham and West Ham with 6 dead-ball goals.

Declan Rice is one of the most consistent corner and free-kick takers I have ever seen. You have the tall and powerful Gabriel, Saliba, Kiwior, and Havertz inside the box to dunk the ball into the net.

When you are that good at converting from a dead-ball, what’s the point of trying to score from open play?

Figure 5.1 - Gabriel lifts a ball over the top, wide, to Leandro Trossard. No one availble in the middle.
Figure 6.1 - Bukayo Saka breaks down the wing and no one is central for Arsenal.

When the game is 0-0, they never seem in a rush to control the center of the pitch, in the final third. It’s all about protecting their net, and working the ball wide.

A set-piece is more controlled and predictable. Practiced plays can be run in an environment that’s hard for an opposing defense to control. If you can consistently score from corners and free kicks, it’s a cheat code. A get out jail free card to win a game.

Arsenal seem willing to sacrifice their attack to win those more predictable set-pieces. They become unstoppable when they can combine the open play threat they had last season with the set-pieces and defensive prowess they have this season. Without the threat from open play, they won’t truly dominate games, and teams will find ways to beat them.

Match: Porto 1-0 Arsenal, 21 February 2024

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