Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Arsenal's perfect balance to dominate and third-man runs

Arsenal were dominant against Newcastle because they found the perfect balance of open play, set-piece play, and defensive security. The key to their play in open play improving in the final third was smaller distances between players and more frequent third man runs.

I talked the other day about how Arsenal seem to be intentionally winning set-pieces this season. West Ham and Porto were the notable recent examples. The movement of the players and the direction of the crosses wasn’t adding up. It’s a theory that I had to think about for several weeks because I needed more examples.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to win corners or free-kicks. Look at Andoni Irola for example. He created an entire tactic based around winning throw-ins at Rayo Vallecano.

Arsenal are the most proficient team in world football right now from a set-piece. It’s a major competitive advantage that they should exploit as much as they can. But it’s finding the balance, that on-and-off switch between winning corners and being a threat in the run of play. You want both.

If I had to name one defining feature of Arsenal from last season, I think of passing plays in tight spaces, all throughout the final third, cutting into the penalty area like a knife through hot butter.

You can see that spark or connection start to come back in the Nottingham Forest match, against Burnley, and today versus Newcastle.

Figure 1.1 - Gabriel Martinelli inverting next to Kai Havertz with Jakub Kiwior pushing forward.

One big change they’ve made is to reduce the distance between players by inverting the far-side winger. Both Martinelli and Saka did it throughout the match against Newcastle.

Arsenal like to work a lot on the right-wing, so that usually meant Martinelli inverts. He is no longer isolated holding width at left-wing, with no one in the left-half space to work off off. He is central, in the mix, making runs.

The far-side winger inverts to the ball-side, and then you have an extra man close to Kai Havertz and Martin Ødegaard.

Figure 2.1 - Jorginho passes over the top to Gabriel Martinelli.
Figure 2.2 - Gabriel Martinelli runs on to the ball. Kai Havertz makes the run to the six yard box.
Figure 2.3 - Gabriel Martinelli crosses to Kai Havertz.
Figure 2.4 - Kai Havertz scores.

The intention is clear, work the ball into the six yard box. Now, that switch is turned on, the third man is making the run into the dangerous space towards the six yard box. There’s multiple players converging upon the center of the pitch. If Havertz lets the ball roll, there’s someone behind him.

Those third man runs from Ødegaard, Martinelli, Rice, Havertz, White, and Saka cutting-in combined with the line-breaking passes from Gabriel, Saliba and Jorginho. They overwhelmed Newcastle.

They were not overwhelming their opponents in this way. The third man run was mistimed or nonexistent. It had to be intentional because I know they can turn that switch on and perform like this.

On, work the ball into the box and score. Off, win a corner and score. Repeat. Combine both in attack and then defend in a manner that doesn’t allow the opponent to even get a shot off. Now you’re dominating the game in a way that no other team can.

Match: Arsenal 4-1 Newcastle, 25 February 2024

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