Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Arsenal reinvented the wheel

Unprovoked, they experimented and broke down their team’s dynamics. They built back towards what worked last season after the experiments failed, and have improved upon that winning formula. Arsenal will forever be a mystery to me because of how good they now look.

Figure 1.1 - Robert Pires inverts while Ashley Cole fills the space on the wing. Dennis Bergkamp brings down the ball.
Figure 1.2 - Gilberto Silva takes the ball deep while Patrick Vieira makes a run into the left half-space.

Based on small glimpses in preseason, the signing of Kai Havertz, and the profiles available, I wondered if the goal was to rebuild a modern-day version of Arsenal’s Invincibles.

A team that is both resolute in attack and defense. One that would make the opponent wonder, “how are we going to score?” They would smother you on both ends of the pitch. Score at will.

This would be a departure from how they played the previous season, but it was made to fit both Gabriel Jesus and Kai Havertz into a lineup, up top, playing together.

Figure 2.1 - Reiss Nelson drops to provide a pass for Leandro Trossard, and Eddie Nketiah moves wide.
Figure 2.2 - Kai Havertz moves wide when Kieran Tierney inverts.

But then we got to preseason. They began to experiment. Dragging the left center-midfielder wide to act as a left-midfielder while inverting the left-back was one of the many small experiments.

Figure 3.1 - Havertz charges forward as Nketiah gets muscled off the ball by Raphael Varane.

All this trial and error altered the way they pass and move to fit Kai Havertz in, in the midfield.

Kai Havertz to The Athletic, August 2021:

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

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.”

Figure 4.1 - Partey wide with Declan Rice carrying the ball in the right half-space.

But their approach was awkward. It was a hybrid between what worked prior and something completely new. The right side of the pitch was functional, the left side of the pitch was not. Havertz isolated Martinelli and they had trouble progressing the ball into the box.

Figure 5.1 - Kai Havertz jumps to tap the ball into the goal.

When Havertz played in that center-forward position in December, you could see the future. He lacked confidence but he knows how to find space. It’s not the future they seemed to want in preseason or at the beginning of the season, but it was the future.

Figure 6.1 - Kai Havertz takes another touch and Reiss Nelson is open.

That lack of confidence shined in most games. His touch was inconsistent, he couldn’t finish chances, he disrupted the flow of their play, and killed momentum.

Figure 7.1 - Martin Ødegaard chips the ball behind Virgil Van Dijk to Kai Havertz.

But their persistence to power through the bad to get to good allowed that confidence to develop, and they began to click. Their patterns of passing in open play were so bad, I thought they were intentionally avoiding playing the ball into the box.

Figure 8.1 - Rolling xG Differential from Set Pieces. Visual credit to Mark Taylor
Figure 8.2 - Arsenal - Goal and NPxG Difference 2021-2022 to 2023-2024. Visual credit to Scott Willis for Cannon Stats
Figure 8.3 - Premier League shots faced in 2024. Visual credit to The Athletic

They’ve mastered the smaller details. They lead the league in goals from set-pieces. They are winning all their duels. They are smothering opponents in their own end. Teams can’t get a shot off. They’ve developed tactics to both hold a lead, dominate an opponent in their own half, conserve energy.

It is an improved version of last season. It is the most dominant team in the Premier League because in a league where goals are constantly scored, every team wonders when they face Arsenal “how will we score?”

Mikel Arteta, after yesterday’s Brighton match, on if Kai Havertz has found his best position at centre-forward:

A lot of the time players decide where they have to play, and we can have certain ideas, but then you see certain relationships and some things flow.

And when it flows, you have to let it go, and I think Kai at the moment is flowing and he’s feeling really comfortable there, the rest of the team is comfortable with him there and things happen naturally.

Instead of doing the easy thing by fitting Gabriel Jesus into another position, like in the midfield or on the wing, they chose the more difficult path of fitting Havertz into a new position, in the midfield. A position he has never regularly played before, in a new team.

And it’s not just Havertz. One player’s position completely changes how the entire team functions.

Figure 9.1 - Martin Ødegaard plays in Bukayo Saka.
Figure 9.2 - Gabriel Martinelli inverting next to Kai Havertz with Jakub Kiwior pushing forward.

Now they have returned to something that more resembles what worked. A more simple functioning attack with a true 6 in Jorginho, two true 8s in Rice and Ødegaard, and a true center-forward in Havertz. Positions they are familiar with.

My doubts at the start of the season started when they began to experiment. Now they are playing catch up. The experimentation made things complicated which allowed Liverpool, Manchester City, Aston Villa, and Tottenham to stay close in the table. Look at the form now. That’s the mystery. They should have kept things simple, but now they need to keep things simple because this is what works.

Figure 10.1 - Arsenal's remaining schedule if they advance to the Champions League final.

It will be tough to keep things simple during this busy period when they will need to rotate.

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