Arsenal's wide 4-4-2 out of possession leads to open space between the lines
February 20, 2023
February 20, 2023 — In Arsenal’s match against Aston Villa on February 18, 2023, they employed a wide 4-4-2 formation when out of possession, which, paired with the static movement of their defenders on the far side, created a lot of space for Aston Villa between the lines.
Arsenal’s counter-press is the best in the Premier League, but once Aston Villa got past it and advanced the ball into the middle third, space opened up.
To fully appreciate how open Arsenal made the pitch, you can compare it to Aston Villa’s defending, who were the polar opposite with their narrow 4-4-2 formation out of possession. They were very dynamic, and the movement from all ten outfield players was constant.
They made the pitch small, clogged the midfield, and drove Arsenal into the wide areas, forcing Leandro Trossard at left-wing, Bukayo Saka at right-wing, and anyone who helped them into a 1v1 or 2v1 situation.
This can be seen in the first goal for Aston Villa, scored in the 5th minute.
Both Granit Xhaka and Oleksandr Zinchenko came to help Leandro Trossard on the left-wing, but all three were tightly man-marked in a 3v3 situation.
Ollie Watkins marked Jorginho tightly, leaving Gabriel as the only outlet out from that 3v3. Matty Cash stole the ball away from Oleksandr Zinchenko, which then initiated Aston Villa’s counter-attack, with Watkins streaking up the center of the field.
Gabriel had to step out to challenge Matty Cash, which left William Saliba to defend Ollie Watkins in a 1v1 situation.
Matty Cash played a good through ball to Ollie Watkins, and all Watkins had to do was execute a neat step-over to lose Saliba, and then shoot across the goal to score.
Aston Villa kept their compactness throughout the entire first half. When Arsenal turned the ball over and the ball was advanced into the middle third, Aston Villa was able to open Arsenal up just by playing simple diagonal passes.
Here is an example of the movement in action: Matty Cash plays the ball to Ezri Konsa.
Konsa plays a low vertical ball out to Alex Moreno. Arsenal’s players on the far-side aren’t making any large dramatic movements to follow the play or tightly press.
Moreno then plays in Philippe Coutinho, who then plays the ball to Douglas Luiz, in space.
That example I made up, but here is the Aston Villa second goal in the 31st minute, which demonstrates the imbalances Arsenal’s wider 4-4-2 created.
Boubacar Kamara ignores Alex Moreno, the free man, and plays a one-two with Philippe Coutinho to advance past Arsenal’s disjointed second line. There is a huge amount of open space out wide, between the second line and the back line.
Moreno makes a swooping run around Ben White on the left-wing and Kamara plays the perfect pass into Moreno.
Gabriel goes out to challenge Moreno but loses that battle, as Moreno dribbles past him. Coutinho is played the ball and is free on the edge of the box behind Xhaka, who is getting dragged forward by the man he is marking.
That movement forward from Xhaka opened up space for Coutinho to run into and get off a shot for the goal in front of Arsenal’s back line. However, Coutinho could have elected to pass instead to McGinn, who was free on his right-hand side.
Arsenal’s defense was disorganized, and their static movements and width between the lines made the pitch incredibly large. It took very little to break them down.
This is something that will need to be addressed in matches going forward. They cannot allow teams that much space on the ball in their own half.