Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics


May 8, 2023 — In NASCAR, you only make left turns, and in the Arsenal buildup, you only pass to the left. Arsenal is the NASCAR of football at this moment in time.

I talked about the challenges that come with playing Jakub Kiwior at right center-back due to his inability to pass to his right when Arsenal played Chelsea last week. It’s not a diss on him; he’s an elite left center-back and left-back, maybe even a center-midfielder. He doesn’t have to pass with his right foot to play those three positions. It is a questionable choice from Mikel Arteta when Gabriel is comfortable using both feet. Play Gabriel at right center-back, and you avoid this issue. There must be some other hidden issue I’m missing that’s stopping them from playing him there instead of at left center-back.

Kiwior only passes left or straight, nothing else. You can close your eyes when the ball is passed to him, and without looking, you know where he will pass the ball. It’s predictable. Arsenal had to create workarounds for this issue when they faced Newcastle but were still noticeably vulnerable.

Figure 1.1 - Kiwior passes to Gabriel.
Figure 1.2 - Gabriel passes to the left-wing, and Newcastle overload Arsenal's left-wing to force a turnover.

Newcastle’s game-plan was simple:

  1. Trap Arsenal on their left-wing by curving their runs to herd them to the left because they know Kiwior will not pass to Ben White on his right.
  2. Win back the ball.
  3. Play the ball to Alexander Isak, Callum Wilson, or Joe Willock behind Kiwior and Gabriel.

Before the match:

Figure 3.1 - Ramsdale passes to Kiwior. Isak, Wilson, and Murphy block Arsenal's double pivot.
Figure 3.2 - Isak curves his press to force Kiwior left. Willock threatens to pressure White. Kiwior passes back to Ramsdale.
Figure 3.3 - Kiwior's pass to Ramsdale triggers Joelinton's pressure on Zinchenko. Ramsdale passes to Gabriel.
Figure 3.4 - Arsenal is trapped on their left-wing, forced to go long.

This is the type of situation Newcastle tried to force on several occasions: trapping Arsenal on their left-wing and forcing them to play long or overload Zinchenko, Martinelli, and Xhaka when the ball is passed from Gabriel to a player on the left-wing.

Newcastle’s ability to force a turnover was dependent on Joelinton and Kieran Tripper applying the appropriate amount of pressure on Martinelli and Zinchenko. When they applied pressure, they won the ball, when they didn’t, Arsenal were able to play through them.

If Newcastle win back the ball, they have Isak, Wilson, and Willock waiting for the pass to put them in for a high-quality chance.

Figure 2.1 - Kiwior passes to Ødegaard to White.

Arsenal’s solution for this was to have Jorginho, Zinchenko, or Ødegaard drop deep and provide a wall pass to get the ball from Kiwior to a player to the right of him, bypassing the counter-press.

Figure 4.1 - Kiwior passes to Zinchenko, then Zinchenko passes to Ødegaard.
Figure 4.2 - Ødegaard passes to a forward.

Although the wall passes were great, the overall buildup was a mess. It was too predictable and easily exploitable. Newcastle created several high-quality chances from it that they failed to convert.

I don’t see Jorginho, Zinchenko, or Ødegaard dropping as a positive because Arsenal’s forwards become too isolated when they do drop. They have no outlet when they receive the ball. If another team, like Brighton, were to crowd the middle of the pitch, Arsenal would be forced to play through their left-wing and these wall passes wouldn’t be an option.

Newcastle was incredibly disappointing in possession, especially Bruno Guimaraes, Fabian Schar, Joelinton, and Kiernan Trippier. The final ball wasn’t there. Arsenal had their weakness exposed, but Newcastle wasn’t clinical.

Figure 5.1 - Cross to Murphy who is free.
Figure 5.2 - Murphy's shot hits the post.
Figure 6.1 - Murphy crosses into a dangerous area in the box.
Figure 6.2 - Willock is free on the back post. Isak's header hits the post.

If not for the tall, white, skinny man called the post and Aaron Ramsdale, Newcastle could have easily scored two to four goals.

Credit to Arsenal for being able to work the ball out of their end in such an unorthodox fashion.

I’m not sure how well this will translate to their next match against Brighton, who are usually sharper on the ball. Jakub Kiwior won Round 1 against Alexander Isak, and now he and Arsenal have Kaoru Mitoma to worry about on the left wing for Round 2.

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