Tactics Column: Zinchenko plays through the press

High risk, high reward, high turnover. Arsenal’s build-up game is often about the top two and avoiding the third. And everything is made much easier with the inclusion of Oleksandr Zinchenko.

“Pressing is the best playmaker,” Jurgen Klopp once said. Win the ball high and you won’t have to travel far, against a disorganized and unprepared defense, to get a good shot. That idea has changed the game to the one we see today, with teams pressing high, pressing aggressively.

But Arsenal, while a fortress, have not always developed cleanly of late. According to a bot developed by markstats, Leeds had a high 11 turnovers (incidents where possession started within 40 yards of goal) against Arsenal. Nottingham Forest had eight, PSV (away) seven, Southampton six.

We get past Ramsdale a lot often, but some of the play from behind has been a bit sloppy, even if some of those mistakes have been bounced back nicely with good defense. But on Sunday, with Oleksandr Zinchenko back in the squad, Chelsea only had two big turnovers to their credit. Neither of them resulted in a shot being fired.

Chelsea simply couldn’t get close enough to put pressure on Arsenal and Zinchenko had a huge role to play.

Takehiro Tomiyasu also steps in when he plays at left back, but not as early as the Ukrainian. The heatmaps below show where the pair have received the ball when playing on the left this season. Tomiyasu will move inside, but will be higher up the field when he does, mainly as a defensive measure, closing down the midfield in case of counter-attacks, and the change is not that drastic.

But Zinchenko’s move inside is as much to help Arsenal’s possession play as it is to provide a security blanket should the ball be lost. With his incredible technical ability when calm in possession, the summer signing is a huge weapon for stretching teams and creating attacks.

And that’s why he went straight back to the side at Stamford Bridge at the expense of Kieran Tierney. It’s also one of the main reasons why Arsenal were in total control – Chelsea just couldn’t get a foothold when it came to pressing high.

There is a great example from the third minute. Raheem Sterling was ready to pressure Gabriel if he received possession, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was positioned to pressure a pass to William Saliba, Mason Mount defended a long pass to Ben White in the same way, and Kai Havertz was ready to cut a ball to Thomas Partey. But he had a problem when Partey fell to one side of him and Zinchenko found a space on the other.

Chelsea’s forward four had been outnumbered by Arsenal’s back five (six if Ramsdale is included) and Zinchenko found a space as the spare man.

There was no help from the Chelsea midfield as they had been pinned down and separated. The tendency of Arsenal’s central midfielders to move sideways and play outside their markers created a huge gap in midfield, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jorginho following Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard respectively.

Sometimes on Sunday, Gabriel Jesus would fall into this hole, dragging Trevor Chalobah off the baseline and creating space for a run by Gabriel Martinelli or Granit Xhaka down the middle. This time, after three minutes, Jorginho looked to shut down Zinchenko, so Odegaard found himself with plenty of space, ready to pass the ball to Bukayo Saka, who rammed into Marc Cucurella and earned a foul.

The move set the tone for Arsenal’s dominance and Chelsea’s struggles as the Gunners played from behind. There was a clear desire from the local team not to let Arsenal settle and to try to force mistakes, but it didn’t work. They were outmaneuvered.

Two long balls over the top for runs from Martinelli and Xhaka were about to go off when Jesús went into the aforementioned hole in the heart of the field and was followed by Chalobah. On another occasion, Arsenal made the same move, but found Zinchenko in space down the left flank, as he moved upfield to take advantage of Cesar Azpilicueta’s follow-up on one of Martinelli’s switches into a more central area.

With the higher technical level of the team coupled with greater confidence and a clear belief in the plan, Arsenal have developed the ability to dominate games with the ball, launch attacks from their set-up game and leave teams scratching their heads as The red and white shirts rotate positions, simultaneously creating and then filling gaps.

For Chelsea on Sunday, that meant trying to press became an exercise in trying to plug holes in the boat without taking on too much water. Push higher with more men, space is behind. Follow those Martinelli runs and space is out.

A truly dominant, possession-fueled away win against a great team feels like a great moment for this Arsenal side, and now just one more win will see us back in line and top of the league by Christmas.

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