During this season, I have written about the roles of various Arsenal players as Mikel Arteta’s tactical vision for the team has evolved. Some players are made by the system and some players make the system. With Zinchenko, Saliba and Gabriel Jesus, Arsenal have introduced three players to the starting eleven who have been able to transform the team’s style.
This column will be about Arsenal’s defensive form in general, whose consistency has literally given the team a solid platform on which to build. When we talk about team automatisms, we tend to focus on the attack because it’s the exciting part and it tends to be the most fluid part. The advantage of having a defined structure is that players can act quickly and instinctively under stress.
Before looking at defense, let’s first establish the form of attack under Arteta. Like Pep Guardiola, they adopt a 2-3-5 or a 3-2-5, so much so that I no longer see this team playing in a 433 or 4231, I just see it as a 5-5. . There are fluctuations within this structure but, to a large extent, this is what Arsenal’s five attacking players look like.
Players come and go that way all the time, Jesus rotates with Martinelli on occasion and Odegaard and Xhaka drop back to support the midfield form. But this is the goal, to have those five full attack lanes and most of the time it is as you see it above. So what about the structure behind them?
I said I’d do a little thread on Arsenal’s break defense from the Chelsea game today and I’m a man of my word…
— Jon Mackenzie (@Jon_Mackenzie) November 6, 2022
As I wrote last week, Arteta doesn’t want his full-backs to be extra attackers, his main job is not to overlap but to reinforce the midfield. Odegaard and Xhaka are expected to be mainly part of the five attacking lanes in possession, which requires a certain level of evacuation in midfield, a migration away from Thomas Partey. The work of the wings is to flank him and reinforce that area.
Ben White could be pushed alongside Partey, making the back five structure a 2-3, or he could be pushed alongside Saliba, making it a 3-2. That will largely depend on the state of the game and the opponent. At Selhurst Park in August, it was very much a 3-2 structure when White nursed Zaha, for example. Let’s look at a simple illustration of Chelsea’s game on Sunday.
Here we see the 2-3 form with Ben White at running back to make it a 3-2. You can also see that Arsenal have a good numerical superiority with five players surrounding Chelsea’s attacking trio. This form allows the team to keep the opposition under pressure, so even when he clears the ball out of his box, there is a block of five waiting to gobble up the ball and regurgitate it further up the box. If you control the space, you control the game.
With full-backs as part of this block of five, the left-back in particular isn’t really being asked to join the attack. Watch when Arsenal attack down their left flank, for example. As Arsenal build from behind, Gabriel Martinelli is pushed to the flank where you might expect to see a left-back from him with Zinchenko invested in midfield. Arteta doesn’t want a winger superimposed on Martinelli, which is why Kieran Tierney is currently not the favourite.
When the ball is high and it goes to Arsenal, there is no left-back overlap, there is a Granit Xhaka overlap in the inside left channel. Here are two examples again, from the Chelsea game. Left-back Zinchenko is not at all interested in running into the penalty area in either. In the first one, he’s not even in the shot.
Having five players behind the attack also allows one or two of the players to take risks and engage opponents high up the pitch. Thomas Partey is a coil spring in this regard, often initiating the Gunners’ pressure by jumping out of position to make interceptions high up the field and keep teams firmly under the grid. Again, just look at this example of Stamford Bridge as Mendy plays the ball towards Mason Mount.
Partey knows that even if he misjudges his attempt, he has four teammates behind him to back him up. If he wins it cleanly, there are five red jerseys ahead. White, Saliba and Gabriel are also aggressive when taking on opposing attackers. Tomiyasu, Zinchenko, White and Partey are averaging more than two tackles per game. In terms of tackles plus interceptions, Tomiyasu, Zinchenko, Partey and White are averaging more than three per game; these are high numbers.
Gabriel and Saliba don’t rank as high in these stats and that’s because their role is slightly different. No structure is entirely without its gaps. For Arsenal’s opponents, it’s clear where the space will be if you can find the time and space to try and exploit it.
The space behind Zinchenko and White, the nominal full-backs, is the part of the pitch that Arsenal leaves free. This is partly a spatial gamble on Arteta’s part, if you’re going to leave an area of your defense exposed, it’s best to forego wide areas rather than central areas. But this is where the players make the system.
Gabriel and Saliba are relied on to bounce back in those spaces when opponents play the ball to them. White and Zinchenko are usually not very high up the field, just slightly reversed, meaning it’s a short run to come in and help their middle halves when opponents play in this space. Gabriel and Saliba’s job is to either run fast enough to sweep up long passes (or get Ramsdale to leave their goal line and deal with them when necessary), or to maneuver and contain their opponent long enough until the ball arrives. chivalry.
For attacking systems to work, elite teams “overload” certain players. Arsenal ‘overload’ Partey in midfield space and ‘overload’ the central halves by relying on them to cover big gaps in the forward wide areas. There is no compromise in these positions, you need quality and you need the attributes of the player to make it work.
Liverpool spent years overloading Virgil van Dijk so that Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson could play as wingers. In 2021-22, only Norwich City conceded more heads-up with their goalkeeper than Liverpool; but Klopp’s side knowingly left that risk behind because Alisson is so strong in those one-on-one situations.
Arteta prioritized building this defensive block, with Ramsdale, White, Tomiyasu arriving in 2021, Saliba and Zinchenko in 2022, and Gabriel and Partey in 2020. The price of each of these players surprised. Arteta understood that perfecting this block of five behind was the key to making the block of five forward flourish. Saka, Xhaka and Martinelli were players that he inherited, in that defender and goalkeeper, only Saliba was not signed by the current coach.
They may not look or behave like George Graham’s famous five years (I’m not sure I can see Martin Keown sporting Ben White’s tattoos and earrings), but the intent is similar. The invincible four of Lauren, Toure, Campbell and Cole were able to recover in space and defend in isolated settings.
Elite teams need defensive blocks that a) behave like a structure but b) in high-stakes moments or when that structure breaks, they can handle themselves in a knife fight. Really, a good defense is about how you control space, and great teams need to leave a lot of space, out of necessity. Arsenal have the defensive structure now to allow their attacking points to flourish.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator– And like my page on Facebook