Opposition Analysis: Arsenal

Leeds United’s next opposing team Arsenal have had a mixed start to the season, winning four games and losing four in the league. Last time out they were beaten 0-3 by Aston Villa in a game where they struggled to create any real goal scoring opportunities. This has been a problem for Arsenal so far this season, scoring only nine goals in eight games. Leeds on the other hand haven’t found it hard to score goals but have struggled keeping them out, this makes for an interesting game between an attacking side like Leeds and a more defensive side like Arsenal.

In possession 

Under Mikel Arteta they have mainly used the 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 system in possession of the ball and look to play out from the back wherever possible. Depending on whether or not they play three centre backs or two centre backs will change how they look to play out. On the left of the three centre backs they tend to use a orthodox left back, normally Kieran Tierney which allows him to push into the wing back area and therefore free up the wing back to take up position in field. This allows them to either play directly to Tierney in a wide position where he will have options up the line, in field back to the centre back, or play to him in space on the second phase. If the opposition wide players press on a angle and therefore stop the pass wide, Arsenal will have their wing back position infield as shown below.

They do something similar on the right but instead of the centre back positioning themselves in a wide area, one of the central midfielders does. The example below shows Xhaka moving into a wide position which frees up Bellerin to take up a central position. This puts the opposition players in a difficult situation as they’re unsure on which player to pick up. In the case of this example, Man City cut off the initial pass to Xhaka but Silva isn’t tight enough to Bellerin who has Xhaka in space. 

Their main aim is to play out from the back and work the ball through the thirds however in the times that they can’t do so, or in the games that they’re winning and they don’t want to take as much risk then they’re quite happy to go long. If the opposition do adopt a full press then Arsenal often look to hit the ball long in the direction of Aubameyang. With him being 6ft 2, he normally gets a fair bit of joy in the air against full backs who for the most part tend to be smaller.

Once Arsenal have gained territory further up the pitch, normally through circulating the ball across their back line until the space opens up. As the graphic at the start shows, they mainly attack down their left hand side using overloads in wide areas. They form passing triangles between the left centre back, left wing back and left forward in order to work the ball into crossing positions. The three players in these positions rotate, in the example below, Xhaka is playing as a left sided centre back. Tierney who is the wing back pins Leicester’s full back, which prevents him from closing down Saka in a wide position. The wide midfielder is left in a difficult situation: close Saka down and leave space for Lacazette to pick the ball or stay narrow. He did the latter which gave Xhaka an easy pass option and Saka played a pass to Tierney who made a run of the back of the full back.

Arsenal’s 3-4-3 is flexible in possession and often looks more like a 4-3-3 with the wing back essentially playing as a left sided central midfield player, looking to position himself in between the lines in the left half space. Like the previous example, if the Aston Villa wide player plays narrow then the pass out wide is on to the full back, if they play wide and cut that option off then the ball inside is available. Trezeguet in this example cuts off the passing lane out wide and Arsenal are able to feed the ball to Saka who in turn plays it wide to Tierney. He takes a few touches before delivering a fantastic ball into the box which Lacazette fails to score.

Arsenal also create passing triangles on the opposite side of the pitch but like when they play out from the back via that side, they do it differently. For the most part they attack down the right hand side when the opposition have shifted across to the left to deal with the overload. Like on the left, they use a mixture of inverting the full back or wide player to create a passing triangle. On the right instead of the right centre back joining in, one the central midfield players tends to drop into the right back position. This allows them to get free of their marker and open up space for the full back to run into. The example below shows this, Eleney gets free of Fleck and plays a pass wide to Pepe who keeps the width. He plays a neat one two with Bellerin before running into the box and firing into the bottom corner. This goal is an example of individual quality by Pepe but also the importance of having players positioned on different vertical lines.

To summarise, in possession Arsenal look to play out from the back via inverted full backs and midfield rotation. Once in comfortable possession of the ball, they tend to overload down the left, create passing triangles and get crosses into the box from wide areas. If they fail to do so then they will look to play long cross field passes to the right hand side where they often have a 2v1 situation, with both the right winger and full back pushed high.

Out of possession

So far this season Arsenal have been pretty good defensively, looking to limit the space in key areas for the opposition to hurt them. Their 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 in possession changes to a more defensive 5-4-1 or 5-2-3 depending on where the opposition have the ball. As the overview graphic shows, Arsenal don’t look to press the opposition intensely, rather sit in a mid block and force them to play through them. If you look at their challenge intensity for the season, a stat from Wyscout that measures how many duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession they make, they sit 2nd lowest in the league with 4.8. The below examples show how when Arsenal lose possession, they look to get into a compact shape as soon as possible.

They do however look to prevent the opposition playing out from the back, through the use of their forward players and midfield players. The striker, often Lacazette will drop and try and stop the defensive midfielder whilst the two wingers cover shadow the two centre backs/full backs with angled runs. This pressing works slightly different if they are up against a team that has three centre backs, with Lacazette instead applying pressure onto one the space centre back and Arsenal committing their other midfielder to press the defensive midfielder.

Arsenal will look to prevent the opposition from playing out from the back, on lost of possession try and look to win the ball back. If they fail to do so then they will get into a good defensive shape and reduce the space in between the lines centrally. As a team they move up the pitch well, keeping good distance between them both vertically and horizontally. They are also good at setting defensive traps which if the opposition aren’t clean and precise with their passing, they will intercept. In fact so far this season, they have made 384 interceptions, which is the 5th most in the league.

They have only conceded 10 goals this season in the league, with only 5 teams conceding fewer, all of which are on 9 goals. There are however some areas in which you can hurt Arsenal despite their good defensive resolve this season.

Areas to exploit

Mikel Arteta has improved Arsenal defensively since taking over from Unai Emery, conceding less goals per 90 as well as less shots per 90. This being said, with Arsenal playing a 5-4-1 in which the two wingers tend to play narrow, there is space out wide. The half space, particularly on Arsenal’s right hand side is an area they struggle to defend.With Bellerin pressing the oppositions winger or full back wide, there is often a large gap between him and the right centre back. Below are a few examples of where teams have exploit the space in behind Bellerin via midfield runners. The right centre back in recent games has been Rob Holding, a player that isn’t comfortable defending in wide areas compared to someone like Gabriel or on the opposite side Tierney. Hector Bellerin also gets forward when Arsenal attack, meaning he leaves a lot of space in behind him. If Leeds can win possession in the middle or their defensive third then they should look to work the ball into the space vacated by Bellerin.

Depending on Arsenal’s pressing approach to the game will depend on the areas in which Leeds can attack. At times this season they’ve committed one of their two central midfield players to press against the opposition midfield. If they don’t time the press correctly, they leave their partner exposed in midfield. Manchester City exploited this through using Sterling in a “free” role playing off the striker. This allowed him to pick the ball up in space, slightly deeper and act as the 3rd or 4th player in an overload. With Rodrigo expected to return, he will play a similar role and has the quality to find the space and link up with others to create the overloads. The example below shows how Arsenal can sometimes get their distances between players wrong. Xhaka is too late in closing down Berge and Sheffield United work the ball to Mcgoldrick who has a number of options but in this case takes simple pass backwards.

Leeds high press and attacking approach will cause Arsenal a lot of problems, we saw this in the FA Cup meeting in January, albeit it was early days into Arteta’s managerial career at Arsenal. That particular day they struggled to play the ball out from the back cleanly, didn’t really prevent Leeds from playing the ball out but did cause some problems with direct running from wide areas. The two teams have changed since that meeting, both adding new players and Leeds now a Premier League team. Arsenal this season have tended to look more comfortable against teams that attack rather than sit back and look to frustrate them. With Aubameyang struggling for goals and making less touches in goal scoring areas, we may well see a change in position for him on Sunday. Either way, Leeds will need to be careful of the long balls into the their right hand channel as it is an area that Arsenal will look to release Aubameyang on the counter. Keeping him quiet and in wide areas away from goal will be vital if Leeds are to get any success.


Sunday’s game between the two sides looks set to be another interesting tactical battle, will Leeds continue to go attacking or will they look to become a little bit tighter defensively? Arsenal the opposite, will they continue with their defensive approach or will Arteta make positional or system changes that get more out their attacking players. Arsenal in their last game against Aston Villa were caught cold from the off and struggled to get back into the game. A fast, intense start for Leeds could well see them get some joy in Sunday’s game, with Arsenal being slow starters.

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