Talking Tactics: Why Arsenal are TOP of the League

Welcome back. Let’s start with some facts, shall we?

Arsenal Football Club are top of the Premier League with five games played, having taken the maximum available points from their opening games. Won 5, Drawn 0, Lost 0. It is only the fourth time in Arsenal’s history that they have won the opening five games of a league season.

And only 11 managers in Premier League history have won the opening five games of their league campaign.

Pep tried to tell you all… he really did.

When the football is good, the decisions are going your way (mostly) and you’re flying, life seems sweet. There will come a time this season when we’re questioning the direction of the club, whether certain players are good enough, maybe even the manager… and I hope we can all remember this feeling.

Arsenal are flying… but that’s enough gloating. Behind the joy of it all is an incredible amount of detail, hard work and strategic thinking from the club. Results don’t just happen, they come out of good process, good recruitment and in the end… good coaching.

So what’s new? They’re a young team, albeit another year older and wiser. But what are Arsenal doing tactically this season that sees them playing so well, sitting top of the Premier League?

Perhaps the most obvious tweak Mikel Arteta has made this year is to Arsenal’s on-ball first and second phase, or in-possession structure before the final third. This change has facilitated much of Arsenal’s newfound control and therefore consistency in results.

Clearly it’s never quite as simple or symmetrical as these diagrams show in an actual game, as our positional play means players interchange up and down, in and out consistently, but it’s moved from what could roughly be described as more of a 3-2-5 last season…

…into something more like a 2-3-5 this season, with Zinchenko and White tucking in to form almost a midfield 3 at times, when they’ve been available. Tierney has been asked to invert at times when he’s been selected, which shows it’s something Mikel wants to keep doing regardless of personnel.

When we look at the WhoScored average position radars for the three games that White and Zinchenko have been available, against Crystal Palace, Leicester City and AFC Bournemouth, you can see that tweak playing out in the game.

Zinchenko sits tightly on Xhaka, and White stands in a triangle with Ødegaard and Saka, both closer to the centre of the team than a traditional full back with neither attempting to join the front line as a fifth forward in the outside lane in the way that Kieran Tierney might be more comfortable doing, as seen highlighted in the bottom right against Norwich at home last season, for comparison.

Owing to their comfortability in possession and ability on the ball, Zinchenko and White can sit narrowly either side of Partey as almost auxiliary midfielders, allowing the game to be stretched ahead of them by the forward players.

So why has Mikel done this? Other than to copy Pep, obviously.

Firstly, the central zones are the worst possible place to lose the ball, so when the full back can become a dependable out-ball for the midfielders and someone the manager trusts not to lose possession there, you can spend more time in dangerous central zones as a team, creating central overloads to quickly advance up the pitch; especially with such progressive and dynamic passers like Zinchenko and White.

Here, you see White in a more traditional full back position, wide, juxtaposed with Zinchenko who is tucking in as he receives the ball. Xhaka pulls to the exterior, knowing where he is going.

Tucking your full backs in means you can create passing triangles more regularly in central zones than with a touchline full back who might be high and wide more. That means you don’t have to recycle possession backwards or out wide all the time. Here, Zinchenko, Jesus and Xhaka try to combine, but it comes to nothing.

More of the touchline type, Tierney’s instinct might have been to look for the overlap and enter the marked out zone, but Zinchenko’s comfortability and instinct means he can remain as the out ball in a more useful position for the attacker under pressure, inside. That means here he gets to a loose ball lost centrally by Jesus quickly, and Arsenal keep possession, recycling it over to the other side.

Then, Ødegaard gets in a bit of a tangle and is under pressure. In a team whose full backs are not that comfortable inside, Saka may be further to the left as indicated on the diagram, as White would likely be pushed further out as more of a touchline full back, also indicated. Because White has now inverted, the distances are much closer so Ødegaard finds him. Arsenal retain possession, and start another build up wave.

Feeling comfortable inside, closing those distances, instead of having your full back standing miles away trying to stretch the opposition’s defensive line as a more traditional wing back not only helps you retain possession, but that reliable pass option and comfortability to pick up different positions in and outside, gives the midfielders and attackers something to work with to create chances.

Full backs being able to give you quality in build up also means you can free some of your players up. White’s narrow position means Ødegaard shifts further up, with no need for him to be involved in build up behind the ball. White forms a passing triangle with him and Partey.

A short, sharp pass into Partey goes forward, which Ødegaard leaves to receive from Saka…

…and Arsenal break forward, 4v3 as Ødegaard commits the defender and plays forward.

In another set up, Ødegaard may have been the man behind the ball in that scenario, and Arsenal might have had to recycle possession out wide to White instead.

Here, Zinchenko has picked up another position inside, and Xhaka has pulled out wide again, another triangle to work with. With another player, as you can see with White in this case, the full back might be more comfortable or instructed to be in a more traditional zone to stretch the Leicester defence. But Zinchenko is comfortable inside, and his on-ball quality in the position he’s in means the Leicester players have been dragged out slightly, so there’s a little bit of space created where there might not have been before centrally.

Zinchenko plays a lovely 1-2 with Martinelli and his ability on the ball means he can find Gabi with a chipped ball in behind to exploit the space that was created by his dangerous and unique positioning – look how chaotic and disjointed the Leicester defensive line is.

The resulting corner leads to the goal at the back post from Jesus, making it 2-0 to The Arsenal.

In the end, this becomes a numbers game. Your full backs inside more, in possession, mean more often than not you can create numerical superiorities in the midfield, more triangles appear and you can make more things happen in central zones by sacrificing external, less dangerous areas when in possession.

It sounds so simple you wonder why more teams don’t do it, but there are very few players who are good enough on the ball, confident enough in different areas and defensively sound enough to play the role Zinchenko and White are playing. You also need the team around them. Without the recovery pace, delaying ability and intelligence of Gabriel and Saliba, as well as the work rate of Saka and Martinelli, the zones you leave out wide might get exploited. They’re top players, and it’s top recruitment and deployment.

It also gives you a lot of control of the football to create more chances and stop them playing. While we must stress the small sample size on these and consider the quality of opposition played, in the five games played so far, Arsenal have already increased their passes per match from 481.32 last season, up to 515.18 this season, and their average possession has gone up from 53.2% to 56.3% on average – suggesting the control of the football has increased from last season – and we can safely assume it’s partly due to this tactical switch.

The final third pass distance data tell us what’s happening too, and shows the distances are decreasing. The excellent Scott Willis’ data tells us that the average distance for open play passes that start in the final third of the pitch over the last three seasons has gone down this year.

2020-2021: Average pass distance 14.1 yards, 2021-2022: Average pass distance 14.5 yards, 2022-2023: Average pass distance 12.4 yards

Distances in the final third decreasing is a good thing. Having your players closer together in this set up means more quick interchanges of the ball and more effective combination play giving rise to the great football we’re seeing so far, and the full backs play their role in that, as shown.

Having full backs who can invert is just an option, though. As much as they’re spending a lot of time there, it’s not the only place they go in a game. Against Crystal Palace for example, Zinchenko spent more time as a touchline full back because there was space to exploit while Palace overloaded Zaha’s side to try and isolate White 1v1.

And against Bournemouth, Ben White was overlapping Saka and Ødegaard much more, as Bournemouth tried to pack the central zones in a low block.

In the end it’s about having options. Different dynamics, as Arteta says. Having more players who are comfortable in various positions can give the opposition a headache. It enables your positional play to come alive to find new solutions. Players are popping up in more and more interesting areas, as the full backs are now able to cover, vacate and attack more central spaces than we have been able to before, dependent on the opposition.

Here, Zinchenko is inverted again, so according to Positional Play principles, Xhaka has gone out wide and Martinelli has come in as a second striker. This could be an instruction in order to occupy a certain defender, or just instinct from the players, but regardless it gives Bournemouth a different problem, and may enable Martinelli and Jesus to play off each other a little more – all because the players are comfortable in different areas. They know Zinchenko isn’t going to give the ball away in a vital zone – so we can do it.

It also means we can pin teams back a little more and have more central cover to stop the counter, which allows other players like Xhaka and Ødegaard to roam a little more. At times we form almost a ring around teams, forcing them back and suffocating them with possession. Our full backs are often the first to commit to recovering the ball, like Man City, delaying the player while others go to their defensive shape.

The overloading of central areas can force the opposition wide, back and into less advantageous positions. Look at the difference in the touch maps between Arsenal’s full backs and Leicester’s shown below. They had a similar amount of touches, 116 for Zinchenko and White to 111 for Castagne and Justin, but look how much narrower Arsenal’s men are, and how much more dangerous their position is; Justin and Castagne’s influence is limited.

The full back’s involvement can also mean you can engage more defenders further up the pitch with free teammates.

Zinchenko has not been available in the last two games, and Kieran Tierney has filled in. At times, Tierney has played high and wide in his usual position, and Ben White has responded by playing more of that third centre back role that we saw Tomiyasu play last season. Initially against Fulham, up against their 4-3-3 block, Tierney was isolated and Arsenal couldn’t get through the midfield as they had very few options between the lines.

Tierney is a lot less comfortable in the midfield, but around 20-30 minutes into the game, he began to invert a little more, and he did a little against Villa too. This meant Arsenal could commit another man forward, Xhaka in this case, and it occupied another Fulham defender further up the pitch. This meant Fulham had to drop someone from their front 3 back when out of possession, they were stretched, and Arsenal could move through the thirds easier with the ball into the midfield between the lines, as well as out wide.

Arsenal’s running xG had a number of significant small jumps from about half an hour onwards. Correlation doesn’t always equal causation, but to my eye Arsenal looked better when Mikel made that tweak.

So that’s an overview of the main shift, the inverted fullbacks. But perhaps the most exciting part of all this is the knock on effect it’s had, and the way other players have sprung to life in our positional play due to this change. You could almost select every single player on the pitch and highlight their new or slightly adjusted roles, but I will just pick one.

From someone who fans, including myself, have derided for many years, it’s incredible that Granit Xhaka is so indispensable for Arsenal now – but he is. Against Aston Villa, Granit Xhaka had the most touches and made the most passes out of any Arsenal player, and he was my player of the match. Not that he cares.

Here’s his touch map. He is quite literally everywhere.

Xhaka’s role has been pushed one up, from a kind of pivot 6 alongside Partey who could fill in the left back slot when Tierney went off up the wing on holiday, and then could advance forward. But as we’ve seen when discussing the full backs, Granit Xhaka is now popping up everywhere. Inside, outside, on the left wing, in both penalty boxes, and even on the right.

It’s almost not worth naming Xhaka’s new role, possibly you could call it a free 8… it’s more about what he’s now doing when compared to before. He’s making a lot more forward runs and having a lot more penalty box touches – 3.5 per 90 this season, up from 1.74 last season. He’s making more shot and goal creating actions per 90, and having a huge influence on Arsenal’s forward play. As well as his excellent positional play, interchanging with Martinelli and Zinchenko on that far side, his off the ball running adds so much dynamic to Arsenal’s football, and Arteta’s decision to push him further up has paid huge dividends.

Really innocuous 15 second bit of play this, but he does so much intermediate value stuff that pays off through the game. I thought I’d show just one example.

Xhaka is always showing for the ball, and this is no different, dragging a midfielder with him and creating space for Tierney to move in to.

Martinelli finds Tierney down the left and he’s away, but Xhaka slightly checks his run so he doesn’t arrive into the box too soon, as good midfielders do.

He then anticipates Digne about to head the ball away from Tierney, and steps back before anyone else.

He anticipates it, wins the ball, and Arsenal retain possession.

It’s really simple. He’s not going to be PFA Player of the year for it. But that kind of small stuff, smart actions and decisions every 3 or 4 seconds is really, really important in a team, and possibly why he’s flourishing so much with a more free role.

He was actually our most progressive player last season, and now in the freer role we can see his excellent decision making and quick thinking in more high value situations. He makes blind side and third man runs consistently, interchanges smartly and reads the game so well. The technical and physical deficiencies are still there but they matter less in less dangerous positions… and now his influence on and off the pitch has never seemed more important.

The space he picks up for the goal is obviously nice too, but that’s more about terrible defending for me.

Perhaps Villa underestimated him, like I did. And perhaps Wenger was right, yet again… “Forgive me, Father”, indeed.

A couple more things I’ve noticed.

Arsenal are doing a lot more front-footed defending now, which Arteta loves and talks about consistently in the Amazon All or Nothing series. His idea is to “defend forward”, and Arsenal are starting to do that a lot more. In fact, their PPDA, passes they allow the opponent to do before making a defensive action has reduced since last year. Last season, Arsenal were at 11.7 over the season, which is about average.

This season, we’re at 10.16 on average over five games, which would put us among the better teams on that graph. Against Leicester we were at 9.1, and against Fulham, we were at 5.4 passes per defensive action. We’re making more proactive defensive actions, and it’s paying off.

Data: Scott Willis

Here, Gabriel Magalhães displays a perfect example of it.

Jonny Evans looks to play the ball forward towards Jamie Vardy.

Gabriel spots it coming and executes a perfect early duel, bossing Vardy off the ball.

Arsenal win the ball, and we’re able to launch an attack.

We’ve seen Gabriel do this before, and we’ve paid the price for his clumsiness against Southampton and Man City, against Gabriel Jesus no less. Having a 1v1 specialist behind him in William Saliba must help, but this is something we’re seeing all over the pitch.

The final thing is the pressing structure. I can’t go into this at any great length or this would end up longer than Mikel’s list of people who owe him an apology, but there’s a great video by @EBL2017 on Twitter that goes into this in a bit more detail.

In short, a basic principle you’ll see time and time again these days is that once Arsenal have equal numbers, there will be a player ready to move in man for man on each opposition ball receiver, forcing them into decisions quickly. It’s simple and incredibly effective.

How Arteta actually coaches that to work time and time again, whether it’s a man for man thing or a zonal system… I don’t know, but I’d love to, and the increased athleticism in the team is forcing teams to go long and make a lot more errors.

Other things that deserve a mention: Jesus & Nketiah’s interplay in the 3-5-2, his use of Holding to see out games as discussed before, Jesus vacating then exploiting space, Saka and Martinelli’s interchanging and freedom to explore central zones… there’s so much, and at some point, we’ll cover it all – Mikel certainly has.

Tactically, Mikel has done some extraordinary work evolving, coaching, adapting and recruiting for this team. But there’s something more there too.

Something is changing in the energy around The Emirates and the club in general. Everyone can feel it… a strength, a presence, a new life. It’s taken just 2, 1, 8 and 3 minutes respectively for Arsenal to respond to conceding a goal this season.

And considering this is a team who, until the Fulham game, had not won a game from a losing position having conceded a goal in the second half since December 2013… it tells me something is afoot mentally too, both on and off the pitch. That’s possibly for another day… but its importance cannot be understated. You need the right characters and mentalities to execute any game plan.

Arsenal are flying, and long may it continue. It may sound simple, but considering the myriad ways we can interact with it outside of the ground, we have to remind ourselves football is played on a pitch, not in the boardrooms or on Twitter. If you can get your ideas across to your players better than the other guy, and those ideas are better than the other guy… then you might just have a chance.

And it looks like Mikel Arteta is doing just that.

Alexander Moneypenny

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