Monday, May 20, 2024

Tactics Column: Start the presses!

Arsenal’s first pre-season under Unai Emery has naturally been under the microscope. The club have amped up their own coverage of training sessions, doors have been opened for the media, and three matches against serious opposition have brought mixed results along with the some insight into how we are going to play under our new head coach.

Since taking over, Emery has repeatedly hammered home the idea that Arsenal will be intense, will press, will give their all. That philosophy was on show in Singapore both in training and in games and the signs were encouraging. The game against Chelsea on Wednesday delivered less to get excited – more on that later in the article.

Whatever the exasperated cries of a lonely Alexis Sanchez may tell you, pressing is more than putting in hard yards and chasing the ball like a headless chicken. In recent years, Arsenal players have been accused of not giving their all and many appear to believe the team simply didn’t want to press, rather than accepting they hadn’t been instructed how to press. That appears to have changed.

There is already a clear focus on pressing high up the pitch as the opposition plays out with the ball. Arsenal’s three-man frontline against Atletico Madrid were supported by two central midfielders as they pressured the ball carrier and blocked potential recipients to force the ball into safe wide areas.

When passes were short, Arsenal tended to sit off and block the Atletico backline from passing through them. As soon as square passes were played longer or an Atletico defender had a bad (or backwards) first touch, the two or three players closest to the ball sprung into action. Sideways passes between centre-backs did the same as long as the player receiving the ball didn’t have an easy option to move the ball on to. Players receiving the ball were pressed immediately to force their first touch backwards and Atletico struggled to play through the Arsenal frontline and into the middle third. Though Emery’s side were put out in a different shape against Paris Saint-Germain, the same patterns emerged.

Also interesting has been Arsenal’s reaction to losing the ball and the ‘counter-pressing’ ideas popularised by Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. It boils down to this: pressing the opposition immediately after losing the ball and managing to press as a way to defend counter-attacks. Emery himself gave us a look into that during an interview with Marti Peranau shortly before he took the Arsenal job.

“When you lose the ball, you win it back as quickly as possible. Anywhere the ball may be, the team has to position themselves to press and win it back. If play stops, everyone goes back to their position. If the ball is in play, we press, all while remaining organised tactically.”

After losing the ball, Arsenal players rush in to the ball carrier and his immediate passing options, preventing them from launching a counter-attack. When any potential break is slowed down and/or the ball is sent backwards, the players look to regain their defensive shape. The first example below is after Arsenal have a set-piece that comes to nothing.

Perhaps the crucial moment above is the second wave of pressing. The ball is forced back initially but it’s the pressure of Ramsey, Lacazette, Aubameyang 11 seconds into the clip that allow the team to completely regain their shape.

Though Atletico don’t lose the ball in this instance, Arsenal aren’t far off winning it back in a strong position. An attacking moment is quickly turned into a defensive one and a perfect execution of that could spark another dangerous attack. We’ve seen that before.

The same principles are in place in open play. Emile Smith Rowe plays a poor pass out wide but continues his movement forward to put Atletico under pressure. Though these situations can’t be choreographed particularly well, the pressing is well coordinated: players close down the ball, as well as any players who could give an option to the man in possession. After forcing a long pass and a second ball, Arsenal surround another player in possession twice and are eventually all behind the ball, ready to defend the situation.

These situations are largely intuitive but Arsenal’s play in possession sets them up for them. Players are spread out across the pitch and are rarely isolated, particularly on the wings. One common feature in these matches was the narrow use of fullbacks with the ball on the opposite wing. When either Hector Bellerin or Sead Kolasinac advanced out wide, the other would tuck inside, not leaving the centre-halves exposed and positioning themselves to close down any player the ball bounced to in the middle of the park.

Defensively, we have also seen the use of a 4-4-2 shape. Mesut Ozil started the game against PSG in his customary number 10 position, with Arsenal moving from 4-1-4-1 to 4-2-3-1 in their second match in Singapore. Perhaps it was no coincidence to see the change of shape against a side managed by Thomas Tuchel. Emery has previously explained his view that 4-4-2 is more difficult to break through and Tuchel, certainly compared to Diego Simeone, is a coach who looks to dominate possession.

“Those are my two outlooks from a defensive point of view. If the ball is in play, you press. If play stops, you reposition yourself. For me, 4-1-4-1 is the system which facilitates that type of pressing. The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning. It’s less aggressive, but it’s more difficult to get past.”

That’s how the team lined up without the ball against the French champions. Though Arsenal did look to press, they were sometimes forced into deeper areas of the pitch. They kept pressure on the ball but the most obvious thing in these moments was the shape of the side. A striking feature of pre-season so far has been how narrow the Arsenal defence has been. All too often in the recent past, defenders have been dragged wide and isolated, creating big spaces between them. It looks like Emery has set out to change that immediately.

The above still is a good depiction of Arsenal’s shape when PSG broke through the initial high press but the more striking takeaway is that the fullbacks don’t drift out wide to follow their man at all. Arsenal have quickly gone from a very man-orientated style of defending to a more ball-orientated fashion – the location and movement of the ball seems to determine how we defend now, rather than the positioning of the opposition. As the ball moves wide, Alex Iwobi moves out to the side of Kolasinac to cover a wide option.

As it comes back across, Arsenal stay tight, with Bellerin only moving outwards when a) it looks like the ball might be switched and b) there is no opposition player in a position to exploit the gap between Bellerin and the rest of the defenders. The ball doesn’t move wide in the end and Arsenal’s tight shape sees them intercept.

As you can see from the clip, Kolasinac keeps his position when the ball reaches his flank and Iwobi goes wide. Here Kolasinac kept his position in the backline and Arsenal stayed compact. In previous seasons, Arsenal’s fullbacks have been dragged out of position such as this:

Had Kolasinac moved to the player in possession, PSG would have had a potential 3 v 3 situation and been in behind the defence. Instead, the focus is now on staying compact. Iwobi’s movement towards the player on the ball isn’t high energy but it makes a big difference – with Kolasinac not forced to move to the ball, Arsenal immediately look more compact and less exposed.

However, the same discipline wasn’t evident in Dublin on Wednesday. Whereas PSG’s width came from wing-backs, Chelsea stretched the pitch with their wingers, pulling Bellerin and Sead out of position before attacking the spaces left behind them.

The ball went out of play but Pedro was put in behind Kolasinac, who also lost ground to Azpilicueta, and Chelsea had the makings of a dangerous attack.

Though the team lined up in a 4-2-3-1 shape in Dublin, they did not fall back into the 4-4-2 as they did against PSG. Teenager Emile Smith Rowe often looked caught between two roles and one has to question if the late change forcing Aaron Ramsey out of the side had an impact. With Jorginho and Cesc Fabregas pulling the strings for the Blues, Arsenal failed to get close to them for much of the first half.

Playing a high line against players like that without putting pressure on the ball is suicidal, as we saw. Jorginho hardly has to break a sweat to create space for himself in the scene below, with no Arsenal player blocked a pass into him and the movement of Barkley and Fabregas dragging the Arsenal midfield pairing away from the ball.

This was a common occurrence, with Jorginho constantly available while Smith Rowe either followed the ball a bit too closely or was dragged away by the movement of Fabregas.

Arsenal did move back to the system seen against PSG when Ozil moved centrally in the second half.

Looking ahead to the season, Emery’s belief that 4-4-2 is harder to break down could see the team line up with Ozil centrally in the early tests against Manchester City and Chelsea. Most would consider 4-1-4-1 the more defensive-minded formation but a 4-2-3-1 could definitely be used to congest the middle of the pitch if the new boss thinks it does just that.

Needless to say these things will take time but some improvements are needed whatever system, especially with two huge games to kick the season off. Jorginho is a top quality player but it was too simple for him to find time and space on Wednesday. Against PSG, Arsenal struggled with midfielders making late runs between defenders. With players more focused on the ball than before, opposition midfielders can run off the shoulder of Elneny or Guendouzi and outnumber the defence.

A big effort to press naturally means there are big spaces behind, as we saw against Chelsea. If teams play through or pull apart the press, they can easily outnumber the backline and have space to attack. Alternatively, counter-pressing which is mistimed or doesn’t successfully cut off passing options could easily leave the defence exposed.

Guendouzi doesn’t necessarily make the wrong choice in the clip above but he does risk the ball getting past him. When that happens, Lacazette is in position to end the attack but if he were just two yards off the pace, Atletico would have an incredibly dangerous attack on the cards.

There’s plenty of work to be done but the initial signs are mostly positive. Unai Emery’s Arsenal will push high to win the ball and they will hunt in packs after losing it. When teams break through those initial waves of pressure, Arsenal will look to sit deep and compact, putting pressure on the ball but without compromising solidity.

The pressing culture could see players break down a few months from now, some players simply might not be able to hack it, and there will be an adjustment period even if that isn’t the case. All that aside, the early signs suggest Arsenal will soon be better equipped to defend more proactively, more sensibly, and in a more modern fashion than they have for a long while.

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