Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Tactics Column: Emeryball? Narrow Arsenal win two on the bounce

Arsenal have won the two opening games of a Premier League season for the first time in a decade. Things are about to get a whole lot harder, though, with Liverpool and Tottenham up next.

The first two games shouldn’t be too instructive with regards to how we’ll play at Anfield and in the first North London derby of the season but there’s no reason not to look back at them. With plenty of new players involved, we may be one step closer to the Arsenal Unai Emery wants to see on a more regular basis.

With the likes of David Luiz and Dani Ceballos involved from the start, the Burnley game is the best place to begin when looking for how Emery’s Arsenal will approach the new season with their new signings.

First half

Arsenal’s backline looked familiar, with just David Luiz coming into the side after last week’s win at Newcastle. At the other end of the pitch, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang moved wide to accommodate Alexandre Lacazette.

The midfield, though, was the most interesting area of the pitch. Emery opted for a trio of players who are all athletically impressive, all good passers, and all extremely comfortable taking the ball under pressure. Joe Willock played deeper, alongside Matteo Guendouzi, but it was the full debut of Dani Ceballos that deservedly caught the headlines.

Arsenal attempted to play out from the back and the midfield three were absolutely crucial in attracting pressure before breaking through Burnley and launching an attack. Ceballos’ creative passing and perpetual movement were particularly crucial, dragging Burnley apart so his team-mates could be found in space before moving on to receive the ball again in another area.

Ceballos’ inclusion saw Arsenal fix one of the major attacking flaws from the Newcastle game, where Willock was often isolated. The youngster did not always do enough to provide a passing option to his team-mates, hanging to the left of the pitch and failing to make himself regularly available for a pass.

The result was a front four that found themselves isolated from the rest of the team and a lot of square passes, the ball would sometimes go up the flank, then it would come back again, but the connections from the wings to the centre were non-existent.

Ceballos came much deeper, aiding the first phase of build-up, and creating a midfield three. His ability to dribble with the ball and take opponents out of the game made Arsenal move up the pitch without being so easy to defend, especially as the team successfully drew Burnley towards them.

With the nominal number 10 dropping deeper, the midfield found it much easier to combine than they had on the opening weekend. The short, sharp passing we usually associate with the Arsenal midfield was present. Having two midfielders alongside Ceballos who want the ball was crucial in that; Willock and Guendouzi were both calm and considered in possession, moving the ball quickly when Burnley pressed them and rarely looking flustered.

On the whole, Guendouzi played a more reserved role than we’ve often seen from him since his arrival last summer. His confidence on the ball was also crucial in helping Arsenal attract defenders before moving into more advanced areas. Using him in the deepest midfield role was interesting as it helps Arsenal move the ball quicker than when, say, Granit Xhaka is there. Guendouzi plays with a sense of urgency and confidence that can sometimes see him rush through actions but, when it works, is horrible to play against. He always wants the ball and Arsenal find it easier to play out when he is on the pitch because his willingness and confidence in possession always means an option for the man on the ball.

His defensive discipline, though, was maybe even more impressive. Arsenal seem to be more conscious of the need to protect the middle of the pitch right now – Adrian Clarke sensibly noted the narrowness of the fullbacks after the Newcastle game – and Guendouzi was quick to cover Nacho Monreal on his forays forward. Note here how he anticipates Monreal’s move forward and jogs over to cover the left flank. It’s simple and doesn’t seem like much but show a level of selflessness, awareness and responsibility that he lacked at times in his debut campaign.

Maitland-Niles (bottom of the screen in the above picture) also moved across when the ball went over to the opposite flank, as he often did at St James Park. When possession was lost, Arsenal had four men – the centre-backs, Guendouzi, and a narrowly-stationed Maitland-Niles – behind the ball.

The other striking factor of Arsenal’s play was the use of long balls. It isn’t something we are used to seeing from the back, with opposition teams usually reluctant to play a high line. It was a surprise, then, to see Burnley pressing at the Emirates.

As Arsenal circulated possession strongly and wriggled out of Burnley’s attempts to steal the ball high upfield, they wore the visitors down. And when the forwards – Barnes and Wood – were not so quick to press, the Gunners took advantage with long passes forward. Or, more precisely, David Luiz did.

This was the first of three superb long passes upfield – another by Luiz followed in the second half, while Ceballos played a lofted ball for Reiss Nelson in the first half – and the only ‘successful’ one. The other two, though, still forced Nick Pope to rush out of his area and head clear.

If Arsenal can work on baiting the opposition into pressing them, we’re only likely to see more and more of this sort of pass. Particularly now Luiz is playing in defence. With the pace Arsenal possess up front, this could become an incredibly dangerous means of attack, though it remains to be seen whether other sides play such a sloppy high line while failing to pressure the ball as Burnley did at times on Saturday.

Second half

With Burnley pressing in a 4-4-2 shape and Arsenal introducing Nicolas Pepe, it made sense to move to more of a 4-3-3 shape after the break. Guendouzi provided enough support to the centre-backs deep to circulate possession, while Arsenal on the whole played more direct. Burnley’s weak pressing at times meant the Gunners could quickly  break through and be in behind the midfield, so Emery decided to move Ceballos and Willock further upfield after the break.

In the first half, the pair could often be seen alongside or even deeper than Guendouzi, overloading Burnley immediately in front of the Arsenal box and combining effectively to progress the play. Here are where the pair had their touches in the first half.

There is some final third involvement but not a great deal of width (more on that shortly) and the involvement is concentrated in Arsenal’s half. This helped the Gunners play out effectively but whether or not there were enough bodies in and around the box when Emery’s team broke forward is up for debate. Both players have complementary qualities in the final third – Ceballos’ quick feet and technical brilliance makes him strong in tight spaces, while Willock has developed a knack of arriving in the box and getting on the end of chances – but they were often too far from attacks to do so in the opening 45 minutes.

That changed after the break, with Ceballos in particular now driving Arsenal’s attacks rather than launching them.

The change was necessary in part because of Arsenal’s increasingly narrow front three but that did also contribute to the most worrying aspect of Arsenal’s attack – a lack of ability to sustain attacks and probe the defence immediately outside the box.

The width was, though, necessary, with the newly formed front three providing very little. While playing on the right in the first half, the vast majority of Aubameyang’s touches came on the flank and many of those were in the Arsenal half. Plainly, this is not any way to use the Gabonese.

With Aubameyang on the left, his involvement came centrally as he drifted in. Arsenal focused play on the opposite flank – using the newly-introduced Pepe to also drift far inside (though he did so much deeper) to drive attacks forward.

Aubameyang, as is his wont, was much more focused on getting on the end of moves. After taking no shots in the first first half, he took three in the 26 minutes he was on the left. Including the winning goal.

There were big problems up at Newcastle with width – Nelson and Mkhitaryan were encouraged to join in centrally that day, leaving Arsenal’s fullbacks isolated and short of options at times – and we saw them at times in the first half of the Burnley match.

Playing Aubameyang on the right on the first half showed an obvious possible flaw. He is a goalscorer (a great one) but little else, the man wants to be in the box and it can handcuff attempts to build an attack. His touches mostly came on the flanks as, when he moved inside, his team-mates couldn’t find him. It is not only about having width, but also having connections to the centre. Arsenal badly missed them at Newcastle and here the problem, though less frequently, still reared its head.

If Willock passes to Maitland-Niles in the image above, his only way to move inside is by finding a player with a superb cross, rather than a pass. Arsenal need to work on making these links from the flanks to the centre.

In the second half, with Ceballos and Willock more advanced, there seemed to be an attempt to do this. However, the lack of width from the forwards left Arsenal narrow still and the result was a lack of ability to ever really enjoy a spell of sustained pressure.

Lacazette, before he was subbed, was another who made himself available out wide – particularly on the right – in an attempt to balance the frontline. There have been calls for Arsenal to mirror Liverpool’s 4-3-3 approach with their supercharged front three – arseblog’s own Tim Stillmann has mentioned the possibility – and Lacazette appears perfect for a ‘Firmino’ role but such a composition will pose problems of its own.


Where will Arsenal’s width come from with Aubameyang and Pepe on the wings? Will the fullbacks bomb on repeatedly? Will the midfield be structured with two deeper players or just one?

The attempts to make Arsenal narrow should, in theory, help the team’s efforts to defend more solidly, forcing opponents wide and occupying the midfield more strongly for counter-pressing attempts immediately after losing possession. It was precisely this, from Ceballos, that created the second goal. Combining a true front three with excellent build-up play should also provide opportunities to isolate Arsenal’s stacked attack against defenders, which will only be a positive.

But it will take time for a balance to be found between the right amount of width and central occupation. If too many players play centrally, the team will become so much easier to stifle. For all the talent at Emery’s disposal, one early worrying sign is the lack of passing Arsenal have managed to put together immediately outside the opposition area in the two opening matches. This improved against Burnley.

There were improvements against Burnley but largely on the break and, for the team to really progress, they will need to learn to dominate matches at home and penetrate this area of the pitch while pushing the opposition back. It’s interesting to see so much green in the maps above (via StatsZone) in the middle of the pitch, with this Arsenal apparently happy to play patiently in their own third before launching attacks as soon as they get close to the halfway line. Perhaps, along with increased narrowness, it’s in Emery’s mind to get the ball away from the box as quickly as possible so Arsenal can’t slip up and have the back four immediately facing an attack.

With plenty to work on and Arsenal only just getting the new signings ready for the season, it’s not the ideal time for Emery to have to take the team to Anfield before hosting Tottenham and they will line up in these games is, at this point, anybody’s guess.

However, the signs – a threatening and fluid front three, an athletic and technical midfield – are promising and it feels the early games this season have, as well as providing us with six points, seen baby steps towards the Arsenal that Unai Emery wants to create.

Related articles

Share article

Featured on NewsNow

Support Arseblog

Latest posts

Latest Arsecast