Saturday, March 2, 2024

Tactics Column: Left-wing bias and an Øde to pressing

Over and over and over again. No, not Paddy, but Arsenal getting in down Tottenham’s right-hand side on Sunday evening. Jose Mourinho’s side didn’t seem to be prepared for Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe dovetailing on the Arsenal left-flank and had no idea how to handle the pair.

Smith Rowe would frequently position himself inside, giving Tierney space to move outside him, which in turn attracted Spurs right-back (and lifelong Gooner) Matt Doherty to Tierney on the flank. From there, Smith Rowe consistently had the drive and acceleration to burst into that right-back area. It happened in the second minute.

And then it happened again and again.

No, none of those images are duplicates. And there was also an intelligent variance to some of the movement, with Smith Rowe not only drifting inside before making runs from in-to-out, but also drifting back out wide when the channel in front of Tierney was blocked off.

Or offered follow-up runs down the line and back inside from wider positions after not receiving the ball with a run out wide at the first time of asking.

Sometimes the images in these articles really do speak for themselves and this feels like one of those cases. Smith Rowe’s mixture of intelligence and drive had him cause issues continuously. He is entirely selfless with his movement, which has great ‘gravity’, to use a basketball term. Those bursting runs attract defenders or midfielders and, when he doesn’t get the ball, they open up space for team-mates. This sort of movement was lacking enormously in the first half of the season, when Arsenal were too static.

Quoting yourself probably isn’t the best look but I wrote about this issue at the end of November:

“Movement forces defenders to make decisions … as long as Arsenal are not giving opposition players these problems to ponder, the attack won’t improve.”

Well, Smith Rowe adds plenty of it and the attack is starting to purr.

And there was also end product. The runs down that flank saw him create a chance for Lacazette, which was sliced, cut another ball back which Lacazette dummied for Cedric to hit the post, and assist a Martin Odegaard header. His movement freed up Tierney consistently too, and it was the Scot who laid on the equaliser with one of his overlapping runs.

Something else that impressed was Arsenal’s pressing, largely orchestrated by Martin Odegaard. The Norwegian got on the scoresheet but it was the way he hassled Spurs and forced them into awkward positions with the ball that really impressed. The loanee doesn’t just bring quality on the ball but both energy and intelligence in his pressing.

You could repeatedly see the midfielder gear up to sprint from some distance when Spurs started to play out. One bad touch and he was on them, putting them in trouble. Like Alderweireld here, who ends up  turning backwards and trapping Sergio Reguilon in the corner.

From there it’s Odegaard again who, having positioned himself to cut off a ball into Alderweireld or Hojbjerg, gets into a position to steal the ball when Reguilon takes a heavy touch.

From there, Thomas Partey played a quick pass infield and Smith Rowe hit the bar.

That was the closest any of Odegaard’s pressing came to creating a goal, but he left Spurs unsettled, with his energy and willingness cutting off options. Look at the ground covered here compared to catch up to his team-mates.

And when he arrives to join the press, he both marks Hojbjerg and makes sure a pass to Ndombele is no longer an option with his cover shadow.

That cover shadow was a constant, with the Norwegian using square and backwards passes as a trigger to press, but often bending his runs towards the ball carrier, in order to cut off a passing option and apply pressure simultaneously. Even when it didn’t force an error, it forced Spurs back.

Here he bends his first run (above) to force Alderweireld to play the ball wide, then bends his next run (below) to cut off the option inside, meaning Reguilon plays the ball back to Alderweireld.

And it wasn’t the only time. That square pass to Alderweireld at left centre-back seemed to be a clear trigger for Odegaard to press and gain control of the situation, forcing Spurs wide and then backwards.

After forcing the ball back and across the pitch again, Arsenal have pushed Tottenham from having fairly comfortable possession 40 yards from their own goal into a situation where the ball is with Lloris deep inside his own box and he has no easy options.

Whenever Harry Kane tried to drop into the Arsenal half, where he would have liked to try his customary spin-then-long-ball-in-behind move, Granit Xhaka would cover him, with Gabriel backing him up. There was no chance of Arsenal letting the same predictable Kane assist stun them twice in the same season.

The result of all this was Arsenal often controlling the game in a Mourinho way: without possession. By dictating where Spurs could have the ball. Tottenham had 434 touches of the ball on Sunday and a massive 59% of them were in their own defensive third. For some context, their highest such ratio of touches in their own third in a game this season before Sunday was 54% in their 2-1 defeat to press-obsessed Liverpool. Over the course of the season, just under 35% of touches by a Tottenham player have come in their own third.  (Stats via StatsBomb per FBRef)

Even when Spurs did have the ball (until the red card), Arsenal made sure they didn’t have it anywhere dangerous. The penalty for the winner came from Arsenal winning the ball high up, cutting off short options and allowing Nicolas Pepe to intercept an inaccurate Lloris goal-kick.

There was plenty to like about the first 75 minutes or so from Arsenal, who moved off the ball to pull Tottenham apart, then moved against it to force them backwards and into mistakes. The result may have been sealed with a little luck in the end but Mikel Arteta and his players had done everything right up until that point and clearly just have some nerves and confidence issues to conquer. That will happen when you’re a predominantly young side sitting tenth in the table.

All that matters is that north London is red. Like that was ever in doubt.

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