Getting High

One of the striking aspects of the Arteta Arsenal rebuild is the surgery that is taking place along the spine of the team. The current head coach sanctioned big money moves for Gabriel Magalhães and Thomas Partey last summer and also signed Pablo Mari. In January, Arsenal recruited Martin Odegaard on loan and this summer, Albert Sambi Lokonga has already been procured with Ben White set to follow (and strong talk of a move for Aaron Ramsdale too).

Arsenal have put up consecutive eighth placed finishes, so spinal surgery shouldn’t surprise anyone. This summer; not only are Arteta and Edu making moves to address central areas of the pitch, they have taken the decision to allow David Luiz (definitely) and Granit Xhaka (very probably) to leave. Xhaka and Luiz were two of Arteta’s most trusted and integral players.

So why the willingness to allow them to depart? Age is a big factor, Luiz is 34 and his contract had expired, Xhaka is 29 with two years remaining and is at his peak economic value (as Arsenal are currently reminding spendthrift Roma). The reason both players were so trusted is due to the way they circulate the ball. Luiz- at right centre-half- and Xhaka- in left central-midfield- were Arteta’s two key exit strategies when it came to building play from the back.

Xhaka made more passes into the final third than any player in the Premier League last season (per FBRef). Broadly speaking, Xhaka looked to progress the ball with short or medium passes, whereas Luiz did so with long, diagonals. Only Shkodran Mustafi, who also played as a right centre-half, attempted more long passes per 90 than Luiz last season at Arsenal (source: FBRef).

The issue with both players is they are fairly one dimensional, they are elite passers but to perform their roles, they need to sit in their cubby holes and not move very far. Luiz and Xhaka are both players who need to sit very deep, Xhaka is not particularly fast on the turn and while Luiz is no slouch, his reaction to opposition attacks is often to drop so deep that he could order himself a hot dog in the concourse.

Neither player was particularly adept at “stepping onto” the ball either and driving it forward. This was less of an issue with Luiz due to his range of pass but Xhaka tended to make his series of moderate value passes into that same left channel because he needs to occupy the same space. Xhaka and Luiz sit 11th and 12th respectively in the Arsenal rankings for progressive carries per 90. Arsenal, as a team, were 13th in the Premier League for this metric last season (source: FBRef).

What this means is that Arsenal are easier for opponents to contain because their moves have to start very deep and their two key ball circulators are very static. This often led to what Tifo Football aptly described as the ‘Arsenal doughnut’ effect in the video below. Because the chief ball players were sat so deep, it was simple to defend against them in numbers and keep them out at the perimeters of the pitch and away from central zones.

The integration of Emile Smith Rowe into the team improved this slightly, though his role is still more felt in wide positions, where he will often shuffle across to create wide overloads with the full-back and wide forward. Because Xhaka and Luiz needed to operate from such a deep area, they couldn’t compact space in the final third and keep teams under pressure- a theme I picked up on in this column from last season.

Bukayo Saka is such a valuable player for Arsenal because of his ability to take the ball on the turn and drive through crowd scenes with it. Gareth Southgate picked up on that exact attribute when he deployed Saka as a key part of his counter attacking England side at Euro 2020. England also struggle to progress the ball from central spaces and Saka works as a kind of “cheat player”, hiding the team’s ball progression issues with his knifing runs from the middle to final third.

We can already see from Arteta’s recruitment attempts to address Arsenal’s ball progression issues. Pablo Mari and Gabriel are both touch tight defenders who like to engage attackers high up the pitch and bring the defensive line with them. They are both good at covering the space to their left too, which is valuable to Arsenal because Kieran Tierney’s driving runs from left-back are so crucial.

Thomas Partey was perhaps the most obvious attempt to address the team’s passiveness. Only Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson carried the ball into the final third more often per 90 than Partey did last season. Per Phil Costa’s profile of new signing Albert Sambi Lokonga, “the 21-year-old sat in the 93rd percentile for accurate passes into the final third and progressive passes (Wyscout data) and the 94th percentile for accurate through passes,” in the Jupiler League last season.

Phil continues, “When opportunities present themselves (on either foot) he prefers the ambitious passes that hold greater risk, but greater reward should he break deep defensive lines.” Sambi is far rangier than Xhaka and if a pass into a central zone is blocked, he is far more likely to take the ball for a short walk to open space up before releasing it.

Like David Luiz, Ben White is a right-sided centre-half and like Luiz, he the long, driving pass within his range. Having played for Bielsa’s Leeds in a back four and Graham Potter’s Brighton on the right side of a back three, one can see why Arteta finds his profile attractive. Crucially, what White can do that Luiz can’t, is help Arsenal to get higher up the pitch.

Firstly, his athletic profile is superior to Luiz’s, he is very adept at covering off the space left by a probing right-back or even a right-sided central midfielder looking to frolic in the final third. The video below, also from Tifo Football, does a very good job of explaining some of the qualities Arteta is attracted to in Ben White but, in a nutshell, it’s all about squeezing up the pitch, playing a higher defensive line and keeping teams penned into their defensive third and keeping them under pressure.

Nuno Tavares isn’t a recruit for the spine of the team but his similarity in profile to Kieran Tierney means less disruption if and when he is unavailable. Last season, the square pegs of Cedric Soares and Granit Xhaka were chiseled into this round hole and it affected Arsenal’s ability to progress on the left-hand side.

Essentially, what the signing of Sambi (who, admittedly will likely start out as a squad player) and the likely arrival of Ben White does is to move Arsenal higher up the pitch. In conjunction with the captures of Partey, Gabriel and Pablo Mari, this should mean the team can start moves much closer to the opponent’s goal and not treat the central areas of the pitch like a leper colony.

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