Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Tactics Column: Arsenal now have answers on both flanks

Arsenal have played two away games and picked up two wins since the defeat to Everton, learning their lessons from that game ahead of the Toffees’ visit to north London this midweek.

Wins over Aston Villa and Leicester, offer encouragement that Mikel Arteta’s side have found solutions to the problems not just Everton but also Brentford caused by doubling up on the Gunners’ wide players at the start of the month.

The touch maps below look at our last three away games but do not include the touches of any of our wingers in those matches. A few things jump out. Firstly, there was nobody but Saka getting in advanced positions on the right at Everton but a massive improvement came at Villa Park.

Last week I wrote about how work down the right, with an extra man getting forward and Jorginho passing aggressively, helped Arsenal to their win at Aston Villa.

This week, at Leicester, it was all about the variation on the left flank in the win over Leicester. In the above touchmap from the Leicester game compared to the previous two away matches, there are a collection of touches on the elbow of the area, a space nobody but the nominal winger has had an influence in of late.

Playing Leandro Trossard down the middle in place of Eddie Nketiah certainly helped, with the January signing switching roles with Gabriel Martinelli, but there was also better balance from Oleksandr Zinchenko and Granit Xhaka down that side of the pitch.

With Nketiah sticking central, Arsenal have looked increasingly rigid, but it is not just down to the striker to drift to the flanks and contribute. Last season, one of the keys as the team hit top form was the adapted role of Granit Xhaka and how he, along with Kieran Tierney, offered Emile Smith Rowe (or Martinelli) the chance to drift from the flank by overlapping. This has worked effectively at times this season but has been less of a feature of Arsenal’s game until the weekend, where Xhaka was continuously filling and found himself in space as Martinelli drifted inside.

And Xhaka provided the same balance and movement on the left when Trossard and Martinelli swapped positions, too. Whoever drifted inside from the left forward position, the Swiss was there to exploit them dragging Timothy Castagne infield with them.

With a bit more patience from Martinelli, a lung-busting run from Xhaka to overlap could have given the Brazilian space to cut inside and shoot from a more dangerous position shortly before half-time.

Martinelli goes on his left and closes the angle on himself before Xhaka arrives but the Swiss was clearly planning to continue his run and get around the winger.

And Xhaka was not the only one who played more like this, with Zinchenko also getting on the ball out wide more often, using that same out-to-in Martinelli run as a trigger to overlap.

And we cannot, of course, ignore Leandro Trossard. Firstly, he drifted deep as Arsenal built up, helping the team play out from the back even when he did not receive possession.

Take this scene, for example, where he drops deep and attracts the attention of Leicester’s holding midfielder Wilfred Ndidi to his left. Xhaka has dropped into the left-back space and is free, while Martinelli has drifted across to Trossard’s right.

Xhaka retreats as the ball comes to his side, dragging Leicester right-back Castagne out to press, and Trossard takes Ndidi out of the centre of the pitch with his own move to the left in the space Castagne was previously poised to defend. With those players dragged upfield and across, Martinelli drifts in the heart of the pitch to receive possession in space.

From there Arsenal could play out safely and speed up the attack. And Trossard dragged Ndidi around in the final third, too, again dropping deep to attract his attention before, in this instance below, making a run in behind between the defenders. Xhaka has pinned right centre-half Harry Souttar and there’s a gap for Trossard to attack, though Gabriel Martinelli sends the ball back …

… before continuing his own run (unopposed as Xhaka has moved wider to attract Castagne) into the space Trossard has created centrally by taking Ndidi with him.

It is this sort of collective fluidity Arsenal have lacked at times against defensive teams with Nketiah up front but that is not just on him. Trossard is more suited to floating around a la Gabriel Jesus but he was able to because Xhaka and Zinchenko also filled gaps, or created them, as the players ahead of them drifted more freely than in previous weeks.

With consecutive wins inspired by a bigger threat down the right through overlaps and more fluidity and colllective down the left, Arsenal should feel well equipped to cause Everton a much bigger challenge this week than they did at the start of the month.