“You can pass the ball, of course and try combination play but when you can dribble as well, that means that teams have to cover all the time. When they have to cover, that’s when you get the free player. That’s so important, whenever the defending team doesn’t give that cover, we need to take her on one v one all the time because that forces them next time to cover more and that leaves us a free player to pass to.
“A team that never dribbles in those situations just tells the defending team that they don’t need to give cover, their central defender doesn’t need to come out and the midfielder doesn’t need to come back and that means that it’s easy for teams to resist pressure.” This was Arsenal Women manager Jonas Eidevall’s response to me back in September when I asked him about the importance of Caitlin Foord’s dribbling and willingness to take on defenders.
Arsenal Women have patterns of attacking play but Foord is a key player because, while she conforms and adds to those patterns, she stresses defences and pulls them out of shape with her dribbling. In the men’s team, everybody knows and understands the importance of Gabriel Jesus’ intensity and pressing, as well as his willingness to rotate with Gabriel Martinelli in the forward line.
At Anfield on Sunday, Jesus is stationed on the left wing while Martinelli scores a striker’s goal in the centre of the penalty area. When Arsenal went 2-0 ahead, it was because Martinelli sent a traditional winger style cross from the left wing to Jesus’ head in the penalty area. Arsenal’s first goal did not conform to the formation graphic you might have seen on a screen ahead of the game, the second goal certainly did.
To be a top team, you need to find as many ways to score goals as possible. Sometimes that means knowing your patterns of play inside out and being able to execute them very precisely. Sometimes it means changing things up and surprising your opponents. In the quote I posted above from Jonas Eidevall he talks about ‘the free player.’
The concept of ‘finding the free player’ is one many teams build their patterns of play around. Oleksandr Zinchenko has helped to revolutionise Arsenal this season by being ‘the free player’ in the midfield area. That is where you control games. In the attacking sense, you want to find ‘the free player’ in a dangerous area, close to goal ideally.
A lot of Arsenal’s success this season has been built on being able to do this on a regular basis- Granit Xhaka has seven goals this season and, on nearly every occasion, he scores with an unchallenged finish. In their mini-blip in February, when Arsenal struggled to break down Manchester City, Everton and Brentford on consecutive weekends, a lot of that was due to a lack of chaos in the final third.
Nketiah is a far more traditional penalty box striker and Arsenal’s attacking rotations were not as frequent. Gabriel Martinelli went seven games without a goal contribution at the beginning of 2023. He has seven goals and four assists in the 11 games since that spell when Nketiah came out of the team through injury.
Trossard made a huge contribution to Arsenal and Martinelli’s re-vitalisation, his movement and ability to hold the ball in tight spaces, as well as his appreciation of attacking rotations, provided an instant boon to an ailing front line. However, the return of Gabriel Jesus is even more significant. He shares Trossard’s understanding of attacking rotations and when to move to the left so that Xhaka and Martinelli can make provocative runs.
Jesus has an added intensity compared to Trossard. The Belgian is highly tuned and technically proficient in small spaces and he causes opposition defences conniptions in a more ‘low key’ manner. Gabriel Jesus does the same thing but far more quickly but it’s his dribbling that really sets him apart in the centre-forward position.
Just look at how he wins the penalty to open the scoring against Leeds United recently. It was a sleepy, moribund affair where Arsenal struggled to fly through the gears. Jesus received the ball in the penalty area and as he does, the most logical decision would be for him to try a cross or a combination. As you watch the clip back, look again at Jonas Eidevall’s words. “A team that never dribbles in those situations just tells the defending team that they don’t need to give cover.”
Leeds were comfortable enough with Arsenal’s patterns and even their rotations. Jesus is wide and Martinelli is in the centre-forward position as this play unfolds and Leeds have that situation under control. It’s Jesus’ decision to take players on that causes panic. Both Nissen and Ayling, who eventually commits the foul, are forced into lunging tackles in the area. Jesus draws the penalty, converts and Arsenal go on to win the game comfortably.
The data illustrates how prolific a dribbler Jesus is, in the Premier League this season he has attempted 5.42 take-ons per 90, more than anyone else in the Arsenal squad. Saka attempts 4.61 and Martinelli 4.37 per 90. Jesus’ 44% success rate also outstrips the players that flank him in the front three. As Arsenal fans we talk a lot about the number of times that Bukayo Saka is fouled but the data also shows that Jesus is fouled more frequently (2.71 times per 90) than Bukayo (1.79 times per 90).
Much like Martinelli, Jesus is not an especially elegant dribbler, aesthetically speaking. Jesus operates in even tighter spaces than the average winger, he has a collection of shimmies and feints but, really, he is not interested in aesthetics. It’s a symptom of his intensity, he treats taking players on almost like a physical duel.
He seeks to buffet and barge his way past players, which is why his dribbling is so underrated as an attacking weapon. Think back to one of his very first contributions in a competitive game in an Arsenal shirt, this mazy dribble that leads to Martinelli becoming the ‘spare player’ for a gilt-edged chance at Selhurst Park in August.
All of this adds up to a milieu of skills that, for want of a better word, just irritate defenders. It’s bad enough for them that Jesus treats every aerial challenge, every duel and every sprint like a beloved family pet’s life depends on it. Patterns of play are crucially important for any elite attack but every attack needs that player that stresses defenders with unpredictability and pulls them out of position by running at them.
As Jonas Eidevall said, “That means that teams have to cover all the time. When they have to cover, that’s when you get the free player.” Gabriel Jesus brings the chaos that sets Arsenal’s attack free.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator