Pressing & Rest Defence
Off-the-ball, Arsenal are a pressing side. They press aggressively with the intention of forcing teams out wide and winning the ball high so that they can attack an unsettled defence.
Pressing is an area Arsenal have steadily improved at as the season has progressed (and indeed since Arteta has taken over). This is evident in their PPDA trends.
The pressing at the start of the season was as disjointed as it ever was under Arteta, but it steadily improved as the season went on. The final match of the season against Everton was in fact their best pressing performance in terms of PPDA (clear outlier in the graph below).
If we look at each match, we can see there are some clear outliers, like Manchester City (A) or Everton (H). But in general, Arsenal have been pressing harder this season (signified by the tight cluster of points on the top right corner).
Although it does seem like there is a slight difference in pressing tendencies based on home or away venues (based on the four away matches at the top centre of the graph and a larger variance amongst the away fixtures), the resulting PPDA values in these matches might be more due to the game state. Leicester (A) and Leeds (A) were matches in which Arsenal took early leads and then naturally sat back more. The best way to explain this is that Arsenal press hard at home but don’t sit back too much away from home.
To play around Arsenal’s press, most teams have simply taken their goal kicks long. Against Arsenal, teams are taking their goal kicks long 64.8% times, which is the 5th highest in the league. In the matches where Arsenal have had the opportunity to set up in a pressing structure during goal kicks, they usually deploy a mix of a zonal and man-oriented press. The emphasis is on staying compact and moving cohesively through the different phases of the press.
The press is initiated by the forwards. If the goalkeeper has the ball, he is not usually pressed. Instead, the forwards sit off him in a narrow line of three or two. Once a pass is played out wide (usually to one of the centre-backs), the forwards begin their press, starting narrow and curving their runs from in-to-out. The purpose of those curved runs is to shepherd the play towards one of the wings while also rendering the other side of the midfield inaccessible via their cover shadows. Once the ball is out wide, Arsenal crowd the area with more players. The midfielders (usually only one player from the double pivot, the ball-side midfielder) push up to go man-to-man with their opposite numbers and cover the infield pass.
This, combined with intelligently executed movements of the forwards, ensures that the only option left to the player on the ball is usually a pinged ball in the channel or a ball fired low and hard into the feet of the wide forward. The ball-near fullback pushes up aggressively to cover this pass. He tries his best to ensure that the opposition wide player can’t receive and turn or run in behind.
Done well, this usually results in an outright turnover, which Arsenal look to quickly convert to a shooting opportunity or recover the ball and circulate possession (whatever the current game state demands).
The intense press on the flanks means that Arsenal can sometimes over-commit to the ball-side if they aren’t careful. As the emphasis is on staying in a narrow compact block, this often means that the winger from the far side tucks inside when the ball is out wide. This can sometimes render Arsenal vulnerable to switches of play. If the opposition can weather the press and quickly play through to the other side, Arsenal can be caught with their pants down. Ideally both of the centre-backs, and the midfielder and fullback from the ball-far side are still around to mop up the rest defence but this either might not be enough if the opposition can overload the area or if there’s simply too much space.
In a mid-block, Arsenal usually defend in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. The exact formation has no meaning whatsoever; what matters is the roles assigned to the players on that given day.
Arsenal are very fluid in their defensive setups. They can switch into and out of a back three and back four with minimal trouble. Some of this flexibility is afforded to Arsenal because of the personnel they have and their versatility. For instance, White has played right-back before so he is comfortable moving out wide. Saka has played left-back before, so he is also able to slot into the backline if an extra man is needed.
The changes are mostly situational, in reaction to the game state, or certain tactical responses. However, some features remain consistent. It is expected of the entire defensive block to remain compact and narrow when defending in a mid-block. The wingers help out their respective fullbacks by neutralising overloads out wide, tracking runners, and covering spaces. Arsenal’s mid-block is by no means passive; instead, the aim is always to win the ball very quickly.
Arsenal’s box-defending has also largely been satisfactory. Against Arsenal, teams cross roughly 7.34 times per match which is the fifth lowest in the league. They also concede 7 passes into their box per match which is also the fifth lowest in the league. They are also fourth lowest in the league (Brighton, Manchester City and Liverpool) at conceding cutbacks with 0.47 conceded per match. This indicates that they don’t allow teams to run in behind them easily.
There’s an uptick in the number of goals conceded but the overall xG that they’ve conceded from open-play has been the same as their previous season.
Ramsdale’s shot-stopping was well above-par at the start of the season. Such was the start that even after a dip in form towards the end of the season, he still managed to stay above average in the league.
Generally speaking, traditional stats don’t accurately reflect goalkeeping abilities, which is why it is useful to go to custom models trained on hand-collected data like John Harrison which happens to be more accurate as well as interpretable.
This graphic from John Harrison depicts Ramsdale’s overall defensive gameplay.
Overall, transitions have also been an improved aspect of Arsenal this past season. They’re pressing more and that is leading to more turnovers. Having quality players like Ødegaard helps as he can turn these moments into attacking threats, while Saka poses a serious running threat at the back-pedalling defence. This is evident in the data. Arsenal forced 7 turnovers per match in 2020/21 which was only 12th in the league. The following season, they’ve improved to 8.44 turnovers per match, which puts them fifth in the league. They’ve also created 56 shots from these turnovers compared to their 2020 season’s tally of 41.
Defensively, Arsenal have also been fairly solid from transitions. They’ve conceded virtually the same number of shots from counters (15) as the previous season (16). This is a good sign, because it indicates Arsenal are striking the balance between having enough players attacking while also ensuring they’re not compromising their defensive shape. For instance, we’ve seen how Xhaka pushes up more but by inverting one of their fullbacks they ensure some cover is provided to their centre backs. Arsenal’s pressing system also means that they do have to hold a high defensive line to provide the necessary support during press. However, they don’t hold as high a line as Manchester City or Liverpool and in general, they’ve managed to balance caution and enterprise well, when it comes to pressing.
When teams do get in behind, Ramsdale’s sweeping helps. He performs 0.95 defensive actions outside his box per match (which is sixth highest in the league). His starting position means that the centre-backs can afford to get a yard or two tighter with their marks knowing that if there’s a long ball in behind and/or they’re turned, Ramsdale will be off his line quickly.
Set-pieces have probably been Arsenal’s biggest success story. Hiring Nicolas Jover from Manchester City and the work in the training ground has definitely paid off as Arsenal have scored 13 goals in total from corners this season which is only third in the league behind Liverpool and Manchester City.
Arsenal take most of their corners long. On average, they take only one out of 8 corners short. Their long corner routine is very well-drilled and their favourite delivery is the in-swinger. In fact, they have the second highest proportion of in-swingers in the entire league.
On average, almost 70% of their corners are inswingers. This means they prefer a left-footer from the right side and a right-footer from the left side.
Arsenal have generated 9.8 xG from their 208 corners. Their 93 shots is third highest in the league (again behind Manchester City and Liverpool) and the percentage of corners they convert into shots is 6th highest at 44%.
In terms of drills or plays, Arsenal have several that they like to employ including near-post runs, and late runs into the box. They send both of their centre backs up during corners to maximise scoring chances. They like to pack the six-yard box and play interference with the goalkeeper and the strongest opposition defenders. These players also make runs to the near post when the delivery comes in. When this happens, defenders of the central areas just outside of the six-yard back are pulled out of position. These spaces are exploited by late runs into the box by the centre backs. Gabriel in particular has been great at this, having scored five goals from corners the past season. His starting position is usually at the edge of the penalty box. Arsenal try to set screens to specifically allow Gabriel (or one of the other centre-backs) to run free into the box and get into a good heading position.
Miscellaneous: Squad depth/injury issues and disciplinary concerns
Injuries affect every team and Arsenal are no different. However, the importance of certain key players and their unique ability to do what they do means that if they get injured, the performance of the whole team drops or at least, the playing style changes significantly. Having adequate squad depth and more importantly, the right profiles to cover, helps immensely.
Two examples of this are the injuries to the fullback pair, Tierney and Tomiyasu.
Tierney has had a fairly stop-start time at Arsenal since joining, which is largely due to injuries. Tavares, his immediate understudy, has a high ceiling but his decision-making issues and inconsistency means that he is not as reliable as Tierney’s in terms of both defensive solidity as well as ability in possession.
On the other flank Tomiyasu fits Arteta’s system like a glove. His immediate backup Cedric is a very different profile. However, Tomiyasu’s calf injury during the second half of the season did not hurt Arsenal as much as it could have mostly because Ben White’s on-ball ability went some way to mitigate his absence (he himself can and has played right-back). Cedric, while not as progressive as Tomiyasu, was a reliable support cast to the likes of Ødegaard and Saka in combinations on the right side while also being very solid during defensive transitions.
Some of the things Arsenal need to work on next season:
- Arsenal need roughly three kinds of signings:
- Key Deficiencies: These are the most urgent. Striker is the main one here. Arsenal have already signed Gabriel Jesus.
- Squad Depth: Players roughly young to peak-age who’d fit the profiles Arteta wants, and who’d act as rotation options. A deeper midfielder and a good winger are crucial here. Youri Tielemans has been linked.
- Young talents: To develop and integrate into the squad over the course of the season or upcoming seasons.
- Arsenal need roughly three kinds of signings:
- Getting results against the big two in the league has consistently been the stumbling block for Arsenal for roughly the last 4 seasons, and for all of their improvements, it still is. Against Manchester City and Liverpool, Arsenal took a grand total of 0 points last season from 4 matches. They conceded 13 goals and scored only 1. None of that was about luck either, since they were soundly beaten on xG as well. In both matches against City, Arsenal saw a man sent off which brings us to the next point…
- Better discipline: Arsenal were shown red four times the past season in the league, second only to Everton. Gabriel, Martinelli, Xhaka, and Holding were the recipients (Xhaka also received another red against Liverpool in the league cup in only the 24th minute! Arsenal did end up drawing the match as they defended valiantly but it could easily have gone wrong).
- Better finishing & Shot Quality: There’s good reason to believe that Jesus might fix this issue. I think it is also important to mention that since Nketiah got a consistent run of games towards the end of the season, Arsenal’s shot quality did improve, albeit only by a little. Nketiah’s 0.17 xG/shot from open-play also puts him in the 82nd percentile in Europe amongst forwards, although he did only play 800 minutes the entire season.
I started following Arsenal in 2018 and the 21/22 season was easily the most fun I’ve had watching them since then. The race for top four went on till the final day (technically). The talent and youth in the squad, the football they were playing, and the general direction the club seems to be headed in, all seem genuinely encouraging. I think Arsenal have a solid base to build on and from here, and they might only be a couple signings away from being a Champions League quality side.
Used to be that I had to write my own custom functions to create the heatmaps, passmaps, and other pitch plot variants. These things would easily sprawl thousands of lines of code. Now, I can just use mplsoccer. A huge thanks to the authors for making life so much easier, for me and the hundreds of other users!
All of the data including the xG metrics are from Statsbomb via fbref and Opta data.
I’ve also compiled a list of readings below which I found helpful while putting this article together
- Arsenal Set-pieces: How Arsenal’s Corners Are Creating Havoc | The Analyst
- Defending 10v11: How to Defend 10v11 – by Om Arvind – Tactical Rant (substack.com)