Special Contribution by Oscar Wood. Follow him on twitter @Reunewal.
Özil, Ramsey, pressing and play from the back
Arsenal were handed a mammoth test in Unai Emery’s first game in charge, with the visit of the reigning Premier League champions, Manchester City. It was a task that was predictably too much to overcome. Despite a loss that, realistically, had few genuine bright spots, there was still plenty to dissect from Arsenal’s 0-2 defeat.
Shape - Özil deep on the right, Ramsey in the Firmino role
Arsenal ostensibly began the match in a 4-2-3-1, with Aaron Ramsey as the 10, Mesut Özil on the right, Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the left, and Granit Xhaka and Mattéo Guendouzi in a double pivot. Without the ball, however, Özil operated deep and narrow, with Ramsey and Mkhitaryan pushing up to the front line with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, forming a narrow 4-3-3 shape. This was mostly a response to how City built their play. While on paper their formation was a 4-3-3, Kyle Walker played narrow, while Benjamin Mendy pushed up on the left flank, effectively helping to create a 3-5-2 when they were passing from the back.
For Mkhitaryan, who was tasked with marking Walker, this meant pushing up to join the front two, while for Özil, who had to follow Mendy, this resulted in having to defend deep. It’s worth noting that while Özil had a poor afternoon on the ball, he did his defensive job about as diligently as you’d hope he would. When Sterling opened the scoring he’d actually tracked the underlapping run Mendy made into the box, and it was Mendy forcing Özil out of his zone that allowed Sterling the space to cut inside and get his shot off.
It was slightly strange to watch Ramsey effectively playing as a strike partner to Aubameyang. It wasn’t a surprise that Emery opted to use Ramsey higher up than in the double pivot. Throughout his career he has been known to favour more defensive minded midfielders in the pivot with more traditional box-to-box players, like Ivan Rakitic at Sevilla, playing as a number ten. What was perhaps more surprising was that it was Özil who dropped deep to form the midfield three, while Ramsey led the line. There’s some logic in utilising Ramsey’s energy for pressing at the top of the formation rather than in a deeper midfield role, where a more disciplined approach is needed to maintain compactness. In a sense his role in this match wasn’t too dissimilar to the one Roberto Firmino plays for Liverpool; a forward who starts the pressing for the team and looks to supplement a more prolific forward when in possession. It was noticeable how even in possession, when the centre backs split and one of the central midfielders would drop in between them, that it was Özil, and at times Mkhitaryan, who were tasked with coming inside to make themselves available to the man in possession, not Ramsey.
Even though he’s used to making his runs from a deeper starting position, Ramsey actually caused more danger with his movement than Aubameyang did, who himself endured a very disappointing day. These type of games can be difficult for Arsenal’s star striker, because he’s the kind of centre forward who relies on service into the box to really threaten, and Arsenal rarely sustained attacks in the final third. His movement on the few counter attack opportunities Arsenal had, however, wasn’t as good as one would’ve hoped.
Arsenal’s best moment of the first half came from Ramsey turning Laporte, holding the ball up, and feeding Özil, who was joining the attack from his deeper position, but Mkhitaryan was unable to get the ball out of his feet when the shooting opportunity arose. On the whole, however, Ramsey’s performance has to be considered disappointing. He attempted only 11 passes in his 53 minutes on the pitch, completing just 7 passes. For a player usually so heavily involved in all phases of play, such numbers were hard to believe. While his presence was important in preventing City from doing damage in the middle of the park, the attacking trade off from using him as opposed to a genuine forward was probably too much for it to have been worthwhile.
Early in the second half Alexandre Lacazette replaced Ramsey, and at the same time Arsenal made another switch, moving Özil into the front three and Mkhitaryan into the right midfield role. These two changes significantly increased the quality of Arsenal’s attacking lineup, and it wasn’t a shock that almost immediately they began to look more dangerous. Özil might not have the intensity that Ramsey has when pressing, but his superior link up skills helped the possession play.
Pressing - A more shrewd approach
When Unai Emery conducted his first press conference as Arsenal manager, back in May, it wasn’t so much the content of his words that stood out. Speaking in a language he was unfamiliar with, Emery understandably couldn’t articulate himself as well as he otherwise could have, but the bravery he showed in not opting for a translator with the world watching him won him plenty of admirers. One thing he said did excite Arsenal fans, however. Asked to outline his football philosophy, Emery claimed, “My idea is to be protagonists all match. I like this protagonism with the ball and when you don’t have possession of the ball I want a squad that is very, very intensive for the pressing”.
The mere mention of pressing was music to the ears of many Arsenal fans. Pressing has probably been the most clear and mainstream tactical development of the last decade, and two managers renown for it, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, effectively ended Arsenal’s supremacy of the top four in their spells at Liverpool and Tottenham respectively. On the contrary, Arsenal’s failings when it came to both orchestrating their own pressing, and dealing with the oppositions, were a significant reason why many Arsenal fans longed for a new head coach to replace Arsène Wenger.
There is an idea some have that Wenger used no pressing at all, but this is an unfair and incorrect take on the matter. Wenger regularly encouraged his team to press, often very aggressively, and often in big games too. One of the most successful examples was in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Chelsea at the Emirates in 2016/17, where Chelsea insisted on playing out from the back despite having a left centre back who is poor on the ball and a tall left footed keeper who is equally mediocre in his distribution, and consequently struggled.* As is well known Chelsea made their season defining switch to a back three during that game, and the main benefit the back three brought them was an easier build up against opposition pressing like they faced at the Emirates.
* This probably sounds familiar. But more on that later.
Arsenal under Wenger were quite often able to create chances from their press. StatsBomb data showed that Arsenal averaged more than four “high press shots per game”, defined as shots taken within five seconds of a defensive action, such as a tackle, interception or block, the third most in the league, behind only Liverpool and Manchester City. So they were able to reap attacking benefits from their pressing.
Where they struggled was in using counterpressing to prevent opposition teams building dangerous attacks themselves. Liverpool and Manchester City were able to use their pressing quality to make themselves far less vulnerable to the counter attack. When it came to shots conceded within 20 seconds of losing the ball in the opposition half, the two of them conceded the fewest in the league. Despite not necessarily having the most heralded defenders, and seemingly taking risks in possession such as pushing the centre backs high up, Liverpool and City managed to be the teams least vulnerable to the counter attack in the entire division, as their coordinated pressing allowed them to extinguish the threat at source. Arsenal, on the other hand, were the sixth worst in the division when it came to conceding shots off turnovers in the opposition half, conceding around twice as many as Liverpool. To make matters worse, these were high quality shots. The average xG per shot of the counter attacks they conceded was around 0.14, while for Liverpool it was just below 0.08.
Put simply, Arsenal’s pressing from the front under Wenger was often quite good, but when it was bypassed, they didn’t have the unified pressing from the rest of the team, or the compactness, to stop teams slicing through them.
Emery’s pressing at Arsenal is unlikely to be more aggressive. In fact in home games against the big six it will probably be less gung-ho. What is instead worth hoping for, is that Emery can lead a more coherent press that still forces turnovers and creates chances, but doesn’t leave Arsenal open when it goes wrong. It requires more selective moments of pressure and ‘pressing triggers’ where a bit of play from the opposition, or one player on the team, acts as the signal for the rest of the team to press.
There were some positive signs on this front. At 0-0 Arsenal opted to focus on preventing passes into the midfield. Ramsey stuck tight to Fernandinho and only occasionally would the front three decide to press the backline. With this narrow set up, Arsenal seemed happy enough to have City’s possession go to the players in the wide areas. In a way it’s a shame that City got an early lead, as it would’ve been interesting to see how Arsenal’s 0-0 strategy had developed over a longer period. As it was Arsenal predictably increased the aggressiveness of their pressing when behind. The Gunners remained very narrow, however, even while pressing, and City were rarely able to play through Arsenal in the middle of the park. Instead, when they evaded Arsenal’s first line of press, they tended to funnel the ball wide, and that’s where the vast majority of their attacks came from. For the 2017/18 season, Opta defined 28% of City’s attacks as central attacks, while on Sunday that figure was just 19%.
Possession - Persistent playing from the back
Despite coming up against one of the best pressing teams in the world, and despite being in the formative stage of the Emery era, Arsenal insisted on trying to play out from the back on Sunday. Predictably this was fraught with significant danger. There were multiple moments where those in attendance audibly had their hearts in their mouths. A look at the passes made by Petr Cech showcases how much more of an effort Arsenal made to play out from the back on Sunday, compared to their last home match against the Manchester club, last March.
Once the centre backs split Xhaka and Guendouzi shared the responsibility of dropping between them and Özil and Mkhitaryan would try to occupy inside positions and make themselves available for vertical passes from the centre backs or central midfielders. Arsenal were somewhat infamous in tactical circles for not often opting to split the CBs wide and have a midfielder drop in. Instead the central midfielders under Wenger often moved into the fullback positions or pushed high up to try and gain territorial superiority on the opposition. In that sense this is one of the bigger changes Arsenal have made, and it will be interesting to see how it develops in matches where Arsenal can play out of the back with more freedom.
The trouble is, while Arsenal did their upmost to pass in deeper areas, it rarely helped them to pass the ball higher up the pitch. As Anam Hassan pointed out, in the first half 42% of Arsenal’s passes were in their defensive third, compared to just 23% for the visitors. It’s not a surprise Arsenal struggled playing out when you consider the calibre of the opposition and the shortcomings of Arsenal’s defensive players on the ball. It was slightly surprising Arsenal were so insistent on playing out, and particularly surprising that despite this Petr Cech played instead of Bernd Leno. While I have doubts about Leno overall as a goalkeeper, he is much more comfortable with the ball at his feet, and is surely the goalkeeper most suited to Arsenal if this is how they’ll continue to play.
It would unwise to draw any sweeping conclusions from this match. Better sides who are far more confident and trained in what they’re doing will struggle significantly against Pep Guardiola’s outfit. Nonetheless, we saw interesting aspects of things Unai Emery may do differently to Arsène Wenger. While aspects of the game, such as the use of Ramsey high up the field to lead the press, didn’t pay any dividends in terms of the scoreline or even the balance of play, it was interesting nonetheless to see such things tried. At this stage of the new era, and after a game like Sunday, it’s about the only positive takeaway that can be drawn so far.