Gunner Thoughts

What made Arsenal so successful against Leeds?

Arteta had a full week to work with his side before Leeds and it paid off massively. But what did he change and why was it so successful?

Arteta deployed tactics against Leeds that we haven’t seen from this Arsenal side under Mikel’s guidance, but it certainly will have had everyone excited. After a 4-2 win over a tricky Leeds side, many may have been left with two questions:

  1. Why was it so successful?
  2. Why haven’t we seen more of it?

The second question is a quite a bit easier to answer. I imagine most of it comes down to personnel available to Mikel in the past and the lack of creative talents capable of playing at the level Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, and Ødegaard are at right now. Ødegaard of course has just recently become a Gunner, Smith Rowe has been injured and is continuing to grow as a player, while Saka is hitting his stride on the right wing unlike any other Arsenal player in this current squad has been capable of before him.

Call it perfect timing, call it the product of Arsenal and Mikel’s work, call it a bit of both. In any regard, it was fantastic against Leeds and it catered perfectly to a side in need of energetic pressing, technical skills to beat the opposition’s press, and creativity that could supply their prolific goalscoring captain.

The front six provided this in droves against Leeds, and much of that came down to the balance, versatility, and complimentary nature of Arsenal’s front four. So, why was it so successful?

To answer this, I think it’s important to talk about four things:

  1. The setup
  2. Balanced rotation
  3. Supplementary runs
  4. Pressing power

The Setup

Arteta deployed his side in their 4-2-3-1 formation, something that has become Arsenal’s go-to shape since the emergence of Smith Rowe and arrival of Ødegaard. In the first image above, we see the skeleton of that 4-2-3-1 shape with two central midfielders — Xhaka and Ceballos — in a double pivot with Ødegaard in front of them and flanked by wingers Smith Rowe (ESR) and Saka. Leading the line up to is Aubameyang. To complete this, I have pushed up Bellerin and Cedric seeing as they are heavily involved in Arsenal’s build-up play as they look to overlap/underlap the wingers, offer support for wingers and central midfielders, and look to create passing triangles.

In the second picture, we take a look at the way in which Arsenal’s front attacking players interacted with one another to put specific players in positions within the pitch that would allow their skills to stand out with devastating effect, while making themselves difficult to mark. Keep in mind, this movement was simply the newest addition to Arsenal’s attack, not a movement we saw every time down the field. There were plenty of occasions in which Smith Rowe stayed wide left, Aubameyang central, Bellerin underlapped, or other variations. The end goal was that Arsenal progressed into the attacking third and took up their 2-3-5/2-2-6 attacking shape that Arteta looks for.

As we see in the third image above, the end result of that movement and a slight change to how that 2-2-6 looks. Aubameyang shifting left allowed him to take up that inside left channel between the center back and right back that he loves to attack through. Smith Rowe would drop more central to support Aubameyang and join Ødegaard in those central areas which allowed Cedric to join the attack down the left and the three would create their left-sided triangle.

Down the right, Saka pushed forward and to the left to join Aubameyang’s level, Ødegaard would slide right to take up his preferred, off-center space between the lines, which would allow someone like Bellerin or Dani Ceballos to join the attack down the right flank. Other variations saw Ødegaard slide all the way to the touchline on the right and Ceballos push forward.

The setup itself is not all that different from what Arsenal have looked to progress toward in the attacking third all season. Even when Arsenal played a 3-4-3 formation, it was always their intent to transition into a 2-3-5/2-2-6 shape in the final third. The difference in this case is the personnel that make up that shape, the ease in which Arsenal can transition in and out of their attacking and defensive shape as they win and lose the ball, and the movement and skillsets these players offer Mikel to scheme with tactically. To look at that, we can talk about balanced rotation.

Balanced Rotation

This first image comes just seconds before Aubameyang (red) gets Arsenal off the blocks and onto the scoreboard. It’s also a prime example of the movement we talked about in the setup section. Notice how Aubameyang has shifted left, Saka up and to the left, behind them is Ødegaard and Smith Rowe, and we can see Bellerin joining in the attack from the down the right, pushed up heavily.

Now lets look at some variations made possible through balanced rotation and a versatile mix of creative, ball-playing midfielders.

In the first image, we see a shape similar to the one initially talked about, except Ceballos has overlapped and is looking to get beyond the backline with a midfield run from deep. What’s important is to look at the balanced attacking triangles still clearly visible as Arsenal maintain their shape.

Ødegaard has the ball at this feet and he has Auba in his slightly left-center attacking position, Smith Rowe tucked in, and just outside of the left edge of the image is Cedric on the far left side. Although Ødegaard has his back to them, Saka has dropped in to make space for Ceballos and Bellerin, while still being capable of supporting them and Ødegaard should he look to come back around.

The second image is an example of Arsenal in the build-up phase of their attack. It is one of the most clear visuals of the strategy I set forth in the setup section, but note one major change: Saka (red) has found himself occupying the left wing. This happened on a few occasions, yet because Emile Smith Rowe is an extremely capable number ten and Ødegaard is capable of playing the right wing, we see Arsenal rotate to maintain perfect shape.

Image #2 in the slideshow above with Saka on the left wing, Smith Rowe central, and Ødegaard shifting to the right.

Ceballos and Xhaka are forming Arsenal’s pivot while Cedric and Bellerin look to join the attack down the wings. In front of them, Saka (left), Smith Rowe (central), and Ødegaard (right) are maintaining Arsenal’s shape, while just out of frame to the right is Aubameyang who is capable of staying high with the Leeds’ backline to stretch the field since Arsenal have players that can play between the lines.

Saka shifting out to the left happened on quite a few occasions and is a perfect example of balanced rotation. Smith Rowe and Ødegaard did an excellent job all match of recognizing where Saka and Aubameyang were in the attack and moving themselves into dangerous, balanced positions. Going beyond staying balanced, these quick adjustments allowed Arsenal to transition into their attacking, easily, quickly, and with devastating effect when they won the ball.

Instead of having multiple players occupying the same spaces, they had an attack that was morphing itself flawlessly, while making Leeds defenders mark them. By keeping this solid shape and transitioning into it quickly, Leeds spent time marking their attackers rather than swarming the ball after losing it, looking to press Arsenal into submission and errors.

The final image is yet another adaptation involving Ceballos joining the attack in place of another attacker. Two things Ceballos brings to the midfield, more than Elneny or Xhaka, is an attacking mindset and suite of technical skills. This meant that he could seize opportunities to join the attack down the right flank, while Bellerin tucked into the midfield to support the attacking shape. Again, you see Auba pushed to the left, Saka a bit more central, Ødegaard supporting the right side, but Ceballos is in space down the right channel.

Beautiful rotation all match and it created some really devastating production. It was creative and flexible, yet maintained that rigid identity that Arteta has looked to bring when his team attacks. From this shape, Arsenal’s attacking front could get creative with their play and their supplementary runs to break Leeds’ press and attack the space.

Supplementary Runs

Aubameyang (red) has dropped deep to link up play which has allowed Cedric, Smith Rowe, and Ødegaard to run off him and progress through the line

This first image was a really simple movement that we saw at times, but still a change of pace. While Aubameyang spent most the game staying high and playing off the shoulders of Leeds’ defenders, there were a few moments, like the image above, in which he would make a quick dart into the midfield to help link up play.

In this image, it has come off perfectly and allowed Cedric, Smith Rowe, and Ødegaard to exchange places, run off him and progress through the defensive line. You can see Aubameyang (red) joining as part of the midfield and drawing a Leeds defender while Smith Rowe takes his place high, opening the left channel for Cedric to attack. A perfect example of one run, leading to another which opened space for a teammate to exploit.

A simpler, more direct example occurred in the lead up to Saka winning a penalty that was eventually overturned by VAR. Nonetheless, the setup and balanced rotation was complimented by a supplementary movement and simple combination to devastating effect. Ødegaard has moved himself wide right pulling Leeds’ midfielder Struijk with him. Struijk was clearly instructed to track Ødegaard for much of the game, but in this occasion, it leaves a massive void centrally for Saka to exploit.

Saka touches the pass around Alioski to Ødegaard and keeps his run going into the space vacated by Ødegaard. A lovely give and go from the Arsenal players and away Saka goes with tons of space to attack.

All of that started by the determined, quick movement of Ødegaard and heads up play from Saka to recognize the opportunity. It should have won Arsenal a penalty, but so VAR goes.

These are just two examples of runs created by this attacking front’s movement, but really the match was filled with them. Because the attacking four was filled with versatile players, comfortable in many positions, as they rotated, there wasn’t a drop off in skills. Aubameyang is extremely comfortable in the left channel, Smith Rowe comfortable out wide or tucked in central, same for Ødegaard, and Saka, well, Saka has proven he can play just about anywhere.

It was executed smoothly, consistently, and creatively, but the credit goes to Smith Rowe, Ødegaard, and Saka’s flexibility. Beyond them, you can add in Cedric and Bellerin’s comfort playing down the wings or underlapping and joining the attack centrally, and Ceballos’ ability to be an effective box-to-box, two-way central midfielder. These players created a multitude of chances and gave Aubameyang the service that he has lacked for much of this year. The result? Arsenal’s prolific goalscorer doing what he does best — scoring goals and earning himself his first Premier League hat trick.

Press Power

As great as Arsenal were on the ball, they didn’t possess the ball for 100% of the time. In fact, it was the defensive workrate that opened up a lot of opportunities to hit Leeds in transition and deny them the opportunity to set up their own press. Leeds love to create opportunities by pressing their opposition into mistakes. That simply made it all the sweeter to see Arsenal press Leeds right back and come out the better for it.

Arsenal have struggled to press all year, producing pressure numbers on the season that rank them in the lower fourth of the Premier League. However against Leeds, Arsenal had 136 pressures with 46 of them resulting in a loss of possession. That’s a success rate of 33.8% and a significant uptick from Arsenal’s average production. Much of that, again, comes down to the way Arsenal set up, and their vibrant front four.

We are going to focus on that front four since that is the emphasis of the piece here, but the backline’s ability to compress the game in on Leeds by pushing up the field, and the fullback’s ability to push up and stick close to their marks to deny easy relief balls away from Arsenal’s press deserve just as much credit. It was a team win on the defensive end, truly, but the work that front six did to lock Leeds down played a huge role in creating opportunities for the aspects talked about above to come to life.

The first thing I want to talk about with Arsenal’s press was Aubameyang and Saka’s tendency to curve their run when approaching Leeds’ center backs or goalkeeper (as seen above) to deny them the ability to turn back and find the simple ball. This corralled the opposition and pushed them into specific directions, unless Leeds wanted to test a lofted, more difficult pass against the grain. On the occasions they did, we saw Bellerin and Cedric pounce of the opportunity and close down Leeds’ outlets to force tough situations.

The second point worth mentioning, especially visible in the second image that would lead to Arsenal’s penalty, is the lockdown man-marking that everyone else in the image can be seen doing. Notice how Ødegaard and Aubameyang are tight to the keeper’s only close outlet options while Saka closes him down and denies access to the outlet behind him.

In both images we see that corralling nature, paired with Arsenal getting touch tight to the few outlets Leeds has. Lets look at another situation.

Here we have Aubameyang curving his run to block off Leeds’ access to easy outlets, unless they want to hit the long ball to the far side or play his teammate into trouble in that shared space. Ødegaard, Saka and Ceballos maintain a rigid shape as Saka looks to move forward and close down the space. All of them are blocking clear passing channels.

This forces Leeds’ center back to take his touch forward, toward Arsenal’s trap, in an attempt to make Arsenal commit to him and break their shape. When he does, Aubameyang continues to track back to cut off the easy switch, Ødegaard steps to him to close down the space, Xhaka tracks the midfielder attempting to show up and make himself available, while Saka and Ceballos hold their spots looking to react to the next phase of play.

In the second image, you can see a clear pressing structure from Arsenal, as well as, the easy transition from this pressing shape into the attacking shape once they win the ball. This sort of play happened on countless occasions and produced quite a few transition opportunities. It’s a credit to Arsenal’s workrate, press, and well-drilled shape. They pressed Leeds into submission, into mistakes, and forced their defense to involve their goalkeeper on far too many occasions. The perfect outcome for Arsenal who had pre-identified Meslier as one of Leeds’ weaker links. This paid dividends on multiple occasions.

These four aspects from Arsenal’s front six, concentrating on their attacking four, lead the Gunners to one of their finest performances of the season. Things got a little bit more nervy in the second half, but by that point, Arsenal’s damage had been done. Up 4-0, Arsenal did take their foot off the gas a bit, but maybe that’s alright. The job was done, they saw it out, and rolled out of the Emirates with 3 well-earned points and a lot to think about moving forward.

This doesn’t mean that this is how we are going to see Arsenal play every match. It should be noted that this type of play came down to the specific players Arteta selected for his side. What we cannot say for certain is how well the likes of Pepe, Martinelli, Lacazette, or any of Arsenal’s other attacking players fit in or change things.

Emile Smith Rowe’s ability to play between the lines and wide with the type of economical play he brings is special to this Arsenal side. The skills that Ødegaard offers aren’t ones Arsenal have a lot of. Saka has shown all season what a special player he is. As soon as one of these players is removed, the makeup of the side changes with it. Does that mean it’s out of the question? Absolutely not. But it also doesn’t mean that others are capable of producing this flawless rotation and style of play wherever they are played. That will take a lot of consideration.

The tactics Arteta deployed were spot on, but they were also perfect for the playing personnel. It may have reset the bar of what this Gunners side is capable of producing, but who all can contribute to it remains to be seen.

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