In the recent Arsène Wenger years, Arsenal have been particularly vulnerable against pressing sides. Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, in the Premier League, and Bayern Munich in Europe, all managed to stop Arsenal from playing and win the ball back in dangerous areas by pressing, a form of play for which Arsenal’s possession play had no answer. Santi Cazorla’s dribbling was occasionally press-resistant, but even Cazorla came undone, such as the 1-1 home draw with Tottenham in 2015-16, followed by the 5-1 defeat against Bayern. The problem against pressing was described by many as being mental, or a question of attitude—up the pressure, so the saying went, and Arsenal mentally crumbled. That, however, was not really true. Like most of Arsenal’s problems, it wasn’t a question of mentality, desire, or those other quantifiable intangibles, but rather a question of tactics: Arsenal’s players weren’t deployed in a manner that allowed them to play quickly and around pressure.
To play around pressure, one needs to have options to pass. This fundamentally makes sense: if you’re faced with someone closing you down, and other players closing your options, you tend to either lose the ball, try to dribble, potentially losing the ball, or hitting a longer pass. If you have options to pass, though, you do one of two things: either open up space to avoid pressure, or create an overload elsewhere on the pitch. It is, then, about movement, but crucially, movement in relation to the player on the ball.
Against Lazio, Arsenal lined up in a 4-4-2 system, with a midfield duo of Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira, and Eddie Nketiah and Alexandre Lacazette upfront. In one sense, one can see how it is necessary to try the system, given that Arsenal have one of the best strikers in the world, in Aubameyang, and a very good striker in Lacazette. Yet the system didn’t always work, as Emery said afterwards: “today we played with 4-4-2, to try this system and tweak our mentality, style and ideas, but for me in the first half the possession with the ball and control with the ball wasn’t as good as I wanted.”
That was, in part, down to personnel. Neither Lacazette nor Nketiah dropped off to give an extra man in midfield, and with two defensive midfielders in Torreira and Xhaka, space in between the lines wasn’t often taken up. This meant a lot of longer balls and squandering of possession, though Arsenal’s emphasis on playing from the back meant possession was lost further up the field. It also meant longer balls were necessary to create chances, as exemplified by Alexandre Lacazette’s chance after 12 minutes.
Arsenal work the ball around before Calum Chambers plays the ball to Stephan Lichtsteiner. When Lichtsteiner receives possession, he has three short options—back to Chambers, slip the ball to Reiss Nelson, or across to Torreira. The latter two options quickly become more difficult as play progresses and Lichtsteiner comes inside. This is where not having an extra midfielder comes into play; the only forward pass Lichtsteiner can make is a longer, more direct ball to Lacazette, who makes a good run to create the chance. This time it works; but about three minutes later, Arsenal were forced to lose the ball.
Arsenal, following a Lazio attack, move the ball around at the back under moderate pressure, working the ball into space into the midfield. This is a coached move: when Bernd Leno receives possession, the centre backs split—you can see Chambers sprinting to the right of the 6-yard box, and Lichtsteiner moving to give him a passing option—and as Lichtsteiner receives possession, Reiss Nelson pushes forward, while Torreira drops a little deeper, giving Lichtsteiner a square pass. When Torreira receives possession, though, he doesn’t have many options: if he plays the ball to Granit Xhaka, Xhaka will immediately be under pressure. Torreira can’t play the ball to Eddie Nketiah, and while he could return the ball to Lichtsteiner, he clearly doesn’t want to. What he needs is a player 10 yards further up, in the available space between the lines in the centre circle. Were Aaron Ramsey Torreira’s partner, that pass may be on. It would also be on if there was another midfield player, be it Mesut Özil or a central midfielder in a 433. Without that pass on, Torreira goes long, looking for Lacazette, with the pass intercepted by a defender.
In a similar situation two minutes later, Arsenal play it perfectly, leading to Reiss Nelson’s goal.
All the good aspects of positional play are here—movement off the ball, giving the player on the ball options, with players movements looking planned, triggered by a pass or movement. After Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira switch sides, the former comes into the middle. As he does that, Calum Chambers pushes forward, allowing Xhaka to play the ball, first time with his right foot, into Chambers’ path. Reiss Nelson, on advice from Xhaka, comes inside, making up the numbers in the middle, and giving Arsenal a player between the lines. From there, the goal arrives, showing how being able to play out from pressure from the back can open up space.
Unai Emery has promised that Arsenal will be more of a pressing team, and there is some evidence of pressing becoming part of Arsenal’s play. It is the differences on the ball, though, with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal that will be most apparent early on in Emery’s reign. While it doesn’t solve Arsenal’s defensive issues, it does speak to an improved organization, both off the ball and on the ball. It may take some time for the bigger changes to get hold, but Emery will hope that these changes will allow Arsenal to cope better with pressing teams, and result in their high-quality attacking players having a larger role in big matches.