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xGunners: Where’s the press?

Teams are pressing Arsenal less as the season goes by

Arsenal FC v Cardiff City - Premier League

At the start of the season, one of the biggest and most noticeable changes for Arsenal from last season was that they would play out and build their attacks from deep. By doing this, they would invite the opponent teams to press them further up the pitch to open up space deeper to be able to attack into.

Early in the season there were a number of really nice attacking moves that were created with this method, and the excitment around this new “EmeryBall” was a real thing, instead of a joke used mockingly.

It seems like teams that come up against Arsenal are wising up to this tactic, and no longer simply playing into what Arsenal want them to do. Instead of pushing forward when the goalkeeper and center backs have the ball, teams are staying compact and cutting off the midfielders and attackers. This has forced Arsenal into the “plan b” of attacking set defenses through wide overloads - specifically, the Arsenal fullbacks. At least that’s what I see when I watch the matches.

To see if the data backs this up, I turned to the statistic Passes Per Defensive Action, which in the on-ball-event data world is the best way to attempt to measure pressing intensity.

Here is what that shows for the non top-6 teams against Arsenal:

While it isn’t quite as obvious as I thought it might have been to start with, there is a slight trend for the non-elite teams to press less against Arsenal than they did at the start of the season. Surprisingly Arsenal have seemed to press less as the season has gone on as well.

I think that this is still in the “one to watch” stage for theories for the tactical changes that have happened under Unai Emery.