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Arsenal 2-2 Southampton, tactical breakdown: stubborn and ineffective is still a tactic

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A tactical look at where it all went wrong for Unai Emery’s side

Arsenal FC v Southampton FC - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Southampton seemed like just the opponent Arsenal needed to go up against to get their attacking unit going, after an underwhelming last month. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side came into Saturday’s fixture allowing a league high 29 total goals on the season. With Southampton’s defensive struggles, it almost felt inevitable Arsenal were going to breakthrough for an all-around convincing performance.

However, the script did not go as planned. Arsenal played 90 minutes of uninspiring football and failed to record the win, as it finished at a 2-2 stalemate. From a tactical perspective, Emery comes away from this game with more questions than answers, which has seemingly become the theme of the season.

First Half

One could make a strong argument that the opening half of this fixture was arguably the most disappointing Arsenal has played under Unai Emery. For 45 minutes, Arsenal seemed to have no game plan in place to counter Southampton’s 4-4-2 defensive setup.

To begin the game, Arsenal lined up in their 3-4-1-2 formation, which was their exact setup in their previous fixture against Leicester City. Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin lined up as the wing backs out wide, while Mesut Ozil tucked in behind strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette as the central attacking midfielder.

While Arsenal lined up in the same setup from Leicester City game, there was one key change that Emery made. Against Leicester, both fullbacks, Kolasinac and Bellerin, played relatively high up the pitch. Due to their positioning, it was clear that Emery was looking to operate from the flanks with the duo of fullbacks not factoring as much in the build-up play from the team’s own half to the final third.

In contrast, Emery looked to use both of his fullbacks, Tierney and Bellerin, in all phases of play against Southampton. The two dropped deep to assist in the progression of play upfield and essentially had the freedom to navigate their way down the flanks at will. They each were instrumental in alleviating the pressure off of the trio of centre-backs when Southampton’s forwards seeked to press them -- an integral key on combating an opponent’s press.

For instance, see here how Bellerin drops into the middle third to provide a wide open passing option for Chambers. Bellerin follows it up by dishing a pass off to Lacazette while continuing his run to the open gap of space in Southampton’s defensive line.

This minor tactical change refrained Southampton from pressing in numbers against Arsenal’s defensive trio.

Nonetheless, this was the only positive to come out of the first half. Arsenal recorded a total of three shots in the first half and were not able to comfortably distribute possession in the final third. Nothing seemed to go their way when in possession.

The reason for Arsenal’s struggles did not center on any tactical plan from Southampton. Hasenhuttl’s side pressed in their 4-4-2 setup, but the team often left open space behind and had several miscues as it pertained to man-marking assignments. Southampton’s defensive game plan was far from complex for Arsenal to counter against. Instead, Arsenal’s attack was non-existent in the first half because of one significant tactical component: positioning.

Movement on and off the ball is key when playing out of a 3-4-1-2 but positioning on the pitch is just as important to how the team string together attacking sequences. Taking into account the use of wingbacks in this formation, how every player is positioned in their designated area of the pitch is crucial to how the team is able to maintain and distribute possession. Players are able to move out of their space to get involved with the play, but they must have keen positional awareness in order not to overload a certain area on the pitch.

In Arsenal’s case, there were a multitude of positional issues that prevented the team from freely moving up the pitch at will. It was not just a problem that occurred over a couple of sequences but rather one which persisted throughout the game.

As mentioned, Tierney and Bellerin regularly dropped deep to pick up the ball when Arsenal were on or near the middle third of the pitch. But this did not translate into an effortless transition to the final third because Southampton’s wide players, Redmond and Armstrong, often hustled to mark either of the two when they maintained possession. As a result, this pitted Arsenal’s fullbacks in difficult situations considering they could not afford to lose possession in their own half.

However, Arsenal were often stagnated in their own half because several players often had lapses on failing to positioned themselves to drop into an open pocket of space and provide a passing option.

This is illustrated in an early sequence where Bellerin is looking to direct play to the middle third, but Redmond is quickly covering up the available space around the Spaniard on the press. The issue here is that Guendouzi does not position himself away from Ward-Prowse while Torriera is in the half-space on the opposite side of the field. One of those two should have been moving towards or been in the area on the pitch illustrated by the black circle. Thanks to the ineffective positioning from Arsenal’s midfield duo, Bellerin plays off a safe pass to Chambers instead.

And here, Southampton are not set in their 4-4-2 defensive setup. But due to Ozil’s positioning out on the flanks, Arsenal are not able to take advantage of the situation at hand since there is no player hovering around the center, which would have been vital in providing a link to both Aubameyang and Lacazette. As a result, Aubameyang is forced to drop deep and provide a passing option to Chambers.

It wasn’t all negatives, though. Here is an example of exceptional positioning from Arsenal that resulted in the team building through the half-space and flanks to the final third. See here how Guendouzi drops to open space, and with no Southampton player around to challenge for the ball, how the French international is able to turn and find Ozil between the lines. Tierney subsequently receives the ball on the flanks thanks to an off-ball run with no marker trailing behind, and Arsenal move from the middle to the final third with ease.

Over the opening 15 minutes of the game, Emery’s plan was clear as day: play through the flanks. There is nothing tactically wrong with a team asserting their will through the flanks, whether it is by pushing the fullbacks upfield or allowing for the strikers to drift out wide into open space.

The prevalent problem for Arsenal in this game was their heavy reliance on this tactic when it wasn’t working, instead of exploring other routes to navigate upfield. They seemed to have no desire or plan to play through their central attacking midfielder or pivot midfielders up the middle — a puzzling tactical decision. In short, Emery’s attacking game plan was stubborn and ineffective, considering that they did not garner the results they had hoped for.

As a result, Southampton countered by triggering pressing traps when Arsenal were building from the flanks. For the most part, this tactic undermined Emery’s attacking plan as it effectively countered much of Arsenal’s activity out wide.

Here, Tierney receives the ball out wide and immediately is met with pressure from multiple Southampton players. The pressing trap worked as called for.

And in less than a minute, Arsenal switch play to the right with Bellerin. The right-back receives the ball and faces pressure from two Southampton players challenging for the ball in tight space. Once again, the pressing trap prevailed as Arsenal retreated back to their own defensive third.

Arsenal’s inability to encompass a tactical game plan that extended to merely building from the flanks resulted in a lowly attacking output. With Southampton’s disorganized but compact 4-4-2 defensive setup, Emery’s men lacked the patience to build play through the center and coupled with poor positioning, it created a recipe for disaster. Southampton settled on defending against Arsenal’s through the flanks than from the center space on the pitch; this essentially isolated Aubameyang and Lacazette.

With a lack of service in the box, Aubameyang and Lacazette took it upon themselves to drop out of their lines upfront to get involved with the distribution of play. They each were able to glide out wide to the flanks and into the half-space -- a key tactic that provided another passing option for the ball carrier. The two dropped deep into space at will.

For example, see how Aubameyang is out on the half-space as Arsenal are quickly progressing upfield on a transition. Due to Aubameyang’s hold-up play and ability to drag a defender off his line, this opened up space in behind to be exploited. The end result of this sequence was Lacazette’s first half goal.

The first half was marred by the team’s impotence of establishing possession over long periods of time in the final third and lack of urgency in the attack. Guendouzi and Torreira were often marked throughout the first half, so neither had the freedom to dribble upfield into open space. And to make matters worse, Arsenal allowed a goal on an amateur defensive blunder.

Second Half

It was evident Arsenal needed a spark or a tactical change to jumpstart their attacking activity when in possession. And to Emery’s credit, he made a significant change.

To begin the second half, Emery implemented a 4-2-3-1 setup with Nicolas Pepe inserted into the game to play as a right winger while Aubameyang moved out to the left-wing role. Not only was this change made to place an emphasis on having both wingers gravitate across the pitch and receive more touches in the final third, but also on building play from the half-space to the center.

Over the opening 20 minutes of the second half, this tactical change generated the results Emery wanted. Arsenal began to play as a cohesive unit. There finally seemed to be a coordinated attacking game plan rather than one that seemingly looked to fly down the flanks with both fullbacks. The biggest takeaway from this portion of the game was just how much the team improved on their overall positioning and in being at the right area of the pitch to support the ball carrier.

For instance, see here how Tierney receives the ball out on the left flank. Guendouzi is approaching the open space surrounding the left-back while Aubameyang dropped over in between Southampton’s midfield lines to provide a passing outlet.

Arsenal’s progress upfield was also more consistently effective, when compared to the first half. Led by Guendouzi in the midfield, the team did not have as much trouble finding open teammates in the final third. Play began to go according to Emery’s attacking plan.

This was exemplified here as Guendouzi finds Bellerin in behind Southampton’s defensive line. It was a simple sequence, but at the very least, it gets the ball moving into the box.

Needless to say, Arsenal’s early success in the second half did not last long. After Southampton’s penalty goal, Hasenhuttl’s side did not employ much of a high press and relied on a deep low block to finish off the game. Thus, Arsenal reverted back to desperate attacking tactics of pushing play from out on the flanks while sending in a bombardment of aerial balls into the box. Lacazette scored a late equalizer but of course, the damage was already done.

Overall, this fixture was filled with an abundance of questionable decision-making plays and errors, but blame is certainly centered on Emery for how the team was set up. Electing to play under a 3-4-1-2 is not a poor decision considering how the game played out; it is more on the execution of their play. From players out of position and the heavy reliance of directing play from out wide, the Gunners essentially self-imposed a roadblock when it came to pushing play to the final third. And in the second half, they recorded a fair nine shots and clearly had a plan in mind to attack from all cylinders, but execution was not up to par at times.

Emery will detest many sequences of this game after he reviews the entire 90 minutes. Of course, there are the recurring issues from the defensive side of the ball. And there may be some regrets -- mainly from the first half - about what he could have done differently. For starters, he should have utilized either Aubameyang or Lacazette as a deep-lying forward and pushed Guendouzi or Torreira upfield while opting to use a lone pivot when in possession. Of course, this kind of setup is a more audacious one, but they did face one of the worst defensive units in all of Europe.

Arsenal can now only learn from this fixture and move on.