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Arsenal still have major issues in possession

The structure of Arsenal’s attacks under Unai Emery is still problematic, even after pre-season.

Newcastle United v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

Ahead of this Premier League season, the most significant change since the banning of backpasses will take effect: VAR will be introduced, and to go along with VAR, the IFAB, football’s rule makers, have changed the handball rule. This means that while we get away from the interminable idea of handball and intent, there is now the prospect of an inadvertent handball giving an opposing team a strong chance of a goal. We’ve already seen how this can be used in the Champions League and Women’s World Cup, with players trying to hit the ball onto defenders’ hands. But another significant rule change is happening: goal kicks will no longer need to be played out of the penalty box.

With goal kicks now allowed to be played inside the box, it makes it easier to play out. There’s more than an extra 300 square yards of space to play in, making it that much harder to press. While there’s inherent unease at playing around this close to goal, Manchester City, unsurprisingly, have already tested it in the Community Shield, against Liverpool, their closest competitors:

The pass into Rodri, enabled by the extra space that City have to play in and the multiple options they have, enable City to quickly move back to front, all while keeping the ball around and playing through Liverpool’s pressure. Playing through pressure has been an issue for Arsenal, and while they began playing out of the back last season, Bernd Leno started becoming more direct as Arsenal’s sense of purpose drifted. But with Leno in goal, Arsenal have the goalkeeper with the capability of playing out from the back, though one problem may be the ball-playing quality of the defenders, particularly Sokratis and Sead Kolasinac.

Playing out, and moving the ball into the midfield and then into the attack was a problem for Arsenal as the season progressed, and as the objective and shape of the team’s tactics began to change. It was solved in part by the inclusion of Aaron Ramsey, but after his injury, it became difficult for Arsenal to string moves together, an issue that isn’t only in the midfield, but begins with how possession is kept and moved in their own half.

How, then, has Unai Emery responded to the new rule? Arsenal worked on playing out from the back this pre-season, as they did last pre-season. And yet, in the first game of the new Premier League campaign, there were still significant issues with Arsenal’s structure in possession. This is not new. Under Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s structure in possession was usually out of date in comparison with the work Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, and Mauricio Pochettino were doing at their club. And yet, despite the appointment of Unai Emery, Arsenal’s structure is nowhere near the level of sophistication that those managers are achieving at their clubs.

With the new rule, Emery now has the two centre backs line up on a horizontal line with Bernd Leno. Against Newcastle, that meant Calum Chambers and Sokratis were dropped sort to receive passes. The two holding midfild players, in this case Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi, are positioned deep, to give the centre backs options to pass out. This contrasts with how Arsenal used to build: the midfield players pushed higher up, forcing the centre backs to play difficult passes between the lines, or play wide to the full backs. And yet, that issue has only been partially rectified. Instead of asking the defenders to play difficult passes through lines, he asks the midfield two to do so, as the three attacking midfielders are higher up the pitch.

Emery’s preferred passage of play is to have the midfielders play into the attacking midfielders, who can then slip in an onrushing fullback, with the three attacking midfielders, particularly the number 10, who under Emery plays no real role in possession, offering options in the box for a cutback. Yet, because of the structural issues in possession, that form of attack only happened once, when a long ball from Granit Xhaka found Nacho Monreal, who presented Henrikh Mkhitaryan with a fairly decent chance. Rather, Arsenal found themselves conceding possession to Newcastle pressure, in part because of their poor structural set-up.

Arsenal possession structure, 1:49
Arsenal possession structure, 1:49. The black lines represent the 2-2 midfield set-up; the black circle is the area that Arsenal have vacated, making it easier for Newcastle to step up and win possession.

In this example, Arsenal are set-up in a line of four and two. This is crucial, for it means there’s no easy pass for forward progression, and in trying to play forward, Granit Xhaka loses possession looking to play through, which also happens in the example below; this time, with Newcastle covering the central midfield players well, Calum Chambers loses the ball easily. This article started with an example of how Manchester City are using the new rules to stagger their players, to give easier options for breaking lines of pressure. Arsenal are inviting pressure, potentially opening up space, but then failing to take advantage of that space, forcing their defensive players to make riskier passes.

Arsenal structure, 39:02. With Shelvey covering Guendouzi and Xhaka, Calum Chambers is forced to play a riskier ball, losing possession.

While it was important for Arsenal to start the season with a win, and even more so without any of the new additions playing a major role in the game, the tactical issues that remain from last season present a concern. Often, Arsenal’s build-up play was poor in comparison to their competitors, resulting in a strength, their attacking quality, not being used to its fullest potential. While the integration of Pépé, return of Alexandre Lacazette, and the insertion of Kieran Tierney and David Luiz, an excellent ball-playing defender, there is the possibility that individual quality overcomes tactical issues. But with tactical issues still present after another pre-season of working with Emery, it is perhaps time to consider that a stilted form of playing out from the back is part of the Arsenal’s head coach inherent conservatism.