What a difference it makes to go from Monday to Friday. On Monday, a passive Arsenal saw a bright start fall away to a deficit before Alexandre Lacazette rescued a point. On Friday, Arsenal played one of their more intensive first halves of football under Mikel Arteta, setting the pace for a match that was wrapped up as a competitive contest by the hour mark.
Under Arteta, Arsenal have largely been passive defensively, especially over the last season and a half. When Arteta first became Arsenal’s head coach, Arsenal played with more intensity than they had under Unai Emery. The difference was palpable, but the intensity couldn’t be maintained, meaning Arsenal often had short good periods. That, though, has remained a constant, while Arsenal’s defensive strategy has largely changed, to dropping into a deep block after losing possession, but without really pressing, tackling, or trying to win the ball back. This has ramifications on Arsenal being able to build attacks, and also on controlling games.
Controlling football matches doesn’t mean controlling possession—it means controlling where the ball is. Obviously, teams do this in a number of ways. Some teams do this largely through possession (such as Manchester City), while other teams can do this through their press and the positioning of their players. On Friday night, Arsenal did it more through their off the ball work than on the ball work. There weren’t necessarily long sequences of passing moves, which we think is Arteta’s ultimate desired outcome, but rather quick, one and two touch fairly direct moves. When Arsenal lost the ball, though, they prevented Aston Villa from playing the ball into Arsenal’s final third, and at half time the visitors had had 0 shots and just 3 touches in the Arsenal box.
The difference from Monday’s match against Crystal Palace couldn’t be clearer. It wasn’t necessarily a case of Arsenal haring after the ball from the front. Arsenal still defended in a 4-4-2 shape, and off the ball, defended more in their half than in Villa’s defensive third. But Arsenal pressed in midfield, and engaged off the ball. Bringing Sambi Lokonga to central midfield gave Thomas Partey support, especially as Sambi played centrally, rather than dropping in at left back. Alex Lacazette gave Arsenal an attacking reference point, and there was more forward movement from positions not necessarily associated with attacking runs in this Arsenal: Sambi from central midfield, and Tomiyasu from right back.
Arsenal put on more pressures in midfield than at any other point in the Premier League this season, and the total, 74, was only beaten twice in the league last season. Arsenal’s overall pressures were 36% successful, a total only beaten five times last season. The result of that pressure was not only better defensive positioning and overall control, but also better play on the ball: Arsenal regained possession in better areas than on Monday night, and thus could counter and create chances and half-chances, and get into better positions in the attacking third.
In the second half, Arsenal didn’t play with quite as much intensity, but they didn’t have to. While Villa grew into the game, aided by a switch in shape to a 4-3-3, Arsenal could counter effectively by still playing with a degree of intensity and aggression, exemplified by Emile Smith Rowe intercepting a pass and then finishing the quick counter-attack seconds later. At that point, the game was won, and while Aston Villa did get a goal back, Arsenal were never really out of control at any point in the second half.
This should be Arsenal’s blueprint for a successful season. But, like many times, the question will be about consistency, and whether Arsenal can repeat this level of intensity and aggression, and whether Arteta asks his team to do so. After the match, he said it was close to his idea of what Arsenal should be, but the proof will be in the performances moving forward. But after the dreariness of Monday night, this was a performance and style that not only lifted the mood, but also seemed a tactical solution that suited Arsenal’s players.