This article is part of a regular series from Leeds United stats supremos All Stats Aren’t We – the team also host a brilliant podcast that goes in-depth into the tactics of Marcelo Bielsa and a deeper look at the underlying stats
Some tactical thoughts ahead of Leeds United’s game against Arsenal at Elland Road on Sunday.
Arsenal are a funny old side these days. They still feel like a Top Six side even though their performances haven’t merited it for a while.
On top of this, their manager Mikel Arteta is somewhat enigmatic: it feels like he should be considered a potentially good manager even though it’s never entirely clear why.
No doubt, this is partly to do with the fact that the Spaniard was, until recently, Pep Guardiola’s apprentice. But the performances under Arteta have hardly warranted the comparison to this point.
This week, The Athletic’s Tom Worville put out this graph showing the 10-game rolling xG chart for Arsenal over the last couple of seasons:
As you can see, the underlying numbers aren’t particularly flattering. During Arteta’s tenure, there has only been a handful of 10-game periods where the average xG for has crept past the xG against: hardly a good sign for a team’s productivity.
Unsurprisingly, this has been traced back to a lack of creativity in forward areas.
With both Leeds and Arsenal coming into this game on the back of disappointing results—a 3-0 defeat to Villa for Arsenal and a couple of 4-1 results for Leeds—this feels like an important game for both sides to determine how the rest of their seasons will look like.
Under Arteta, Arsenal have been fairly flexible in terms of the formations they use but have, this season, settled on a 3-4-3 structure which achieves a few things for Arteta:
Firstly, no doubt because of a perceived defensive fragility at Arsenal and the experience of watching Guardiola’s Manchester City getting caught on the break playing high-possession football, the 3-4-3 offers a back three.
With a double pivot in midfield and wingbacks who can drop in, the 3-4-3 allows a solid defensive base to work with in a defensive block:
Secondly, the structure of the 3-4-3 allows Arteta to segue into a situational 4-2-3-1 formation in possession—the formation Arsenal used regularly last season:
With Kieran Tierney pushing up into a more regular left-back position and the other two centre backs pushing across, Bukayo Saka is given the freedom to cut inside and play as an advanced central midfielder or push down the line and allow Aubameyang to cut inside.
Between these two things, then, the 3-4-3 offers Arteta a structure which gives him defensive cover but also the flexibility to get players into forward positions in possession.
Arteta is, like Marcelo Bielsa, an advocate of Positional Play. What this means is that his teams look to use their positioning to create overloads (often called “superiorities”) so as to break down teams and work the ball through spaces that open up.
His team will look to build up from the back through the centre backs in a manner similar to the way Leeds do (keep an eye out for how the double pivot help out in the same way the single pivot does for Leeds):
The situational “back four” can link up with the double pivot forming two triangles that allows them to progress the ball down the wings and into the final third. Again, notice the similarities with the way Leeds play.
Where the differences arise is in the off-the-ball phase. Arsenal don’t adopt an aggressive press off the ball but they are pretty well choreographed in their pressing.
This begins at the front. Against Manchester United, the front three looked to stop the ball going into the midfield area with Alexandre Lacazette dropping onto the Manchester United single pivot and allowing Aubameyang and Willian to press the centre backs (pic courtesy of @LGAmbrose):
This front press was more about closing down passing lanes and stifling any build-up through the middle.
Beyond this, the Arsenal players then looked to close down any out balls into the midfield areas with a man-to-man press—the wing-backs on the Manchester United full-backs and the central midfielders on the two Manchester United central midfielders:
With their centre backs tracking Manchester United’s attacking players fairly aggressively and denying them time to run at them, Arsenal were able to keep Manchester United quiet for the whole game.
When the Arsenal press do get beaten, they tend to drop back into their 3-4-3 structure and absorb pressure:
In this screengrab from the Aston Villa game, you can see the Arsenal wing backs dropping in to create a back five with the two central midfielders in front of them and the front three dropping in to help out too.
Interestingly, despite playing in a 3-4-3, Arsenal don’t seem to adopt the same pressing structure out wide that we saw both Leicester and Wolves adopt against Leeds.
As we mentioned at the time, both teams managed to use the 3-4-3’s structure to create pressing diamonds on either side of the pitch to help stymy Leeds’ build-up in wide areas:
Arsenal’s structure offers this possibility but probably because they segue out of the 3-4-3 in possession, they don’t seem to fall into this system against oppositions. This could work in Leeds’ favour.
Against a 3-4-3, expect to see Leeds in a 4-4-2 with Rodrigo playing as a midfielder/striker hybrid:
There are a few questions to be answered though:
Firstly, how do you track Kieran Tierney when he shifts to a left-back and Saka is given freedom to move?
There seem to be two options here:
* Have Costa mark Tierney, Rodrigo drop back and use Phillips to cover Saka when he comes inside/outside in possession:
* Have Rodrigo track Tierney, Costa track Saka and have Phillips mark Elneny in attacking phases:
The second of these options seems the less potentially problematic so expect to see it. It will require Phillips to push high, though (something we saw with Struijk vs Palace against Jairo Riedewald).
The other question is: if Lacazette looks to drop onto Phillips in Leeds build-up, how does this change things?
In possession, Leeds will look like this, with Arsenal almost marking them man-for-man in the forward areas:
Of course, if this approach works, then Arsenal could cause Leeds problems. However, they are allowing a five-on-five match up in their own half which could very likely be exploited if Leeds do break the press.
No doubt, Leeds will try to work their way through the press but, if they are struggling, the out ball down the line will be on and they could look to catch Arsenal quickly in those areas.
Alternatively, Arsenal will be doing the same thing to Leeds. If they are willing to cede possession and sit in their 5-2-3 deeper block, absorbing pressure, they could break quickly particularly down their left, looking to get Aubameyang isolated against his full-back, Luke Ayling.
There is the outside chance that we could see the 3-3-1-3 utilised to thwart Arteta’s man-for-man press: