Arsenal can pressure more efficiently by emulating Barcelona

Karthik (KV) explains why and how Arsenal pressing game is to improve if they are to better guard themselves when possession is lost.

In an interesting article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Vivek Ranadive coached a team of twelve year olds into the US nationals , this despite being a Basketball novice. Upon undertaking the role, he set about changing the way his girls played, because as he understood it was all very tentative playing a game where essentially both sides took turns to attack and this he felt, invited the opposition to attack. So using his tactical knowledge of football, Vivek encouraged his team to use a full-court press in order to get the ball back as quick as possible which helped elevate the team despite perceived limitations in their skills.

This season Arsenal has replicated the formation of the treble winning Barcelona side by shaping up in the 4-3-3. Playing stylish yet effective football seems to be the mantra of both these clubs but recent results against Manchester United and Chelsea show that imitating the formation has not led to similar successes for Arsenal. These encounters exposed the chinks in the armour and Arsenal’s Achilles heel seemed to be leaving space for the opponents to exploit when possession was lost. Since these defeats, fans have clamoured for the return of the early season team ethic where the side implemented high-intensity pressing to get the ball back and ward off the counter. Seemingly, the work-ethic hasn’t been there despite covering more or less similar distances to the opponents. What exactly has changed since?

In this article we will detail Arsenal’s pressing system and how they can more effectively compress space.


As Chelsea have displayed this season, they are a wonderful passing side and have shot to the top of the Premier League table playing attractive football but up against Arsenal, they were willing to forget all that happened before. They knew that battling for possession would be pointless – one will always be better than the other which would inevitably turn the game into one of thrust and counter-thrust – so they sacrificed some of the initiative and made sure they were better equipped in moments of transition. The result was that with Arsenal choosing to play an expansive style, Chelsea was able to exploit the Gunners on the break as shown in the second goal, with Didier Drogba taking full advantage of uncertainties with a powerful run and finish.

For Arsenal the problem comes in playing such an expansive style which often exerts a massive strain on the defense. The idea in the 4-3-3 is to stretch play therefore creating more angles in the pass but the flip side is that if Arsenal loses the ball they will be left unorganised and disoriented in the defensive phase making it easy for teams to take advantage of the space. So therefore, when they lose possession, they need to find a way to maintain the shape. This is the fundamental aim of pressing. Let us see why we need to press teams.

1. If you pressurize an opponent near his goal, the chances of him losing it in a compromising position are high and may result in a goal.
2. And the above helps in an attacking sense as the more you have the ball, the more you can create and score.
3. Our system leaves only 3-4 at the back and pressing helps counter potential counter attacks.
4. It allows for the side to remain compact so even if players are out of position, the space is closed up quickly.

It is widely known that for a team to press from the front, they need to push up from the back. Ball pressure is all about the space and options the opponent has. Reduce those two things and ball pressure becomes more effective. Therefore, compressing space and advancing high up the pitch results in a compact midfield which can play efficient passes and also less space for an opponent to start an attack. Even if they do so, the midfielders and the attackers are in a good position to retrieve the ball. To put it in better words, the team is in a position to play an attacking defence.

How to press effectively?

Due to the nature of stretching in the 4-3-3 system, there are huge packets of space left in between the wings and near the wingers. In the past few matches, Arsenal have let in counter attacking goals due to mistakes in defending, marking and not covering space. Let us analyse the different options we have to deal with counter attacking scenarios and how we can nullify it through intelligent pressing (below, the key zones as highlighted by the red areas). Remember that the main aim here is to slow down the opponents and force them to play a misplaced pass. The principal condition is that regardless of where the ball is lost the man closest to it will pressure.

The Wing

Trapping the opponent by driving him towards the touchline is an effective tactic. This uses the touchline as an extra defender and it will lead to the opponent passing back or misplacing the pass. Two defenders take part in this and the third can join if feasible. To further add to the trapped attacker’s misery, Arsenal can overload to that side to further take away the opponent’s options. What does this mean? The whole team shifts slightly to that side to take away the player with the ball’s options. One midfield marks their midfielder closest to the trapped player while the forwards roam across their backline. This gives the feeling of asphyxiation to the trapped player, increasing the chance that he will make a bad choice and give away the ball in a bad (good for us) spot. This also helps in the sense that if the trapped player does manage to pass to one of his teammates, there will be an Arsenal player close by to fall on him quickly. However, the risk of executing this strategy is that one cross field ball to the other flank will almost automatically result in a goal. But not everyone has the vision of Cesc to do that sort of a thing! Anyway, the defenders should move into a position to intercept the ball.

Through the centre

Things are tougher now as the centre provides a 360 degrees field view as opposed to a 180 degrees view on the wings. This is why the likes of Arshavin cut in as they have wider options. How does Arsenal press in this situation? It depends on where the players are with reference to the ball. As soon as the side lose the ball in the centre, the advanced midfielders, attackers must press aggressively and isolate the opponent quickly, to slow them down. This will give the much needed time for the defenders to get back into shape and intercept the loose balls by their expert reading of the game. The central defenders’ role is interesting – push up too much and there is the threat of the opponent taking advantage of the space behind. Barcelona is essentially a freak case because as they are so good at keeping possession and movement, they force more players backwards therefore the threat is minimised. However, the most successful teams have shown, and recently USA against Spain, that keeping one up or even two, gives a greater chance of scoring and indeed such is the case of the direct nature of the Premier League.

What are we doing now? How to proceed?

The above tactics are basic pressing techniques used by teams to press effectively. Teams like Barcelona have numerous pressing techniques and they are the masters of compressing space. “Without the ball,” said Pep Guardiola, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.” What they do is they push back the opponents to let the defence read the game and push forward. The midfielders are quick to get on to any loose balls and the full backs get tight on the wingers. One of Guardiola’s newest ploys to perfect the perfect side of last season is in the defensive phase, push the defensive midfielder back into central defence thereby making it a 3-4-3, allowing greater organisation and the ability shift left and right more easily.

The 1-0 win over Liverpool displayed such improvements – Clichy and Eboue were quick to impose themselves on the wide men while the double pivot in front of the back four gave both a lateral and longitude organisation.

Our expansive game exposes huge spaces in between and the Gunners are probably the most vulnerable side in the transition. What Arsenal cannot do is reverse the previous results. But what they can is learn from their mistakes, compress space quickly and pressing efficiently will help concede lesser goals.


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26 thoughts on “Arsenal can pressure more efficiently by emulating Barcelona

  1. Great article.

    It’s hard to sustain such a pressing game if you play 4 competitions and suffer a lot of injuries. I think that’s why the early season pressing has waned.

    I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of it on the home stretch and in the Champions League.

    Last point: let’s not make too many conclusions from losing to Chelsea & Man United. It sounds crazy to say it, but those games were closer than the results made out.

    1. Hi!
      People say that you need tremendously high levels of fitness to press. But every team presses in some way or the other. There are just different methods to it. Running intensely for short periods/distances is easier than running long distances throughout the game. Generally, the team as a whole track back into their own half to defend. But in this case, the midfielders and attackers press aggressively within the opponents half in the hope of a misplaced pass from them.
      And using the touchline as a defender is a common ploy used by many premier league teams. If you just observe carefully during the phase of transition, teams overload and push the player with the ball towards the touchline. These are basic techniques.

  2. Great analysis going on there. thing is though, I remember at the beginning of the season we were very good at pressing without the ball. I doubt that suddenly Wenger has told his troops to stop the pressing.

    Van Persie and Bendtner was doing a great job at defending from the front, with those two injured and Arshavin showing no interest in defending you can see how the whole pressing thing went down the drain.

  3. I think that’s a good point wengerball.

    Eduardo and Arshavin don’t trace back very well. van Persie, and especially Bendtner, do. If everybody are fit, I would play Arshavin-RvP-Bendtner, which gives us high work rate, challenge for the long balls, and great flair and creativity as well.

  4. Another point;

    Spanish football is a different animal. The way teams build play is quite different.

    I don’t know if any of the ploys you outline will work in the Premier League.

  5. Great article.

    I agree with Ole in that the injuries and fitness have meant that our intensity has dropped off slightly. Cesc has been doing a lot of our pressing in recent games and i think it is a bit too much for him without Arsh and others helping out. Hopefully Diaby and the 2 wide men (whoever they are) will put in the extra and really hassle our opponents. I would play the same as Stone. Tough to choose though when theuy are all back…

    1. Yes, Ole is right in that regard and which makes it more difficult to play. There is one point also that was eluded in the article and you mention, and that is the amount of tackles Cesc Fabregas and Arshavin have produced higher up the pitch. It’s a big bonus Bendtner is back as his all-round work is fantastic (just needs to improve that inconsistent first touch and composure).

  6. Interesting take, but theory is one thing, practice a whole different thing. I’m adverse to saying Arsenal must emulate Barcelona. If we had mobile and technical geniuses in abundance, if we had lethal strikers, if we had monsters at the back, if we had full backs that are able to pick and choose when to come forward correctly, then maybe emulate them. Alas we don’t, and we have seen that one or two injuries, and the team turns to a 4-5-1 that aims to just be compact and keep possession.

    I agree with Ole Gunner, La Liga is a whole different animal to Premier League, physique is less important than technique there, the opposite here. Even in the tournaments outside of Spain, Barcelona alter their tactics to play a slower and more measured game, when they played Chelsea last year, they never pressured high up, they soaked in pressure in numbers at the back and broke much slower than they normally do as if they lost the ball, it will be returned with interest. Arsenal never seem to change, they play 1 way, all out, sometimes being more measured and mature is a good way to go.

    Also, I mentioned that will we have the fitness to use an aggressive 4-3-3 throughout the season? The answer appears no, we are no where near the levels we showed in the first two months. We must have a backup style, we have central playmakers galore (Rosicky-Nasri-Arshavin),we have no real wingers, we have physical scuttlers in midfield (Song-Diaby-Denilson), we have full backs that love attacking more than defending, so why not build around that in a 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-2-1 formation, no width other than full backs, and play Rosicky behind strikers, or Rosicky & Arshavin behind a target man, and a 3 man midfield of Diaby-Song-Fabregas behind them? That formation incorporates our best players in their best positions, not having Rosicky and Nasri as wingers, they are wasted out there.

  7. Great article. Our defense clearly has taken a down turn this year. Unfortunately it has been slowly eroding for the last 7 years. Our position in the table in goals conceded has been 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 4th, 4th, 5th and this year 9th before the Liverpool game. The introduction of the 433 has lead to a quantum leap in the wrong direction but it has slowly been going that way for some time. The boss indicated last year that defense was the difference between United and us. What do you think Arsene Wenger needs to do to reversethis trend. Based on what Lee Dixon said the organization has never spent a lot of time or effort on defense. The team that concedes the fewest goals has won the league 7 or the last 8 years. I suspect the team has lost site of the importance of defending and thus overtly or subconsciously de-emphasized defense in favor of attacking football. Your thoughts.

  8. Interesting article again. It´s all about space. I think overall our 4-3-3 formation has worked very well all season. Very few teams in the premier league have the quality to punish us when we leave space behind roaming players and attacking wing backs, but Man United and Chelsea certainly have just that. I think it is fair to add, that especially Clichy´s performances in these games have been substandard.
    Nani got the better of him several times as well did Drogba, whom no one seems to be able to control.
    Tactically we need to close down the opposition as high up the pitch as possible, and no doubt that´s what Wenger wants. Our central defenders read the game so well, and their anticipation more than makes up for lack of pace, allowing us to push up. However Clichy and to a lesser extent Sagna have a lot of pace, which in the top games doesn´t make up for lack of anticipation and positioning skills. Remember Rooneys goal at the Emirates. Or Parks goal in the same game. Horrible personal mistakes not attributed to the formation. Our defence is a work in progress, and when we are so fluid in our attacking approach, we need to have players who read the game well, and who defend well one on one in the transitional phase.
    By the way I don´t agree that Nasri and Rosicky are deployed as wingers. They may start out wide to stretch the play, but they cut inside in the build up to overload the middle of the pitch. By cutting inside they leave space (as often the defenders track them inside) for our attacking wing backs. Against Chelsea we had so much space out wide. Our problem is of course, that our crosses are often poorly delivered, and we don´t have a strong centre forward on the receiving end of those crosses as Bendtner often works outside the box.

    1. My contention is, why start with two wide playmakers, by definition, they like to make plays right, but when they cut in, they only have two passes, one to the central lone striker, or one to the galloping full back. The variant of 07/08, with Hleb and Rosicky out wide was good because the team had two strikers they could find and a pass to the full back and a pass to an onrushing Fabregas when he chose to come forward. That is 4 possible choices, before they could drift inside and link up with each other as playmakers.

      Barcelona show that they have a wealth of options with their 4-3-3, a pass to the full back, a pass to either of the central midfielders, a pass to the other two strikers, or the choice of Messi/Henry going it alone with a dribble. We don’t have such options, deploy one, not two wide playmakers. We don’t have enough bodies in the box or enough shots taken having two deployed wide.

      1. I don´t agree with your assessment on the passing options available for the wide players when cutting inside. I think this system with its fluidity and movement of players has proven well suited for our possession game, but it is a matter of style rather than formation. Excluding Song we have four players + on occasion Cesc who roam the pitch, and this season they have linked up very well, partly because we have more players in the middle of the pitch, as players like Nasri and Rosicky will cut inside.
        Arshavin, when deployed left, has more of a free role and is more direct in his approach. He will take players on or supply a through ball, but in crowded areas he is not our most efficient passer of the ball.
        Much to the discourage of Walcott it may seem as if the wide winger hugging the touchline is gone for now, with wing backs providing width instead.
        Call our formation 4-3-3 when not in possession, but in possession our players roam the pitch with a freedom of expression that is not limited by the rigidity of formation as such.
        Furthermore I firmly believe that we have been stronger in possession than Barcelona for the entire season. We are stronger in our movement and mobility at the moment. However they are much stronger in the transitional phase and the have players much more capable of breaking through the lines with pace and flair.

        1. Hi. Good points there by Halskov and New Gooner.
          As New Gooner says, having two attacking half wingers on either flanks makes us one dimensional. The problem was, there was a lack of dynamism in many games and that was due to two half wingers on the wings. And it was easy for other teams to isolate Arshavin up front. But this season, Cesc has pushed up a lot and in some games almost seemed like a striker. But I dont mind one half winger playing
          Halsokov, I don’t think touchline hugging wingers are dead. Walcott helped keep Ashley Cole quiet and stretch play. In the previous games play was concentrated in the center. Although Walcott did not see the ball much, he helped stretch play.
          Just look at Barca, they are literally formationless! They morph into a 3-5-2, 3-3-1-3, 4-2-4 and many other new combinations this season. Iniesta is playing as a half winger on the right flank. Thats what you call fluid football. Pep has had a huge role to play in that aspect.

          1. I agree with you, that we sometimes lack dynamism when deploying two half wingers, and Walcotts direct approach (as well Arshavins when playing out left) poses another kind of danger. However a player like Walcott, who likes to stay out wide, often has to little space to excell, when not capable of cutting inside efficiently. He poses a real danger in the transitional phase where defenders are caught pushing up, but more often than not even the big teams like United and Chelsea make sure they are never caught as their back line is so deep at all times.

            I agree that he kept Cole busy in the game at Chelsea. We were allowed a lot of space out wide as Chelsea didn´t fear our crosses. When faced with a strong attacking left back he can of course play the role of a defensive winger.

            In my opinion Wenger changed the system partly because most teams squeeze space so effectively that a winger like Walcott has too little use of his pace. When space is tight Walcotts first and second touch often let him down, and therefore Wenger opts for players like Rosicky and Nasri or even Bendtner, who is a bit of a hybrid with pace and a direct approach, but also the ability to play in crowded areas.

            To me Walcott often seems a bit alienated in our current style of play as his movement and mobility when not in possession is substandard to that of most our players. I hope it is partly because of his injury record and subsequently his lack of playing regularly.

            As for our defensive problems I think that compared to Barca our players often seem a bit lazy. It sounds crazy but Arshavin, Nasri, Rosicky are nowhere near as aggressive when trying to win the ball back immediately after surrendering possession as their spanish counterparts. In that aspect of the game Diaby has developed immensely, and he often closes down the opposition early on in the transitional phase.

            The point is that when we conceive goals it is often by means of counter-attacks where we are caught out of position. That probably has more to do with style than formation as we are not organised in the transitional phase, and in that sense strong defending one on one when not organised is crucial. In the big games we have made horrible mistakes in that department. I recall Rooney turning on Clichy, playing out wide and running 60 metres straight towards goal, grabbing a goal when outnumbered 3 to 1 in the box.

            1. Yeah, I agree with you on the points on Walcott. His first touch is what lands him into trouble. May be Arsene can try him out on the left so that he can dribble in with his stronger foot and make quick runs. He has everything to be a top class player but injury seems to be hindering his progress.
              I don’t know why Arsenal were trying to cross the ball when Arshavin was CF and even Diaby wasn’t playing if I am right(or may be he was playing deeper). At least when NB 52 came on there was presence inside the box.

              1. As well as his poor touch, Walcott’s decision making and defense work is also really poor. He should stop thinking of running all the time he receives the ball. Learn the “give and go”, which is the Arsenal mantra. This means he will have ample time to use his speed to good effect as he will be able to explode unexpected.

  9. We can’t be compared with barca for style just because we play the same formation.

    We no longer press as we did early on and we have nowhere near the personnel of Iniesta, Messi, Henry, Ibra.

    Our world class player is cesc. Arshavin has the ability but is not a central striker and his performances have dipped when in that role.

    The likes of Nasri, Walcott, Vela and Bendtner need to improve their all round game

  10. One major aspect missing from this analysis is Individual Mistakes.

    The second goal scored by Drogba was down to basic mistakes by Vermaelen and Clichy. No matter what tactics or training we have it can’t change that if the players get the fundamentals wrong.

    Similarly the goal scored by Rooney was down to a very bad mistake by Denilson as was the second goal by Fuller in the FA Cup.

    Pressing is important and at the core of Arsenal/Barca style but good teams will always find a way through occasionally. That’s when the individuals have to deliver. So far our players have failed when questioned by the big teams.

    1. Exactly, I couldn’t agree more. Drogba’s second goal is down to several mistakes. The very first mistake was that when Lampard got the ball, there was no Arsenal player within yards of him and he was basically able to carry the ball for thirty or forty yards straight up the middle of the pitch. I can only presume that all three of our central midfielders were attacking and someone was out of position. If one of our players could have just held him up for a second or two, it would’ve been enough time for the whole team to regroup.

      1. I will agree I missed that point. I wanted to state it but Brain did a brilliant analysis on that. So I just focussed on ball pressure and pressing.

    2. Sure. That example was really to highlight the different mentalities of teams and difficulties in maintaining shape. However a more apt goal should have been used such as one conceded from outside play. The 0-0 with Aston Villa is littered with such chances.

      But when doing analysis of an overall team structure, I don’t think individual mistakes fit in. They are more looked at in isolation (unless there’s an inherit problem).

  11. That why I suggest this line up against porto
    Rosicky Nasri

    DIaby Cesc Eboue
    Clichy Sagna
    Vermaelen Campbell
    They have to go through th middle which is not their strong point
    and it will also Safeguard Campbell from wings

  12. @ New Gooner

    “..We must have a backup style, we have central playmakers galore (Rosicky-Nasri-Arshavin),we have no real wingers, we have physical scuttlers in midfield (Song-Diaby-Denilson), we have full backs that love attacking more than defending, so why not build around that in a 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-2-1 formation, no width other than full backs, and play Rosicky behind strikers, or Rosicky & Arshavin behind a target man, and a 3 man midfield of Diaby-Song-Fabregas behind them? That formation incorporates our best players in their best positions, not having Rosicky and Nasri as wingers, they are wasted out there….”

    I agree that the 4-3-3 lacks aggression without Van Persie. Not surprised at Eduardo’s reluctance to press regardless of where he plays across the front three; in Brazil, pressing doesn’t exist.

    But the most pertinent point you make is about the Nasri/Rosicky figures at outside-forward. In Spain they often ask of an attacker “Does he ask for the ball to his feet or into space?” and I guess the most accomplished wide-attackers can combine both. Rosicky and Nasri are definitely both players who prefer receiving the ball to their feet rather than pursuing it down a channel. Arshavin, however, is quicker when running into space – remember his performances for Zenit St. Petersburg when, regardless of whether he played as second-striker in a front pairing or as an inverted winger in a three, he thrived on running into space and would murder teams on the counter-attack. Of course, he is equally adept at receiving the ball in tight spaces. Note how Messi (of a similar style) can cut it in a front two or three.
    So I definitely think that the wide attacking positions have to be divvied up between Arshavin, Walcott and Bendtner with the option of RVP (when please God he returns) constantly interchanging the outside-righ and centre-forward positions with the Dane (as RVP does with Kuyt for Holland).
    I also think that Rosicky and Nasri, when not playing in a formation that stations a playmaker(s) in the hole, should play wide-midfield (on inverted foot) in a classic Wenger four-man midfield a la Pires and Ljunberg. So when Arsenal enjoy position, they would come inside to link up play (alongside Cesc), and in the defensive phase they would revert to either side of the central midfielders to shore up the lines. This could be carried out either in a flat line (4-4-1-1) or more ideally for these kinds of players in 4-2-3-1, one of the strikers joining them to form a higher-pressure line and the central midfielders plugging any gaps once this line is infiltrated.

  13. I think we can cut through the noise here: the kind of pressure that Arsenal needs isnt so much a matter of strategic change but rather properly implenting fundamentals of defense.

    1) In transition, the key isnt so much the whole team pressing as much as that the first man hear the ball has to close down instantly and either slow the ball our foul
    Read: Clichy vs Man – he failed to either stop rooneys pass or foul him tactically. You can just let a guy get the

    This is not “Barca” – this is what our own Gilberto and Viera and Lauren used to do in our heyday. It didnt require a whole team – just football intelligence.

    This applies not only to primary defense high up the field, but also secondary situations. Further in the counter, if the attacker is running at you, you cant just keep backing into your own penatly area – you need face up to him early and force him to do something. Which brings me to my next point….

    2) When there is pressure on the ball, defenders should READ the attackers next move ie: what pass or dribble will our guy’s pressure forced the attacker to do in response?

    Read: we play like 9 year olds. I certainly know that when I was even playing in high school, I had the gumption to know that if my teammate sarifices himself by tackling, its quite easy to read the attackers direction from there and STEAL the ball. Similarly, if he alone pressures the ball, the passing angle the attacker has are effectively telegraphed to any defender to act on.

    If I was doing this in high school – and I aint no football genius – why is it than an entire team of professional footballers have no conception of this? None. It’s shocking.

    This is simple defenseive team work, it doesnt require everyody pressuring and exhausting. Just one really and the rest PROATIVELY READING.

    Honestly I get sick when I think about how unintelligent Arsenal’s defensive play is. I would not accept such stupidity from even 16-17 year old kids.

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