The boos rang out across Wembley every time Bernd Leno went to take a goal-kick. Tottenham Hotspur were 1-0 down and the fans felt that Leno was simply eating up the seconds, taking his time with goal-kicks that would inevitably go long. Which of course most of them did, though, not because he wanted to.
Leno was deliberating at goal-kicks because he was looking for the short pass out. But that wasn’t readily available therefore he would wait until his teammates open up the pitch to see if he can chip the ball up to a player in a bit of space. Processing all of this takes a bit of time therefore it is normal that Leno didn’t wanted to be hurried. Now, however, he was being rushed on two parts; by the crowd, and by the Tottenham team who were deploying a high press.
Certainly, the demands on goalkeepers has increased. They are expected (obviously) to be the last line of defence (and Leno did this superbly, with an excellent double save), but also, to be the one that begins attacks. That emphasis has shifted even more greatly towards the goalkeeper in recent years as more teams choose to press from the front. What we see in these games as a result, is that the holding midfielder, the one who in the past was expected to start the majority of attacks (by usually dropping in between the centre-backs) is eschewed to some degree because they’re marked. Here, for example, Christian Eriksen stuck tight on Granit Xhaka. Instead, the safe pass – to the player with a bit of time on the pitch – is to the goalkeeper. As such, they need to be good technically and calm under pressure to select the right pass.
Against Spurs, Leno didn’t just want to blindly kick the ball up the pitch – because he knew that it would just come straight back – but to, if he can, drop the ball on the chest of a teammate, or to loop it so that the targeted player can the ball flick it on to an onrushing teammate. He attempted 32 passes in the match, better than 5 of Arsenal’s outfield players (Matteo Guendouzi was subbed at half-time but combined, he and Lucas Torreira attempted 31), whilst Hugo Lloris for Tottenham attempted 40.
Overall, though, this North London Derby was a bit on the low side for accurate passes. The Gunners ended with a pass accuracy of 64% whilst Spurs had 77%. Not that it affected the spectacle, however, as both teams clearly entered the game looking to press high and attempt to spoil each others’ play. Arsenal were the ones who initially started on the front foot, using a 4-4-2 formation to press high on Tottenham’s goal-kicks, although when they did open the scoring, on 16 minutes, they were forced all the way back onto the edge of their own box. For Unai Emery, that’s not unexpected. He said after the 5-1 Bournemouth win that “the big intensity is difficult to keep for 90 minutes….When you are high pressing and with a very big intensity, you can lose some organisation in moments on the pitch and also, when you can be organised, you can lose some intensity in the pressing. The balance is very important. When you are organised, you can be strong in the position, when you want to work against that with the pressing, you need to go ahead individually and find the ball with the pressing, and sometimes you can lose the organisation in these moments. But both are very important. To do this in 90 minutes in different moments you have to do one or another.”
Therefore, although, he entered the match looking to press high on Spurs’ goal-kicks, he would ask his team to retreat into a compact block in their own half if they were forced back. Emery used the 4-4-2 against Tottenham’s 3-5-2 because he said, in an interview with Marti Perarnau, that [compared to the 4-1-4-1] “it’s less aggressive, but it is more difficult to get past. The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning….We sometimes used it in Sevilla. I would put Banega in a playmaker position, and have him move to the second striker position without the ball. With two strong, physical players behind him, it provided me with the necessary cohesion to press.”
Against Spurs, it’s notable that he began again with Aaron Ramsey in the “playmaker position”, Arsenal’s goalscorer, whilst using Alexandre Lacazette ahead of him. It seems as if the pair are his preferred partnership when Arsenal attempt to press intensely and indeed, he likes them because as he says, he can use their aggressiveness to take risks “individually [to try] and find the ball” – though “sometimes you can lose the organisation in these moments.”
In the second-half, Arsenal began to drop off considerably therefore the pair were quickly replaced and the team instead, increasingly looked to play on the counter with Ozil and Aubameyang on the pitch. Nevertheless, the game still to continued in a frantic fashion, with lots of direct passes over the top to try and beat each other’s defensive shape. Certainly, the trend in recent big games this season seems to be about restricting the other team from passing the ball out by pressing high. As a result, much like in this encounter, you will see a fair share of direct passes.
This seems like a shift away from about 5-10 years ago in the Premier League where teams influenced by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, would try to out-do each other possession-wise, and the real tactical battle would broadly about who had the numerical superiority in the midfield. Fast-forward a little more recently, and for a while we had a mini obsession with the 3-4-3. Teams facing that formation, – initially Antonio Conte’s Chelsea – rarely had an answer so as such felt compelled to match up, leading often to a stalemate.
These days there seems more variety in systems used and that’s facilitated by a) teams being more comfortable at playing out, so composed in fact that they actively draw the press as David Luiz did in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Manchester City earlier this season; and b) the viability of using the back 3 now. As Roberto Martinez explained when he first implemented the 3-4-3 system in the Premier League, the back 3 gives cover at the back for the wing-backs to push forward. That’s key because for a while 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1 had been the common match up. That meant that the free players on the pitch – the ones with the most time on the ball – were the full-backs. The 3-4-3 can be seen as a way of granting them more license as wing-backs to get up the pitch.
Certainly, fitness and stamina has improved such that it’s not unrealistic to expect them to keep get up and down the pitch. Indeed, in using the back 3 as Spurs did, it allowed them to commit those wing-backs really high up the pitch to evade Arsenal’s press and suddenly they had more players in the attacking third. (And that’s also another reason why Emery tends to play through his full-backs, because they can force opponents back. He said after Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Huddersfield that he’s always figuring out “how we can do better playing against teams who press high against us.”). Roberto Martinez expands on this concept further: “When you play a 4-3-3, you rely a lot on the full-backs to get high up the pitch,” he says. “You shouldn’t look at a system as away to win a football match, it is the players that play the system. Maynor [Figueroa], Gary [Caldwell] and Antolin [Alcaraz] have been so solid with a back three, and it allows [other] players to be high up the pitch, like the wing-backs. They aren’t full-backs that need to get deep and then forward to give us an extra man, they are in positions where they can do both a little bit better, and we can be a little bit more solid.
“The difference is the width that we get; before, we had to compromise a little bit, when you want to be very attack-minded, the full-backs have to push on, so you leave two players at the back. Now you’re still pushing the wing-backs on, but you’ve still got three players at the back, plus probably a midfielder. In the West Brom game, as Paul Scharner will tell you, we were attacking with seven, eight, nine players and they were surprised it, and that’s what the system gives you, without being weak at the back.”
It seems for Emery too, adaptability will be key to how Arsenal end the season: “Each match is different, we are playing with a back four and also with three centre backs sometimes, and I think the team is improving and is learning to play different systems. But with the same ideas.
“It’s not the same to play with one player or another player, because maybe he has bigger qualities or better qualities more like a winger or like a full back or like a right back.
“For example, it’s different to play with Nacho Monreal or Sead Kolasinac. They are two very big and important players for us with their qualities. But one is more offensive than the other. Nacho is more defensive with a big performance defensively, more than Sead.
“But we need to use two players and sometimes with three or four at the back. Above all, to improve and grow up like a player, improving tactical issues and we are doing that. The reason why we are making changes to the system is adaptation to the opposition and also in our best combinations with the players.”