Arsenal’s first game of 2021 got off to a fine start, as Arsenal dismantled West Bromwich Albion 0-4 at The Hawthorns. Mikel Arteta’s men played with freedom and verve as they scored some excellent goals.
This report will analyse the tactics and key moments in the match.
Sam Allardyce lined his side up in a 4-4-1-1. The impressive Johnstone started in goal, with a back four of Furlong, Ajayi, Ivanovic and O’Shea. Phillips, Sawyers, Gallagher and Diangana, were the four positioned behind Pereira and Robinson. Albion’s 4-4-1-1 altered to a 4-4-2 when they pressed.
Mikel Arteta opted for a 4-2-3-1. Leno started behind Tierney, Holding, Mari and Bellerin. Xhaka and Ceballos were the double pivot behind Aubameyang, Smith-Rowe and Saka, as Lacazette led the line. In possession, Arsenal became more of a 2-2-6, with the fullbacks bombing forward.
Albion looked to defend with a narrow back four, which protected and defended the half-spaces. It was then the job of the wingers to defend the wide channels, against the Arsenal fullbacks. It was very clear that Arteta had targeted this, and from the first whistle, Arsenal looked to get in behind the wingers or play into feet for 1v1’s.
Due to the width offered by the fullbacks, Saka and Aubameyang could play in the half-spaces, isolating the West Bromwich defenders 1v1. This allowed for Arsenal to either attract Albion players and pull them out of position, before laying the ball off and running into the vacated space, or taking their man on. Because both players stronger foot saw them come inside, they could further enhance the space out wide, dragging their markers in field, which opened up more space out wide.
Through exploiting these pockets and executing quick pass and move combinations, Arsenal could cut through the organisation, exploiting poor positioning. Similarly to Chelsea, Albion’s want to defend between the lines, rather than the space in behind, paid the ultimate detriment. Arsenal struggled against Wolves, because they let Arsenal have possession in front of their shape, and focused on protecting the second and third phases of the attack, which is often balls in behind the defence. Albion focused on the first phase and got caught out, with the space they left.
Defending the Counter Attack
One of Arsenal’s main worries ahead of the fixture, would have been the counter attack. Albion looked to their quicker, more technically proficient players to make the most of the transition. Robinson, Philips and Diangana are all quick, and with Pereira’s passing and vision, Arsenal could have had all manner of problems.
Allardyce looked to exploit Arsenal’s attacking impetus down the wide channels, by playing long balls towards Robinson and Phillips. Arsenal coped with this by ensuring Xhaka and Ceballos stayed back and created a defensive box with Mari and Holding. On the defensive transition, both Ceballos and Xhaka were positioned to be able to cover the wide channels, whislt the team retreated. This ensured Arsenal had numbers back for the counter attack and could either slow down the attack or win the duels. Furthermore, Ceballos and Xhaka could construct play from deeper and help Arsenal switch play and stretch the pitch.
This season, Arsenal have had poorly distanced and constructed structures, when attempting to distribute passes. Often, Lacazette has had to drop too deep and left Arsenal without a focal point, whilst the double pivot have been too wide and isolated, preventing central penetration and a lack of defence, midfield and attacking connection.
Against Albion, Arsenal seemed to get their angles and distances perfect. Ceballos and Xhaka were able to provide forward passing angles for the centre backs and they were able to take a risks in receiving under pressure and beating their man. Moreover, with the intelligence and dynamism of Smith-Rowe, they could create positional rotations and exploit pockets of space. This fluidly helped Arsenal move the ball through the thirds. As well as this, the confidence and belief the players took into this game after the wins against Chelsea and Brighton, provided the basis for the bravery to play forward and into the tight Albion defensive organisation.
The only real problem was Aubameyang and Tierney’s positioning. Ideally, Aubameyang would play narrower, in the half-spaces. This would open the vertical channel for Tierney to attack and occupy. Rather, Aubamenyang stayed wider and at times congested the space Tierney had to attack. However, when Tierney and Aubameyang got it right, they could exploit their 1v1’s and attack the space in behind. This is shown in Tierney’s goal, where Aubameyang occupies Philips and Furlong has to break from the defensive shape to press Tierney, otherwise Arsenal would have a 2v1.
In conclusion, Arsenal played a very good game. They exploited the width perfectly, and created favourable attacking patterns across the pitch. Defensively, Arsenal were rarely troubled with anything of note, and managed any counter attacks very well. Smith-Rowe once again showed his class and talent, as did Saka, Tierney and Mari. Ceballos’ forward passing and incision between the lines, proved fruitful as Arsenal moved the ball quickly through the lines and offered little rest to the Albion defence. Both Lacazette goals were proper striker finishes, occupying the space between the posts, something which has been missing of late.
It will be interesting to see how well Thomas can improve this team when he is fit and what additions in January Arsenal make. The shackles certainly seem to be off, with a nod to the Wenger days with Arsenal’s second goal. Three wins on the bounce, ahead of an FA Cup tie with Newcastle and a visit from Crystal Palace.