Fixing Arsenal’s Ineffective Playing out of the Back Tactics
Building up play out of the back is a staple tactic of Unai Emery’s Arsenal. The problem is that for this Arsenal, it’s not a tactic that they use all that effectively.
Earlier this week, we explored why Unai Emery is the biggest issue Arsenal face right now. Part of that review was a lack of identity for the Gunners. Simply put when watching them play, the fan typically has no idea what it is they are trying to achieve.
The pushback that was received on that point, was that the identity Arsenal try to achieve is playing out of the back. The problem with that assertion is that playing or building up out of the back is a component of an overall style of play. It’s a tactic, not an identity.
That being said, we wanted to explore this tactic and why Arsenal aren’t any good at it, what to look for to know it’s not working, and how it can be fixed with some minor adjustments to both the overall tactic and the players involved.
What is Building Out of the Back
It seems a little remedial to explain this. However, as some seem confused as to whether this IS Arsenal’s identity vs. a tactic Emery wants to employ, it merits a brief overview.
This tactic has become a fundamental part of the game as teams look to build deep from within their own third to carry the ball forward.
Below is a version of it beautifully executed by Bayer Leverkusen with our own Bernd Leno as the catalyst for the start of the play.
— World Football Coach (@worldfootcoach) October 23, 2019
When teams learn to play out from the back one of the key coaching points is to remember the positions each player on the field needs to take up while establishing confidence in playing this sort of tactic.
One of the key ingredients of playing out of the back is the integration of the goalkeeper playing as a pseudo-outfield player who can play directly (depending on the tactical situation) into the middle of the pitch or the defensive third – or in some cases going long into the middle third. All of this allows the team in possession to make the pitch big for them
What playing out of the back should be confused with a tactic to just maintain possession or keep the ball. When executed effectively, it creates space for those players further up the pitch.
In this tactic every player has an important role to play with the fulcrum being the goalkeeper, It’s a recognizable tactic as the centre-backs push out wide, staying in the box to align to the recent rule changes, the full-backs should push high and wide as the keeper gets the ball.
The most critical role in teams that execute playing out of the back effectively, is the pivot. Usually defined as either the 6 or 8 in a system.
The pivot is typically a player who is sound in both attack and defence and must possess tactical awareness, vision, accurate passing, an ability to read the game well and effective in tackling. Sergio Busquets is considered the prototypical pivot.
As the centre-backs drop deep, we typically will see the opposing forwards go with them which should in practice open space centrally. The pivot then can hopefully drop in between the pressing forward and become an immediate option. This is regardless of whether the first pass is to the CB or from the GK.
The further the CBs drop and the FBs stay high the more midfield space opens up and makes the pivot a better option.
The GK based on the tactical situation will then look to play the ball to the pivot or CBs. However, that shouldn’t be their only option. Should you encounter and effective pressing team like Liverpool or even Sheffield United, the keeper should have the direct option available to them. If we remember that purpose of any pass or kick in the game is intended to take out as many defenders as possible, then there are moments when a direct kick to the middle third is an effective part of playing out of the back.
There are plenty of ways to play out from the back. As we mentioned previously, it is now a tactic getting more and more use from teams. However, there are times when issues in this tactic can arise.
The Problems with Arsenal’s Build Up Play
At Watford away, Arsenal were leading. However, through a defensive error, we conceded a goal and Watford grew into the match and ultimately won. While chasing the game, Arsenal persisted with attempting to build up from the back. The problem was it was ineffective.
When build-up play from the back is not executed correctly it becomes slow, pedantic, and predictable. In turn it makes it easier for the opposition to defend against.
Arsenal trying to play out from the back (credit u/6l0th) pic.twitter.com/3TFfyhUpcG
— Neil Macdonald 📊📈 (@NeilMac555) October 22, 2019
The tweet above is an excellent illustration of the problems plaguing Arsenal’s build-up. There are some good things but for the most part, it’s a perfect example of what is wrong.
Remember, build-up play isn’t possession for possession’s it’s intended to open up the field. Something that doesn’t happen in this play.
The first issue is how Xhaka (acting as the pivot) enters the gap between the two defenders, his back is facing his attackers and he fails to check the space around to see what his problem is. As he turns upfield he has no idea what’s going on and holds on to the ball too long. It results in the play going backwards and allowing the defenders to get compact again.
The passing then across the back is poor. It is slow, it is in front of the three pressing forwards. Luiz tries to get Xhaka to recognize getting it wide but that fails to develop. He once again is forced into a sideways pass and with Luiz’s only option to play it back to Leno.
At this point, the intensity of the play has to pick up OR Leno should be given instruction to play it directly – considering the lack of movement and width in front of him he plays it short to Luiz. It’s unclear whether this is by design (Emery’s choice) or lack of awareness.
Again, slow play, predictable passing and overall just unimaginative and dull.
Back to this clip – as the ball is played back to Leno, Guendouzi assumes the pivot role, except like Xhaka he comes in without any awareness of what is around him. He drops so deep he is now behind 4 pressing attackers.
One of the key issues with Arsenal’s build-up play is the use of players as the pivot. Too many times, they lack general awareness of what’s going on around them and they aren’t that good at reading the play.
Another issue with the pivot – while not demonstrated in the clip above is the failure of the pivot to even drop into space. Too many times, the pivot, whether it’s Geundouzi or Xhaka, remains static. They combine their static play with their poor awareness and the options in the midfield are nonexistent, thus making the play predictable again.
Additionally, we know from just watching Arsenal and from our piece the other day, that Emery tends to keep to the wide channels. It’s clear from watching Arsenal build-up that this is the first option the CBs are looking for.
They tend to look up first for either the FB on the touchline or a wide forward dropping a little bit. Seldom if ever do we see the first look to be the midfield. Over the multiple examples, we watched the assumption is that Emery is instructing play to bypass the midfield completely in build.
Finally, watch the players attempt to play out of the back. The most damning issue with Arsenal’s build-up play is the lack of confidence executing it. Body language is poor, the movement to get into position is slow and overall play looks disconnected and laboured.
At this point 16 months in, this should be a fluid way of playing and it has yet to develop with any consistency or effectiveness. The good news is that it is fixable.
Fixing Arsenal’s Build Up Play
A lot of what plagues Arsenal can be fixed. Most of it can be fixed on the training ground. But let’s start with two key areas that need immediate addressing – shape and personnel.
While it’s been good to see Arsenal stick with 4 at the back, what’s in front of that differs from game to game, sometimes multiple times in one game. While build-up out of the back can work in any system of play, when you look at the talent at Arsenal, it screams for a 4-2-3-1.
The back four is pretty familiar, Leno at GK, Tierney and Bellerin as the FBs along with Luiz and Holding as the CB pairing. Luiz while he has some defensive issues, is perhaps the most comfortable centre-back we have when on the ball.
For the midfield, given how imbalanced we’ve looked there I’d opt for Torreira as the 6, Ceballos as the 8 and Özil as the 10. It’s bit harsh on Guendouzi but as we’ve pointed out previously there are flaws to his game which can be fixed. Plus, Ceballos has the ability to break a press through the dribble that we really don’t have from that position.
With Ceballos acting as the pivot in a 4-2-3-1 Torreira can act as an additional option for that role or as cover should a turnover occur. Using Ceballos as the pivot and what shall call, the press-breaker, receiving the first pass from either Leno or the CBs, frees Özil to do what he does best and float in the space behind the deeper midfielders and the opposition pushing up.
Ceballos makes that second pass into Özil, with the German looking to distribute to the fullbacks or wide forwards as the play develops.
As for the forwards in 4-2-3-1 none other than Auba, Pepe, and Lacazette up top.
Of course, all that is dependent on the speed of play and cleanly and confidently breaking the lines of the opposition. And that’s where training comes in.
We were all impressed early in Emery’s tenure with the videos highlighting the use of rondos during training. As time went on and some of Arsenal’s technical quality disappeared, the question was asked what are they using the rondos for.
The great thing about rondos is that can be used to teach almost anything. Simeone is renown for using them to teach defending. Pep obviously the master of possession is famous for his 4v4+4 rondo to work on midfield rotation.
In this case a simple 6v2 rondo could work. Using this simple rondo you can focus on playing forward from the centre-backs while the pivot (marked by 6 in the diagram below) breaks the space between the two defenders and tries to play forward to blue 9.
This rondo works on understanding when and where to drop into space to break the lines. It helps learn co-ordinated movements to take up positions to receive and it helps work on overall technical quality of the passing (quality, weight of pass, decision on who to pass it to, etc)
Additionally, it fixes errors we are seeing in the field of play, like poor body angles to receive, lack of quick combination play, angles and distances and areas of structure to penetrate, timing of the passes (La Pausa) and effectively using the 3 passing lines (in front of defenders, around the defenders and through the defenders) to create opportunities to move the ball through the lines.
As long as Emery remains at Arsenal, he will continue to try and employ playing out of the back as a key tactic for his team. It hasn’t been particularly effective for Arsenal and at times it gets the team into trouble.
There are multiple reasons why, but they aren’t anything that can’t be fixed. Slight tweaks to the lineup and areas of training focus can help.
Whatever the way, this portion of how Emery wants to play needs work and it needs to improve. Without work on it, the team have become easy to defend against and create more issues of their own making.