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Tactical Analysis: How Arsenal’s New Additions Can Fire the Gunners Onward


After assessing the last transfer window under Emery, it is safe to say that Arsenal have managed to improve in that regard this summer. Signing two fantastic players including Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pépé and the return of Reiss Nelson has propelled Arsenal as a side to be careful with. The two players have been brought in by Emery to remedy the outstanding issues Arsenal have had in midfield and attack. Being able to find a stable partner for Lucas Torreira has been a consistent woe with Granit Xhaka only impressing in bursts. The need for a midfield tempo controller and deep-lying playmaker was clear with the imbalance in the double pivot. The loan signing of Ceballos should go a long way in rectifying this issue and Pépé’s signing should compliment the current strike force.

The first section will look into the main strengths the three players will bring to Arsenal and how they can remedy Arsenal’s issues. We’ll start off by looking at Ceballos.

Dani Ceballos

Ceballos was signed from Real Madrid on a one-year loan deal with a view of getting more minutes under his belt after an underwhelming season at Real Madrid last year. Arsenal have traditionally been a team that have struggled to break down teams utilising low block systems. One way to combat this was the late yet measured runs from deeper areas that came in the form of Aaron Ramsey.

With the Welshman injured for the majority of the campaign, Arsenal lost goals, assists and, runs from central midfield that Ramsey provided in abundance. The hallmark of Ramsey’s play was to provide a threat by ghosting through defences unmarked using his intelligent off-the-ball awareness. He knew exactly when and where he had to make a run. Ceballos’ main qualities are his strong ball-carrying and dribbling skills that make him so effective on the ball. He prefers being in possession and driving his team forward. While Mesut Özil has an underrated ball-carrying ability, he lacked thrust and forward drive.


Ramsey’s heatmap


Ceballos’ heatmap

Ceballos is slightly more efficient in possession attracting defenders to him creating space for his teammates. Özil’s biggest problem is his lack towards the opposition rather moving to areas of less pressure and switching play. While both Özil and Ramsey played better as effective number 10s, Ceballos has the ability to perform a similar role as a central midfielder. His versatility allows him to be positioned in a central attacking midfield role but with Emery favouring a 4-2-3-1 formation, he could be used in the double pivot alongside Torreira.

Above we can see Ceballos and Ramey’s statistics comparison. Taking a holistic view of their statistics we see Ceballos makes 4.13 dribbles per 90 with a 58.8% success rate. Ramsey’s slightly lower numbers is more so because of his preference to make off-the-ball runs but he was still regarded as an excellent ball carrier. This was especially effective against teams that sat deep as they had to commit more men to stop the Welshman from just walking through their defence opening up space for the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Héctor Bellerín and, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Another interesting point of note is Ceballos’ seemingly more aggressive style of play. His 21.37 duels as compared to Ramsey’s 19.12 makes him a secondary line of defence and will be able to press higher up the pitch putting Arsenal in better counter-attacking situations.

Having seen how their statistics match up, we will take a closer look at the effectiveness of Ceballos’ dribbling and ball-carrying ability. As mentioned earlier, he looks to drive forward in possession using his intelligence to navigate himself through defences. He has an uncanny ability to attract defenders towards him and releasing balls to nearby teammates in a timely manner.

Ceballos opens up several options for his teammates through his dribbling by attracting multiple defenders [Credit: Wyscout]

Ceballos opens up several options for his teammates through his dribbling by attracting multiple defenders [Credit: Wyscout]

The graphics here highlight Ceballos’ wonderful on the ball ability and how he affects the space around him. As he drives towards the Lyon defence, they instantly commit four men to close down the Spanish midfielder. While he has the ability to swerve past defenders, Ceballos will likely look to play a pass to one of his Arsenal teammates. In this scenario, he has opened up space for both Aubemeyang and Eddie Nketiah. He can play Aubemeyang down the left flank or play a straight through ball in Nketiah’s path. Both options create clear goal scoring or assisting opportunities.

This sort of play was missing from Arsenal’s play last season, which is especially effective against teams who employ a mid to low block. While Özil does have the finesse and vision to carve open defences his dribbling ability and aggressiveness lets him down in a vastly physical Premier League. Ceballos will bring elegant toughness to Arsenal’s central midfield alongside Torreira.

Nicolas Pépé

The Ivorian winger signed for Arsenal in a record-breaking move from Lille a few days ago. Having terrorised defences in Ligue 1 last season with an exemplary goal and assist record, Pépé will now ply his trade in the Premier League alongside more physical sides. Arsenal have had an over-reliance on Lacazette and Aubemeyang for goals with Özil, Alex Iwobi, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan not contributing enough going forward.

  • Iwobi: 35 Apps: 3 goals – 7 assists
  • H.Mkhitaryan: 25 Apps: 6 goals – 4 assists
  • M.Özil: 24 Apps: 5 goals – 2 assists
  • A.Lacazette: 35 Apps: 13 goals – 10 assists
  • PE.Aubemeyang: 36 Apps: 22 goals – 5 assists

Looking at the contributions made by Arsenal’s current wingers in the Premier League, it doesn’t make for a very good showing. Pépé scored 22 goals and 11 assists across 37 appearances last season for Lille. The three Arsenal wingers have one more goal than Lacazette’s 13 and only three more assists. Not to mention Aubameyang’s double-digit figures fired Arsenal close to a top-four finish. However, the addition of Pépé, this could signal a change in the system for Emery utilising the wingers at his disposal.


Pépé’s 2018/19 heatmap

A 4-2-3-1 system could be most beneficial with Pépé on the right playing as an inside forward with Bellerin on the overlap. But it does open space for other players on the pitch to flourish, namely, Lacazette, who enjoys interchanging positions with his strike partners. Often last season we saw Lacazette and Aubameyang switch positions and play off one another. However, with the addition of Pépé this could bring about another interchangeable passing option.

Another common trait Pépé shares with his new teammate Ceballos is his ability to draw defenders towards him creating space for players around him or creating a shooting opportunity. The following statistics refer to the number of shots (per 90) taken by each of these Arsenal attackers in the 2018/19 season.

  • A.Lacazette – 2.65
  • H.Mkhitaryan – 2.54
  • A.Iwobi – 1.58
  • P.E.Aubemeyang – 3.01
  • M.Özil – 0.61

In comparison, Pépé managed an average of 2.79 shots per 90 with an accuracy rate of 53.9% making the highest of all Arsenal’s attackers except Aubameyang who played as a centre-forward alongside Lacazette. Being able to take more shots against stubborn defences can pile on extra pressure on opposition defences. Not only will Pépé open up more shooting opportunities for himself but for his teammates too.


Pépé has the option to run down the flank or cut inside [Credit: Wyscout]

The graphic above highlights Pépé’s ability to create space and shooting opportunities in one swift attacking move. As he receives the ball, he has two options to either run down the line or cut inside. Knowing he favours his left side, Pépé decides to cut inside to try and fashion an opportunity.


Pepe has two passing options or he can dribble forward and create a shooting opportunity [Credit: Wyscout]

In this second image above, we can see he is now being tracked by four players, however, this has opened space for two players either side of him or if he moves into the vacant space ahead, a shooting chance.

This phase ended up in a goal with Pépé taking on the shot and scoring past the goalkeepers left. This is the type of play Arsenal can expect from their star man next season and alongside the likes of Aubameyang and Lacazette, the Ivorian can thrive in the Premier League.

His on the ball abilities and dribbling would be extremely useful in the final third where the team needs someone resistant to the press.

Reiss Nelson

The Arsenal youngster returns to Arsenal after a successful stint on loan at Hoffenheim last season. The 19-year-old had an excellent season in the Bundesliga under tactical genius Julian Nagelsmann, featuring in 23 matches and contributing with seven goals. Nelson also played in five of Hoffenheim’s six Champions League fixtures, giving him far greater exposure to the first-team action than he would have had in the Premier League with Arsenal.

On the last day of the transfer window, Arsenal looked to have been well-stocked in the wing department with the signing of Nicolas Pépé, however, Iwobi’s last-minute transfer to Everton gives Nelson a clear spot in the squad. What can we expect from the English winger this season?

“He showed the sort of touches you often see or associate with Neymar or a real top player. Seventeen years of age, it’s quite phenomenal that ability this boy has, he really does look a wonderful talent.” – Martin Keown

Nelson is a natural inside wide forward. He loves to drift in centrally and link-up play with his impressive passing range and through balls. Another impressive quality is his willingness to run in behind opposition defences, something which Arsenal severely lack. Most of Arsenal’s current starters are all impressive ball carriers and want possession. The only player to willing make off-the-ball runs was Ramsey but his departure to Juventus leaves Nelson as the only willing runner. His running even makes him a valuable asset defensively.

Being able to aid the full-backs against more aggressive teams will be a welcome asset for Emery. Nelson would likely play in the same position as Özil, but his coaching at Hoffenheim may give him an advantage over the German playmaker. A regular criticism of Özil is that he does not do enough work without the ball and wants to play a freer role than he is usually assigned. If Nelson didn’t succumb to Nagelsmann’s tactics he would not have started as many games as he did.

Nelson excelled in three key areas over Iwobi: shots, dribbles and duels. He managed to take 1.92 shots per 90 as opposed to Iwobi’s 1.58. At 8.21 dribbles per 90 (58.4% accuracy), he comfortably outperformed Iwobi’s 5.74 (45.5% accuracy) making him a much bigger threat to opposition defenders. Lastly, Iwobi engaged in 22.3 duels per 90 winning 40% of them whilst Nelson excelled by partaking in 24.69 duels winning 49.5% of his tussles in the Bundesliga.


Nelson anticipates his teammates’ movement and position and is ready to pounce on any mistake made by the goalkeeper [Credit: Wyscout]

The graphics above highlight Nelson’s intelligent off-the-ball running ability. As Hoffenheim pass possession around, notice Nelson’s starting position just behind the Augsburg full-back. He makes sure he’s on the full-backs blindside to make an unmarked run.


Nelson reacts first and manages to score off the goalkeeper’s error [Credit: Wyscout]

Hoffenheim manage to get a shot away from a central area but the ball bounces towards Nelson’s position. As the shot was taken, Nelson had already started making his run towards the penalty area anticipating a mishap from the goalkeeper. His gamble paid dividends and ended up in him scoring. Being able to take advantage against low block teams in the Premier League and making willing, quick runs around defences will be critical for Arsenal and Emery. For years they have struggled to break down teams who have been solid defensively and the addition of Nelson could be an unexpected solution to that problem.

“He has shown that he can dribble, go past people and he isn’t fazed by the occasion.” – Arsene Wenger

New additions, a new approach

Emery couldn’t have asked for a better replacement for the outgoing Ramsey and Iwobi in Nelson. After such a whirlwind transfer window with almost every position being filled in, Arsenal can be confident in their top-four hopes. With a supposed budget of 40 million, they have not only outplayed the market but possibly won it. Kieran Tierney and David Luiz were deadline day defensive additions when it looked like no defenders would grab the Emirates. Arsenal are now well equipped to attack the season with all the firepower they needed.

Tierney and Luiz – a solution to Arsenal’s defensive vulnerability?

Except for the struggles mentioned earlier, Arsenal’s biggest problem throughout the season was their defensive vulnerability. The team experienced a hard time when defending, especially on a counter-attack, which caused them to concede a few goals.

With the injury of Rob Holding early on, and similar problems with the other players later, Arsenal were constantly exposed from all different positions. It seemed like Emery was unable to find the perfect centre-back pairing, although we should admit that his options were limited. The Gunners didn’t manage to improve noticeably throughout the season, which resulted in repeating the same wrong patterns during defensive transitions.

What was more concerning was that the goals weren’t conceded in a similar manner which was proof of the size of the problem.

Some of them would come from the wings, mostly when Sead Kolašinac was driven upfront. As a full-back/wing-back he would be a great support to the team’s attacking ventures, but this would often affect the teams’ actions when turning to defence. He is not the best performer when it comes to winning defensive duels and is often lacking the perfect timing during defensive transitions.


Kolasinac failed to reach the ball carrier which resulted in a goalscoring opportunity for Southampton. [Credit: Wyscout]

Yet, this wasn’t the biggest issue when defending. As already mentioned, Arsenal were extremely vulnerable when caught on a counter-attack. The team’s awareness of their opponents’ positioning turned to be an issue pretty frequently. They also couldn’t find the perfect positioning for the defensive line. Especially when in possession the defensive line would be highly positioned which would immediately result in them being unable to respond to quick turnarounds. The central duo would often be unable to outrun their opponents which would result in chaotic actions once reaching the defensive third.


Son was waiting right on the defenders’ back so he could make a speedy run to the box after receiving the ball. Sokratis was missing of the three-man defensive line and that left more spaces for Tottenham to operate in. [Credit: Wyscout]

Before getting injured, Rob Holding was showing glimpses of good positioning and positional awareness. His performance was solid, and it seemed like he is the perfect mould for one half of Arsenal’s centre-back pairing. Later on, neither of the pairings Koscielny/Mustafi, Koscielny/Sokratis, Sokratis/Mustafi, Koscielny/Sokratis seemed to split their responsibilities well.

They have had similar problems on the right, but somehow, they seemed less exposed out there and managed to keep things simple. That’s why Emery has worked on brining players for the most urgent positions.

After the mysterious departure of the club captain Laurent Koscielny, it was clear that there was a move awaiting. The team brought in a last-minute signing – the experienced Brazillian David Luiz. The ex-Chelsea player would most likely be a starter and be paired with Mustafi in the central-defence.

Arsenal could benefit from Luiz’s ability to build-up from the back without leaving his defensive responsibilities behind. At Chelsea, the centre-backs had the clear role to distribute the ball further using their passing abilities – either using the full-backs or the deep-lying playmaker. Using him as an option for retaining possession in Arsenal’s defensive third and building up smoothly could fit perfectly to Kolašinac’s and Bellerin’s movement upfront.

He would also cover wider areas in the team’s own half compared to Koscielny. Luiz’s positioning initially includes more awareness of not leaving too much space on the flanks when the full-backs are attacking and, in the centre, between him and his partner in defence. He would also go out of position more often, helping with the build-up, getting closer to the midfield line and even pass it. Luiz has a slightly worse record when it comes to passing accuracy, but the frequency of his passes is higher.


David Luiz’s heatmap


Koscielny’s heatmap

At Chelsea, Luiz would manage to cover all passing lanes during defensive transitions and have a good connection with his teammates not leaving any spaces for a pass. This could be useful when defending counter-attacks as most previously even if Arsenal’s players managed to reach the ball carrier, they couldn’t structure in the right way.

The team still need to be aware of the long-balls danger. They’ve been frequently exposed by a long ball to a player sitting on the defenders’ backs. That is something they need to work on with the other new defensive addition Kieran Tierney.

The ex-Celtic left-back and Scotland international is said to be one of the most promising players in his position. He might not be Emery’s first choice at the start of the campaign, but he could definitely be used for attacking down the wings as efficiently as Kolašinac.

His pass frequency is much higher than Kolašinac’s and he tends to deliver the ball to the midfield quite often. Tierney also covers wider areas and often finds himself in the half-space. That’s the difference between the two left-backs. The Bosnian tends to position himself in the final third and offer support with crosses or by dragging the defenders out of position. When it comes to Tierney, he contributes more in the whole build-up and is often passing the ball centrally as part of the build-up, rather than moving off it or carrying it deep to the flanks.

This could be useful against well-prepared teams that have explored Arsenal’s tensions to use the flanks. This way they would deliver the ball centrally, where players like Torreira, Ceballos and Özil could operate in and exploit the spaces.

What would be the best formation?


Arsenal’s most used formations in the 2018/19 campaign.

In his first season in charge, Emery has used a variety of formations, but most frequently the 4-2-3-1. Despite it being his favoured one, he also relied on a back-three quite often. It had its pros and cons though. The team’s attacking activities benefited from this scheme, but there were definitely more defensive difficulties out of it. That’s when the Gunners were most exposed on a counter and when they were leaving tons of gaps in the defensive third. Being unable to quickly structure back in defence has cost them a few points here and there. They often leave too much space between the lines and don’t put enough pressure on the ball carrier, which results in the opposition attacking smoothly.


arsenal-2019-2020-tactical-analysisAs it happened against Southampton last season, the Gunners didn’t put enough pressure on the ball and that allowed the Saints to build up smoothly. Leaving too much space between the lines and the highly-positioned defensive line were the reason for Arsenal being exposed by Mousset.

As it happened against Southampton (see the images above), the Gunners didn’t put enough pressure on the ball and that allowed the Saints to build up smoothly. Leaving too much space between the lines and the highly-positioned defensive line were the reason for Arsenal being exposed by Mousset.

Emery needs to find the perfect defensive match, trying out different duos in the central defence as it’s one of the most important partnerships on the pitch. Holding is going to be fighting for his place back after the injury and now he has even bigger competition for the position.

Arsenal have been deadly when they had time to build the attack smoothly and they were controlling the game. We’ve witnessed some of the most beautiful football when they were feeling comfortable on the ball, building up from the back.

That’s why the four-man defence would be a better choice, as the full-backs would still have the opportunity to go upfront but yet offer enough defensive stability. This would also be good for involving the midfield players and allow them to use their creativity to distribute the ball further. Having in mind the new squad members, 4-2-1-3 would be a better fit so they could take advantage of all their strengths.

Fire on all cylinders

The manager has the needed squad depth and the perfect players to come off the bench when needed. The new signings have shown great abilities both on and off the ball and this will definitely affect the whole team’s performance and confidence.

Arsenal play at their best when players are used in their natural positions so that might be crucial going into the new season. Emery needs to assign clear roles for every member on the pitch so they can embrace it and be confident in possession.

With that much competition it’s hard to say what are their chances in the 2019/20 campaign, but what’s for sure is they have room for improvement, and it is most likely that the changes are going to be positive.

This piece was a collaborative effort by Abdullah Abdullah and Lorihanna Shushkova

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