Arsenal’s defensive improvements on show: Arsenal 4-0 Newcastle United – Tactical Analysis
The first match back for Arsenal after a break in the Premier League would be a visit from Newcastle United. Two historic clubs in the English game but seem a world away from the days of Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry. The Gunners had won 13 of their last 14 matches against the Magpies including losses in their last seven trips to the Emirates. Many expected Newcastle to be one of the relegation candidates following Rafa Benetiez’s departure but they’ve been a tough nut to crack for some teams with wins against Chelsea and Manchester United across their season and sitting relatively safe six points of the relegation zone.
During this tactical analysis, we will see how the manager’s tactics influenced the match. Specifically looking into how Arsenal prevented counter-attacks in defensive transition, what went wrong for the Gunners in the second half and the tweaks that create the 2nd half performance.
Mikel Arteta went out with his 4-2-3-1 formation as has been expected. But what was not expected was the inclusions of Dani Ceballos and Eddie Nketiah. Ceballos who had not played a Premier League minute since November got a big chance and could have been seen as a tactical move as his technical quality could be needed to break down a defence-minded team. Nketiah the 20-year-old played over Alexander Lacazette his first Premier Leauge start in his career.
Steve Bruce also as expected came with his favoured 5-4-1 formation. Former Tottenham left-back Danny Rose made his first start at left wing-back since his transfer. Other new signings Nabil Bentaleb started in central midfield and Valentino Lazaro at right wing-back.
Arsenal’s first-half struggles
Arsenal did not perform to expectations in the first half failing to produce a single big chance. Failed passes and fouls throughout phases of play disrupted sequences as they made an uncharacteristic 29 failed passes and nine fouls in the first 45. If we take a look into their tactics we can see where some things went wrong and where Newcastle was solid.
During the buildup phases, Arteta continued with a diamond shape featuring Xhaka, Ceballos, Mustafi, and Luiz allowing the fullbacks to position themselves high and wide. This was aided as Newcastle did not press Mustafi and Luiz, this was a poor decision considering how effective presses against Arsenal’s defenders have been throughout the season and instead allowed them to play out the back with no problem. Mustafi and Luiz completed 72 and 70 passes respectively.
Once the ball got into the middle third however the problems arrived for Arsenal against Newcastle’s deep block. Newcastle was in a 5-4-1 shape out of possession. When the ball was moved into a wide area they would keep Arsenal at a numerical disadvantage, Pepe and Bellerin could not come up with solutions and the fullback did not overlap. Neither Pepe or Bellerin would then recognize the switch of play offered by the midfielders causing turnovers and slow ball movement.
When the ball was played through the middle to one of the midfielders the 5-4-1 shape was compact and left little space between the lines to move through. As before mentioned ball movement was slow and it would allow Newcastle to quickly shift to the opposite side if there was ever a switch of play. These factors overall contributed to a struggle to create a clear cut opportunity and influence the opposition defensive shape.
Arsenal amazing in defensive transition
One place the home side was particularly impressive was off the ball. Not something you thought you’d be saying about Arsenal Football Club due to their horrific defensive statistics across the past decade. But Arteta’s tactics have brought defensive stability while attacking the ball rather than sacrificing attacking threat. Arsenal made 49 ball recoveries to Newcastle’s 37.
In the analysis beneath, we can see how Arteta created an effective counter-press, something that was very lacking from Unai Emery’s tactics at Arsenal. With the 2-3-5 structure, deployed by Arteta we can see through the player’s positions there would be a space created to where if there was ever a giveaway in the area of play, it would create a collapse on the player with the ball to where it can be quickly recovered.
This was important it allowed Arsenal to have sustained possession with 68% of the ball and pinned the opposition side in their half as Newcastle only were able to complete 44 passes in their attacking third and.
In the next analysis, you can see it in full practice. Xhaka makes a failed pass that lands to Saint-Maxim, the Frenchmen look to send the visitors forward but is immediately and aggressively collapsed on by four of Arsenal’s players.
Second-Half a different game
After a poor performance in the first half, there would have been some worries on the Arsenal side of the dugout. Newcastle with some better designed set pieces could have taken a lead considering the three corners they had and many free-kick opportunities. But overall they defended well and would be content with how the first half went.
Arteta would need to adjust his tactics and he did so. Mesut Ozil’s role would be adjusted, he would be given the freedom to roam the pitch and look to grab the game by the neck and he did just that. He found space between the lines to break Newcastle’s compact shape in the attacking third and broke lines of pressure to progress the ball forward in the middle third. As we can see in the passes received map below, he glided through every zone of the pitch.
Just as importantly, he offered a solution to the wide areas. Earlier in the tactical analysis, we detailed how Newcastle kept Arsenal at a numerical disadvantage on the flank usually in a 4 or 3v2. This limited Nicolas Pepe’s influence on the match as he could not dribble through as many players, make solutions with Bellerin or make movements inside into goalscoring opportunities.
Ozil’s inclusion into the Pepe-Bellerin equation wreaked havoc as they could make dynamic passing sequences. In the next image, you can see Pepe passes to Bellerin who makes a first-time pass to Ozil who then plays Pepe in-behind the fullback and from there he had time and space to pick out Aubameayng inside the box. These dynamic and unpredictable movements unlocked the German’s influence on the game and the Magpies could not keep up with him.
Dani Ceballos’ role did not change in the second half but his performance level certainly did and created another solution against Newcastle’s tactics. The Spaniard who had it all to prove to new boss Mikel Arteta. He offered the quick switches of play and ball movement that was so desperately missing in the first half. As you can see by his attacking third second-half pass map below he moved the ball side to side shifting the defence before they could settle and found players in space. Bellerin especially benefitted from this as he began to make marauding movements forward to stretch the Newcastle defensive shape.
During the Premier League break, Mikel Arteta and Arsenal had a training camp in Dubai. This continued effort to improve and work would pay off this weekend as their match against Newcastle United this weekend showed. Instead of going sour over time like milk, they aged like wine becoming better as the match went on looking very sharp.
During this tactical analysis, we saw the Gunners excel but Newcastle could not take or create much with their limited opportunities as the team was disconnected in attacking transition and when tested in the second-half against more direct service from Arsenal their defensive block could not hold up.