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How A Change of Shape Got Arsenal Their First Win of Project Re-Start vs Southampton – Tactical Analysis


A tough start to the Premier League restart for Arsenal had the high potential to continue as they travelled to the South Coast to play Southampton. They were a team that have been a serious banana peel for the Gunners in recent years, with the Saints winning three of their last five meetings at St. Mary’s. Since the 9-0 loss to Leicester, improvement has been evident for Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team. A well-drilled pressing side, they possessed an interesting matchup in tactics against the Gunners. During this tactical analysis of Southampton vs Arsenal, we will delve into Arteta’s new 3-2-5 and how it changes the dynamics of the team, individually and collectively. Additionally, we also examine his creative solutions to combat Southampton’s press and how the manager’s changes influenced the match throughout.


Southampton continued with their most common formation this season of a narrow 4-4-2 that can also be described as a 4-2-2-2.  There would be no changes from their last match against Norwich where they won, scoring three goals. Danny Ings, who’s been one of the most prolific scorers this season, was partnered with youngster Michael Obafemi in the attack.

Changes in Arsenal’s tactics following the two losses post-restart were evident in their shape that we will explore later in the analysis. Mesut Ozil and Alexander Lacazette continued to not be selected in the starting XI. Matteo Guendouzi would be left out of the squad completely. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was hunting his 50th Premier League goal, if scored he’d become the fastest player to ever achieve that many goals. Rob Holding returned for his first consecutive start of the season, looking to get into a stride inside the team.

Premier League 2019/20: Southampton vs Arsenal - tactical analysis tactics

 via Wyscout


Solutions to Southampton’s press

Under Hassenhutl, no team makes more pressure in the league than Southampton. They are also known for committing the second-most players in opposition defensive thirds as they hunt down the ball carrier to regain possession. They deploy a narrow 4-4-2 shape, and Arteta looked to manipulate the narrowness of this formation.

When playing out the back, two centre-backs would split and the goalkeeper would be used as the third member of the defensive line. Tierney the left-sided centre-back would act as a full-back, holding the width with Bellerin. This stretched the wingers positioning out, additionally the left-winger, Saka would move inside – creating a 3 v 2 dynamic against Southampton’s double pivot. This then allows Xhaka to receive the ball with time and space. This was a creative and innovative solution by the young coach.

Naturally, the 3-2-5 also creates a 3 v 2 numerical advantage against their first line of pressure. Through circulating the ball the far side outside back can receive with space to carry the ball into. Which Tierney and Musafi would take advantage of throughout the match to progress the ball forward.Premier League 2019/20: Southampton vs Arsenal - tactical analysis tactics

Arsenal change to 3-2-5

Since the arrival of Arteta, the 2-3-5 shape in possession has almost exclusively been used during Premier League games. Post restart, the Gunners’ performance level hasn’t been up to par and some teams like Manchester City adjusted and counteracted the patterns of this shape. So coming into this game, Arteta decided to change the dynamics of their tactics and roles. This came with an overall shape change to a 3-2-5. This saw Tierney operate as a left centre-back, Saka as a traditional left-winger, and Aubameyang back to a striker. During this section of the analysis, we’ll explore how this changed the dynamic when playing inside the attacking third.

One thing painfully missing from the Gunners’ side when trying to play through opposition defensive blocks, since the restart, has been incisive passers. This solved this, as instead of Xhaka and Saka rotating positions Tierney would already take up the deep position, allowing Xhaka to utilise his excellent passing quality in a more advanced position while maintaining Saka’s positioning in free space out wide. The English youngster would create the most chances in the game and would commonly receive a pass positioned behind Southampton’s second line. Here is a great example where the Swiss international makes an incisive pass to Saka who’s making a run in-behind Southampton’s entire defensive line. The positioning of Tierney also offers cover in defensive transition. Premier League 2019/20: Southampton vs Arsenal - tactical analysis tactics

There were some interesting opportunities that would present themselves such as wide overloads when Tierney would be in possession in the opposition half. Below is one where it makes a 3 v 2 in the left-sided zones, unfortunately, these sequences wouldn’t be executed with the end product but could still be something to look out for in the future as Arteta’s tactics grow into the players.

Premier League 2019/20: Southampton vs Arsenal - tactical analysis tactics

Southampton’s defensive line targeted 

Southampton’s central defender personnel have been below-par since the departure of now Ballon d’Or nominee Virgil van Dijk. Their athletic and technical qualities have been called into question across the last two seasons. Similar to how we saw in our analysis against Manchester City, Arteta wanted to utilise the pace of Nketiah and Aubameyang in his tactics to exploit Southampton’s defender’s lack of athleticism. Through this, they created many dangerous chances.

Here was one of their best chances created, Tierney received the ball in space as a result of the 3 v 2 situation against the first line of pressure we detailed earlier, he looks up and sees the Gunners’ top scorer ready to make a run in behind. Aubameyang leaves Jack Stephens in the dust and only a wonder save from the goalkeeper prevents him from opening the scoring in the 9th minute.Premier League 2019/20: Southampton vs Arsenal - tactical analysis tactics

This time the attack is initiated by backup goalkeeper Martinez. He spots Aubameyang making a movement on the defender’s blindside and launches a pass over the top of the defensive line. Instead of going for his own shot, he unselfishly looks to play across to Nektiah but his pass does not make it. Premier League 2019/20: Southampton vs Arsenal - tactical analysis tactics

Southampton 2-3-5 against Arsenal’s 5-3-2

With a 1-0 lead, Arteta had his team succeed possession and move into a 5-3-2 out of possession in the 65th minute, with Joe Willock coming on for Nicolas Pepe. From this moment on to the 87th minute where Southampton would go down to 10 men, the game changed. The home side had the majority of possession, completing 185 passes to the Gunners’ 64.  A quite staggering comparison considering the status’ of the two clubs and the two groups of players.

Head coach Arteta’s choice to change his tactics directly leads to this as we’ll see. When Arsenal were narrow in this shape, it opened space in the wide zones. This allowed for quick switches of play into space as there would almost be a free player available in passing sequences. Ward-Prowse receives the pass inside, knowing there will be a free man on the opposite side he turns decisively before he can be closed down and executes the switch of play. One pass later it ends in a shot attempt from Southampton.

Premier League 2019/20: Southampton vs Arsenal - tactical analysis tactics

Again in the wide spaces, they were able to make overload situations. Most of the time Southampton were not able to carve out clear-cut chances often rushing their delivery or taking a shot from a bad location. In this 4 v 3 situation, Hojbjerg sees a player making a run for the back post but his execution is poor and rushed. They only make two chances during this period of play.

Premier League 2019/20: Southampton vs Arsenal - tactical analysis tactics


When Southampton played out of the back, Arsenal limited immediate passing options. Later as aforementioned, they let them play with the ball freely. Southampton have committed the second-most errors leading to goals and these lapses of concentration in possession would come to further haunt them on the day, conceding twice from individual errors. Through directly and indirectly forcing mistakes, Arsenal were able to get back into winning ways.

During this tactical analysis, we can conclude that Hasenhüttl will have to assess their out-of-possession shape moving forward. They will also be disappointed that despite the possession provided to them they could not take advantage of it. On the opposite end, Arteta can look forward to building upon his new patterns and dynamics in the 3-2-5.

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