Tactical Analysis Of Arsenal’s Lucky Escape At Leeds
Arsenal faced Leeds for the second time in a year, but for the first time in the Premier League since 2004.
Arsenal travelled to Elland Road where they faced Marcelo Bielsa’s machine, with both sides in need of 3 points. Unfortunately, this did not transpire and the Gunners held Leeds to a 0-0 draw after what turned out to be a difficult encounter.
This report will analyse and break down the key moments in the game, as well as the tactics employed by both managers.
Formations and Line-ups
Leeds operate with a clock face mechanism, meaning that the positions of the players was dependent on the ball and they would rotate and move according to a clock-wise motion. However, on paper, for the most part, it looked like Marcelo Bielsa set his side up in a 3-3-1-3. Meslier started in goal, with Koch, Phillips, and Cooper ahead of him. Ayling and Alioski flanked Dallas while Klich was the number ten behind Rafinha, Bamford, and Harrison.
Mikel Arteta altered the formation from his usual 3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1. Leno started with a back four of Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, and Tierney in front of him. The double-pivot was formed with Ceballos and Xhaka. The front three saw Willian playing off the left, Willock as the number ten, and Pepe on the right. Many an Arsenal fan’s wishes were answered, with Aubameyang being played centrally as a number 9.
Arsenal’s press for the first 20 minutes was very impressive. Arsenal would drop to a midblock in a 4-4-2, with Willock supporting Aubameyang. It was Pepe and Willian’s job to press higher and cut any passes to the full/wing-backs (Ayling and Alioski), with a balanced position. They were also tasked with crucially tracking back and helping out their own full-backs. This is something Leeds looked to exploit, preying on their defensive frailties, moving the ball quickly out wide and trying their best to exploit any 1 v 1s.
When a Leeds midfielder dropped to get on the ball, Willock was the one who tracked his movement. This was the cue for Pepe and Willian to drop deeper into midfield and ensure Arsenal kept their midfield four tight. This worked relatively well with Leeds not always having the freedom to find the free man, when they had secured possession, with their centre-backs on the ball. In truth, this led to Leeds being at their best when in the defensive to attacking transition. In these situations, they could catch Arsenal out of position. Consequently, Leeds could move the ball quick and through the lines, attacking with freedom and speed.
When Leeds pressed they did so in their typical man-to-man fashion. From goal-kicks, they ensured neither of Arsenal’s double pivot could get on the ball. Leeds forced Arsenal long or out to the wings. This is shown through Arsenal’s 58 long balls to Leeds’ 33. In the second half, Arteta changed this with Bellerin and Tierney tucking in next to Xhaka and Arsenal built up with a 2-3 as they looked to create more lines for Leeds to try and press.
Arsenal’s defensive shape
As previously mentioned, Arsenal dropped into a 4-4-2 midblock when out of possession. The Gunners looked to be able to defend narrow and protect the channels. They also ensured one of their full-backs was able to get out to the Leeds winger that side, should they receive. The instruction was then for Pepe and Willian to support the full-back, but this didn’t always transpire, leaving Bellerin and Tierney in a 1 v 1.
Defending the channels was vitally important, given that Leeds like for their midfielders to make forward runs in the half-spaces. They do this in order to drag players away from the ball carrier, create space for other players, and become another option for the ball over the top. Arsenal countered this relatively well. They were able to bite into challenges, counter press aggressively, and move the ball away from Leeds pressure into free space. This was until they went down to ten and really began to tire.
With time, Leeds came to grips with Arsenal’s shape and started to create numerical superiority in midfield. From there, they could work the ball through the Arsenal counter press, drawing Arsenal narrow, before firing the ball out wide, where their wingers were touch-tight. Most commonly, this came down on Leeds’ right flank where they built up 37% of their attacks, before moving the ball to the left with Harrison. Furthermore, another 36% of their build-up play came through the centre.
Arsenal did well to deal with Leeds’ crosses, with the hosts putting 27 crosses into the Arsenal box. Additionally, Ceballos played a very good game, with the Spaniard attempting 4 tackles (second only to Alioski). He also had the joint-highest dribbles with 3 (joint with Pepe). He really looked like the only man who was capable of dropping his shoulder and beating his man. This is crucial against a team like Leeds, who play man for man across the pitch.
Leeds’ first thought when freeing the ball down one wing was how quickly could they get it to the other. This speed and use of lateral and diagonal passing into the feet of their players was designed to find Leeds wingers 1 v 1 against Arsenal’s full-backs and with the ability to overload them, before Arsenal could get numbers back. These moves would look to exploit Arsenal over compensating for the overload. This would therefore open space up on the edge of the box for a shot.
Arsenal looked to deal with these wide overloads and quick switches of play, through ensuring that their back four was wide and aggressive. Bellerin or Tierney were relatively close to the winger ahead of the switch of play, allowing for them to quickly close down the receiver of the ball. It was the job of the winger that side to help track back and follow any overlap. The space then opened between the centre-back and full-back. This was the job of the double pivot to protect, as they tracked the channel run.
As is commonplace with Leeds, Marcelo Bielsa likes to overload and scythe apart opponents, through third-man runs. These runs open up diagonal passing lanes, which allow for Leeds to find time and space to execute deep crosses, cut-backs, or potential shots at goal. As previously mentioned, these third-man runs are often facilitiated through runs in the channels. In the process, this drew and occupied Arsenal players, opening up diagonal and horizontal passing lanes.
In order for Arsenal to deal with these runs and patterns, it was required for the midfields to be very disciplined and dedicated to following the runs. Due to this being second nature to Leeds, they could execute the movements without even thinking. Therefore, this meant that at times Arsenal would arrive late to the runner and often a cross would come in. This added extra importance to the positioning of the defenders in the box, so as to ensure that they were well positioned to clear any crosses and block any shots. This is something they did very well. Moreover, Leeds would use quick one-twos to beat their man and work a good position for a final action.
With these crosses Leeds put in, they would look to fill the box, creating a 3 v 4 or 4 v 4, depending on who was crossing. Bamford would be positioned between the centre-backs, Rafinha between Gabriel and Tierney, Harrison between Bellerin and Holding, and Klich would arrive overloading the far post. Dallas would be in the edge of the box looking for the second balls.
It’s fair to say Arsenal rode their luck, with Leeds accumulating an expected-goals of 2.19 to Arsenal’s 0.74. Pepe had been clamouring for a chance and finally got one. I thought that in the first half he looked alright. He wasn’t great defensively, but looked as though he understood the tactical instructions and was a threat on the ball. It’s such a shame his petulance let the team down, especially when they needed him most. His career really has never got going at Arsenal and there is little reason for Arteta to really pick him ahead of Reiss Nelson or any other player for that matter (aside from that hefty transfer fee, of course).
Given Leeds’ expansive style, you would expect the creative difficulty which Arsenal have regularly suffered from this season, to be less of a problem. However, Arsenal still couldn’t create clear-cut chances for Aubameyang or any others. These difficulties which are starting to dictate the narrative of the season, are becoming ever more serious and detrimental to the success of the team.
Regarding Mikel Artea, I still support him and believe that he can lead Arsenal to glory. In January it is imperative the board purchase a creative player who can feed the Arsenal attack. Someone who Arsenal are desperately missing. Upon this arrival, will it then become fair to judge Arteta, who is still righting the wrongs of those before him.