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Tactical Analysis: What the Scotland friendlies tell us about Arsenal’s defensive tactics – part 3


Did you think I forgot about this? I didn’t.

What I did do was take a much-needed vacation, just in time for Arsenal to go on and lose against Brentford. 

Because of that, I decided to leave this piece on the table until my brain haemorrhage stopped bleeding.

I’ve now grown complacent with waiting and decided to write this with one hand, so I can wipe off the excess blood from my eyes, ears and nose as my brain melts from the sheer dedication Arsenal have to not defend as a unit.

This piece is broken into 4 parts, as these were the 4 things I noticed in the pre-season Scotland tour. Just FYI, the two matches in Scotland took place just shy of 2 months ago but writing this, it might as well have happened a whole season ago at this point.

Nonetheless, let’s crack on!

During pre-season, Arsenal’s different positions displayed different jobs, based on the line of the defence and the position of play. Boiling it down, we saw jobs for the team in a high line block, deep line block and in transition.

As thus, these are the three we’re going to look at. Before that though, let’s quickly touch on the most observable obligations that the players had.


Everyone tracks back

While very explanatory, this isn’t always obvious when we watch Arsenal. It’s one of those things that saw Pepe miss game time in his early Arteta days. And in my blissful ignorance, while writing this at the end of July, I thought this was something Arteta was going to keep as an obligation, especially as it should be a help in retaining position in deep areas and ease the pressure of playing it out from the back.

Wide players have to support fullbacks

Almost as an extension to the first obligation, this saw the likes of Aubameyang, Martinelli and Pepe drop deep and help wide areas to not be overloaded. Towards the end of last season, this nullified a lot of wider overlapping teams, who found it hard to break us open, while also reducing the amount of running expected from our midfield.

Defensive jobs in a high block

In my 25 years of amateur football career, I still, to this day, despise the high block. Perhaps it’s the intensity it requires, the collective communication needed or that it’s always one line-breaking pass away from opening the floodgates. Whatever it is, as an avid mid-block stretch-the-vertical-lines type defender, I find the high block very unappealing.

That being said, the effectiveness when used correctly should be upheld, and Arsenal has tried numerous shades of the high block pressing. 

In Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 high block, the importance of positional awareness and allowed passing lanes are important. The whole press is fixed around forcing the defenders to pass it wide to either the wing or the fullback and then winning the duel for the second ball. 

If you followed my Europa League scouting series last season, you would have noticed this picture on many occasions. It’s the type of high block tactical defence Arteta used on many occasions, before slowly reverting to a much less energy heavy version. 

In the high block, the central defenders are tasked to be communicators and instigators of the backline. They need to push the opposition forward and set the high line for the team. 

The midfield in front is tasked to man-mark the opposition and deny the pass to a dropping midfielder. Their second job is to defend second ball drops when the opposition ultimately goes long.

The wide forwards are tasked with cover shadowing the opposition FBs and thus, blocking easy low passes into wide positions. This is done, as Arsenal’s pressing trigger is the ball over the top into the opposition fullback, who is then aerially challenged by our fullback, dragging a central defender to block a possible extension to the winger.

In front, the forward is tasked to hurry the opposition backline, forcing the ball carrier to take the wide option as it should be the only one available.

A case could be made that Neither Mari, Chambers nor Holding is very confident in their ability to defend in a high line, which has dropped the high line back into a mid-block, which makes it much harder for the forwards to engage the opposition defenders, which then makes it harder for the midfield to cover both the task of man-marking the opposition midfielders and be close enough to the defenders to attack second balls.

All in all, we all hope that the return of White and Gabriel fixes the backline.

Defensive jobs in a low block

We’ve seen the low block recently up close, as Arsenal was holed up their own half for the majority of the Manchester City game. And I don’t think any of us want to see more minutes of it. Personally, I thought our low block looked very well drilled towards the end of last season, and during pre-season, we looked confident in denying anyone running through us when we went all Sparta 300 on them.

Essentially, the thing should look something like this, being able to interchange between a 5 man defensive line with wide players engaging and a 6 man defensive line with a narrow 3 in front.

In both, the whole four-man backline is tasked to sit narrow in the defensive third, with the fullbacks engaging wide runners, and the wingers supporting by covering for overlaps and underlaps.

As one fullback engages, the opposition tucks in and supports central areas.

Midfield is tasked with defending the area just outside the 18-yard box, denying early crosses, diagonal passes and long-range shots by engaging the ball carrier in their respective zonal area.

Wingers drop into wide positions and help the fullbacks avoid 2v1 situations.

The forward is ultimately tasked to be the cover shadow for central passes while also allowed to engage the deeper ball carrier, denying them time to spot a potential runner.

Last season there was something stalwart and rewarding about watching Arsenal close up shop like this. After years of being opened up like a box of sardines, being the shithousers who had the audacity to frustrate opponents felt extremely satisfying. This season, it seems like we either forgot how to defend, or we’re at the stage where we suddenly noticed all the tasks that were done by players not deployed on the field anymore.

As I said in my Manchester City review, I think our defence misses David Luiz.

Defensive jobs in transitions

I still remember when Norwich pounded us into submission under the eyes of interim coach Freddie Ljungberg. I also remembered the interview he gave afterwards, stating what we all had been saying as well.

It’s something that Arteta had improved very early, probably a by-product of the high block he implemented.

I touched upon the subject as we came back from a 3-0 beating at halftime to draw against West Ham last season. Ultimately, defending against transitions has a lot to do about denying the ability for forwards to hold up the ball, while also being the first to arrive in the danger areas to snuff out the potential passes.

As the transitions usually come after an Arsenal attack, we have to envision that the current formation resembles more of a 235 than a 4231.

The midfield two is tasked to intercept in central and wide areas, snuffing easy low through balls to bombing wingers and fullbacks. This also allows the fullbacks to stay high and help the forwards in engaging in the counter-press.

Central defenders are tasked to engage high up the pitch to deny forwards the ability to turn or hold possession for forward runners. The defenders should hound the opposition forward to the point of giving a foul, should it give Arsenal the time to get back into a low block.

The team, as a unit, is tasked to, as soon as the lofted pass is played, to get behind the ball and only engage when in position to do so. At that point, any player who engages should look to slow down the passage of play instead of trying a tackle that could possibly be bypassed.


So I’m aware that these types of tactical pieces don’t do a lot to change Arteta’s evolving style of play or Arsenal’s shortcomings. Honestly, these 3 pieces might be much more fun to try to implement on your own local club’s Sunday league team than anything else.

But you know what, that’s okay. Arsenal is a mess right now, and we as fans only have the power to rouse the team or break them down. Personally, I’d much rather write these types of analytical pieces and lighten the mood than beating down on a bunch of players that look like the glass-eyed athletes I have to meet in my job from time to time.

If you have the chance, let Arsenal know that you support the team, even if your personal opinion is that every level of the club should be fired. 

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