Post Match Review
Talking Tactics: How Arsenal Expertly Dispatched Leeds
Arsenal played host to the unpredictable Leeds United, for the first time in the league, at the Emirates.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side travelled to North London off the back of 3 wins in their last 5 games. This is in contrast to Arsenal, who after their mini-resurgence, were in need of a win, winning only 1 of their last 5 games in all competitions. However, despite this, Mikel Arteta’s men have shown great progress in their performances since Christmas.
This report will analyse the key moments in Arsenal’s 4-2 victory over Leeds United.
Arsenal lined-up in a 4-2-3-1, with Leno returning in goal after serving his suspension. Cedric, Gabriel, Luiz and Bellerin made up the back four. Ceballos and Xhaka formed the double pivot, with Ceballos replacing the injured Partey. Smith Rowe, Ødegaard and Saka, played behind Aubameyang. Ødegaard making his first start for Arsenal, since his loan switch from Real Madrid.
Leeds deployed a 4-1-4-1, with Meslier behind Alioski, Cooper, Ayling and Shackleton. Struijk was the single pivot, with Harrison, Klich, Dallas and Rafinha in the midfield four ahead of him. In-form Patrick Bamford was the single striker for Leeds.
Arsenal’s formation was perfect against Leeds 4-1-4-1. Arteta was able to match Leeds in every phase of the match, whilst ensuring Arsenal maintained an out ball and plenty of threat. Often Leeds through their clockwork positioning can pull teams apart. However, a disciplined 4-2-3-1 enabled Arsenal to stay with every player, create favourable 1v1’s and maximise their own talent and abilities. Furthermore, Arsenal did well to draw Leeds narrow, occupying them, before helping the ball to arrive in the correct zones in the correct moments. This helped create dangerous attacks and impressive progressions of possession.
When Leeds looked to build-up short from Meslier, they attempted to create the extra man and play through the Arsenal press. Arsenal navigated this by ensuring they cut off one of the free Leeds centre backs, with their cover shadow, after the first pass had been played. Upon doing this, Arsenal could create numerical superiority in the press and create a strong side. This allowed them to go man for man, using the touchline as an additional defender. Leeds either had to take a risk to get the ball to the weak side, or go long.
At times, Arsenal pressed in an almost 4-2-4, with the furthest away winger, staying in a more balanced position to support Ceballos and Xhaka should they not press higher and support the press. This helped Arsenal prevent the switch of play through the centre, should Leeds get the ball beyond Arsenal’s first wave. This was something that Arsenal struggled with in the reverse fixture at Elland Road, where Leeds heavily attacked through the wings, especially after Pepe’s red card.
On the occasion Leeds did get through the Arsenal press, It was generally after vertical balls to the midfielders, who dropped deep. They then acted as links, attempting to find the ballside fullback, who had moved behind the Arsenal winger. This is where the youth of Smith Rowe and Saka showed, with them often watching the ball, losing the fullback they were marking.
This image typifies Arsenal’s high press. Saka cuts off the pass to Cooper, whilst Aubameyang presses Ayling. Ødegaard marks Struijk and this offers Meslier no short options. Saka puts Meslier under pressure who rather than clears the ball long on his stronger left foot, panics and comes inside onto his right, bringing Saka down in the process.
Arsenal’s Spare Man
As previously mentioned, when Arsenal were in possession, Leeds man marked. Arsenal used this to their advantage, stretching the pitch high and wide. Furthermore, when Arsenal went short, they used their spare man (either Luiz or Gabriel), to bring the ball out. Due to Leeds playing with just one striker, Bamford’s job was to cover both centre backs. Similarly to Arsenal, Bamford was tasked with dictating which side was going to be the strong side. This allowed Leeds to aggressively press and dictate play towards one side. However, with the quality of Gabriel, Luiz, Ceballos and Xhaka, upon beating the press, they could force Leeds back. Furthermore, the use of combinations, triangles and sharp minded play, allowed Arsenal to get past their markers and attack the space in behind. Arsenal played a few one-twos, which regularly got the better of their Leeds counterpart.
Alternatively, Arteta opted to use something which many rivals have attempted against Leeds and this was for deep runs, upon having possession in Leeds final third. Whilst Rafinha and Harrison are very disciplined, few players can cover 60 yards at full tilt, during a very demanding Premier League campaign. This was especially evident, when Bellerin and Cedric got the march on them. Bellerin in particular, looked to steal a few yards on Rafinha, before sprinting to support Arsenal’s attacking play. Executed well, this not only provided support to the attack, but as Bellerin showed, real goal threat and penetration.
Because of Leeds man orientated press, when Leno went long, he could find one of the forwards, who dropped off the defensive line to receive, between the Leeds defensive and midfield lines. With a good first touch and sharp movements, the Arsenal player could momentarily get free of his marker. This led to quick combinations, which freed Arsenal players and created time and space to attack.
There was rightly a lot of excitement about Martin Ødegaard’s arrival in January, especially with the exit of Mesut Özil. In his first start for Arsenal, Ødegaard showed plenty of what he can offer. On the ball he was excellent, and off it, his runs and observations of space, were exactly what Arteta would want.
I did fear that at times, he would drop too deep, something which a lot of modern 10’s are doing. It leaves an imbalance in the team and can jeopardise attacks, by not occupying the right spaces. However, Smith Rowe and Saka perfectly complemented Ødegaard’s movements and could come inside, offering that support, whilst he dropped. Often one came short, whilst the other ran in behind. This allowed Ødegaard time and space to float around a bit more. It will be really interesting to see how he does, once he has more minutes and builds a better rapport with teammates. None the less, he certainly showed what he can offer.
In summary, Leeds were the perfect team for Arsenal. Simply put, they wanted to attack, they pressed man for man, and they left plenty of space in behind. Few players can deal with Aubameyang or Saka 1v1, and Leeds well and truly paid the price. The most important aspect for Arsenal, was that they weren’t overwhelmed by Leeds energy and aggression. Both Gabriel and Luiz were fundamental in being the extra man. Moreover, the combination play, between the defensive, midfield and attacking units, provided the ability for Arsenal to beat their man and exploit their pace and bursts of acceleration to exploit the open space. Arsenal did suffer a scare in the second half, as the intensity dropped and Leeds managed to get more control of the match.
There was much interest in seeing how Martin Ødegaard, Smith Rowe and Saka would fit into the same team. With Smith Rowe on the left, Ødegaard central and Saka on the right, they proved to offer all the guile and creativity to exploit the spaces available. As well as this, they kept Aubameyang well serviced throughout the match and their intelligence of space, proved very impressive. The entire front four were magnificent and thankfully, after unfortunate personal difficulties, Aubameyang looks to be back to his best.
A 4-2 win against Leeds and an Aubameyang hattrick can never be scoffed at, and the performance was hugely impressive. All the players looked sharp and full of confidence. In my opinion, a special mention must be given to Ceballos. He was sensational in linking the different units, beating his man and providing an exquisite assist for Bellerin’s goal. 3 points won and Arsenal are up into 10th. Slowly, we are seeing Arteta’s Arsenal.