Arsenal came into this match in strong spirits. Their 2-0 win over Southampton last weekend had some signs of freshness as it finally seemed like the philosophy of Emery was beginning to take shape. Mesut Özil‘s return to the squad, their direct rivals on the leaderboard – Tottenham – dropping points, and the general reinvigorated energy in the squad all came at the right time of the season as Arsenal can hope to challenge for a Champions League spot.
A win over Bournemouth was crucial for momentum to continue. Bournemouth, on the other hand, have been going through a tough couple weeks lately. They drew 1-1 against Wolves last Saturday but lost to Liverpool and Cardiff consecutively prior to that match. They had lost some key players to injuries and they needed a win too to regain the old confidence they’d possessed at the beginning of the season.
Bournemouth fielded their 4-4-2 with two changes from last week: Andrew Surman came in for Jefferson Lerma in midfield and Lys Mousset took up Dominic Solanke’s place at the top of the line. Arsenal made a host of changes. They moved off from the 4-2-3-1 of last week and brought in a 3-4-2-1. Laurent Koscielny came in, Shkodran Mustafi went out, Carl Jenkinson came in for Stephan Lichsteiner, making his first Premier League appearance this season after being out for more than two years from the lineups. Granit Xhaka was suffering from a minor injury so Matteo Guendouzi came into the squad. Mesut Özil started as well.
Bournemouth’s defensive structure and pressing
In the earlier phase of the game, Arsenal dominated possession. Bournemouth pressed high in their 4-4-2 with a fixed pattern. Arsenal had Koscielny in the middle with Nacho Monreal and Sokratis to the left and right respectively. When Monreal had the ball, the Bournemouth right-sided winger Jordan Ibe would move to press him. On the opposite flank, when Sokratis had the ball at his feet, the left winger – Ryan Fraser would cover him, or if Mousset was closer he’d hassle him, cover-shadowing Lucas Torreira while Fraser would sit back to cover Jenkinson from receiving the ball. The interior midfielders, Dan Gosling and Andrew Surman, would cover the central options. Guendouzi and Torreira when Koscielny had the ball.
Bournemouth weren’t aggressive with their press. They acted on certain triggers, for instance, a pass to the wide centre-backs or a back pass, or a loose touch. Their plan was to shepherd Arsenal out on the flanks and ideally have the centre-backs hit long aimless balls over the top which their centre-backs – Nathan Ake and Chris Mempham could win and regain possession. After an initial pass to the wide centre-back, the striker would immediately move up to close down the passing lane to Koscielny and either force Monreal/Sokratis to go long or pass back to their goalkeeper. From then, the Bournemouth midfielders would also join the press and look to win the ball high up the pitch.
Bournemouth’s pressing system had an inherent flaw – it was oriented to stifle Arsenal’s build-up in the early phase itself. However, with Gosling and Surman invested in the press, it would leave Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in space, if the vertical compression wasn’t correct. It wasn’t because Bournemouth didn’t hold a high enough line for the press to play out effectively and this left spaces for the Arsenal #10s. This problem was also brought to the fore by Arsenal’s quick switches of play and long diagonal balls. Emery was quick to notice this and Bournemouth suffered early goals as they couldn’t fix it in time. This brings us to Arsenal’s attack
Arsenal lined up in their 3-4-2-1. Guendouzi and Torreira would stay in the centre of the field above the half-way line and offer passing options to the centre-backs. Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan would occupy the half-spaces or the #10 areas. This was because Özil has a natural tendency to drift out left so to compensate for that Mkhitaryan would move inside to zone 14.
There were certain criticisms about returning back to the three at the back system but as it turns out it worked out well because it was the perfect counter-foil to Bournemouth’s pressing. It gave the Gunners numerical superiority in the first phase of the build-up particularly with how Bournemouth had decided to mark the Arsenal double pivot and reduce chances of playing through the middle.
Arsenal, for their part, dealt very maturely with the pressing scheme of Eddie Howe’s men by being very patient in their build-up and passing horizontally until gaps appeared in Bournemouth’s structure. When this happened they’d take full advantage of the Bournemouth midfielders advanced positions and access their own attacking midfielders and the wingbacks who’d pushed on up. This was also aided by the fact that Bournemouth had no dedicated destroyer in their #6 area and Mkhitaryan could hence use his driving runs to attack the back four.
If the press was too hard to play through the centre as discussed before, Özil and Kolasinac would drop deeper along the flanks to help Monreal and with simple one-twos, they’d create space to lay it off to a third man (usually Guendouzi driving forwards from a deeper position). Özil dropping would also attract the full-back out of position which would then create space for Aubameyang or Kolasinac to exploit. Similar tactics were employed on the opposite wing as well in case there was difficulty finding that vertical pass. Jenkinson would look to receive from Sokratis and then play a bounce-pass off Mkhitaryan and continue his run forward. If it did work out, it would drag away the fullback – Adam Smith and if it didn’t and the full-back wouldn’t track his run, he would have the space to operate in.
Overall, Arsenal’s tactics looked very sharp that evening. They created chances at will – and Özil was key to this. He scored as well as assisted and his quality in the final third made all the difference.
Bournemouth’s attacking phase and Arsenal’s defensive structure
Bournemouth changed from their 4-4-2 after fifteen odd minutes itself to a 4-5-1 out-of-possession. Eddie Howe had noticed how the spaces opened up all too easily in the half-spaces and in a bid to resolve that issue, he moved King to the midfield line.
This solved the issue to an extent and Arsenal had difficulty reaching the half-spaces as frequently as before. Bournemouth’s 4-5-1 became 4-3-3 in possession as both of King and Ibe would move into higher areas when they had the ball and stretch out the Arsenal defence. Mousset was supported by Ryan Fraser who had moved inwards and on receiving would dribble towards the Arsenal backline.
During goal-kicks, Bournemouth would stay true to their positional play style, and the centre-backs would split up to either side of the box. The fullbacks would push up high and wide and Surman would provide a vertical passing option with Gosling acting as the support the striker needed in case of long balls aimed at him. The direct play wasn’t seen much as Bournemouth bravely tried to play out despite the Arsenal press. Upon reaching the middle third, they’d either try to play one-touch vertical passes to the striker or with the striker dropping off to hold up the ball to then play it into the path of either Ibe or Fraser. Arsenal defended well, however, with Torreira tackling most of what came his way and backwards pressing by the Arsenal forwards (both of Özil and Torreira attempting three tackles each).
During defending their own box, the Arsenal wingbacks were helped out by their respective midfielders while the double pivot would stay narrow and prevent the area in front of the back five.
Experiment with the double pivot?
Emery loves his double pivots and at Arsenal, it’s no different. Usually, the pivot stays in a flat line, and take up positions behind the opposition strikers and depending on how the opposition press either stay narrow or move out wide in case the press is too central. Against Bournemouth, Emery used a more functional style. He made a simple change only moving Torreira higher up the pitch. Guendouzi effectively was left at the base of the midfield as the lone pivot. This had its own limitations as well as advantages.
It was fruitfully as slanting the double pivot means that Torreira could move up higher to provide vertical compression. He also acted as a staggered passing option and in case of turnovers, he could be quicker to react. It provided extra support in between the lines from where he could drive forwards with the ball himself as well as it removed needless numerical superiority in the first phase. It also did well to fully utilize the mobility of Guendouzi as he is a natural dribbler and his ball-carrying ability and the way he always shows up for the ball is seamlessly integrated in this system.
The cons of it are obvious as keeping Guendouzi as the only ball progressing option in the centre of the park puts a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and the fact that opponents can use him as the pressing trap. Eddie Howe showed how that is done as the only goal they scored in the match came from Guendouzi’s mistake in playing out from the back and keeping the ball for too long in a dangerous area when there was a simple passing option open. However, this is definitely an avenue worth trying as it produced results for the most parts in last evening’s match against the Cherries.
The Gunner did little wrong as they took home a fully deserved victory. Emery’s chess tactics were able to overcome Howe’s and Arsenal will look forward to the North London derby on the weekend against Tottenham Hotspurs. Another win would mean just one point difference remaining between the third and fourth placed teams.
Bournemouth had a horribly bad outing and though their structure showed signs of life, they’ll really need their injured players back in time if they wish to improve upon their league standings. Their next test is nothing too difficult – they’ll only be hosting champions Manchester City at the Vitality Stadium.