Arsenal were coming off the back of a 1-1 Premier League draw with Wolves in which Unai Emery described Arsenal’s performance as being a “bad result, but tactically it worked how we wanted”. A bizarre comment given that Wolves registered 25 shots compared to Arsenal’s 10. Despite this, a point against Wolves was still not a bad result considering the strength of Nuno Espírito Santo’s side, however more would be expected against Vitoria.
Arsenal took on Vitoria in the Europa League and badly needed to put in a performance showing unity, desire, and commitment to their under-fire manager. Vitoria came into the fixture in poor form themselves. They currently sit 11th in the Primeira Liga and bottom in the group with 0 points in 3 matches. Arsenal were top after 3 games with the maximum 9 points.
Arsenal went with a rotated side aiming to give minutes to the likes Martinez, Willock, Tierney, Martinelli, and Saka. The quality came from Pepe, Ceballos, and Holding in the Arsenal eleven.
Arsenal’s 3-4-3 had been designed to cultivate lots of possession for Arsenal in an attempt to create long sustained periods of pressure on the Vitoria goal. Arsenal could theoretically create triangles and diamonds across the pitch, which allowed them to move the ball quickly with the aim of playing diagonal passes to open up the Vitoria defence. Arsenal had 63% of possession and completed 88% of their 585 passes.
Vitoria did a fantastic job at channelling most of Arsenal’s 585 passes out into wide areas where they allowed them to cross from. Vitoria didn’t want to go out and meet Arsenal’s wing-backs and compromise the space between their own full-back and centre-half. They decided that it would be better to deny the half-space to Arsenal and defend the cross with their central defenders. Arsenal only had one player who was 6ft or higher in height in the attacking three and that was Pepe. Pepe is not known for his heading ability and Vitoria must have fancied their chances at defending these crosses.
Willock and Ceballos
As you can see from Ceballos and Willock’s pass maps below, they only gave the ball away 7 times and successfully played 85 passes. They only played 7 key passes between them in the entire match, and they all came in the wide positions. Arsenal really needed a player who could try these riskier passes which could present them with a better opportunity. They tried to create numerical superiority in the wide positions with Saka and Pepe combining with the wing-backs and midfielders in the half-spaces to create 3 v 2 situations.
Vitoria set up to sit back in a low defensive block and allowed Arsenal to have the ball in front of them. They set up to counter-attack whenever they could using Bruno Duarte’s physicality to hold the ball up and beat the counter-press. They recovered the ball 37 times in a low block, 31 times in a medium block, and 16 times in a high block pressing up the pitch. Vitoria successfully countered 3 times during the match with 1 shot resulting in these counter-attacks. They also won 53% of their 225 challenges in the game, with Arsenal winning 44% of their 225 challenges. Vitoria won more challenges because they were set up to defend and this means they were forced to make more challenges that they had to win.
Vitoria’s midfielders used their cover shadow to deny Arsenal the opportunity to play through them and forced them out wide. This would allow them to kill the space in between the lines and prevent Arsenal finding Pepe, Saka, and Martinelli.
Saka and Pepe played in the half-space between the centre-half and the full-back. This allowed them to open up the wide channel for the wing-back. Arsenal did a poor job at creating a solid attacking structure which would have allowed them to drag and pull Vitoria around. They needed to try and create a WM structure to get the best attacking support and break Vitoria’s lines.
Saka, Martinelli, and Pepe tried to run beyond the Vitoria backline throughout the match. This meant that Arsenal’s only real viable pass was to the wing-back and it prevented them from playing through the Vitoria midfield. Vitoria could stretch out with their defensive midfielder dropping into the backline and defend all of the channels comfortably.
How Arsenal could have set up
Arsenal should have moved a centre-half into midfield during the build-up phases to offer numerical superiority and support. Vitoria only had one striker and their wingers were retracted. This meant a 3 v 1 was not as efficient as it could have been. When defending, the centre-half could have slotted back into the defensive line once again and this would allow Arsenal to protect the wide spaces vacated by their wing-backs.
Creating the WM structure would have allowed Arsenal to pull Vitoria narrow before moving the ball out wide. This would have allowed the wing-back to have greater space and not be caught tight in the touchline with no support. The Vitoria defence would not know whether to go with their man (Saka or Pepe) and leave space for the wing-backs and striker, or to leave the Arsenal players and allow them time and space behind the shielding midfielders.
The midfielders would struggle as well. If they dropped with Saka and Pepe then Ceballos and Willock would have lots of space and they would become very disjointed. If they held their line, then the space behind them would be large and very dangerous for the Arsenal players to exploit.
Arsenal scored their only goal through Shkodran Mustafi, who was looking to make up for his own goal in the EFL fixture against Liverpool. The set-piece was won by Martinelli after he was tripped by Evangelista. Pepe played the ball in on his left foot and found Mustafi who had ran off his man to head back across the face of goal.
For Vitoria’s goal, Arsenal initially lost the ball of a poor throw-in and Vitoria quickly worked the ball into a dangerous position down Arsenal’s left-hand side. The first cross from former Spurs youngster Marcus Edwards missed Bruno Duarte, however, the headed cross back in from Rochinha found the big man at the back stick. He then proceeded to score an overhead kick which evaded 6 players in the goal including Martinez.
As this analysis shows, Arsenal played their 3-4-3 in an attempt to stretch Vitoria. They wanted to make the pitch large for them to attack, and for Pepe and Saka to take the half-spaces whilst Martinelli played as the main striker. The wing-backs were the widest players and helped to create overloads which Pepe and Saka could exploit.
Vitoria played a low narrow block in a 4-1-4-1. They wanted Arsenal to play out wide to either Tierney or Maitland-Niles. The focus was on protecting the half-space and not allowing overloads. This required them to not be attracted to the ball when it was out wide and they could then go with the runners in behind them.
Arsenal should have looked to line-break Vitoria and disjoin their defensive mechanism, and either an attacking structure such as a WM or positional play would have achieved this. Having a player on the half-turn and back into his man would have opened a channel through to another player and allowed for a better attacking outlet.
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- UEFA Europa League 2019/20: Vitoria SC vs Arsenal– Tactical Analysis - November 14, 2019
- Nicolas Pepe 2019/20 – Scout Report - November 5, 2019