The Premier League clash between Arsenal and Southampton saw two clubs eager to correct their poor run of league form. The visitors had yielded just one solitary point from the last 21 on offer in the league, having conceded the most goals of any team this season with 29. Whilst Arsenal would have seen this as a great opportunity to begin to revive their league campaign and close the gap on the top four ahead of a difficult run of fixtures over the festive period. Having not lost to Southampton at home in all twenty of their league encounters in the Premier League era, history was on Arsenal’s side. Yet this Arsenal team finds itself at a particularly low point of their Premiership history, with major doubts cast over Unai Emery’s tactics and ability to galvanise his team out of their poor Autumn form.
This tactical analysis sheds light on the two different approaches which each team deployed and offers insight into key moments in the match.
Emery opted to keep the same formation as in their most recent outing before the international break against Leicester, a 3-4-1-2 formation with Sokratis Papastathopoulos coming in for Rob Holding as the only change in personnel. Mesut Ozil was selected in his favoured number ten role, just behind Alexander Lacazette and club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Having both started the season injured, Saturday marked the first match in which first-choice full-backs Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney started together in the league, with the hope that both could use their astute athleticism to pose threats on each flank.
Southampton on the other hand lined up in a 4-4-2 having suffered defeat against Everton last time out in a 3-4-2-1 formation. Ryan Bertrand was welcomed back after suspension whilst 19 year old Republic of Ireland international Michael Obafemi made his first league start of the season.
Southampton’s effective press of Arsenal’s defenders
Southampton started the match livelier than their hosts front four of Obafemi, Danny Ings, Stuart Armstrong and Nathan Redmond forming an effective press when Arsenal were in possession in their own third. As shown in the image below, Redmond takes responsibility for inserting instant pressure on both Callum Chambers and Bellerin, closing down Arsenal’s option of developing an attack down their right side.
Having been forced to reset and switch the ball to Sokratis on the left side of the back three, Obafemi and Højbjerg replicated the effective press which forced a stray pass from Arsenal into the path of the approaching James Ward-Prowse.
Whilst Southampton in this instance were unable to generate a shot at goal, the intensity of their press in the opening stages unsettled Arsenal’s defence and imposed their intent on the home side.
It was their alertness in the first half which saw them take the lead as Arsenal’s defenders’ concentration dropped enabling Ings and Bertrand to combine on the left-hand side. Shortly after Arsenal’s equaliser, Redmond Bertrand and Ings teamed up effectively to block off Chamber’s route to Bellerin and Bellerin’s route into the Southampton half.
The press in this instance was effective enough to force the ball back to Bernd Leno in goal who then under pressure himself from Obafemi had no other option but to clear the ball up field. Unsurprisingly, Arsenal lost possession.
Southampton were able to maintain this intensity against the Arsenal back three throughout the first half with Redmond again leading the press below to box Chambers into the right corner. Reinforcements arrived in the form of Obafemi, Bertrand and Ings to overload Arsenal into a 3v4 in the right-back area. The image below depicts how Southampton’s four closed off options for Arsenal to pass it down their right flank.
Though Arsenal managed to keep possession they were unable to play it further up field and a stray pass from Luiz in the direction of Bellerin. The wing-back had already been forced to come and collect the ball in a deeper position than normal which is a credit to the intensity of Southampton’s left sided press.
To counteract Bellerin’s involvement, Bertrand then joined in from left-back to successfully challenge for the ball. As a result Southampton won back possession in the final third and were unfortunate not to form a credible attack on goal.
Struggles to play out from the back
In part due to the effective pressure exerted on them from Southampton’s forward line, Arsenal back three did not ooze confidence when in possession. Sokratis in particular struggled to play the ball out from the back by being dispossessed and forced into difficult positions on numerous occasions. Too often he received the ball facing away from his teammates. This gave Southampton’s forwards a window of opportunity to put him under pressure knowing that he didn’t have the vision or body position to pick out a pass.
As in the example above, he is caught in a triangle of Southampton players forcing him to eventually dribble back to within six yards of the touchline before making a desperate pass upfield. This pass was intercepted by Southampton and eventually lead to a throw-in from eighteen yards out.
Arsenal’s greatest let-off against Southampton came in the second half when the indecisive Sokratis was dispossessed twelve yards out by a two-man press from Cedric and Obafemi.
This time caught in a 1v2, his ineffective body shape eventually saw him fall to the floor with Cedric gaining possession deep in the penalty area two yards. Southampton will rue not having at least hit the target in this instance as illustrated in the image below, Cedric only had to play a simple pass across goal for the Obafemi to convert from six yards.
In the image below, the Arsenal defender finds himself in possession in his own penalty area with two Southampton attackers pressing him intently. As he is again caught facing away from his passing options, he is forced to put the ball out and concede a throw-in.
This illustrates how despite playing with three centre-halves behind two wing-backs and two pivots, Arsenal struggled in playing the ball out from the back. Sokratis was ineffective in this system and was fortunate not to concede directly from being caught in possession. Emery’s realisation that Southampton were posing strong threats to Arsenal’s back three triggered a half time alteration in tactics. Calum Chambers who had been deployed on the left side of the three was withdrawn for Pepe, forcing Tierney and Bellerin to assume some more defensive responsibilities as they reverted to a back four.
Southampton’s varied defensive approach force Arsenal wide
Whilst they successfully and intensely pressed Arsenal’s defenders in the final third, upon further analysis, Southampton actually adopted a varied defensive approach when out of possession in deeper positions. When out of possession and in their own half, Southampton appeared to hold a compact and narrow structure which encouraged Arsenal to play out wide. This nullified the impact of Ozil in his central role behind the front two and restricted him from playing through the middle. Instead, Arsenal’s most creative player was forced to play it out wide to the oncoming wing-backs Bellerin and Tierney.
This can be seen in the image below as all four of Southampton’s midfielders revert back behind the ball to shut down his option’s of playing central through balls to reach Lacazette and Aubameyang or even shoot from range.
The potential of Arsenal’s full backs
One key aspect of Arsenal’s first-half tactics was the freedom to roam forward which Emery had intended to grant Bellerin and Tierney. Having three centre backs staying back gives the widemen the option to support each others attacks as neither is required to stay back when the other pushes forward. In the picture below not only is Tierney in the final ten yards of the pitch and in possession, but Bellerin can be also seen charging into the box at the far post unmarked.
In Bellerin and Tierney, Arsenal have two athletic full-backs who have the potential to stretch oppositions defences by pushing forward simultaneously in the mould of Liverpool’s Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Whilst the Arsenal pair are yet to have threatened defences consistently in the Premier League, they may become a key component of Arsenal’s attack over the next couple of seasons. At present they are both short of match fitness so it is understandable that Emery opted to initially deploy them ahead of the back three to not burden them with too many defensive responsibilities.
In the second half, Tierney, in particular, offered a more genuine threat when adopting high positions on the left-hand side. Early on the Scotsman drove at Cedric with real intent after he was found in good space by Ozil. This enabled him to make use of his strong crossing abilities to find the substitute Pepe in space who’s volley was then denied by the crossbar.
Saturday’s clash at the Emirates proved to be another frustrating afternoon for the Arsenal faithful. An indisciplined defence were unable to overcome the effectiveness of Southampton’s forward line press such that they were unable to carry out Emery’s first half strategy. Half time tactical changes gave Arsenal a more balanced approach yet they were unable to convert their 65% of second half possession into a winning scoreline. Blushes were spared by an injury-time equaliser for the home side but serious doubts will remain around the future of Unai Emery. Until the gulf in quality between Arsenal’s central defenders and the elite defenders in the league is addressed, Arsenal are unlikely to stake a realistic claim for Champions League qualification places.
Southampton have clearly learned from their horror show against Leicester in October. They displayed signs of defensive robustness to deny Arsenal space as well as showing the alertness in attack which resulted in 21 shots at goal. However, they’ll be frustrated at their ruthlessness in front of goal which saw them leave the Emirates with just one point.