Arsenal took on Crystal Palace in the Premier League matchup between the two London teams. Mikel Arteta’s men came to Selhurst Park looking to take the three points and the table position from Crystal Palace, who sit in ninth, just one point ahead of tenth place Arsenal. Arsenal came into the game looking to win their third match in a row, after previously defeating Leeds United in the FA Cup and Manchester United in the Premier League in the past week and a half.
A quick analysis of Palace’s recent run of results has been less encouraging, as injuries have continued to plague the team. They had taken a total of nine points in the Premier League since the start of December and had also recently lost to Derby County by a score of 1-0 in the FA Cup. This tactical analysis looks to understand the tactics used by both Mikel Arteta and Roy Hodgson that led to the 1-1 draw in South London at Selhurst Park.
Mikel Arteta’s had his same squad line up as their last Premier League matchup against Manchester United. Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1 again; Bernd Leno started in goal, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac as the right and left-back, respectively. Sokratis and David Luiz were the centre-back pairing for Mikel Arteta’s team. The two holding midfielders were Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira, who was subbed off at halftime for an injury. In front of them was the attacking trident of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Özil, and Nicolas Pépé, with Pépé working on the right-wing and Aubameyang primarily running up and down the left flank. Alexandre Lacazette started as the lone striker in the match.
Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace team lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Vicente Guaita getting the start in goal. In front of him was the centre back pairing of Gary Cahill and James Tomkins, who were flanked by Jairo Riedewald on the left and Martin Kelly on the right. James McArthur acted as the holding midfielder with Wilfried Zaha, James McCarthy, Cheikhou Kouyaté, and Max Meyer in front of him, with Meyer on the right side and Zaha on the left. Their lone striker was Jordan Ayew.
Arsenal’s manipulation of space
Arsenal began the game with a long ball down the left-hand side, immediately putting Palace under pressure by winning a corner. For the first 30 minutes of the game, Arsenal saw 76% of the possession, with Palace sitting in and defending in their own half. Arsenal attempted to attack the left side of Palace’s defence by pushing Kolasinac, the left-back, forward into a more attacking role.
Xhaka drops into the space to David Luiz’s left, which does two things: a) create space for Torreira in the middle and b) allow Kolasinac to move higher up the pitch. Xhaka’s movement, coupled with Aubameyang’s move towards the centre of the pitch, allowed Kolasinac to be able to receive the ball in a lot of space. Arsenal consistently tried to find Kolasinac in this space, but much of the time, it was through lofted passes, which allowed Crystal Palace to shift their defensive structure over and protect that portion of the field.
Arsenal attempted to create triangles and diamonds in possession that were relatively close, both in their buildup and in possession on the wings, especially closer to the attacking third. This passing structure is fairly typical of teams that focus on positional play, which is much of what Arteta would have picked up during his time at Manchester City. This structure has two primary functions: it allows for quick, incisive passes that quickly breaks lines of defence and are a nightmare to defend, and it also allows for teams to be very close to the opposition when they turn the ball over. The benefit of being that close is that as soon as the ball is lost, Arsenal can immediately press their opponents and attempt to win the ball back. Arsenal were able to use this counter-pressing consistently for the first 30 minutes as Palace sat in their own half, which was a key component that allowed them to see so much possession of the ball.
As soon as Arsenal lose the ball, their shape allowed four of their players to quickly collapse on the Palace player in possession. The ball is then played back to Gary Cahill, who was under immediate pressure. He tried to play Palace out by switching the field of play where plenty of space was available, but his pass to Martin Kelly was long, forcing Kelly to slide in an attempt to kick the ball, which ultimately gave the ball directly back to Arsenal.
‘Positional Play’ growth and growing pains
Arteta has certainly improved Arsenal with their positioning and counter-pressing. This was a large contribution to their only goal on the day. After forcing Martin Kelly to haphazardly clear the ball, Arsenal maintain possession with their Luiz, Sokratis, Torreira, and Xhaka, who was still dropping to be part of the backline as Kolasinac pressed forward.
The passing between these four was consistent all game. In fact, they were the most used passes by Arsenal as they looked to break down Palace’s defence. While Arsenal’s goal was touted as impressive as it had a total of 18 passes before the ball hit the back of the net, 15 of those passes were between Luiz, Sokratis, Torreira, and Xhaka. Those four patiently possessed the ball, waiting for Jordan Ayew to switch off.
Soon enough, Ayew turned off and stopped providing pressure on the ball, and David Luiz took advantage. He breaks the first line of pressure by dribbling past Ayew and then plays a long pass to Mesut Özil. One of the principles of Positional Play is to make sure that when you play a long pass, teammates support the man receiving the ball by making a short pass an option, preferably with the receiver of the short pass facing the goal. As Özil receives his long pass, Lacazette is in a perfect position (a forward facing position) to receive the lay-off pass, which Özil plays with his first touch. Aubameyang, executing the “third man” Positional Play principle perfectly, begins his run as the ball arrived at Özil’s feet. Lacazette plays him through, and Aubameyang has enough room to receive with his left foot and cooly finish off the chance with his right.
While much has improved for Arsenal under Arteta, there is still much to be done. The first piece primarily has to do with the position and body shape of the centre backs. Early in the match, Arsenal win a corner, and under minimal pressure, the ball gets thrown in from Maitland-Niles to Sokratis. David Luiz holds his higher central position for too long and is slow to widen the pitch.
Luiz is forced to make this run in order to “open up” for Leno to play him the ball. The main problem is that Luiz should have already gotten to that space as the ball was thrown in. Because he didn’t Palace were able to pressure more effectively.
Palace has taken up proper position and not allowed Luiz to play forward, as they’ve either occupied any potential passing lanes or they’ve invited a pass to Kolasinac so that they can put him under pressure if he were to receive it. If Luiz is in that position sooner, he has the ability to dribble and progress the ball forward, or he can find Torreira, who was checking into the space in the middle of the field.
Luiz’s body positioning also caused problems throughout the match.
Here, Luiz receives the ball in his own penalty box with his back to the majority of the field. Palace read the clues properly and immediately put Luiz and Kolasinac under pressure, which results in Luiz having to play the ball long, which Crystal Palace recovered. If Luiz can make sure he is facing the field of play, it causes a lot more problems for defenders, who cannot close down without giving up some space for Luiz to play into.
Another struggle that Arsenal faced was breaking the press with two defensive centre midfield players who were standing on the same line. This positioning is a problem because it forms a box of sorts with the centre backs, who can only play a very straight pass into the midfield. These midfielders would be receiving the ball while facing their own goal, making it incredibly difficult for them to progress the ball forward. Eventually, in the second half, Arsenal were able to stagger their midfielders when trying to build from the back, which led to more passing options for everyone involved.
The data also suggests that Arsenal have much to improve: while having a total of 39 attacks, they only actually had a success rate of eight percent. On top of that, they only had one official through pass the entire match. Finally, the average pass to their attacking third was an average distance of 33 meters, meaning that most of the passes into the attacking area came through the air — giving opponents plenty of time to find their defensive shape.
Palace switch from mid-block to press
After not seeing much of the ball for the first 30 minutes of the match, Palace decided to provide some pressure and step into Arsenal’s half to press the ball. They committed six men forward and were insistent on making Arsenal play through them, as opposed to ceding space to them consistently with a mid-block.
This shape forced Torreira to make really tough passes that were inconsistent at best. Arsenal would prefer to have the ball in the centre of the pitch, where they would have multiple passing options and angles on both sides of the player with the ball. Crystal Palace decided to send six men to that space, and Arsenal began to play the ball out wide to their outside backs, who were immediately pressed by Crystal Palace players. This forced the outside backs to resort to sending the ball long, effectively producing 50/50 balls for Palace to challenge. Above, Torreira is facing his own goal, but as he is pressured, he attempts to play the ball up the pitch, out of the centre of the pitch. He doesn’t have a clear view of who his target is, and two seconds after the ball leaves his foot, Crystal Palace is back in possession. Because of this switch to their press, Palace began to see more of the possession.
Despite not seeing much of it for the first portion of the first half, Palace grew into the game. As they turned the press on, right around the 30th minute, Arsenal made more mistakes, allowing Palace the opportunity to possess and make Arsenal work defensively. This implementation of their press mirrors the possession graph seen above. The 20 percent increase in time on the ball meant that at best they could create scoring chances for themselves, and at its worst, they could at least make sure Arsenal didn’t have the ball at their feet.
Crystal Palace’s press was so effective that Arsenal abandoned playing out of the back for the first part of the second half. After a long ball from Leno, Palace gained possession in their own half and began to pass and dribble as they looked to progress up the field. At this point, Lacazette committed a fairly innocuous foul at midfield.
From the free-kick, Max Meyer dribbled and crossed the ball into the box, where, after an errant clearance from David Luiz, Jordan Ayew was able to put a shot towards goal, which deflected off of Luiz’s foot and found the back of the net. While not pretty, it does count the same. This entire opportunity came to exist because Palace decided to press Arsenal and force them to play through them, which Arsenal abandoned, and then later returned to, after the goal had already gone in.
Palace look to Zaha for chances
Aubameyang was initially given a yellow card for a tackle on Max Meyer, who had to leave due to injury, but after a VAR review, Aubameyang was sent off. The last Arsenal player to both score and be sent off in the same match? Arteta, against Crystal Palace in 2013.
At this point, Palace began seeing even more of the ball, with Arsenal looking to get forward less consistently, as they looked to protect their point.
Arsenal defended in a 4-4-1, with Lacazette as the lone striker still. They looked to force Palace out wide and primarily did not allow much through the middle of the field. Arsenal still attempted to move forward with the ball, but often came up short in terms of quality chances, save for one shot by Nicolas Pépé, who rattled the frame of the goal.
Palace tried to find their way to goal primarily down the left flank, looking to get the ball to Zaha so that he could work his magic.
Wilfried Zaha is best known for his ability to beat opponents with his 1v1 skills, and so Crystal Palace looked to make the most of that. Above, Zaha takes on Nicolas Pépé. After beating him, Zaha gets the ball on his right foot, and lofts it to the back post. Tomkins got his head on the ball and set it towards the side netting, but the ball didn’t cross the line. Palace continued to pressure the left hand side in a very similar fashion, looking to numerically overload, but this proved to be their best chance after the red card.
Arsenal have undoubtedly progressed under Mikel Arteta. While there is much to improve, they demonstrated how much they can dominate the game. Being able to play out of the back, one of the most important parts of Positional Play, will become a necessity for them to be successful with. When this becomes second nature, Arsenal will be able to possess the ball up and down the field, while also incorporating the aforementioned counter-pressing.
Crystal Palace will look to get some key players back from their injuries before seeing more success. They have been eliminated from both the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup, so their primary focus can now be looking to see if they can earn a spot in European football next, most likely through the Europa League. Roy Hodgson’s team looks to be in prime position to finish at the top half of the table this season, barring any major downturn.