Things seem to have fallen into place for Arsenal this season as they’ve finally landed on Mikel Arteta as their manager after a horrendous stint under Unai Emery in the first half of the season. Although the start was not as good as he expected it to be, Arsenal seemed to find a rhythm with the Spaniard showing a serious promise to the fans. Arteta, who left his assistance to Pep Guardiola for Arsenal’s top spot, seems to have reignited the players and Arsenal as a whole.
Following an emphatic league victory over Manchester United with a more than improved performance under Arteta, the Gunners hosted Leeds United at Emirates for the third round of FA Cup 2019/20. Leeds United, at the top of Championship table this season, are seeing a massive tactical development under Marcelo Bielsa with enhancements in overall gameplay.
A face-off against Marcelo Bielsa’s side is not an easy one by any means, but Arsenal somehow managed to turn the tie towards their favor with a narrow win. A second-half Reiss Nelson goal made the Gunners nullify Leed’s exciting first-half display, as Arsenal drastically improved their first-half performance to seal the tie off. In this tactical analysis, I’ll be giving analysis about the managerial duel between Arteta and Bielsa tactics-wise, the tactical progression of both the teams, how they started and how they ended the fixture.
Mikel Arteta made 4 changes to the squad that started against Manchester United in the previous league fixture. Calum Chambers, Kieran Tierney missed out with injuries, while Hector Bellerin missed out due to his hamstring doubts. Martinez started in front of the goal as Leno was provided a much-needed rest, with Rob Holding coming in to partner David Luiz. Sokratis Papastathopoulos was fielded as a full-back, filling Maitland-Nile’s void. Lucas Torreira made way for Matteo Guendouzi as the Frenchmen started alongside Granit Xhaka. The final change to Arteta’s side was young Nelson coming in for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was rested after a tiring United fixture. Mikel Arteta opted to go for a 4-2-3-1, with Alex Lacazette acting as the lone striker on papers.
Leeds United, on the other side, made four changes to their squad that drew 1-1 away to West Bromwich Albion. Marcelo Bielsa fielded two young debutants: Illan Meslier and Robbie Gotts just like he discussed in the pre-match conference. Patrick Bamford returned back to the lineup, leading the attack in Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1 system. Gaetano Berardi started instead of Liam Cooper in the central defence, teaming up with Ben White to contain Arsenal’s attackers.
Leed’s style of play
It always is a pleasant footballing sight watching a Marcelo Bielsa side play and Leeds started off well. As per expectations, Leeds United started the build-up from the back with a healthy amount of possession. The positioning of midfielders Gutts and Killich was vital to this display of build-up from the back. Both midfielders were important in receiving and breaking down the passes on the build-up. This availability provided Leeds with fluid gameplay that comprised of a quick transition in the build-up.
Star of the vintage Bielsa display was midfielder Kalvin Phillips, who was crucial in Leed’s command of possession and fluidity. Phillips was crucial in recovering the ball, forming build-up situations and connecting the defence to attack to provide the transition. Phillips had a pass completion rate of 88%, also winning 17 duels in the process at a success rate of just under 70%. Phillips provided the ideal defensive midfield performance required to make Bielsa’s system work, distributing the balls to spaces created by drawing Arsenal players forward.
Leeds United, with the ball, invited Arsenal to press higher towards the central side of the pitch, drawing both Alexander Lacazette and Mesut Ozil towards either one of the central defenders/ Phillips himself. The void created would then be utilized by playing the ball out to either one of Ayling or Douglas, encouraging them to play out to options that included Phillips, Gotts or Killich in the middle.
Creating a void, distributing to the void area to make the most of the opposition lapse, followed by a quick transition saw Leeds register a total of 17 shots, with 0.94 xG throughout the match. Bielsa’s use of intact man-marking without the ball, winning the second ball and intact short distributions were prominent throughout the game that saw Leeds maintain 55% possession.
Arsenal’s style of play
Things didn’t start the way Arsenal wanted them to be, as Leeds enjoyed a brilliant first half and forced Arsenal to make errors. Mikel Arteta’s ideals of building from the back continued to roll, thanks to Leed’s intensive man-to-man pressure, Arsenal looked stretched and used the full-backs to go forward.
Emiliano Martinez did an outstanding job overall, from stopping multiple Leeds shots to distributing the ball for Arsenal to cope with Leed’s numerical superiority while pressing. The two holding midfielders, Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi served to solidify Holding and Luiz while helping to build from the back, making the system look like a 4-4-2 without the ball.
Mesut Ozil looked to be doomed the first half, with almost no balls supplied vertically for the German to penetrate with passes towards Lacazette.
Arsenal’s attempts to press high backfired them in the first half, with Leeds utilizing the voids left and turning them into deadly attacks. Sokratis Papastathalous, deployed as the right full-back had a faint impact on the game while Kolasinac too found himself contempt due to the press.
It was the second half when Arsenal finally began to put things together. Mikel Arteta fielded a rather intact pressing structure, hindering Leed’s options while building from the back. Matteo Guendouzi led the press, winning back balls, unlike the first half.
Thanks to a well-structured turn around to limit Leed’s first half-momentum, the recovered balls often began finding Mesut Ozil as Arsenal began to show fluidity in their transition, with Mesut Ozil supplying the ball to the front three more often.
A determined Nicolas Pepe run in the 54th minute, drawing Douglas with Alex Lacazette creating space in the box with his run, gave young winger Reiss Nelson a scoring opportunity that resulted in a goal for Gunners. The improved tempo helped Arsenal to take a lead, as well as unlocking the access that Phillips had over Lacazette and Ozil in the first half.
Improving on their lacklustre first-half performance, Arsenal pulled off a comeback to take the game home 1-0. Pulling off 15 shots throughout the game saw Arsenal obtain an xG of 2.09. Although Leeds caused several headaches for Arsenal, it was a hard-fought, yet well-executed victory for the Gunners after a very long time.
Just like Mikel Arteta said in the post-match conference, it was like visiting a dentist for the Gunners. The other side of the story suggests Arsenal are ready to give their all under Arteta and we might be seeing a lot more of this Arsenal as the season progresses. The win was an indicator of how well Arteta can adapt to the situation with a flexible and reliable approach.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United had a clear statement to make – Leeds are ready for the top flight. Although the Championship leaders lost at the Emirates, the impact was there, and it might be a usual sight next season. Dominating the Gunners statistically, Leeds United will now prepare for the continuation of their journey to the Premier League.