In the fourth round of the FA Cup, Arsenal find themselves meeting Bournemouth for the first time in their cup history. They have already faced each other twice in the English Premier League with Arsenal winning the first meeting and drawing the second one. Bournemouth has the home-field advantage at Dean Court on Monday night and this was important for the team’s morale in trying to advance further in the competition.
Bournemouth’s manager Eddie Howe has had to deal with a lot of injuries and made many tactical changes over the EPL season. Mikel Arteta like Howe is starting to feel some of those issues pulling at him in the Arsenal camp and he is having to adjust his tactics. With players hurt or serving suspensions it is forcing him to look to young talent to support his tactical analysis of the other teams. Arteta was in charge of Arsenal during the last meeting and looks to improve on the draw in order to advance to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at how each team’s tactics matched up and provide an analysis of how each team progressed through the game in a 2-1 match where Arsenal took the win to advance to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Arsenal played the majority of the game in a 4-2-3-1 but transitioned late to a 5-4-1 to preserve the win. Arteta was without now regular David Luiz in the back due to the sending off he received against Chelsea earlier in the week. Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi was his choice to cover the Bernd Leno replacement of Emi Martinez. Lucas Torreira also was rested in place of Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka. Eddie Nketiah playing up top will look to use the speed of Joe Willock and Gabriel Martinelli behind him to create opportunities for Arteta.
Howe, having ruled out Joshua King, Jack Stacey, Arnaut Danjuma, Charlie Daniels, David Brooks, and Chris Mepham, looked to Nathan Aké and Steve Cook to settle the team in the back. While Dominic Solanke and Ryan Fraser lead the attack up front. Bournemouth played a 4-4-2 from the start but switched to a 4-1-4-1 midway through the second half to deal with the wide play of Arsenal.
Arsenal positional play in attack
Arsenal’s positional play during the first half was excellent. Arteta had his tactics correct from the start. He wanted to create an overload in the middle of the field when out of possession but when his team had the ball he wanted to push his outside backs up the field as high as he could. With Arsenal seeing 63% of the ball during the game, Arteta’s wingers continually found themselves in forward positions to attack from. This coupled with an average backline of Bournemouth of 43.8 meters from goal Bournemouth would not see much of Arsenal’s goal. These two things did not prove to be the deciding factor but how Arteta used Xhaka. Xhaka would continually fall into the backline and create three across the back. This allowed Bukayo Saka and Héctor Bellerín to pull the Bournemouth defense into a deeper starting position.
As you can see below Xhaka is dropped into the backline while Saka and Bellerín hold the width. Coupled with Willock’s higher starting position and Arsenal created a 1v1 across Bournemouth’s backline.
As Willock began to find space between lines Bournemouth had trouble adjusting to his runs off the ball. This lead to Arsenal breaking down Bournemouth early. In the pictures below you can see how Willock stepped into a space behind Dan Gosling and receives a ball from Nicolas Pépé. Ake cannot step to the ball due to Pépé’s run and Willock is able to run at the heart of the defense with a man advantage. As Saka pushes forward the 2v1 inside Bournemouth’s 18-yard box is created. This is one of many times that Willock found himself running off the ball and then running at the backline of Bournemouth.
Another key for Arsenal was the ability to put numbers around the ball and have multiple options for the person on the ball. As you can see below, The ball comes from the Arsenal center-back into the forward line. Because of the running in behind the player making the checking run Willock would lose his mark and pick up the ball and completely bypass the Bournemouth midfield. Again, with the outside backs playing so high up the field, Bournemouth continually found themselves trying to sort out the marks and how the backline closed down the free space in front and behind them. If Arsenal could have completed one more pass in behind the backline of Bournemouth from the outside channels they could have scored a number of goals in the first half.
Now, I believe that Howe knew that Arteta would try to pull his defensive line from side to side with short passes while working to switch the point of attack. Bournemouth held an average width of 48 meters. They were giving Arsenal the wings to start with. This worked right into Arteta’s hands. They were trying to take away the balls through the midfield into the forward lines while keeping the ball in front of each defensive line. You can see in the next image how narrow Bournemouth’s wings players were playing. This only dropped them deep into their own half. They started with a formation line of the defensive unit 41 meters from their goal. As the Arsenal attacks started to mount they fell to a defensive formation line of 35 meters from goal. Bournemouth could not clear the lines and all the players were pushed to defend. Bournemouth only recorded three attempts with only one finding the frame from Wilson in the first half. In the following picture you how Bellerín pushed so high and inside that he forced Dominic Solanke to pull back to the top of the 18-yard box to pick him up.
With no options forward this leads to Arsenal winning the ball back quickly because of their initial numbers around the ball. Howe changed his tactics and formation after Arsenal’s second goal. He changed from a 4-4-2 to a 4-1-4-1. This put Frasier and Wilson on the wings to take care of the Arsenal outside backs while leaving three in the middle. The deepest of the three, Andrew Surman, responsible for staying organized in front of the back four and picking up Willock. As Bournemouth grew into this formation they were able to contain the Arsenal attack and started to generate chances coming from their wide players Frasier and Wilson. As you can see below, Bournemouth has the ball and Frasier pulls wide into space behind Bellerín while Wilson is providing width on the other side. This forces Arsenal into a defensive shape and is caught in a poor handoff between Guendouzi and Bellerín. This caused problems as the game progressed, and pushed Arsenal further and further back into their defensive third.
Second half changes
Howe tactics during the half time talk included switching the ball. With Arsenal putting numbers around the ball they found themselves compressed to one side of the field. Bournemouth recognized it after the formation switch to a 4-1-4-1. The quick pressing of the Arsenal players around the ball when they would lose it opened the Arsenal team up to quick switching of the ball. Bournemouth was able to move the ball in tight spaces and push numbers in the attack after switching the point of attack. You can see below how Bournemouth broke Arsenal’s pressure and quickly switched the point of attack. The space that Bournemouth found in the second half was due to the quick switches of the point of attack and quick organization behind the ball higher up the field.
Late in the second half, with Arsenal up by two goals, Arteta moved to a 5-4-1. By putting Xhaka in the backline and holding Bellerín and Saka he gave up a lot of the possession to protect the goal. Arsenal had a possession statistic of 66% of the possession at its peak during the second half to 45% of the possession after the 75 minutes. Below you can see a clear picture of how close the outside backs stayed to the three center-backs. They were giving up 30 – 40 yards of field to Bournemouth in order to reduce the odds of Bournemouth would get a goal.
Arsenal is returning to their passing roots under Arteta. Now it is time for them to put a full game together to continue to get results and continue in the FA Cup. Bournemouth continues to struggle in all competitions, but with seemingly new personnel every week it is not hard to imagine why. Tactical changes earlier in Bournemouth’s game would have helped them not to give up goals and with it turning into a grudge match late would have played into their hands.