The joy and excitement that filled the football folks’ minds in looking forward to a much-awaited restart to the English Premier League (EPL) season did not sit well with the Arsenal fans. Losing both their opening matches to Manchester City and Brighton, respectively, was not the start the Gunners anticipated. In pursuit of turning things around and brighten their hopes for Europe next year, the Gunners took to the field to face Southampton for their third game after project restart.,
St. Mary’s Stadium has not been very kind to the Gunners in the past – winning only 1 in their last five Premier League visits (W1, D1, L3). However, against these ill-odds, the North Londeners managed to come on top with a 0 (0.74) – 2 (2.19) win, and the xG (Expected Goals) show that it was indeed a well-deserved win. In this tactical analysis, I’ll be giving analysis to both team’s tactics on and off the ball.
The Saints lined up with their traditional formation 4-2-2-2 (4-4-2) with the in-form striker Danny Ings and teenager Michael Obafemi upfront. Nathan Redmond (making his 200th appearance for the club) and Stuart Armstrong occupied the flanks while James Ward-Prowse and Højbjerg were given charge of the midfield, as shown in the picture.
On paper, the Gunners lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, which included three changes from their 2-1 loss against Brighton over the weekend. The squad featured Kieran Tierney in place of Sead Kolašinac, and Granit Xhaka (who missed the previous game due to an ankle injury during project restart opener against City) in for Matteo Guendouzi. Eddie Nketiah started as a CF ahead of his French counterpart Alexandre Lacazette. Arsenal’s record signing Nicolas Pépé took the duties on the right flank, while Emiliano Martinez got his first start in a PL match after three years.
Arsenal in possession
Let us look at Arsenals’ tactics in possession, Arsenal set themselves up in a fluid 3-4-3 formation. Bukayo Saka and Héctor Bellerín took to the flanks and made forward run with Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang playing as inverted strikers.
Courtesy to the Saints’ pressing with their two men up-front, joined by Redmond and Ward Prowse, Arsenal was not very keen on starting from the back with Martinez, who attempted 23 long balls with a shocking 43% accuracy. However, when they did try to play from the back, Rob Holding and ShkodranMustafi spread out in the box with Xhaka coming deep to create an extra passing option. In addition, Bellerin and Tierney hugged the touchline to create multiple passing options for Martinez.
At this point, when the ball is in the box of the Arsenal half, Southampton looked to press with three men – two strikers along with either of the wingers. During this press, the far winger tucked into the midfield and was often supported by the central midfielders to maintain balance.
At times when both the Saints’ midfielders joined the press, Arsenal’s response was to play quick balls (either long or wide) to take advantage of their pacy attackers. In doing so, the Gunners created two excellent chances. One of them being Nketiah’s goal, which was ruled out as Saka was caught offside, and the second one where Aubameyang managed to hit the woodwork after a scintillating pass from the Scottish fullback Tierney.
Alternatively, when the Saints’ midfield didn’t join the press, the Gunners took advantage of the centrally available pockets of space to pass the ball to Xhaka and Dani Ceballos, who was joined by Saka and Bellerin to stretch and weaken the Saints’ press. Upon bypassing the first line of this press, the Saints then set themselves up in a compact deep 4-4-2, enhanced by Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg joining the defence.
In the final third, Arsenal stretched their attack by a fluid final third setup with Saka, Aubameyang, and Nketiah changing positions.
In the second half, Arsenal sat deep and waited for an opportunity to try and hit back at the Saints under transition. This is clearly indicated by the match stats, which show that Arsenal attempted 40% fewer passes (151) in the second half as compared to the first half (247).
Saints in possession
During the buildup phase, Saints play long balls to either of the flanks as we saw the number of long balls played with GK Alex McCarthy (20), Jack Stephens, and Jan Bednerak with 9 each. With the intention to overload space and try to win the second ball.
When in possession, Saints setup with 3 in the backline, consisting of 2 CB and a rotating third supporting player, either one of the fullbacks or Højberg.
With both full-backs joining the attack, we saw McCarthy often coming out of his box to become an extra passing option. This led to Gunner’s first goal as Nketiah kept pressing McCarthy and intercepted his pass, followed by a shot to an open goal.
In the final 3rd, with their wing-backs often joined the attack providing width. Armstrong and Redmond tucked in and making darting runs to the box along with Ings and Obafemi. Ward-Prowse usually dictates this play, and with Højberg playing as a holding midfielder providing defensive solidity.
Saints tried to exploit Arsenal’s defensive fragility in transition on the left side as it was comparatively slow and weak to the other hand, as left-back Ryan Bertrand attempted most numbers of crosses 5(3), and they did create few good chances but couldn’t convert it.
In response to this, Arsenal had applied the man-marking press with 5-3-2 formation. With Bellerin and Saka joining the backline.
English defender Holding well-led the backline with a man of the match performance with 8 clearances and 41 accurate passes.
Looking at stats, it was a balanced game with Saints had more chances, but Arsenal had better opportunities. Although Saints were able to find Arsenals’ defensive issues, but couldn’t take their chances. On the other hand, Arsenal utilized the most compelling part of their game, fast-paced strikers. Overall it was a good win for Arsenal in their quest for Europe next year.