Arsenal: Episode IV — A New Hope

Arsenal’s recent trips to Wembley have proven that the stadium is their current power play. Following wins against Manchester City and Chelsea in the road to their 4th FA Cup trophy since 2014, another Wembley trip beckoned. This time it was the Community Shield against league winners Liverpool.

A win on penalties saw them rack up another Community Shield, but Arsenal faded in the second half as Takumi Minamino’s introduction pumped life into the Liverpool side. The switch to 4–2–3–1 with the Japanese drifting inside form a left wing position caused problems for Arsenal’s midfield duo of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed El Neny.

Eventually equalizing for Liverpool, but before that Xhaka and El Neny were Batman and Robin to Liverpool’s Gotham.

Arsenal’s shape was more of the same as the one used against Manchester City and Chelsea. Out of possession it was a back five with Ainsley Maitland-Niles playing as a left wing back on the outside of Kieran Tierney. In possession, the back five became a back four with Maitland-Niles popping up in midfield, on the left wing or in the left channel.

Maitland-Niles won the official man of the match award, but Bukayo Saka, El Neny and Xhaka weren’t far behind. The midfield duo’s name in the starting line up brought anxiety to the Arsenal supporters because of their lack of creativity.

Neither are pure creators, but in the first half they were the ultimate facilitators. Playing a crucial role in both Arsenal’s pressing scheme and Arsenal’s build up.

First things first, pressing. As Arsenal’s front three pressed Liverpool’s defensive line, one of El Neny or Xhaka would move up the field to press Fabinho and deny Alisson Becker the easy pass into his compatriot.

The logical question would be; doesn’t that create a gap in Arsenal’s midfield ? It does but the gap is covered for. Alisson, out of options, chose the long ball into the space in the middle. Roberto Firmino’s movement to his much admired position between the lines is followed by David Luiz who wins the header. The other two players in Liverpool’s midfield James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum are covered here by Xhaka and Hector Bellerin who moves inside as the ball is played by Alisson.

A similar situation occurs after four minutes. El Neny is pushing up to deny the pass into Fabinho as Arsenal’s front three are ready to press the three Liverpool players in case the ball was played into them.

Alisson goes long again but it’s important to notice Milner and Wijnaldum’s positioning. Wijnaldum could be collapsed on by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang if the ball was played into him. Milner meanwhile is too deep, dropping to allow Andy Robertson to move forward.

However, Robertson is covered by Bellerin who would have enough time to make a run at the Scottish left back while the ball is floating in the air if Alisson chose the Robertson option. This is helped by Arsenal playing a back five out of possession as Rob Holding can pick up Sadio Mane.

Alisson plays into the space in the middle again behind El Neny and Xhaka, and again David Luiz is present to win the header. Firmino dropping to receive these longs was fruitless.

El Neny and Xhaka played an important part in the pressing scheme, but the whole Arsenal lineup showed cohesion that we weren’t accustomed to before the arrival of Mikel Arteta. Here, Xhaka is pressing Fabinho while Aubameyang’s low positioning makes a pass into Wijnaldum a bit risky. The last midfield option which is Milner is in the cover shadow of Saka, therefore a pass from Robertson into him isn’t possible. The progressive options are cut out.

Liverpool go backwards and the Arsenal pressing machine moves up. Because Aubameyang now has to move forward to press Joe Gomez, Xhaka shifts marker and picks up Wijnaldum and El Neny harries towards Fabinho as if the Brazilian was the last train out of Ramses station.

Gomez, without a clear passing option, plays the ball out wide for no one and Arsenal regain possession. As the ball was moving out, Bellerin was making an inside movement in case the ball was played into Milner.

The midfield duo was all over Fabinho, making sure he isn’t comfortable on the ball and that he is crossed out if Liverpool wanted to play out of the back. Here, Xhaka’s pressing forces Fabinho into a miss-pass which eventually presents a chance to Eddie Nketiah after Arsenal circulate the ball.

An earlier chance for Nketiah originated as well from the pressing. He initially dispossesses Gomez and Xhaka’s positioning close to Fabinho makes him ready for the transition.

Because Xhaka was up the field close to Fabinho, he presented a good passing option to Nketiah as he was falling down. Xhaka then played Saka who later found Nketiah in the box. A better finish from the striker would have made it 2–0

Secondly, the build up. Arteta used El Neny and Xhaka to lure in Liverpool’s press and attract Milner and Wijnaldum, before shifting the ball wide to the full backs. The Liverpool front three were mainly concerned with pressing Arsenal’s center-backs and goalkeeper, meaning that certain passing combinations could free Arsenal’s full backs. Here, Wijnaldum is tracking Xhaka while a pass into El Neny is risky due to him being in Firmino’s cover shadow and Mane’s positioning.

As David Luiz played the ball wide to Holding and the latter was preparing a pass into El Neny, Milner had to adjust his run from a run towards Bellerin to a run towards El Neny.

Milner is slow to reach El Neny and the Egyptian could now play a one touch pass comfortably into the free Bellerin.

This allows Bellerin to play the pass Arsenal were seeking frequently, down the line into their wingers. A good ball from Bellerin here would have put Arsenal’s speedy attackers in a 3 v 3 scenario, but his ball was intercepted by Robertson.

Milner again is in the same position, neither preventing a pass into El Neny nor Bellerin. However, this isn’t the problem here. Wijnaldum’s task of pressing Xhaka means that if the ball is played wide to Bellerin and Milner presses him, El Neny would be free in the center of the pitch as the Dutchman would be too far due to his original position close to Xhaka.

Milner doesn’t press and holds his position to prevent a ball into Saka and with Wijnaldum too far from El Neny, a pass into the Egyptian from Bellerin could have resulted into another one into Saka. Bellerin chose to go backwards however.

Now the attack is reset, Liverpool press again. A new player appears in Fabinho as Mane and Firmino are closing down on Emiliano Martinez. Fabinho switched roles with Milner, leaving the latter covering in midfield. Xhaka and El Neny are just facilitators to the build up, luring the press from Liverpool’s midfield before they play a pass into Holding or David Luiz who are relatively free.

Martinez correctly chose the El Neny option, then the midfielder played the ball into Holding who was under less pressure than David Luiz due to Salah’s presence on the right. Holding now can play the ball out comfortably.

Before Holding played the ball, Milner was left in a dilemma again. With Nketiah dropping into the space in midfield, Milner couldn’t move towards Bellerin out wide, leaving the Spanish right back free. Holding played the ball into Nketiah and with Bellerin free as a result of the above, a pass into Bellerin would have been the cherry on top. Nketiah didn’t have time though as Milner tackled him, halting the move.

Freeing the full back then reaching him was basically the plan for Arsenal. Here, Mane is positioned in a way to be able to press either Martinez or Holding. El Neny and Xhaka dropping deep again attracts Wijnaldum and Milner, but Milner’s body shape indicates that he is anticipating the ball into Bellerin as well.

Anticipation is one thing and being able to get the ball is another. Milner’s proximity to El Neny allows Bellerin time on the ball to dribble past Milner then move forward. Bellerin was seeking the ball down the line and had it reached Saka it would have been a 4 v 3 in favor of Arsenal due to the presence of Maitland-Niles on the far side.

Arsenal’s only goal on the day came from this type of build up. El Neny and Xhaka attracting Milner and Wijnaldum, while Holding and David Luiz are positioned near the far edges of the box to allow themselves a passing angle into the full backs.

Martinez played the ball into El Neny, forcing Milner to press and with Mane focusing on Holding, Bellerin is free. Here, El Neny could have played the ball into Bellerin because in theory Robertson can’t move all this way up to press due to the threat of Saka. However, El Neny can’t see Robertson and goes with the safer option, Holding.

Before the ball reaches Holding, he already knows where he will play it. Milner already took the bait and Bellerin is free. A one touch pass from Holding beats Mane and Bellerin is now free to advance. The ball down the line for Saka ends in an exquisite finish from Aubameyang to open the scoring. The build up worked.

Arteta tried to use a similar approach against Manchester City but the execution wasn’t as good neither was the usage of Xhaka and Dani Ceballos.

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman dismisses Tim Robbins’ talk about hope saying that it’s a dangerous thing which can drive a man insane.

Arteta is hope and if there’s anyone the Arsenal fans want to drive them crazy, it’s definitely him.

English Football. United