It was all ponytails and pressing last time on the road. The road-trip was interrupted. A familiar test was facing Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa, one that they barely managed to pass against the master. The apprentice, could have probably taken note of that encounter, adjusting the approach to suit his own ideas and personnel.
Ponytails were still present, as was the pressing. It was present, but shifted hands from Yorkshire to North London. The presser has become the pressed. From taking the opponent’s breath away, Leeds couldn’t take their own when facing Arsenal’s press.
Arsenal’s pressing scheme was similar to the one Manchester City used against Leeds United at Elland Road, albeit a tweaked version. Different, but aiming to reach the same end result. Dispossessing Leeds United of the ball and neutralizing their build up.
The build up which heavily features direct balls from Ilan Meslier towards the full backs or the winger towards the touchline. Mikel Arteta targeted this area, as did his mentor Pep Guardiola.
Arsenal’s 4–2–3–1 had specific roles in the pressing phase. Emile Smith Rowe pressed Leeds’ right back Jamie Shackleton, Bukayo Saka moved inside to press Leeds’ left center back Liam Cooper as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Martin Ødegaard pressed Luke Ayling and Pascal Struijk respectively. By the touchline, Hector Bellerin also had a role. Moving out to press Ezgjan Alioski pending a pressing trigger.
That trigger was activated when Meslier received the ball from Ayling with all the options covered and Alioski seemingly free. At first, the trio of Saka, Aubameyang and Ødegaard are in their positions slowly smothering Leeds’ center backs and deep midfielder. Meanwhile, Smith Rowe is on the left covering Shackleton. With the ball at Ayling’s feet Aubameyang presses slowly….
…..and once the ball is played back to Meslier, Aubameyang makes an angled run to press Meslier. The angled run here prevents Meslier from passing it back towards Ayling and with the other options covered as explained earlier, Meslier thinks that he can get out of jail with ball towards Alioski. He is wrong, because the pressing trigger has already been activated once Aubameyang made the angled run to press the keeper. Bellerin was already making the run.
Bellerin’s run makes Alioski uncomfortable and in this example it forces the Macedonian into heading the ball outside, allowing Arsenal to retrieve possession while decreasing Leeds’ time on the ball.
Arsenal’s pressing trio kept maintaining their pressing duties throughout the first half….
and once the pressing trigger was activated, Bellerin was on his way even if he wasn’t near Alioski.
Because the safety measure used by Arteta here was shifting David Luiz across to cover the space Bellerin left when the Spaniard was pressing Alioski.
When Bellerin was out of position, pressing or anticipating the press, Arsenal’s back line stretched across the field into more of a back three to cover Leeds’ front three. A trick which Arteta was on the other side of when Arsenal were nullified at the Etihad.
On the other side, it was a similar story. Once Cooper had the ball and passed it back to Meslier, Saka made the angled run and it gave a signal to Smith Rowe to move forward and decrease the space between him and Shackleton.
Saka’s angled run removes the option of a pass back towards Cooper and with the close options for Meslier all out of the equation, he has to go long. In this instance, the long ball proves difficult for Raphinha and Dani Ceballos manages to retrieve the ball for Arsenal.
Even when the players switched positions, the roles were maintained. Arsenal’s pressing was constant.
And once the ball was played back into Meslier…..
….the pressing trio moved into action. Two in position to press, while the third making an angled run to block the passing lane into the center back and pressure Meslier into making a decision.
With all the options crossed out and no time on the ball, the press was forcing Meslier into errors. Here, he put the ball out of bounds.
Then another time here. The press deprived Leeds from any form of build up and provided Arsenal with regular possession.
The mistakes kept coming as Arsenal pressed and the angled runs from Aubameyang and Saka put a timer over Meslier’s head. In the thirteenth minute, Aubameyang’s angled run forced Meslier into playing a poor pass towards Alioski.
The ball fell to Bellerin instead, who was near because of the pressing trigger being activated. Bellerin collected the ball easily, and from this retrieval of possession Arsenal managed to score their first goal.
Then in thirty-ninth minute it was the same, Smith Rowe getting closer to Shackleton because Cooper is preparing for the pass backwards, the pressing trio in place.
Then Saka makes the angled run, blocking the passing lane into Cooper while Ødegaard and Aubameyang are covering Struijk and Ayling respectively. As Saka approaches, Meslier hesitates because he knows Smith Rowe is covering Shackleton…..
….and he spots Bellerin close to Alioski — bottom left of the snippet. This split-second hesitation allows Saka to nick the ball and win a penalty which Aubameyang scored to double the lead.
In possession, Arsenal followed a simple strategy to get the better of Leeds’ man-marking. Drifting away from dangerous position to create space, then combining to find the player running into that space. An example here sees Ødegaard dropping in the right hand channel, to create space for Ceballos to attack.
David Luiz plays the ball toward Ødegaard, who then combines to find Ceballos’ run.
Also in the build up to the denied penalty, Ødegaard moved wide dragging Struik out of position and creating a gap centrally. Then combined with Saka….
….to put Saka into the free space, running at Leeds’ center backs.
This could also be seen in the first and fourth goal. In the first, Smith Rowe drops and plays the ball towards Granit Xhaka as Aubameyang moves into the space out wide….
….which puts the striker into a position to run at Leeds’ defence with his head facing the goal.
Finally in the build up to the fourth goal, Aubameyang drops to create space centrally. Then combines with Saka who is making a run into this space.
Putting him into this position, from where his shot was blocked then Arsenal retrieved possession to score the fourth and seel the game.
Arteta’s Arsenal seemed far away at a certain time this season, but twenty points out of a possible thirty has put them only six points away from the Champions League spots.
Arteta might not be Arsenal’s hero. He is a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight