Arsenal’s build up schemes and the fake counter-attack

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It’s been a while since this tribe has been elevated to the stature they were once at. Premier League champions, FA Cup winners, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup winners, UEFA Cup finalists and Champions League finalists.

Organization and personnel issues meant that every time they have been to war against a near-by tribe, they came out the worst. Accepting defeat as the norm. Year after year, this norm became the usual. The expectation.

Any hope was eradicated, ostracized, ridiculed to an extent that the tribe still doubts itself after any series of wins. Leader after leader have failed to command them to previous glories. Glories that were long ago under a chieftain that will never be forgotten, that time however has long passed.

A new chieftain is in place now. A foreigner that had joined the tribe during his last days as a warrior. His ideas have inspired the tribe. The elders have been impressed and the warriors are taking on his ideas like Sodium Polyacrylate reacting with water.

The new chieftain is called Mikel Arteta. His ideas have been influenced by his Spanish upbringing and the time spent with Pep Guardiola. But his fifteen years — and counting — in England has also made him in his words “feel part-English”.

The most notable of these ideas has been Arsenal’s build up. The intricacy of the structures is only matched by the execution. It may seem risky, but risky pays more. And in a low scoring sport such as football, you might only need one goal.

Arsenal have used multiple build up schemes to date, and the results are promising. In this piece we will expand on three that Arsenal have used since the end of last season.

In an age where pressing is the top dog, Arsenal’s deep build up acts as the antithesis. Seeking to lure in the press then strike on the false counter. A fast attack that seems like a counter attack, but isn’t one. The real creators in this type of build up are Arsenal’s full backs. Often shifting between a back five and a back four, Arsenal mainly play with a back four in possession. Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney are the creators in this build, while Mohamed El Neny, Granit Xhaka or Dani Ceballos are the facilitators.

In this scenario Arteta uses El Neny and Xhaka to lure in Liverpool’s press and attract James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum, before shifting the ball wide to the full backs. The Liverpool front three here are mainly concerned with pressing Arsenal’s center-backs and goalkeeper, meaning that certain passing sequences could free Bellerin and Tierney. Wijnaldum is tracking Xhaka in this example while a pass into El Neny is risky due to him being in Firmino’s cover shadow and because of Mane’s positioning near the Egyptian.

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As David Luiz plays the ball wide to Rob Holding and the latter is preparing a pass into El Neny, Milner has to adjust his run from a run towards Bellerin to a run towards El Neny.

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Which means that Bellerin is now free and El Neny could find him with a one touch pass.

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Liverpool’s high press also means that their entire block has to be high up the pitch to maintain compactness. Leaving plenty of space for Arsenal’s wide players to attack in case they break the press and find the wide players quick enough. Here comes the role of the two creators, Bellerin and Tierney have to find Aubameyang and the right winger quickly when this window of opportunity opens. 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 Andy Robertson.

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The benefits of this build up was illustrated in Arsenal’s only goal in the same game. El Neny and Xhaka attracted Milner and Wijnaldum, while Holding and David Luiz were positioned near the far edges of the box to allow themselves a passing angle into the full backs.

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

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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.

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It gives the feeling of a counter-attack, but it started from the build up. The ball down the line for Saka ends in an exquisite finish from Aubameyang to open the scoring. The build up worked.

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The official Arsenal Twitter account compared that goal against Liverpool to the third against Fulham citing “Practice makes perfect”.

In that goal against Fulham El Neny and Xhaka dropped to the edge of the box and when the ball was circulated towards Holding, both Josh Onomah and Ivan Cavaleiro were near the defender. The free Arsenal players here are Xhaka and Bellerin. Out of the picture, Maitland-Niles’ presence in the left channel prevents Harrison Reed from advancing, thus leaving Xhaka free. As for Bellerin, it’s Cavaleiro’s positioning to be ready to press El Neny or Holding that frees the Arsenal right back.

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Holding played the ball into Xhaka who then passed it to Bellerin, reaching the full back as planned. Joe Bryan, Fulham’s left back, tried to press Bellerin but Arsenal’s speed of passing took him out. Bellerin then found El Neny with one touch and the symphony started.

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Jon Ollington’s diagram comparing both goals shows the sequence which aims to find Bellerin in a free situation to create an attack that gives the feeling of a counter-attack, but isn’t one.

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Pic via @jonollington on Twitter

Another example is in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz are taking their positions near the corner of the box to be able to find the full backs easier. Meanwhile, both Ceballos and Xhaka are dropping deep near the edge of the penalty box. Riyad Mahrez manages the block the passing lane into David Luiz, while David Silva picks up Ceballos. No one however moved up the pitch from City to track Xhaka.

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This allows Arsenal a free man in the passing range and the domino effect is that the free man shifts from being Xhaka….

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.…to being David Luiz.

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Gabriel Jesus’ attempt to move out and face David Luiz fails, freeing Tierney out wide because Kevin De Bruyne is defending the pass into the channel in case Ainsley Maitland-Niles goes inside. Now that the ball reached the full back as planned Arsenal managed to switch play to the free side of the field resulting in the opener with a cross from Nicolas Pepe.

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The switch of play brings us to another feature in Arsenal’s build up where they seek to switch the ball quickly to the other side of the field using Alexandre Lacazette as the linkage.

A direct pass from Tierney here into Lacazette is then followed by a switch of play towards Bellerin on the far side, leaving Benjamin Mendy in a 2 vs 1 situation before Ilkay Gundogan was present. This resulted in less pressure on Pepe to assist the opener.

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The peculiar role of Maitland-Niles means that he is a crucial part of the build up. Arsenal build up on the left side, attracting pressure then quickly shift the play to the other freer side. Here, Maitland-Niles is slightly free but Cavaleiro is coming to pick him up. Gabriel sees that and decides to pass it to Tierney.

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The passing sequence is as follows. Tierney plays the ball down the line for Aubameyang who returns it to Maitland-Niles to switch play to the other side. To do that he has to find the link player which is Lacazette, just like against City. The attack eventually put Aubameyang in a 1 v 1 scenario after Bellerin had plenty of time on the ball to find Aubameyang behind the Fulham defence.

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A different view of the opener against Fulham showcases that as well. Maitland-Niles is inside, Tierney wide and Gabriel choosing the Scottish left back again.

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Tierney played the ball forward toWillian, who immediately played the reverse pass to Maitland-Niles to switch play to the other side. Maitland-Niles could have been direct with a one touch pass towards Bellerin who was free, but he chose the safe option in passing to Xhaka.

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The first goal against Liverpool at Anfield — despite coming from a Robertson error — also started from a similar sequence. David Luiz not exactly finding a passing option, waiting for Maitland Niles to go inside towards the marked space to present one.

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Trent Alexander-Arnold is late and the pin ball sequence occurs. The passing angle towards Tierney that wasn’t present is now available.

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Maitland-Niles found Tierney who then played the ball down the line for the dropping Aubameyang. The normal scenario would have seen Aubameyang reversing the ball back to Xhaka before the Swiss plays into Lacazette to switch the play similar to the examples above. Aubameyang however wanted to play it into the path of Maitland-Niles…

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..luckily for him and Arsenal, the ball was intercepted and fell to Xhaka who played it with a one touch pass towards the link man Lacazette. The pass was overhit, but Lacazette managed to find Maitland-Niles to create the fake counter attack. Arsenal were lucky to score this goal, but the idea behind it shows the power of this move.

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Moving on to another feature in Arsenal’s build up that we have seen in their latest league game, the Bellerin-El Neny switcheroo. The first twenty-five minutes of the first half against Sheffield United saw El Neny dropping regularly to the right side to form a back three in the build up. Contrary to the shape you see before the game, Arsenal mainly build up with a back four. Therefore, seeing El Neny there felt odd. It didn’t work out due to the lack of threat in the right channel and Saka’s unfamiliarity with the Maitland-Niles role in the left channel.

Arteta ditched this build up shape after twenty five minutes before returning to it again in the 60th minute. The inclusion of Pepe, moving Willian to the left channel, and sticking Saka to the left touchline meant that Arsenal had better threat in the left channel and on the right wing. This enabled Bellerin to attack the right channel, while El Neny was covering for him on the right side of a three man build up. Tierney meanwhile was hovering behind Saka on the left touchline.

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The result was two goals and another three points for Arsenal. In the first goal, the presence of El Neny on the right side in the build up allowed Bellerin to go inside and attack the space. Willian who was now operating in the left channel found Bellerin and Arsenal managed to penetrate Sheffield United.

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Willian then overloaded the right side with Pepe but the noticeable thing is how high Bellerin is because he knows that El Neny is covering.

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El Neny then pushes forward and Bellerin’s position is now threatening to Sheffield United as he could be found with a pass putting him behind the defence. El Neny chose to play the ball into Aubameyang though…

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…who then found Bellerin with a pass. Bellerin then managed to assist Saka to make it 1–0. This all stemmed from the build up structure that allowed Bellerin to operate freely in the right channel stripe.

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The second goal is quite similar. Bellerin and Willian preparing to attack the channels as El Neny drops to the right side. John Fleck is seeking to face El Neny, completely ignoring the threat of Bellerin behind him.

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Which means that once the ball reaches Pepe, Bellerin is free to attack while El Neny is covering for him.

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Pepe then combined with Bellerin as the Spaniard assisted the second goal excellently by switching the ball to his left foot to play Pepe behind the Sheffield United defence.

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More variations in the build up could be seen as the season commences, but for now Arsenal might be the most interesting team in terms of how they build up. Especially against sides who want to press high.

The young chieftain’s ideas might be unorthodox but for the tribe that hasn’t seen daylight in years, they are starting to believe.

English Football. United

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