Arsenal: The Rise of the Gunners



arsenal on a field-speech with their coach during a match

Arsenal has been playing great for most of this season. Mikel Arteta has managed to build a team that plays beautiful and bright football in a combinative style, dominating most of its opponents.

In this article, we will analyze how Arsenal plays at both the offensive and defensive phases and highlight the characteristic principles of the team.

We will analyze how Arsenal starts build-up from the back, and which different structures to ensure numerical superiority that Arteta uses when organizing attacks, depending on the players’ characteristics. And we will also look at how Arsenal organizes the defense and what methods of pressure it uses.

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In the build-up phase, Arsenal tries to generate numerical advantage from the back and find the player with advantage to progress. They do not have a fix structure, as they build-up using two or three center backs depending on how the opponent is pressing, always respecting the team principle of ensuring numerical superiority in the first line.

In the midfield, Arteta forms a square in the center of the field with two midfielders at the base and two midfielders in the pockets, as seen recently with other managers such as Xavi Hernández (FC Barcelona) or Pep Guardiola (Manchester City). This ensures that the team has always four inner players, allowing them to have numerical advantage in the middle as we could see in our recent webinar ‘How to Play a 4-3-3 System with 4 Midfielders‘.

We can note that the square in the center of the field is used by teams that seek to control the ball and dominate in the center of the field having a large number of options for developing an attack through the center. At Arsenal, this square in the center of the field is not always formed by the same player players, and it is sometimes left full back and other times the left winger who plays inside as the fourth midfielder.

In the first case, when Zinchenko is playing as a left full back, he performs the function of an inverted fullback, playing at the base of the square next to Partey or Jorginho. It is then Xhaka, who moves up to the pockets to complete the square with Odegaard. This allows Xhaka to play closer to someone else’s penalty area and actively participate in the completion of attacks in the final third of the field.

In the second scenario, it is usually Tierney who plays as a left back. One of the holding midfielders, Thomas or Jorginho, plays in the support zone, and Xhaka descends to the base. It is then the left winger, Martinelli, who completes the square. In this case, Tierney supports the attack by gaining depth on the flank, and providing the width to the team.

caption of a match between ARS and CRY, focusing on the attackers atack area

1. Zinchenko in

Scenario 1. Zinchenko plays left back, occupying the base of the square

caption of a match between ARS and WHU, focusing on the attackers movements

1. Tierney out

Scenario 2. Tierney plays left back, with Martinelli coming inside

In terms of organizing the attack, Arsenal follows several principles. The first one is to ensure the numerical superiority in the inner areas, thanks using the structure mentioned above, and play to one of the advanced midfielders if there is advantage. If one of the advanced midfielders receives the ball and is able to turn, the attackers activate fast and provide unmarking movements to offer passing options and create imbalances in the defensive line.

The second aspect is their game at the flanks. Arsenal has fast and skilled wingers on the sides: Martinelli and Saka. This allows Arsenal to generate advantage by using their wingers in one-on-one situations againsts their markers. In addition, the wingers are often supported by the full backs, creating numerical superiority on the sides.

Also it is worth mentioning their crosses. Despite not being a team with many tall players, Arsenal actively use crosses and create danger due to the fact that they attack the box with a large number of players in crossing situations, with midfielders actively contributing to ensure this team principle. Many goals have come this way during this season.

caption of a match focusing on Ødegaard and his direction

2. Attack box

In crossing situations, many players attack the box, specially with the advanced midfielders as we can see with Ødegaard in this play.

In defense, Arsenal are an active team that likes to press high. A characteristic feature of Arsenal’s defense this season is high intense pressure. They start in a flat 4-4-2 structure, with Ødegaard acting as a striker together with Gabriel Jesus, making up a pair of forwards.

However, it is worth noting that they do not keep this positional balance, as players adapt their position based on the opponent players, in order to limit the passing options that the ball holder has in the intervention zone. Therefore, this base structure is often not seen when observing Arsenal in the defensive phase. For those who are interested in knowing more details about this pressing approach, you can watch our webinar ‘Principles of High Pressing: Block vs Duels‘ where we analyzed the difference between pressing in block (Manchester City) or in duels (Arsenal).

When Arsenal is pressing high, though, the players who are far away from the ball try to remain in between players, in order to better defend the space. However, as the ball approaches their zone, they reduce this distance and mark the opponents more tightly, which allows them to either put pressure on the potential receivers.

caption of a match between Liverpool and Arsenal, focusing on the attackers movements

3. High pressing

In the defensive phase, the team abandons the positional balance to press high in individual duels.

In conclusion, after many years struggling to make it to the top four of the Premier League, Arsenal seem to have built a solid game model under Mikel Arteta, which is allowing them to perform at a very high level. Arteta has built a very dynamic team, with very clear principles in the build-up, which allows them to find solutions against the different proposals that opponents present. This, together with the use of four midfielders in inner areas and how the team charges the box in crossing situations, have provided tools to make their attack one of the most dangerous in Europe. In defense, their approach pressing high in individual duels, is their most characteristic principle.

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