Mikel Arteta has put emphasis on defending high up the pitch since he took charge at Arsenal in December 2019, but has had varied results.
There were bright sparks early in his tenure. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Eddie Nketiah both scored goals after dispossessing goalkeepers to demonstrate the value of a high press in his first half-season, but beyond that, inconsistencies began to creep into Arsenal’s play without the ball. While their initial intention may have been to harass teams to regain possession, they struggled to maintain this in the first halves of both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.
While most attention is focused on how they are becoming more fluid and threatening with the ball this season, Arsenal’s work without it is underpinning their strong start. The season is just three games old, but as things stand, they are ranked third in the league for pressures (number of times applying pressure to an opposition player receiving, carrying or releasing the ball) in the attacking third (115) — behind only Leeds (129) and Newcastle (126).
The prospect of Arsenal’s pressing intensity improving was one of the many appeals of the Gabriel Jesus signing. Unsurprisingly, he leads Arsenal’s rankings for pressure in the attacking third with 26, but this goes beyond just him. That increase in intensity comes from the forward players as a whole and it first became hugely apparent during pre-season.
It was evident in the US against Everton and Chelsea, but the archetypal moment came for Bukayo Saka’s goal against Sevilla.
As the Spanish side tried to play out down their left, Gabriel Martinelli (ranked second at Arsenal for pressures in the attacking third with 24) closed off the ball up the line and Martin Odegaard (ranked third at Arsenal for pressures in the attacking third with 18) marked the midfield passing option, forcing a backward pass.
Martinelli follows the ball, while Jesus pushes up into the centre of the box to cut out the potential pass to the right and the ball is played back to the Sevilla goalkeeper.
The Arsenal press continues and, under pressure, goalkeeper Yassine Bounou attempts a first-time pass as Saka is entering the box…
It is under-hit and Saka rushes forward to finish with his first touch. When the ball leaves Saka’s foot, Arsenal have three players in the box and another two in support, outnumbering Sevilla in that area.
The strength in numbers is what makes the biggest difference for Arsenal in these situations. Intelligence, anticipation and aggression are musts when it comes to starting a press, but to truly put opposition teams under pressure, back-up in the right areas is essential.
In the Premier League, the value of this was seen in Jesus’ disallowed goal against Bournemouth.
When Mark Travers rolls the ball out to Lloyd Kelly, Jesus bends his run inward towards Travers before moving towards Kelly. Just like against Sevilla, he has cut off the square pass across the box.
He is then able to intercept when Kelly tries to pass into midfield and the ball falls to Saka. He has Odegaard and Jesus in support and passes back into Jesus, who then lays back to Granit Xhaka.
The front three all make quick darts forward, taking markers with them, leaving Odegaard free in space. Seven seconds have passed since Jesus’ interception and Arsenal have six attacking players in the final third when Xhaka finds the Arsenal captain.
Not only did they regain possession, but they were able to move the ball quickly and precisely enough to cut Bournemouth open and create a goalscoring chance. That also shows the improved decision making and execution on the ball in the final third.
It is only the slightest of offsides that stops this move from ending in a goal, but it nailed down the importance of pressing as a unit.
In 2020-21, the difference Odegaard made to Arsenal out of possession was noticeable because of this. Without him, they would have a set shape when an opposition goalkeeper was looking to build from the back, often having the front four in a line and then one of them pressing the ball. With Odegaard, he tended to push up to make their defensive shape a 4-4-2 and then looked to curve his pressing runs to guide teams wide.
Now, more players are getting involved to make a difference, with Arsenal starting to set traps for their opponents. The first signs of this also came in pre-season and were spoken about by Xhaka.
“We had a meeting and he (Arteta) showed us one action against Chelsea,” the midfielder said last month. “I was pressing Jorginho, the holding midfielder and Gabi Martinelli dropped into my position.
“Normally Gabi Martinelli is a left winger and the coaches say you have to stay with the right-back. Or you have to come inside. But he is dropping into the No 6 at the base.”
Xhaka gave a foul away on that occasion, but Martinelli covering that area of the pitch when his team-mates press on the right has already benefited Arsenal this season.
Minutes after Leicester City made it 3-2 at the Emirates, they looked to build another attack. As in the image above, four players were applying pressure to the ball and cutting off closer passing lanes, leaving one option open: Dennis Praet, who Martinelli spots as the pass is played.
The 21-year-old does not just make up the ground, but intercepts and plays the ball into Odegaard. Seconds later, Jesus returns the ball to him and he arrows it into the bottom corner to make it 4-2 and kill the game off.
Compare this to past seasons under Arteta and the contrast is stark. Arsenal had stronger pressing performances towards the end of last season. Interestingly, their 2-1 win over Wolves in February was one of their most organised pressing displays, and it was revealed in Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary how much emphasis Arteta put on closing off their right side.
He joked about handing out a £5,000 fine every time Wolves completed a pass in that area of the pitch, but the importance of that detail was clear over the course of the game.
In the first half of the season, Arsenal were still using that defensive 4-4-2 shape which worked, but not to the extent of the current press. Before he was taken out of the team, Aubameyang in particular was doing well in this regarddespite losing his finishing touch in front of goal, leading the Arsenal rankings for pressures (135) at the start of November, with 69 in the attacking third.
The season before (2020-21), the spaces left in midfield when Arsenal pressed (especially without Odegaard) were just far too big.
Take the Europa League match against Slavia Prague, for example. Their goalkeeper Ondrej Kolar was memorably poor with his distribution, giving Arsenal an opportunity to be aggressive with their press, but they failed to truly capitalise.
Initially, their shape seems fine. Five players high up stop any passes coming through the centre of the pitch.
When the ball is set back to Kolar, Willian is the one to press, but he is not joined by anyone.
Xhaka then goes to press when the Slavia Prague midfield receives the ball, but again, nobody else in red steps up.
Xhaka continues chasing until the ball is back to Kolar, but without any backup, the goalkeeper has a free man to use.
Arsenal still have a good amount of bodies forward to stop any short passes through the middle and force Slavia long, but the differences compared with games in the past month are there for all to see. Had they been playing against a better side, those spaces could have been exploited, as they often were during that season.
This season, Arsenal have had the benefit of one game a week. That changes next week with Aston Villa coming to Emirates Stadium on a Wednesday and will only become more difficult to maintain when they enter the Europa League and Carabao Cup in September.
As will be the case for their attacking exploits, whether they can continue to press as intently will be interesting to watch, especially with a mid-season World Cup. That is yet another reason why good squad depth will be crucial this year, but so far Arsenal look to have found their groove.
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