If there ever was a time to play Arsenal, at home and on an opening day is the time to do it. The Gunners have lost four of their previous six opening day fixtures, a statistic the London club were keen to reverse. However, where others had used their first game to lay down a marker for the rest of the season, Arsenal began in sloppier fashion, struggling to beat Newcastle in a forgettable 1-0 victory at St. James Park.
This tactical analysis looks at the problems Arsenal faced when building attacks, leading to an xG of only 0.83. It also analyses the tactics deployed by new manager Steve Bruce in his attempt to get Newcastle off to a winning start.
The home side kicked off in an unfamiliar 3-5-2, a shape they didn’t use at all last season. This was a sign that Bruce is keen to implement his own ideas, and perhaps why Newcastle can be forgiven for only producing an xG of 0.83, compared to their home average of 1.37 set last season. This alteration saw a welcome return for Jonjo Shelvey, who only made 16 appearances under Benítez last season. Shelvey was deployed as the central pivot looking to link with new signing Joelinton and Almirón in offensive transition.
Arsenal, on the other hand, started in a shape more familiar to the squad, opting for a 4-2-3-1 system. Unai Emery used this 40% of the time last year as Arsenal averaged an xG of 1.42 when using it. With injuries and fitness issues in several positions, Emery offered starts to youngsters Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock. The pair accompanied Henrikh Mkhitaryan and top-scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the attacking four. Mattéo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka were the double pivot in midfield and offered protection to the new centre-back pairing of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Calum Chambers.
Arsenal sought to control the game early. Their 61.2% possession statistic was achieved partly by their ability to keep the ball using the double pivots and partly due to the lack of pressing intent shown by Newcastle.
That’s not to say Newcastle operated from a low block, which they didn’t. Instead, they allowed Arsenal forward and covered the spaces in the vertical passing lanes as opposed to pressing aggressively. In doing so they stifled the Arsenal passing rhythm and didn’t get exposed from a press being bypassed from quick interchanges.
Arsenal adopted a low tempo, building from the back and using ball rotations to advance down the pitch. The double pivots were heavily involved and connected the defence with the midfield by offering passing angles into central midfield. Arsenal’s midfield pairing amassed 180 touches between them before the final whistle blew.
Despite their ability to control the pace of the game, Arsenal struggled to build attacks to penetrate Newcastle’s defence. The use of the double pivot offered stability as demonstrated above, however this additional player sacrificed attacking options. This led to the deprivation of the connection between midfield and attack.
The pass map highlights this point. Arsenal’s slow ball rotations were unable to disorganise Newcastle’s defensive shape. As they advanced down the pitch using the pivots, they were often unable to link attacks by exploiting the space on the opposite side of the pitch. As a result, attacks broke down in their infancy. Willock who had the role of connecting the play in the central areas struggled to cohesively link attacks. Notice in the pass map how the central pass links are scarce, showing Arsenal’s inability to switch play quickly to create overloads on the opposite flank.
Above, Arsenal developed their attack down the left flank using Xhaka to progress the ball and Nacho Monreal pushing forward in support. Notice how Willock has difficulty getting involved in the build-up due to Newcastle covering the central passing lanes. This was a common theme as the youngster only touched the ball 30 times before being substituted in the second half.
The play continued down the left flank. Willock’s lack of experience in the number 10 position meant he was unable to find small spaces in the congested areas of the pitch. The young midfielder dropped deep in search of the ball, which in fact nullified Arsenal’s threat as it removed him from dangerous areas. Therefore, Willock couldn’t link with Aubameyang or Mkhitaryan.
The ball continued to move down the left despite the congestion. Eventually, the ball is funnelled wide and lost due to lack of space and options available. If Willock had occupied a more advanced position in the move he could have received a pass in a dangerous area where the option to switch flank, shoot or pass would have opened up.
By only developing attacks down each flank in isolation, without the cohesion that could utilise the entire pitch highlighted the importance of Mesut Özil in this Arsenal side.
Not only did Arsenal fail to use their wings in collaboration, but they also had trouble building attacks down the right flank entirely. 51% of their attacks came from the left, compared to just 29% from the right. The reason for such a stark difference on either wing was the players occupying these positions.
On the left was Nelson, a natural winger with the inclination to stay wide and attack from the outside coming in. The right-wing was occupied by Mkhitaryan, who by nature enjoys drifting inside to link with the main striker.
Above, Ainsley Maitland-Niles picked up the ball in an advanced position and looked to build an attack down the right-hand side. Mkhitaryan is unavailable as a passing option due to his movement inside. This allowed Shelvy to close down the ball whilst shadow covering the passing lane into Mkhitaryan. As a result, Maitland-Niles was forced to either pass back inside or create an attack by himself.
In this instance, the right-back opted to go it alone. The youngster was forced to take on his man in a 1v2 situation. On this occasion, Maitland-Niles did exceptionally well and the marauding run resulted in a dangerous delivery into the box. However, this was few and far between as the lack of support on the right-wing was often easily snuffed out by the Newcastle defenders.
Newcastle transition troubles
Along with their problems in sustaining prolonged pressure with their attacks, Newcastle also had defensive troubles. In a 3-5-2 the wing-backs advance and retreat based on who has possession and where. Where the position differs to that of a full-back is that their role imposes a much higher offensive responsibility. This is because they must make up for the lack of width that would usually be provided by a winger in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 shape. This is demonstrated below.
Matt Ritchie had the responsibility to support the attacks, providing width on the left flank. The wing-backs did this in symmetry to offer balance in the Newcastle attacks. This meant Javier Manquillo also advanced on the right. As a result, large spaces were left between the wing-back and the outer centre-back on their respective sides.
In possession, there is no issue, however, once the ball was lost the defensive transition became an area to exploit.
Once Newcastle conceded possession, the wing-backs had an extreme distance to recover. This allowed Arsenal plenty of time and space to make penetrating runs as the Newcastle players attempted to close this space off.
The outer centre-backs tucked inside to avoid leaving large gaps through the centre. This left a very vulnerable, isolated back three that were easily exploited. On too many occasions Arsenal squandered chances to punish the defensive transition troubles of their opponents.
The goal eventually did come from a wing-back caught out of position from a sloppy pass, which Aubameyang finished with typical calmness as Newcastle defenders raced to recover.
Steve Bruce will be disappointed not to begin the new Premier League campaign with a result to get the supporters on side. Newcastle can be forgiven a home defeat to Arsenal, however, they’ll be concerned with the defensive issues they faced as a result of their new shape as this analysis showed. More time on the training ground and the embedding of new signings must take place before a true evaluation of the Magpies can be made. Only time will tell.
Arsenal, on the other hand, will be pleased to immediately break their away form curse from last season. The gunners weren’t at their best and did nothing to convince supporters that fourth place is theirs to lose. However, with players out and big signings still to be bled into the first 11, Arsenal will no doubt develop into a different attacking entity as the season progresses.
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