How Arsenal beat Southampton at their own game- Tactical Points
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
A brilliant Arsenal victory against a very difficult side, and one that displayed Mikel Arteta's very capable tactical ingenuity:
- Arteta opted to maintain the nucleus of the side that has excelled in recent weeks, albeit with some enforced changes. Most notably, the composition of Arsenal's left-hand side was lacking two vital players in Kieran Tierney and Pierre-Emerick Aubamyeang, and instead of opting for a perhaps more conventional pairing, the Spaniard deployed two players predominantly used on the right to occupy this opposite flank.
- The selection of Cedric Soares on the left was slightly bewildering before the game following his poor display on that side in the Cup game on Saturday, but Arteta paired the right-footed Portuguese with a left-footer in Nicolas Pepe, to formulate what was an effective makeshift left side.
- On Saturday, Cedric was playing on that side with Gabriel Martinelli which created an unbalanced chemistry, with both looking to come inside, providing little threat and noticeable predictability down that side. In this game, Cedric's ability to pick out cross field balls quickly and the enforced simplicity of playing on this side to Pepe's game made it an effective combination.
- Pepe's most frustrating aspect is his over complication of certain phases of the game and this is exemplified when he's on the right as he's constantly having to take more touches to get the ball onto his much stronger left foot. This is completely negated on the left, where he takes fewer touches and thus loses possession on fewer occasions. Even if he wasn't as flashy and didn't make too many spectacular contributions last night, his security on the ball was significantly better, and thus made most reflect on this performance from the Ivorian in a more positive light.
- The more general tactical approach was clearly to counter-press Southampton. Ralph Hasenhuttl's side are known for their high intensity press, but Arteta was able to counter this in two ways. The first was to make sure we won the ball back high up the pitch, by implementing a cohesive counter pressing system. If we were able to win the ball high up the pitch after losing possession in that area, then there would be few occasions in which we'd have the ball deep in our half where Southampton could press us.
- In Emile Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Alex Lacazette, Arteta had the tools to implement this press. All three relentlessly harried Southampton's deeper players when they were on the ball, and were largely successful in winning it back or forcing a misplaced short or longer ball.
- Beyond these three was a liberated Granit Xhaka, who appears to play a more aggressive pressing role when Thomas Partey is in the side, utilising the Swiss international's leadership in conducting the pressing. If Southampton were to play through the press, having the more mobile Partey there to protect the defence- rather than Xhaka- made sense. Additionally, Xhaka has shown himself to be an effective presser of the ball when supported by other pressers.
- This squeezing of the Southampton backline when in possession extended to the full-backs, who pushed up high and blocked passing outlets to Southampton's wide men- Cedric in particular excelling in this aspect. This high risk high reward strategy did see our centre-backs and Partey somewhat exposed in the transition on a few occasions in the first half, but nothing ever really harmed us, with Southampton failing to create a big chance (on xG) in the game until the 86th minute.
- The second way in which Arteta clearly attempted to negate the threat posed by the Southampton press was by playing long aerial balls from deep areas. Arteta's side has become synonymous with playing out from the back in his tenure, but in this game we didn't risk this because of Hasenhuttl's pressing machine, with Bernd Leno, David Luiz and Rob Holding clearly instructed to go long. Although we largely failed to win the aerial battles, we often won the second balls or launched our press immediately anyway. Adapting your game to the strengths of the opposition is a sign of a great tactical coach and Arteta did that yesterday.
- Once we established the lead, our approach in the second half changed somewhat. Southampton's main form of chance creation is through turnovers created by the press not through possession based football against a compact shape. Thus, sitting in a compact shape and trying to hit them in the transition was a smart way to protect our lead, and we did so.
- Overall, a very good away win. We move onto Manchester United on Saturday.