Playing out from the back- How Arteta has lost his way with his most Persistent Tactic
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
If Mikel Arteta was looking to spark a late season push towards the top six and gather momentum ahead of a hugely important and hopefully lengthy Europa League run, he'll have been left gravely disappointed by what was an abject display at the Emirates on Saturday night against the Champions. Jurgen Klopp's men eased past an Arsenal side that looked devoid of all the positive tactical features that I highlighted in my piece almost two weeks ago.
As I delved into deeply last week, the signs of progression in the way we play have been evident since Christmas, and Arteta has certainly found (or stumbled upon) a formula that works. Implementing a non-frenetic and somewhat co-ordinated press, formulating a structure that has enabled attacking freedom and introducing more innovative patterns of play that aren't simply relying on relentless crosses have seen a drastic upturn in all our metrics and our results- even if they remain rather inconsistent.
However, as I alluded to in that piece, there's still a lot left to be desired in this Arteta team that has only briefly touched the emblems of being a genuinely good football team. The Spanish coach may well have taken the recent international break to analyse his system and hopefully construct a plan to improve and tone certain areas of it. As I focused on the positives last time out, it's time to unfortunately look at the other side of the coin. This week, I'm focusing on an element of his tactical field that has been a staple in his reign.
Playing Out From the Back
The modern phenomenon of 'playing out from the back'- rather than simply hoofing it long- has engulfed the punditry world in a state of disbelief over the idea that tactics may have actually developed since the days they graced a football pitch. Those paid lavishly to flaunt their outdated opinions on broadcasts to the nation will let you believe that attempting to play from the back is 'stupid' and 'pointlessly risky'. It is risky, but certainly not pointlessly risky.
The obvious advantage of being able to work the ball out of your defence and into forward players without having to play it long and likely lose possession is that, well, you don't lose possession. You may evade the opposition press and thus create overloads in forward areas. Seems obvious, doesn't it?
All forward-thinking and progressive coaches with good technical players at their disposal should be insistent on using this revolutionary tactic. Gone are the days of going long to your 6'4 striker to knock it down, in what has become an unsustainable tactic in maintaining possession in the modern game (unless you're Burnley).
Of course, playing in such a manner invites one of the other major developments in football tactics in the modern era- the press. This will therefore always mean playing out from the back will involve an element of risk, and that it may not always work and could cost you. However, the reward you get from maintaining possession frequently during games, which probably results in conceding fewer and scoring more, should outweigh the one mistake you make every ten games from implementing this playing style. In an ideal world, there should be some level of variation in how long you go from deep areas, but you should certainly be going short almost all of the time.
Arteta's team has two main issues in the way they play out from the back at this present moment. Firstly, mistakes are far too common. Secondly- and this may be a consequence of the first issue- the team folds on their principles far too often.
Last season, Arteta's side was largely successful at playing out from the back. Whilst not only did it lead to some beautifully worked moves that led to goals, there were also very few instances where they conceded possession in their defensive third as a result of the system. Yet, this season it feels as though it's been far less fruitful. Not only have we not seen tangible effects of playing in this way on the offensive side, we've began to concede chances and goals from failing to do so properly.
Granit Xhaka's atrocious error at Turf Moor and Dani Ceballos' in Athens stand out as two instances where this tactic has cost us, but there are many more in which we've escaped luckily. Whilst these are indeed individual errors that Arteta cannot account for, there may be a case that they are provoked somewhat by structural errors. The team is not always structurally set up astutely enough to co-ordinate these passing patterns out the back, with players often not positioned correctly when the passing moves are supposed to take place. This could be the result of the players not acting on the coaching they've received on this system, or simply the coaching hasn't been there or been intense enough. Either way, the frequency of these mistakes means they cannot be simply dismissed as dismal lapses in concentration, and must be down to larger tactical issues.
Perhaps down to these frequent errors, Arsenal too regularly fold on this insistence on playing out from the back- or at least this season. When the going gets tough and we face more aggressive pressing opponents, we all too regularly see Bernd Leno not even attempt to play out from the back, but rather go long and often look to find Nicolas Pepe, our greatest aerial presence in forward areas.
Two specific games spring to mind in which Leno abandoned the tactic all together, and instead decided to turn into 2009 Stoke City. At Elland Road in November against Leeds and then on Saturday against Liverpool at the Emirates. In these games, Leno attempted 31 and 21 long balls respectively, resulting in 29% and 38% accuracy respectively. On average this season, he attempts just 12.3 long balls per 90, and completes 80% of all his passes.
To demonstrate how this abandonment of Arteta's most staunch tactic derailed us, in both these games we registered two of our lowest xG totals this season, in 0.79 and 0.16 respectively. We also conceded over 2 xG in both of these games, indicating that constantly lumping the ball forward meant we both struggled to build attacks and enabled the opponent to build far too many as we helplessly conceded possession.
Obviously, when you face these more fierce pressing sides, an element of rationality needs to be brought in. The risk is heightened and thus more variation in the length of your goalkeeper's distribution needs to be introduced. However, the extent to what we collapsed these core principles of Arteta's philosophy clearly cost us. Our manager must work to amend this if he is to seek more improvements to this team. Simply identifying how frequently he wants his team to play out from the back and which sort of scenarios against different opposition should result in drastic developments.
At a club that is desperately searching to regain its identity, Arteta must look to regain one of the core traits that was previously part of the identity he was forging, otherwise the pressure will only continue to build on the divisive Spaniard.