Tactical Points from Arsenal's dire defeat to Southampton
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Fortunately for our tactical analyst, Vinay, he was unable to watch yesterday's game, so I'm forced to fill in and dissect what made for a third consecutive painful viewing.
- Mikel Arteta had clearly learned from some of the mistakes he made in the tactical structure of the team against Brighton, and looked to rectify them in this game with his team selection. Sambi Lokonga had been severely isolated, with Granit Xhaka operating at left-back meaning the Seagulls could easily cut off passing lanes to the Belgian, and thus stop central ball progression.
- He took the sensible decision to revert back to a structure we have seen him use throughout his time at Arsenal, with the 3-2-5 shape in possession being reintroduced. Cedric played an inverted role at the back, Xhaka sat alongside Lokonga in a traditional double pivot, while Nuno Tavares, Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli were spread across the front five from left to right.
- This system meant that Saka and Martinelli were reversed, operating on the opposite side to where we usually see them thriving. The idea was clearly to use Saka in the left half-space, complimenting Odegaard in the right half-space, and then to have Tavares as the overlapping full-back providing the width on the left hand side. Theoretically, this made sense, having your more technical and creative players on the inside, essentially operating as two number tens.
- However, this plan ultimately backfired and was largely the cause of a toothless first half where Arsenal created a meagre 4 shots, despite having 67% of the ball. The only clear cut opportunity coming from a turnover as a result of effective pressing from Nketiah, and not a carefully constructed move.
- Saka's natural tendency to go on the outside and always look to bring the ball to wider positions when he plays on the left meant Tavares was crowded out and we saw none of him as an advanced outlet in the first 45, despite some good early drives in field. Martinelli also looked uncomfortable on the right, with getting the ball to the byline and looking for cut-backs certainly not his natural game. This is what he was tasked with and it didn't work.
- The most damaging element of this switch in sides for our wide forwards was that the dynamic Odegaard-Saka combination on the right, which has been so pivotal in our attacking play this season, was gone. Despite being structurally adept from the back and progressing the ball into the final third very effectively (which had been the main issue against Brighton), when we got the ball into these forward areas, it was all very lacklustre.
- The goal was essentially a result of a lapse in concentration from the second phase of a set-piece. The defence should've kept their shape and seen the half out, but instead naively pushed up and allowed Mohamed Elyounoussi to get in behind from a hooked hopeful ball. Gabriel played the Norwegian onside- another iffy moment from the Brazilian who is suffering a dip in form at a critical point in the season.
- The first half was nothing short of shambolic from an attacking sense and Arteta was forced to tweak things. Saka and Martinelli switched, and instantly we saw more from us going forward. Odegaard was now able to combine with the 20-year-old on the right, which made him substantially more influential and probably our best player in the second period.
- Martinelli was now less confined to the touchline, and we saw him become a goal threat, managing four shots by getting into more central positions and much closer to Nketiah. We also began to see more of Tavares as an outlet, but just as he was growing into the game, Arteta hooked him.
- A common theme throughout the game was trying to break Southampton's occasional press through Gabriel's line breaking diagonal pass to Odegaard. In the first half, the pass came off a few times, but Odegaard struggle to make much of the space he found himself in. In the second period, this was more fruitful with Saka available to the Norwegian. However, as the game wore on, Southampton dropped further back, so spaces started to close and we discovered that Gabriel really isn't Thomas Partey. This link is normally the Ghanian to Odegaard, and Partey is much more capable than the Brazilian at playing these passes with limited space.
- Despite smothering Southampton in the second half, controlling possession, territory and limiting the Saints to absolutely nothing, we struggled to work the ball into better goal-scoring positions. Most of our 23 shots on goal were from outside the box or from low xG positions.
- Although a lack of emphatic finishing and heroic goalkeeping kept us at bay, the lack of a dominant focal point really felt like the main issue in us getting the ball into high quality goal-scoring positions. While we saw a few sides of Nketiah's game which were an upgrade on Lacazette- with regards to his pressing and willingness to stretch the opposition with runs in behind- we also saw his limitations. Arteta remained insistent on his number nine dropping deep at times to link play, and Nketiah certainly didn't do this well, expectedly.
- The best way to use a limited striker such as Nketiah is to pile a load of creative and technically secure players around him and get him to focus on getting into the six-yard box. While eventually we did this, for much of the game we saw him trying to play the role Lacazette had been doing effectively a month or so ago. Asking him to do this is basically futile.
- While some may criticise some of our deeper players in this game, it was ultimately lost in the forward areas. We conceded from one lapse in concentration, but other than that we were completely untroubled by a poor Southampton side. The likes of Gabriel, White, Lokonga and Xhaka were sufficient at progressing the ball into the final third, while also snuffing out Southampton counters. It was our inability to turn that final third presence into good chances that cost us.
- Even with the limited chances we did have, we ultimately created enough to win this game. It's the lack of ruthlessness in our finishing that is costing us, but perhaps that's to be expected when you're relying on two 20-year-olds and average strikers to score you enough goals to get into the top four. Has not signing a striker in January cost us Champions League football?