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Creating counter-attacks with possession
Arsenal, through balls and enormous chances
What if I told you that Arsenal, without losing possession, made a run in behind a high line and had a clear one-on-one opportunity just eight seconds after this moment last Sunday?
And again, without Newcastle touching the ball, just 21 seconds after this one?
With all those players behind the ball, against one of the most organised defences in the league, Arsenal managed to two huge chances that looked like they came from classic counter-attacks without losing the ball.
It’s not too common to see an Arsenal player make a run in behind for a one-on-one but the team has become good enough in possession that, if the opposition tries to press but doesn’t get it perfect, Arteta’s side can attract them forward before exploiting their high line. If the team can threaten like this more consistently, teams will have to battle with the idea of pressing quite so aggressively, knowing they could be just seconds away from a threat in behind.
So, how exactly did Arsenal create those two situations? How did they create two enormous counter-attack style chances from settled spells of possession? For the first, ultimately a 14-pass move, the ball started with an Aaron Ramsdale free-kick played short. Arsenal played out well, with Gabriel playing a decisive pass down the line to Granit Xhaka, who switched possession. The press was broken but Newcastle recovered. That’s the image at the top of this article. Here it is again:
So, from there, Arsenal went back to the centre-backs, now at halfway instead of on the edge of their own box, and started again. And this is where Newcastle get caught between keeping their deep, organised shape or trying to press. As Jorginho drops alongside Oleksandr Zinchenko and drags Joe Willock with him, Martin Ødegaard bursts into the space that has been vacated …
… Zinchenko can play a simple pass through the lines to the Norwegian …
... and, with Bruno Guimaraes left with acres to cover between his felloe midfielders and the defence, Ødegaard has time to take the one touch he needs before releasing Gabriel Martinelli in behind.
His effort was saved by Nick Pope but it was brilliant to see Arsenal carve open a side that wary of this happening, had simply bunkered in at the Emirates back in January.
And we did it again with another long move, this one 17 passes, just a couple of minutes later. After Arsenal threaten, Newcastle get back in numbers once again.
So Arsenal go back again and rebuild, looking to draw the press out. When the ball goes into Zinchenko in midfield once again, Joelinton is seen pointing to him. He doesn’t want to leave a huge gap in midfield again and wants someone else to engage with the Ukrainian, but nobody can. Further back, Kieran Trippier is marking Granit Xhaka and Newcastle seem to more or less have things under control.
Within seconds, Arsenal are through on goal. With time to turn, Zinchenko spins on the ball and Joelinton has no choice but to be the one to close him down. At right-back, Kieran Trippier doesn’t want to drift too far infield with Granit Xhaka, preferring to keep his position between the Swiss and Gabriel Martinelli on the touchline, to press a possible pass into him. Likewise on the left, Sven Botman positions himself so he can pounce on a pass into Martin Odegaard. And Bruno Guimaraes is left with Saka creeping in as an option to his left while Xhaka does the same to his right. Zinchenko slides the ball into Xhaka …
… who, with Trippier and Guimaraes both not close enough to challenge, can turn and get his head up to find Saka’s run between the centre-backs …
… the move, again, looks like defence to attack. But it has, again, come from patient, settled possession.
And there’s the issue Arsenal have to force. Do you press and open yourself up to this? Or do you sit back and let them dominate the ball and the territory?
This sort of attack is something we don’t see enough of from Arteta’s side, especially when leading and able to draw teams onto them. Arsenal are fifth in the league for through balls, the same as last season, and it’s hopefully something we can improve on with the threat the entire front three possesses in terms of pace and movement. They just need to make that run a little more often and it was really encouraging to see it from both Saka and Martinelli within a matter of minutes.
Defined as “a completed pass sent between (furthest) back defenders into open space,” through balls can be another weapon, alongside the cutbacks we already use so well, to create huge opportunities. If teams want to press Arsenal, let them, we can slice them open.
This weekend against Brighton, who look to dominate possession and territory and were caught out on the break repeatedly by Everton less than a week ago, through balls could be Arsenal’s biggest weapon. Ødegaard delivered the pass of the season to assist Martinelli against the Seagulls back on New Year’s Eve.
Here’s hoping for a repeat.