Under Unai Emery, Arsenal struggled to pass out from the back. However, with the tactical instruction of Mikel Arteta, it is now a viable and successful strategy.
One of the scary aspects of watching games while Unai Emery was Arsenal boss was witnessing the chasm that would slowly expand between the midfield and defence. Lucas Torreira’s energy in the high press, Matteo Guendouzi’s lack of positional nous, and Granit Xhaka’s aggression pushed the midfield high, leaving the defence stranded and susceptible to the counter. It also made passing out from the back extremely difficult.
This yawning abyss in front of the defence would cause the forwards of the opposing attacking line to surge forward, and when the team would attempt to play out from the back, they would be pinned in by the high press, the midfield unable to provide viable passing options to break the frontline of the opposition.
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Emery’s tactical inability can be summed up in this singular issue. It is impossible to have a deep-lying defence and a high-pressing forward line. The approach simply tries to cover too much of the field, and as a result, counter-attacking sides pulled Arsenal apart like cotton candy.
One of the immediate changes Mikel Arteta made was to compact the team, specifically by pushing the defensive line much higher up the pitch. An inconceivable concept three months ago, this squad actually is able to work together. It’s a miracle!
Well no, it is actually nothing more than good coaching and a secure tactical approach. Which means when the attacking players press high, the defence steps up too, stifling the opposing attacks and smothering breakaways.
And when Arsenal sit deep, they truly do sit all the way back. Arteta has formed a 4-4-1-1 shape with the full-backs tucking in, the wingers scampering back to cover wide, and the central number 10 and centre-forward harrying the defence and deep-lying midfielders of the opposition, trying to launch a counter-attack upon a turnover. It is a tactic employed for generations in England, most recently by scrappy sides like Burnley and Brighton Hove-Albion, and even by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on the off-chance they surrender a counter-attack.
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These tactical changes allow Arsenal to successfully play out from the back. With the defence and midfield unified, passing through the lines is now a viable option, using the two deep-lying midfielders as a dual pivot, progressing the ball forward without having to play extremely challenging 30 or 40 yard passes to break the opponent’s structure.
Other than a few minor slip-ups, Arsenal’s passing out from the back has worked very well under Arteta. And the reason it is becoming a preferable option is simple: teams do not know how to deal with it now that it’s actually working. In the same way the backline used to stretch and tear when dispersed across vast spaces, it is now the Gunners who are able to use the entirety of the pitch to spread teams out, creating pockets of space for their attackers to move into and receive passes.
Three months ago, Arsenal were unable to play out from the back. They were right to try, as modern football has proven that it is necessary to build successful teams, but their execution was dreadful under the hapless Emery. But now, Arteta has provided the tactical instruction and clarity his compatriot never could. As a result, the Gunners can now play from deep successfully.