Marking space, covering time

The Unai Emery era is go at Arsenal. For the first time in my life that the red half of North London is being managed by a man other than Arsène Wenger, and, happily, for those of us of an unashamedly Lilywhite persuasion, the new-look Arsenal displayed many of the defensive frailties, humorous attacking missteps and general witlessness that characterised the latter years of Le Professeur’s reign.

Of course, a game against Manchester City is, perhaps, the most difficult assignment in English football, since the relegation of Stoke and, with them, their great cliché involving midweek football matches and inclement weather. But there was a marked difference between Pep Guardiola and his space-age future-football, and the technically accomplished but more directionless bent of those in red and white.

The primary difference between these sides, in a game won 2-0 by City through goals from famed international sitting-misser Raheem Sterling and Bernando Silva, a man who can only make a frustrated claim to be the second-best attacking midfielder named ‘Silva’ at his club, was in how precisely they attacked.

While the two goals differed in style, they were nearly identical in substance: the scorer charging into the space in front of the Arsenal defence that ought to have contained a defensive midfielder, and striking with the opposite foot to the wing they had just appeared from. Sterling’s goal was a more conventional piece of inside forward-ing, to borrow a term from Football Manager, as the right-footed left-winger cut across the Arsenal penalty area, dribbling through defenders and, finding himself in the aforementioned and unusually empty space at the base of the Arsenal midfield, fired a shot into the back of the net. Bernardo’s goal involved more intricate team play, with Benjamin Mendy overlapping down the left flank before cutting a cross back to the penalty spot, where the onrushing Bernardo repeated Sterling’s trick, albeit mirrored, and ten yards closer to the Arsenal goal.

These goals exposed the key weakness in Arsenal’s defence, that their defensive midfield was primarily non-existent. Sky Sports, perhaps conservatively, suggested Arsenal would field a three-man midfield of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey and Matteo Guendouzi, but it quickly emerged that Ramsay was playing more like a no. 10, leaving Xhaka and Guendouzi to man the Arsenal midfield. Both players were pulled wide as Arsenal’s full-backs, left exposed by Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan ahead of them, were unable to deal with Sterling and Mendy on one flank, and Riyad Mahrez and Kyle Walker on the other. With the back four retreating ever closer to Manor House tube station to guard against runs in behind by Sergio Agüero, this approach left a gaping hole in Arsenal defence roughly where City’s no. 10 would expect to operate. Unfortunately for Arsenal, City featured no fewer than four players over the course of the game who would walk into most other teams as a no. 10: Sterling, Mahrez, Bernardo and Kevin De Bruyne.

These goals also revealed a slight but significant difference in both side’s defensive approach that was pivotal as the game developed; both sides sought to press from the front, but while Arsenal marked and pressed players, City harried and occupied space. And it is for this reason that City so comfortably won, and why this piece’s headline image is of Agüero, one of City’s forwards who did not score, but stifled Arsenal with his pressing and positioning.

Arsenal, for large parts of the game, looked sharp while pressing, their front four harrying the base of City’s midfield, and turning the ball over several times in City’s half. While little came of these passages – and Arsenal conspired to continue their recent tradition of hilarious foot-shooting, Ramsey poking the ball witlessly out of play when misinterpreting the run of Özil early in the second half to groans from the Emirates faithful and sniggers from yours truly – it is likely that against less technically marvellous opposition, this approach will bear fruit for the Gunners.

However City, and specifically Pep, were, predictably, one step ahead. City kept three players – Sterling on the left, Mahrez on the right and Agüero through the middle – pressed up on the Arsenal back four whenever the Gunners had possession; but they did not each mark a man, which would inevitably lead to one of the back four being given the time and space necessary to move the ball past the high press, but marked space. Agüero remained steadfast in the gap between the centre-halves, and the wingers marked the channels between full-back and centre-half on their respective sides. The clever positioning of the front three all but ended Arsenal’s attempts to play out from the back; balls to full-backs and on to wingers now risked interceptions by Sterling and Mahrez, and balls through the middle, should they bypass Agüero, would roll promptly to the feet of Bernardo or Fernandinho.

This was never more apparent than during Arsenal’s goal-kicks. As is often the case in modern football, Arsenal used a dedicated goal-kick formation, like a corner routine although with the intention of not immediately turning over possession and conceding, rather than scoring; the idea is the same – to not suffer a goal deficit to the opposition – but the emphasis is slightly different, a subtle reshifting of football’s focus back to the defensive and the balanced, in the wake of recent trends towards ever more aggressive, explosive and ridiculous attacking tactics.

But back to the goal-kicks; as Arsenal pushed their centre-backs wide to the edges of the penalty area along the lines running parallel to the touchlines, and the full-backs pushed up further to hug those touchlines, City kept their three forwards in place, wingers isolating the full-backs, and Agüero making balls played to and from Cech and the centre-backs fraught with danger. In the absence of uncouth long-ball tactics, this forced one of Arsenal’s midfielders to drop in between the centre-backs to pick up the ball, which in turn forced his partner another 10 yards back to receive a pass from him, and in the process, dragging the whole team closer to the Arsenal goal. This plays perfectly into City’s hands, as this enabled them to establish base camp for their defensive line on the halfway line, and John Stones and Aymeric Laporte to break out the fishing poles and tents to resolutely begin their watch, fifty yards of uninhabited wilderness behind them. There were even times when both of Arsenal’s midfielders were pressed back in this way, City’s consistent and clever space-squeezing crumpling Arsenal’s nominally expansive 4-2-3-1 into something more akin to a 6-1-3, Ramsey left alone in the centre of midfield with three equally-isolated forwards scattered to the winds around him.

This approach relies on two things: tactically-astute players, who are able to anticipate where a defender’s pass is going, and get there before the target; and players fit enough to cover this space for the majority of the game. City’s forwards boasted both of these in abundance – is it any surprise that all three of City’s substitutions involved replacing each of these mentally and physically drained forwards – and so Arsenal were never able to play out from the back. This tactic also masks the primary weakness of many pressing-based defences that has yet gone relatively unaddressed: the fact that forwards, as a rule, are not very good at tackling.

Perhaps best epitomised by Big Raheem’s fourth-minute booking for a clumsy tackle, the problem with asking strikers and wingers to press players with the intention of winning the ball is that they’re not very good at it, don’t train at is specifically, and can give away silly free kicks and end up putting themselves in the referee’s notebook. Let’s be honest shall we, and cast our minds back to peak Pep-ball at Barcelona; do we realistically expect Lionel Messi to overpower Sergio Ramos and regain possession through a tackle?

By marking space, City’s forwards were rarely reduced to making The Striker’s Tackle, and giving Arsenal a free pass downfield to bypass the press entirely. They were able to restrict the space afforded to their opponents, without forcing players to act beyond their capabilities, or expose the rest of the team; City could achieve this pressure with their front three alone, leaving eight players behind the ball to perform more conventional defensive duties.

And, when possession was regained, more through interceptions and reclaiming loose balls than traditional tackling, the positioning of the front three gave City a far more effective base from which to assault the Arsenal goal than was obvious in the other half. Mendy and Walker bombed on beyond their wingers repeatedly, and İlkay Gündoğan and Bernardo pushed on beyond the more withdrawn Agüero, effectively operating as a pair of second strikers, aggressively pushing into the space left beyond their nominal striker. Compare this to the Arsenal approach, where individual players are tasked with roaming from their positions in pursuit of the current player in possession, and when the ball is retained, there is no structure or shape from which to launch a counter-attack. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and, most conspicuously by his absence from the central no.10 position, Özil, were at sixes and sevens as a result of their own aggressive pressing style.

It is also interesting to note that perhaps Arsenal’s best chance, when the goalkeeper Ederson’s pass was intercepted by Özil, finally in a central position, who conspired with Lacazette to, actually, leave the ball be as it bobbled harmlessly back into the possession of Ederson. This was a game where interceptions and marking space, rather than tackling and marking players, led directly to goal-scoring opportunities, and only one side was able to take advantage of this.

Of course, it is impossible to imply a trend from a single point on a graph, and it may well be the case that the ability to tackle effectively becomes a useful skill as this nine-month season wears on. But, as is often the case, Pep is thinking so far beyond the realms of the box that the box he inhabits cannot even been seen from the cardboard ramparts of whatever unenlightened hovel the rest of us dwell within. Pep conceived of pressing not as an energetic, frantic affair, but a cerebral pursuit rooted in anticipation and team structure and, not for the first time, put the vision onto the pitch.

As has repeatedly happened in football over the last decade or so, this afternoon’s game was Pep’s thought experiment, and the rest of us are just variables within it.

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