10-man Arsenal cling on for a 1-1 draw against Southampton on Wednesday, and it ended their run of three straight defeats in the Premier League. Theo Walcott opened the scoring for the in-form Saints on his return to the Emirates Stadium in the 18th minute. The Gunners were able to at least fight back after falling behind, with captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring in the 52nd minute to bring his side level. Aubameyang scored his first league goal since July, which ended a run of 648 minutes without a goal. The Gunners were left to rue more indiscipline as Gabriel Magalhaes was sent off for a second yellow in the space of four minutes in the 62nd minute. Afterwards, Southampton played with more intensity and pushed hard for a winner to pile the pressure on Arsenal. They still managed to see out the closing stages this time. Once again Arsenal struggled with the ball, registering only 43% possession in the first half, which dropped to 35% towards the end of the game.
This tactical analysis will highlight the most protruding aspects of both teams’ style of play and the tactics set up by both team managers. The analysis also highlights why Arteta switched to a back three to combat Southampton’s high press.
Arteta made four changes in the starting lineup from the last fixture and switched to back three/five for this match. Bernd Leno started in goal. Rob Holding, Gabriel and Kieran Tierney started as the three centre-backs. Ainsley Maitland-Niles made his first start since September in the league, replacing the suspended Hector Bellerin. Mohamed Elneny replaced the suspended Granit Xhaka and partnered Dani Ceballos in central midfield. Aubameyang moved to the left hand-side. Edie Nketiah and Nicolas Pepe were recalled in place Alexandre Lacazette and Willian respectively to lead the attack along with Aubameyang.
Ralph Hasenhuttl was very pleased with his team’s performance against Sheffield United last weekend, so he opted to go with the same formation and made no changes to his starting line-up.
The Gunners in possession
Arsenal were up against an in-form Southampton who play with a particular system in which all the players know their roles, whereas Arsenal switched to a back three in this match to combat the opposition’s high press.
Southampton defended in a mid to low block 4-4-2 shape in which their wide midfielders would stay narrow, occupying the half-spaces. This blocks the central passing lanes and forces the opposition to attack through the wide channels where the Saints could apply the “wide trap” to get the ball back from the opposition.
Arsenal’s build-up is always slow but methodical, which makes them predictable, and thus it’s easier to defend against in the final-third. In this match, when they played out from the back, the two centre-backs Holding, and Gabriel would split wide and Leno would be used as a third centre-back. Tierney and Maitland-Niles would act as full-backs and held the width.
Mostly, the Gunners started their build-up from the right hand-side in which Holding would look for Maitland-Niles on the right flank. Thus, the Saints would shuffle completely to that side and Walcott would tuck in to mark Ceballos and this left the left flank wide open for Arsenal.
As you can see in the above picture, Maitland-Niles finds Elneny in space.
Aubameyang operated in between the lines, mostly in between the opposition right back and right centre-back, which forced Kyle Walker-Peters to stay close to Bednarek. If Arsenal were able to get through Southampton’s high press, then they would look for Saka on the left hand-side who was mostly unmarked due to Aubameyang’s positioning with a switch of play.
As you can see in the above picture, Elneny plays a long ball to Saka and switches the point of attack. This allowed Saka to run into space and create chances for Arsenal.
The above is a sequence which Arsenal executed but could not create effective chances with it. If Arsenal could beat the first line of press and get the ball to their full-backs. Then the Saints would apply the wide trap.
As you can see here in the above picture, it’s a 3 v 2 situation. Tierney could have played it to Saka, but he looked up and saw Aubameyang ready to make a run in behind. Thus Tierney played a long pass to Aubameyang where he would be 1 v 1 against Bednarek who was solid in defence throughout the match and was ready to clear any ball which was sent over the top of their right full-back.
One thing Arsenal lacks is incisive passers who could help to play through any opposition’s defensive block. Therefore, Arsenal overloaded the left flank looking to exploit the space there. As you can see in the above picture, it’s a 4 v 2. This sequence worked out well, which we will see in the next few pictures as this tactic has grown into the players.
The above picture is of the situation is of a similar sequence, but this time Saka makes an under-lapping run from the sideline. He takes up a position in the left half-space and attracts Romeu with him, while Aubameyang has the ball on the left, he cuts it back and the ball falls for Pepe who takes a first time shot on target which was well blocked by Bednarek.
The move in the above picture started with Gabriel making a long pass to Saka on the left hand-side who was unmarked and in acres of space. Saka skipped past Walker-Peters, Walcott and Romeu and played the ball to Aubameyang, but the Arsenal captain leaves it for Nketiah as he makes a run in behind. Nketiah dinks the ball for Aubameyang, who finished with ease to make it 1-1.
It was a well-crafted move and all the credit goes to Saka as he continued his run after passing the ball which attracted Bednarek and left him flat-footed as he could not do anything about it.
Southampton in control
The Saints played the more controlled football as they were comfortable in possession, which was helped by the lack of cohesiveness in the pressing from the opposition. They played a lot of one-touch passes and could sense the tentativeness in the Gunners.
Arsenal defended in a 5-2-3/5-4-1 shape in which the wing backs Saka and Maitland-Niles would tuck in with the three centre-backs to form a back five. The Gunners tried to maintain a narrow defensive structure which opened up spaces in the wide zones. Thus, this allows the Saints to make quick switches of play into space as there would always be a free player.
Arsenal tried to limit the immediate passing options for the opposition centre-backs and they let them have the ball by not pressing them.
When the Saints had the ball, they would mostly operate in a 3-4-1-2 shape in which Bertrand would tuck in as a left centre-back along with Vestergaard and Bednarek. Romeu and Ward-Prowse formed a double pivot in the centre while Armstrong and Walker-Peters provided the width.
For this match we saw a little tweak made by Hasenhuttl. Walcott was seen playing in between the lines. He would drop deep to receive the ball and progress the play quickly by using his pace, and you could also see him making a run from in between Saka and Tierney, just like in the picture below.
The above picture sums up Arsenal’s fragility as the lack of intensity and so many errors at the same time puts them behind by a goal in the 18th minute.
Vestergaard plays a threaded pass through the middle which Elneny failed to intercept, then Gabriel missed his tackle on Che Adams. The Southampton striker looks up and plays the ball for Walcott, who was in yards of space and finished it with a cool dink.
As you can see in the picture, there was too much gap between Tierney and Saka in which Walcott positioned himself. Also, Tierney’s body positioning was not right, otherwise he might have stopped Walcott from finishing so easily.
In the 63 minutes that Walcott was on the pitch, he caused the Arsenal’s back three all sorts of problems with his pace and clever runs and he got the reward in the 18th minute.
Arsenal used wide overloads on their left flank in which Tierney would join the attack, but it left them vulnerable at the back. Southampton took advantage and targeted the same side of the Arsenal defence because Tierney was playing as a makeshift centre-back and Saka had to cover a lot of ground to help in defence.
You can see in the above picture, Vestergaard plays a long pass over the Arsenal defence. Walcott does brilliantly well to get into the opposition box, but he couldn’t bring the ball under control. Saka recovered well and won possession of the ball.
Arsenal had found a way back in the game by a goal from Aubameyang in the 58th minute, but then came another act of indiscipline in the 62nd minute. Gabriel got booked again as he allowed Walcott to roll away from him on the half-way line. Due to lack of situational awareness, he ended up getting a second yellow as Gabriel reacted by dragging Walcott back and brought him down.
The Gunners had a bit of momentum till then and were gaining confidence, but soon Gabriel ended it all with a needless red card. It was Arsenal’s seventh sending off in 33 Premier League games under Arteta.
After Gabriel was sent off, Arsenal had to defend with 10 men for the final 28 minutes. The Gunners switched to a 4-4-1 formation and Southampton went straight on the attack for the kill. Arsenal defended with all men behind the ball to not concede any other goal.
This draw meant that the Saints go third, while Arsenal will remain 15th in the league table. Southampton dominated possession and have continued their impressive form while Arsenal struggled for any kind of rhythm early in the game but grew more and more and created a couple of excellent chances. The performance of the Gunners was unconvincing, and they have a lot of work to do to turn their season around. Arsenal will need to do more than this to reverse their recent form as they come up against Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea next. There are a few positives that Arteta will hope to build on, but the team is still struggling in creating chances and playing from the back.