Tactical Watch: Force Arsenal to go long

By SFC Media time Fri 10 Dec Arsenal vs Saints

Sam Tighe analyses Arsenal's inconsistencies this season, and explains why Southampton cannot allow the Gunners to build attacks from deep. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.

No team in the Premier League has been the subject of as much hysteria – good or bad – as Arsenal this season.

Tipped for relegation by some after a dreadful opening run, tipped for the Champions League soon after they’d righted the ship. There’s been very little middle ground when it comes to analysing the Gunners this season; just brilliant, terrible, brilliant, terrible.

Their results have come in streaks, which perhaps explains things. A run of three defeats; two runs of three wins separated by back-to-back draws; then three losses in four, the odd game being a win over winless (at the time) Newcastle United.

The tough start is directly attributable to half of the first choice XI being missing due to injury or COVID-19, so once the key players – particularly in defence – began trickling back, things understandably improved.

Strong dynamics in the team began to appear: Benjamin White and Gabriel gelled as a centre-back pairing; Takehiro Tomiyasu solved the right-back crisis; Thomas Partey bolstered the midfield; and both Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka settled into their roles as inverted wingers, cutting on off the left and right flanks respectively.

It’s the two wingers that carry the bulk of Arsenal’s threat; Saka, in particular, has become the main creative outlet of the team. The decision to swap him to the right flank has allowed him to impact the game by cutting inside and it freed up the left flank for Kieran Tierney to roam up and down (with Smith Rowe dipping inside ahead of him).

Teams have responded by trying to double-team Saka – a huge compliment, given he’s just 20 years of age. Recent opponents have all staggered their midfields in an effort to give their left-back help in dealing with him, with Moussa Sissoko carrying out the task quite well for Watford in November.

This is a tactic Southampton could follow suit on, with Ibrahima Diallo experienced in playing a disruptive role either from the centre or the left and Moussa Djenepo a willing worker, among other options.

Something else in Saints’ wheelhouse that could prove effective against Arsenal is pressing high. Allowing them to build play from the back hasn’t tended to end well for opponents lately, but trapping them in and forcing them to go long has. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not the type of striker who thrives on direct, more speculative balls forward; he also doesn’t earn his money backing into and battling defenders.

It means that closing off Arsenal’s short distribution can lead to trapping them deep, as the out-ball doesn’t exist. You still have to be wary of the fact that the Gunners can play extremely physically and aggressively in those tight zones – and White’s marauding dribbles from deep can be of great relief to the team – but on recent evidence, it’s the best bet to holding Mikel Arteta’s men at arm’s length – and a ploy Ralph Hasenhüttl is more than comfortable coaching.

Southampton and Arsenal have played out some sensational showdowns since Hasenhüttl took the reins just over three years ago, and this has the ingredients to be another fast, frenetic cracker.

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