Home » Erik ten Hag has identified Arsenal’s biggest strength, now he must nullify it

Erik ten Hag has identified Arsenal’s biggest strength, now he must nullify it

by David O'Neill

Erik ten Hag has pinpointed the key strength behind Arsenal’s successful season so far and has been preparing Manchester United for it in training this week.

That is according to The Mirror, who report that the Dutchman has been focusing on Arsenal’s pressing in the build-up to today’s match.

It would come as no surprise for that to be the case, given Arsenal have achieved so much control in a number of matches this season via engineering counterpressing opportunities to keep their opposition pinned in their own defensive third.

An ideal example was earlier this month, during a 0-0 draw with Newcastle United. Some poor finishing led to many seeing that match as two points dropped for the Gunners, but in it was also a match in which Mikel Arteta’s gameplan gave his team every opportunity to win the game.

Arsenal achieved 66.8% possession largely by forcing errors from Eddie Howe’s side immediately after turnovers. Newcastle misplaced 28% of all of their passes during the match, often in in aftermath of winning possession. They were forced to make a whopping 29 clearances during the match, considerably higher than their league average of 18.5 per game.

A key factor behind Arsenal’s successful counterpress is their structure in possession. Arteta typically has his team build up in a 3-2-5 shape, facilitated by Oleksandr Zinchenko’s atypical positioning.

While the Ukrainian starts at left back for Arsenal, a huge difference between the Arsenal of this season and last is that Zinchenko – unlike his predecessors in the position – often drifts into midfield when Arsenal have the ball, aligning himself with holding midfielder Thomas Partey.

A 3-2-5 build-up shape is not the most irregular shape in football by any stretch of the imagination, but what makes Arsenal’s version of it so effective at applying counterpressure are the players featured in the ‘2’. In Zinchenko and Partey, Arteta has two players who are not only comfortable positioning themselves in central areas, but also at jumping out to apply pressure at speed.

In the image below, Arsenal are in their 3-2-5 shape against the defending team. The Gunners more or less hold this shape throughout their possession phase because of the access it affords Zinchenko and Partey should the ball be lost.

Note that any attempt to counterattack through the centre is likely to be snuffed out easily enough, with both Zinchenko and Partey having immediate access to anyone in the central third. Balls out wide still afford access to one of the aforementioned pair, with a wide member of the line of ‘3’ also well positioned to provide defensive support. Arsenal’s attacking ‘5’ are also often quick to drop in and provide support – that team ethos has been a driving factor of their unexpected title challenge this season.

Manchester United have been happy to play on the break when it has suited them this season and they will almost certainly look to do so again at the Emirates Stadium. Given the difficulty of attacking through Arsenal’s central platform, it is likely that United will look to play quick passes into the wide areas, away from Partey and Zinchenko, the most effective of Arsenal’s pressing unit. Isolating Ben White and Gabriel Magalhães in one-on-ones against United’s wingers will likely be the aim.

Marcus Rashford, in particular, is exceptional in these situations, possessing the pace to beat a defender before support can arrive. While Antony is likely to start – and did score in the reverse fixture – he has not been too involved in counterattacks this season, often relying on hold-up play and long-range shooting to impact games.

Alejandro Garnacho, particularly fresh off the bench, could be another key player in this match. His direct style of play very much suits United in games where fast transitions are to be relied upon. With Gabriel not looking all that comfortable lately, isolating him on United’s right-hand side may also be the more fruitful endeavour, so it will be interesting to see how Antony fares.

(All stats taken from WhoScored.com)

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