In this tactical analysis we will be discussing how Arsenal managed to beat Leeds so convincingly. Mikel Arteta and Arsenal are turning over a new leaf, both tactically and mentally. Just two months ago there was anger and despair amongst Arsenal fans due to the return of mediocre results and quality of play. Many were openly questioning whether the latest of a long line of anointed messiahs, Arteta was the man for the Arsenal job.
Yet the more Arsenal play, the better they look. Shocking how a team’s playing style takes time to show it’s true colours. Arsenal will not be winning the league this season or any time soon but the ideas are beginning to take shape; there is still plenty to be excited for. A run in the Europa League is more than possible, as it is likely to be the only way Arsenal can qualify for any European competition next season, considering how competitive this season’s Premier League season has been.
Leeds came into this game playing their high pressing, high-tempo style that we have come to love, yet were thoroughly outplayed tactically. As each matchweek goes on, Leeds nevertheless begin to cement themselves as a team that are here to stay in the Premier League for many seasons to come. If they continue to play the brand of football they have, and if Marcelo Bielsa continues to receive the support he has gotten so far from the Leeds board, they can aim for a sustained top 10 push in the coming seasons.
Arsenal lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 with a few tweaks. Firstly, forward players Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith-Rowe would often drop deeper into their own in an attempt to draw the Leeds press and create space for their teammates to run into off the ball. Daniel Ceballos and Granit Xhaka were responsible for linking play from defense to attack, but were also encouraged to push up and combine with their forward players as we will see in this analysis. Notable absences were Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey.
Leeds lined-up in a 4-1-4-1, but as we have seen throughout much of this season, this formation is very fluid. The Leeds players are always pressing and can play in the positions left vacant by their pressing teammates. In the build-up phase, Pascal Struijk was made useless by Ødegaard, so the Leeds build-up play suffered. The most notable absence of the growing list of injured Leeds players was Kalvin Phillips. Phillips has been integral to the Leeds build-up play and is the most important player in linking possession from defense to attack.
One of the best strategies Arsenal used to beat Leeds was combining man-marking and an aggressive team press. Below we see Bukayo Saka pressing Leads goalkeeper Illan Meslier. The Arsenal press would shift based on the positioning of who led the press. In this example, Saka is able to shift play to the left-side of the pitch. Arsenal followed Saka’s lead and man-mark accordingly, forcing Meslier to clear the ball far and long, instead of building out play from the back.
Below we can see how Leads struggled to beat the Arsenal press and man-marking system. Pascal Struijk acted as the lone deep-lying playmaker, linking play from defense to the further advanced midfield players. Martin Ødegaard man-marked him for most of the game which meant that midfielders Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich had to drop deeper into their own half on several occasions. Arsenal then deployed Daniel Ceballos and Granit Xhaka further up the pitch to man-mark the Leeds reinforcements, forcing Meslier once again to go long and bypass the midfield.
Meslier was often encouraged to come out of his box and dictate play further up the pitch. When this happened, Arsenal would only retreat into their half if the players they were man-marking pushed forward. If the Leeds midfield players remain in their half, Arsenal can man-mark them and force Meslier to go long. If the Leeds midfield players advance into the Arsenal half, then Meslier has no nearby, high-quality passing options, triggering the Arsenal forwards to press him. These were the tactics used by Arsenal to prevent Leeds from building up possession through their defense.
Most of Arsenal’s attacks began from their defenders, most notably, David Luiz. Arsenal would draw the Leeds press and exploit the space left behind the pressing players. Below, we see Leeds man-mark the Arsenal players. Xhaka and Ceballos would often drop much deeper into their own half to draw their man-markers, creating space for Martin Ødegaard to run into and receive the ball. Leeds struggled to beat this tactic.
Below, entering the middle third of the pitch, is David Luiz. He has an immediate passing option in Ødegaard, but the real focus is the run into space from Ceballos. In recent weeks, Arsenal have shown their intelligence off the ball, as much as they have on the ball. One of the front four attacking players would drop deeper into midfield, drawing their man marker, then combine with Luiz to play these “one-two” passes that would see Ceballos or Xhaka exploit the space left behind the pressing Leeds players. This is how Arsenal advanced the ball forward so easily.
Leeds are rarely seen in any sort of defensive shape due to how hard and often they press. However, when Leeds transitioned into a defensive shape, the Arsenal players continued to make plenty off the ball runs. Below, Xhaka is on the ball, passing backwards as he is pressed by Klich. Ødegaard drops deeper, dragging Struijk with him. Saka sees the space left behind and immediately looks to occupy it, while also dragging his man-marker Ezgjan Alioski with him into midfield. While this is happening, Arsenal are also overwhelming the left side of the pitch, creating a three versus three scenario should they receive the ball. Xhaka may be passing backwards, but Arsenal are using many different attacking ideas at once.
In order to beat a Bielsa team, the players must be intelligent enough to understand their instructions, and be technically capable of executing them. The Arsenal players are beginning to understand where they need to be and when, based off of their opponents actions. Below we see Arsenal man-marking the Leeds players. Meslier cannot pass to Cooper or Ayling, as they are both being man-marked. Meslier can’t pass to the oncoming Roberts, because Ødegaard is close enough to him to press him. The same idea applies to Huggins and Dallas, as they are within the pressing range of Saka. Arsenal were prepared to handle any variation of tactics Leeds used.
Continuing with player intelligence, Arsenal stopped Leeds from playing through them with clever off the ball movement. Below, Huggins is on the ball and eyes two spaces to pass to. Roberts is man-marked by Aubameyang while Willian uses his body to shield the first space. Costa can be seen turning away from Xhaka and into the second space. Bamford also makes a run for the second space, but is followed by Ceballos. Neither of these spaces are quality passing options because the Arsenal players are aware that this space exists and are actively trying to close the spaces. “Bielsa Ball” excels when there is space to exploit, but Arsenal did very well to stop Leeds from moving the ball as easily as we have come to see this season.
Arsenal are beginning to show a resurgence. With a group of players who are committed to the cause and eager to learn, Arteta will take them far. This Arsenal team should be focussing their attention on winning the UEFA Europa League as it's their best chance at playing in a European competition next season. Fun football, exciting players and an eager manager are just what this Arsenal team have been crying out for since Arsène Wenger left.
Leeds can't be too upset with the result. They played well and are still exceeding expectations. Their determination to continue playing an aggressive style despite being 4-0 down at one point is admirable. This Leeds team continues to show what commitment and dedication to a footballing project can look like. Their future is bright, despite another large scoreline.
I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___