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Martin Keown: Arsenal produced ‘poetry in motion’ playing from behind in Southampton win

KEOWN TALKS TACTICS: Arsenal played devastatingly from behind to break the deadlock against Southampton last week… strategy is risky but when it does unfold it’s a thing of beauty

  • Arsenal have shown they play perfectly from behind against Southampton
  • Alexandre Lacazette opened the scoring after working in the Saints press
  • Dangerous tactic is ‘poetry in motion’ when applied correctly
  • Premier League title race could be decided by which team performs it best

A team scoring a goal from back to front is one of the most satisfying shows in the game today. It’s a rare event but when it does work it’s a thing of beauty, as Arsenal’s opener against Southampton showed last week.

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side are among the best in the Premier League at top pressing. They are up there with Liverpool and Manchester City in their desire to get the ball back near the opponents’ area and Arsenal struggled with that in the opening 20 minutes.

But Mikel Arteta’s insistence that his players stick to his philosophy and play from behind finally paid off. Positioning is vitally important and that’s why coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp spend so much time working on this tactic in training.

Alexandre Lacazette’s goal for Arsenal against Southampton looked stunning last week

Taking Arsenal’s goal as an example, goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale had the ball on the edge of his six-yard box. Center-backs Ben White and Gabriel were positioned in each corner of the 18-yard box and midfielder Thomas Partey was in the center. Ramsdale traded passes with Partey, then with Gabriel. Arsenal did so in an attempt to get their opponents to engage. You don’t need to be in a rush to play it; it is better to wait for the most opportune moment.

Once Southampton striker Armando Broja stepped forward to press Ramsdale it was the trigger for Arsenal. Ramsdale responded by passing to White on his right side and, as the graph shows, every pass from that point on has been played forward diagonally to move the ball up the field.

As he passed wide to White, central to Partey, wide to Takehiro Tomiyasu, then central to Martin Odegaard, every pressing Southampton player was just a fraction too late to tackle.

Ben White played a role in Arsenal's opener against So'ton

Bukayo Saka recorded an assist for Arsenal against So'ton

Ben White (left) started the movement before he finally turned to Bukayo Saka (right)

Lacazette then applied the finish to the center of Saka to break the deadlock in the Emirates

Lacazette then applied the finish to the center of Saka to break the deadlock in the Emirates

The Gunners went from goalie to goal in 23 seconds

The Gunners went from goalie to goal in 23 seconds

The positioning of the Arsenal players was perfect and they were precise in their one-touch passes. Southampton pressers looked hopelessly out of position. Bukayo Saka was then able to carry the ball to the unopposed right wing as Kyle Walker-Peters had already been taken out of play when he tried to press Tomiyasu high on the pitch. Southampton left center-back Jan Bednarek was reluctant to pass. Saka had too long to choose his pass and found Alexandre Lacazette, who finished with aplomb.

This tactic does not always work. Statistics show that Arsenal made the most mistakes that led to opposing shots and that they conceded four goals after losing the ball by mistake. But when it works, it’s beautiful.

Arsenal have managed to score this way on several occasions under Arteta, most notably against two of the game’s best teams on pressing. They scored a goal against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and against Liverpool in the Community Shield.

Guardiola’s players are also masters of the art of playing from behind. They believe that no matter how good you are at dry cleaning, they are better at passing. The bonus that City have is that Ederson is amazing with the ball. He is a goalkeeper who can choose any pass, whether it’s a shot from a side-back posted on the sidelines or a direct ball behind the opposing backline.

In the 1980s and 1990s, goalies often threw it for a long time, and defenders were involved in countless one-on-one duels by then. But the game has evolved far beyond that.

We have a three-horse race for the Premier League this season and the team that wins will be the one that squeezes and overtakes the best. They know what it takes to change the mindset between the two. Pressing is all about aggression. But when you’re playing from the back it’s about being calm, creative, and ready to play that perfect pass to move up the ranks.

When things go wrong, it can get expensive. But when you get it right, it’s practically poetry in motion.


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