There were mixed emotions amongst Gunners fans on Tuesday night. On one hand, their beloved Arsenal had succumb in the final minutes to Borussia Dortmund, ending their unbeaten run in all competitions following the defeat to Aston Villa.
On the other hand, they had withstood an early onslaught and played their way back into a match against the second best team in Europe last season — almost walking away with what would have been a encouraging point. Just what Arsenal should take from their 2-1 defeat from Dortmund is probably somewhere in the middle of both of those statements.
The Gunners were outplayed early, fought their way back into it, but conceded a relatively soft goal late on in the piece. Even the most blinded of fans at the Emirates Stadium would be forced to admit that the best team probably won on the night, and that Dortmund executed their plan to absolute perfection.
What was that plan and how did it work out on the night? Let’s break down the film and find out.
Borussia Dortmund’s Gegenpressing
Perhaps Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp’s most famous quote is that “gegenpressing is the best playmaker”, a statement which was vindicated at final whistle at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
The Germans’ ability to win back the ball after they had lost it and deprive the likes of Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere the time and space they need to succeed was pertinent in their victory, and was easily the biggest factor in Dortmund’s early goal through Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
But what is this idea of “gegenpressing” and why was it so effective?
In a nutshell, the concept of gegenpressing is similar to that of Barcelona’s high-pressing defence once they lose the ball, with the emphasis on winning back possession in the oppositions half of the pitch.
However, Dortmund’s style is different to la Blaugrana’s in the manner in which Dortmund execute it; more thought goes into the position of players rather than just the closest man pressing the ball, and it directly correlates into their attacking formation as much as their defence. It’s pressure, but it’s far more organised and thought out pressure.
For a club like Arsenal, who rely on possession and quick passing triangles, executing gegenpressing is perhaps the best tactic to minimise their success.
Simply put; take away their space, and they can’t play.
Many will have noted the pressure that Marco Reus puts on Aaron Ramsey at the back to force the turnover, but the movement actually started far earlier than that. Dortmund’s gegenpressing came all the way from their back-line, and the Gunners’ inability (and unwillingness) to apply any pressure directly cost them a goal at the other end of the field.
Look at this image from 20 seconds before the turnover on Ramsey. Roman Weidenfeller is allowed to take a short option to Mats Hummels off a goal kick, and the defender brings the ball up towards the halfway line. It appears that he’ll have no option but to kick it long, given that there are only four Dortmund defenders in their half as opposed to six Arsenal players.
Yet, as the black arrows show, Arsenal are simply marking space, and not the man.
With Wilshere out of position, Ozil is forced to drop and he in turn brings Sagna out of position, allowing the space for Schmelzer to play a central pass to Reus. As the images ahead will show, that pass goes astray and Arsenal are seemingly off the hook, but it’s important to note that they were incredibly lucky to turnover the ball over as easily as they did.
Klopp’s team aren’t prone to missing a simple pass in the attacking third like they did this time.
They should never have been allowed the space they had to begin with.
Anyway, back to the turnover, which is—despite what you might have read or heard elsewhere—Ramsey’s fault.
At the time when he collects the ball, Ramsey has two clear options in Ozil or going back to Wojciech Szczesny. He even has Arteta or Wilshere if need be, and there’s only Robert Lewandowski in the frame for Dortmund, suggesting that this is going to be an easy clearance for the Gunners.
But as the tape rolls on, we see gegenpressing at its finest; pressing in on the player with the ball and not giving him a clear outlet to escape. To highlight this, I’ve kept the same blue box between both photos, just moved the positioning of it slightly.
Credit will go to Reus for the turnover, but it’s more than just him.
Sven Bender does well to apply pressure on the option that Wilshere provided while also covering for an outlet pass out to Kieran Gibbs. Schmelzer comes in from the left to cover Wilshere as well as snuffing out the Gunners’ favourite man in Ozil. Mkhitaryan comes in to cut out the option that Koscielny provides and isolate Ramsey, who in a matter of seconds, has gone from having a huge advantage to being severely undermanned and eventually dispossessed.
That’s the important thing to note about gegenpressing: it’s never just one player pressing the man on the ball. Dortmund employ a system that uses every player in the vicinity of the ball (or vicinity that the ball could be going to) to close in and restrict the flow of movement. Mkhitaryan, Bender, Lewandowski and Schmelzer all played just as much a role in creating the turnover and goal as Reus did—if not more.
Santi Cazorla: Centre-Mid Extraordinaire?
After coming out of half-time with a somewhat fortuitous 1-1 scoreline, Arsenal were no doubt desperate not to concede straight away. Fortunately they didn’t, but they did lose Jack Wilshere to injury, and that brought about a difficult change for Arsene Wenger to make.
Due to Mathieu Flamini being injured, Wenger didn’t actually have another defensive centre midfielder to turn to. Aaron Ramsey was already deployed on the field, and Tomas Rosicky isn’t capable of having success in that middle role—especially not against Bender and Sahin.
He was forced to turn to Santi Cazorla, and while many expected the Spaniard to progress up the field in his normal attacking role at the expense of a Ramsey or Rosicky, his production was actually quite different to that—and in a good way. He remained in the centre-midfield double-pivot with Arteta and for the most part he performed well.
Arsenal fought their way back into the second half and garnered better attacking chances than they had all match because Cazorla was running the central areas, not Wilshere. Where the Englishman was prone to take off on solo attacking runs that rarely brought success (see the image below), Cazorla held the middle and tried to dictate play—allowing the likes of Ozil, Ramsey and even Sagna to push further up the field and into attacking positions.
Squawka’s Individual Action Areas show the difference Cazorla made in the case of Ozil. The German went from being in the middle of the field (and often in the defensive third) to being in attacking positions once more. He—along with Ramsey—now had the freedom to attack more than they did before, knowing that if they turned the ball over they wouldn’t be forced to cover Wilshere’s man in midfield. Wilshere was often caught out by Sahin and Bender for getting too far forward, but that wasn’t going to happen with Cazorla in the double-pivot.
Ozil could come from a wider position—which he is was more effective doing than coming centrally—and suddenly Arsenal started to show signs of life in midfield.
What that did was stretch Dortmund’s defence wider than Arsenal were able to manage effectively in the first half. In the first 45 minutes, Sagna or Gibbs could get wide, but they couldn’t get wide at the same time that Ozil or Rosicky could. They were quickly shut down by Dortmund’s wide men, who had the freedom to press higher up the field given the dominance that their centre-midfielders had. But once Cazorla came on, they didn’t have such freedom.
Their centre-mids were forced to do much more work and as a result, Dortmund were stretched.
When Cazorla hit the cross-bar, it was seen as a wonderful passing move between Ramsey and Ozil (which it was). But the key was the space that was created in behind—brought about by Cazorla stretching the play from a double-pivot position. As the image below shows, before the cross is sent in, Cazorla isn’t anywhere near the play but has a mountain of space to run in to.
Bender and Sahin are nowhere to be seen—and that’s because Cazorla’s quick movement from the middle to the right forced them to scramble to cover both Ramsey and Ozil.
What was also interesting to note was the effect that this had on Arteta.
Having Cazorla ahead of him, Arteta was rarely forced to try and cover multiple attackers like he was when the out-of-position Wilshere was on the field. He was able to sit very close to the centre-backs and offer them support, and he was able to do much more defensive work than usual as well—given that he didn’t have the attacking onus of playing as a lone centre-mid.
On the night, Arteta won five tackles, two headers, two interceptions and three clearances—the most he’s made in any game for the Gunners this year. It’s unlikely that he’ll be deliberately partnered with Cazorla again this year (most likely Wilshere or Flamini) but Cazorla’s success in a deeper role is an interesting train of thought for Wenger to keep in mind this season.
Arsenal Caught Out Like Napoli-Like Defence
Arsenal’s first goal was brought about by their lack of pressure and Dortmund’s brilliant pressure. The second goal came about in a different style, but was very similar in many ways.
Below is an image from the fifth minute of the game. Note how narrow Arsenal’s defence is.
Now note the lack of width again in the 81st minute.
Yes, it’s a different time of the game, there are different players on and the situation is very different. But at the heart of it, Arsenal are still very narrow in defence and they were all night long. Grosskreutz was afforded more time and space than a right-back has probably had at the Emirates all season, and while he was incredibly unproductive from that space, the Gunners still should never have given him as much space as they did.
Especially not when he’s part of one of the best counterattacking teams in world football.
The key in this counterattack is where Lewandowski is on the field right now.
Having won the ball on the halfway line, he’s not in a centre-forward position; he’s actually further down the field than the right-back is.
With Koscielny, Mertesacker and Cazorla all picking up attackers, the onus has to be on the likes of Rosicky and Sagna (who is an incredibly long way up the field) to drop back.
Arteta will head to the top of the box, but nobody picks up the Polish international’s run despite watching it unfold (literally) in front of them on the field.
Here’s the moment Grosskreutz crosses the ball.
Reus’ run to the six-yard box means that both Koscielny and Mertesacker have to cover inside the box (and have actually done quite a good job in doing so). Arteta has a man or two thanks to Cazorla’s lethargic defensive effort, but nobody is arriving to where the cross is coming.
Except Lewandowski, who drills home a wonderful goal with all the time and space that he could have needed. Szczesny was the closest man to him when the goal was scored.
Where was Sagna? Where was Ramsey? Where was Rosicky?
They all watched the striker—one of the most clinical finishers in the world, mind you—glide into the box and score the simplest of goals.
Just like the space that Napoli gave Arsenal for Ozil to score, so too Arsenal gave it to Dortmund and Lewandowski. And while he might have missed a golden chance against England earlier last week, he doesn’t have any problems converting chances for his club.
The Gunners weren’t given a masterclass. It was a game of fine margins in which a tactical decision by either manager was going to seperate the sides. On the night, Jurgen Klopp managed to outwit Arsene Wenger, whether he can do the same in two weeks at the Westfalenstadion remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure, it will be a fascinating watch.
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