How Arsenal’s psychological approach to football scored against West Ham



By Tony Attwood

Anything with the word “psychology” in it is liable to bring a certain amount of derision from some people, particularly among some football supporters – and indeed commentators.

Yet there is a very interesting analysis in the Athletic of Arsenal’s last two goals against West Ham and I thought I would dwell on them for a moment, as the analysis of those goals does allow us to draw a conclusion of what Arsenal are doing, how they are aiming to get to the top of the league, and how the club’s management has sought to take matters forward from last season’s disappointment.

It is also important because it links to the way the top three are breaking apart from the rest of the league at the moment.  For although Tottenham are in fourth, they are not only five points behind Arsenal, their goal difference is 16 worse than Arsenal’s.    Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool are in a sense together, all on a GD of 31 or 32.

That suggests the top three are matching each other in terms not only of the ability to gather points, but also the way in which they are playing.  

This brings me to the Athletic’s analysis of Arsenal’s fifth goal which in essence reads: Gabriel, Raya, Gabriel, Kiwior, Martinelli, Kiwior, Martinelli, Rice, Saliba, White, Saka, Kiwior, Havertz, Trossard, Rice, Odegaard, Saka: Goal.

As they say, “every Arsenal player was involved in the build-up.”

Now there are three things about that approach to playing.  One is it is obviously effective – it resulted in a goal.  But there are two other points.  First it makes the whole team feel great because they all knew they were part of the show.   But second, it has a major impact on the opposition.

For when a goal is scored against a team there can be all sorts of responses ranging from passionate determination to get a goal at the other end, to resignation in the shape of “How on earth am I supposed to defend against playing like that.”

That resignation (which is what I think we were seeing with West Ham) is a great bonus to the attacking team.  It gives the winning side pleasure, determination to do it again, confidence, a willingness to carry on fighting….   everything that allows a team already winning, to go on and score more.

It is this sort of determination, combined with a “how are we supposed to defend against that?” attitude from WHU which led to the next goal two and a half minutes later and which consisted of 24 passes.   In that two and a half minutes West Ham apparently had one pass – which wasn’t shown on the cameras.

The point here is that football is not just a game of skill and tactics, it is also a psychological game.  The opposition can be bored into submission, bemused into submission, or simply led to being so pissed off that they play at half-speed.  And if the referee isn’t going to come to their aid, that can be even more demoralising.

In fact what Arsenal were doing was playing a game of football not only to give them control of the game but also doing it in a way that forced West Ham to have less and less input into how the game was working.

Quite clearly West Ham lost touch with the way in which their manager had told them to play, because a) they couldn’t get the ball and b) they became frustrated.  And people who become frustrated simply do not follow orders or strategies.

But there was an extra bit that I think I noticed.  There were times when Arsenal players waved their arms to suggest they wanted the ball – irrespective of whether they were free or were marked.   That caused West Ham players to look around and wonder if they should be marking someone else.

Mix in with that the notion of “total football” that we had in the 1970s and which has appeared off and on ever since.

It doesn’t actually matter whether the club is playing “total football” or not, what matters is that the opposition starts to believe they are.   They have been briefed in terms of how to defend against Arsenal, but now they find Arsenal are seemingly not playing as expected.

The Athletic spotted one of these moments, although I am not sure they saw the same significance as I see in it.   They wrote, “Although Rice, arms outstretched, is calling for the ball infield and both Leandro Trossard and Martin Odegaard are gesturing for Kiwior to pass to the England midfielder too, Arsenal’s left-back slides a ball down the line for Martinelli.”

In fact all Martinelli did at that moment was to pass the back to Kiwior which made everyone think for a moment the whole thing was just a pass-pass session to run the game down.   But there really was a major psychological issue in this because the two most likely reactions from West Ham players to this move are either to give up, or to get angry and tackle, and neither will do them any good.

In short what Arsenal are playing is not only excellent football which contains multiple variants (exactly the opposite of the “boot it down the park for Smith”) approach, but also which has within it a psychological element that can get the opposition very frustrated.

And of course a frustrated player is a player who is likely to rush in with a foul, disobey orders and stop marking who is supposed to be marking, or indeed just stand there watching in bemusement.   It is in fact Psychological Football.

It needs very skillful players to do it – but more than that it needs players who are willing to follow instructions, and not just blast the ball forward.  Every pass made in this sort of approach is one that will help annoy the opposition and lead them into fouls, giving up, reprimanding colleagues, trying something outlandish that doesn’t work, etc etc


2 Replies to “How Arsenal’s psychological approach to football scored against West Ham”

  1. There is an old film of Leeds United, from their most successful period under Don Revie, playing at home against Southampton. I think that the final score was 7-0. Towards the end of the game, they just kept possession for a long period, without really trying to add to the score. This seemed to last for several minutes, with the ball in play and no Southampton player touching it. An early example of the crowd chanting “OLE”.

    One difference for Arsenal against West Ham was that our players had similarly long periods of continuous passing and possession at very stages throughout the game, including the first half, especially after the first goal.

  2. I think MA plays a very orcastrated system of football to control the game and this was always going to take time . We managed early in the season to keep MC to only 1 shot on our goal , as the season has progressed Declan Rice and Kia Havertz are more aware of what’s required of them within the system which you can see in the last 4 league games . We control and stifle the opposition and then score goals .

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