How the new Arsenal system has made Arsenal top of the league.



By Tony Attwood

There was a time – quite a long time in fact – when the English footballing media was pretty much united.  Not in favour of Arsenal of course, but in favour of getting rid of Granit Xhaka.  I rather suspect Granit Xhaka was also pretty much in favour of getting rid of the English media, and those supporters who approve of what they say.

And it is interesting to note not only how he became a central part of Arsenal’s team, not only as Arteta reformed it away from the hyper-yellow approach of Emery into a totally different side, but also how he has flourished since.

Indeed there is an article in Blick (a Swiss site) in which they point out that “Since 2016,in Europe’s top football leagues, no one has passed as many times as Granit Xhaka.”  As you can see, Granit’s team is top of the league – by 10 points.


German Bundesliga 2023/24
# Team Pl W D L F A GD Pts
1 Bayer Leverkusen 25 21 4 0 63 16 47 67
2 Bayern Munich 25 18 3 4 73 29 44 57
3 Stuttgart 25 17 2 6 57 31 26 53


On Sunday, he also set a record that no one has ever reached before him – although he has been helped by the fact that Bayer Leverkusen are still undefeated this season.  For in his most recent game out of 89 passes attempted in the final third, Granit Xhaka succeeded in 87. The Sofascore site concluded that in the top five leagues, no one has achieved a remotely comparable score since the start of the 2015/16 season. The previous record was 77 successful passes in this area..

So why did we sell him?  Because of headlines like, “The eight players Arsenal can sell including Granit Xhaka …” from the notorious Football.London – and indeed having been abused by people in the Arsenal crowd, he felt he’d had enough.

The media for years was full of stuff such as, “Arsenal must end their “reliance” on Granit Xhaka”  but this season he’s made more passes and more successful passes than any other player in the top five European leagues this season: 2597 passes.   Behind him is Rodri of Manchester City, with 2504 passes.

Of course Xhaka played for Arsenal before the latest revolution appeared in football – that of the “best defence”, which is what Odegaard was writing about in the Brentford programme,   So now we have moved on and Odegaard specifically mentioned that Arsenal’s approach now is to keep the ball upfield.

But there’s another issue here, as revealed in a piece in the Athletic in which they mention how Arsenal, when they do lose the ball, are “quickly making tackles and catching opponents offside.”

They then produced 12 charts under the headline, “How Arsenal’s style has changed over time.” covering such topics as “Intensity”, “Deep build up”, “high line” and so on.   All good stuff, but missing one utterly central key factor which we have highlighted over and over: the number of tackles.Tackling gives the game to the referee for when a tackle is made the referee has to decide if it is a foul or not.  Now fouls given against Arsenal have ranged from 31 in a game overseen by Sunny Singh down to 17 in a game overseen by Graham Scott.

That is an astonishing difference with one referee giving out over 82% more fouls than another.  

So what Arteta did with Arsenal when he arrived was to look at the tackles and the referee’s response (Arsenal was the most yellow-carded team in the league that season) and he then started by reducing the number of tackles per game down from 15.4 in 2019/20 down to 12.0 in 2020/21.

That high yellow card figure that Arsenal achieved under Emery was a trademark of the previous manager, and it is interesting to see that this season his Aston Villa side is the third highest-carded team this campaign with 73 cards.  Arsenal as we have noted are on 41.  

Since reaching the low point of 12 tackles a game Arteta has allowed the number to creep up again – it is now running at 15.6 per game – but the number of fouls and resultant number of cards remains low.  The programme is clear – improve the quality of tackling.

This has been helped also by evolving a high press system in a 2-3-5 shape, keeping the ball in the opposition’s half or indeed final third.

What this new approach means is that time and again all of Arsenal’s outfield players are in the opposition’s half, forcing the opposition to defend deep, and potentially make tackles, which turn out to be fouls which give Arsenal the advantage.

So although Arsenal are not always on the attack, they are also less and less likely to get fouls and cards against, and thus less likely to get players injured and players suspended.

What’s more with this style of play, which forces the opposition back, the opposition is ever more inclined to rush themselves, make mistakes more likely to give Arsenal more free kicks.

At the same time Arsenal make their passes quickly, without taking a controlling touch and then passing forward.   This means that defenders are constantly wondering where the next Arsenal threat is coming from and so again they tend to foul more.

Meanwhile, Arsenal are attacking in waves which most teams are not used to, resulting in more goals in the last part of the game. Indeed Arsenal score more goals in the last 15 minutes than any other period of the game.  Only Liverpool score more.  Each section (0-15 etc) is the time within the game.


Club 0-15 16-30 31-45 46-60 61-75 76-90
Arsenal 10 10 11 11 12 16
Liverpool 2 7 13 10 9 24
Man City 6 9 10 12 15


Liverpool’s figures for the last 15 minutes are extraordinary, and I think more work needs to be done, on what the refereeing is like at this time.

Certainly, the top three clubs are working on the idea that they will make the opposition defence more and more fatigued through wave after wave of attack.   I think Liverpool might also be using substitutes more than other clubs to get these late goals.   It is also the case that when Arsenal are making subs in the second half they are not like-for-like replacements (unless they are forced by an injury) but are made to change the system.

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